Inclusivity in Music Communities: Meditations on Math Rock

After the admins of a prominent math rock facebook forum deleted a thread that had devolved into a rampantly misogynistic farce better left undiscussed, a simple question was posted with implicitly retributive intentions: how can we make the math rock scene – including this group and live shows – more inclusive, in particular of women?’ In contemplating this question, I got rather carried away and so thought I would add my thoughts to this ongoing writing blog I am using. I write the following as a member of the math rock community and address my thoughts to anyone remotely interested in the genre or scene.

The postulation of the question itself is an important step towards remedying the tired tropes of sexism that sometimes befoul a notoriously male-dominated subculture. If rock music is traditionally the preserve of ardent and occasionally raucous young men then math-rock sits ex aequo, perhaps standing out for its unwavering fascination with pedal boards. There are a few misconceptions to be resolved from the outset as to what this question is really prying at. Firstly, this isn’t a numbers game. Whilst some people are correct in pointing out that fans of math rock are often musicians themselves – emulating as we try the polymetric complexities and virtuoso instrumentalists – and that musicians are disproportionately male, this doesn’t mean that the female minority isn’t being made to feel unwelcome. Indeed, calling this scene ‘male-dominated’ is almost a truism, but a male-monopoly in participation should have no sway on access to opportunities and support, or on the integration of each individual into the scene.

Secondly, whilst the majority of our time spent interacting with other members of this community is through these forums, the integral point of trying to identify our pitfalls is to affect real change in the wider world; we should strive to provide equal treatment of all members, at all gigs, at all times; unflinchingly encouraging participation in everyone. There should be equal opportunities, for band members, promoters, fans, journalists, photographers…yes, but of course, we should not lament unequal results. We are doing our job of being inclusive to the maximum extent if we individually treat each other with the basic tenets of human decency. It seems a rather mawkish thing to say, but if we recognise and engage each individual as a potential participant in something we wholeheartedly enjoy, then just how many women we have in the scene – joining bands, becoming admins or voicing their opinions and sharing their thoughts undeterred  – is irrelevant. If we are focused on being considered and compassionate on a personal level then the work is already done for us in the wider scene and in the wider sense.

Gladly, in the math rock community, there seems to be a general consensus that appreciation for all artistry should be colour blind and wholly nondiscriminatory when it comes to sex, whilst bands should progress and increase in exposure based on the latent machinations of what is essentially a micro math-rock meritocracy. Yes, our preferences are subjective and personal, but somehow from the disparate fluctuations of our ever mutable desires, overwhelmingly broad unanimity is reached; we have changing but compatible price thresholds for different bands, we all turn out in our droves for the ‘bigger bands’ and we all rejoice when ArcTanGent announces its headliners. Our diverse tastes and predilections at the level of the individual are somewhere assembled into a shared appreciation for how good artists like This Town Needs Guns and Yvette Young truly are. I’m sure we will all continue to appreciate the music in and of itself, never spotlighting female musicians by virtue of their sex but simply by virtue of their talent. There is, of course, always room for encouragement, kindness and advice. But there is no room for positive discrimination on any scale; this is the ailment that presents when all semblance of good intentions has been obscured by the unedifying tide of stridently-enforced political correctness; when the fear of causing offense has outweighed common sense and turned us into a smarmy shade of hypocrite.

We have all at one time found great solace in the bountiful resources of our blogs and websites, replete with new releases, new artists, enthralled and enthusiastic musicians, producers and promoters from which we construct a gorgeous cacophony of satisfying math-rockery.  However, though the microcosm of a music forum can distil the zeitgeist of the wider scene, I think the nebulous, impersonal nature of online forums just aren’t haptic enough for people to unite behind the suggestions of increased admin control, stricter user guidelines and zero-tolerance banning of those posting ‘outwardly offensive’ content. I firmly believe this a good thing: what we lose in civility when we are exposed to criminally trite jokes and sexist tropes – or when we call for stoicism instead of censorship – we gain in our commitment to free-speech-fortified discourse, debate and discussion. Our exclusivity only increases if we start to arbitrate too readily on whose jokes are going too far or who no longer deserves access to the forums due to ‘offensive’ comments.

What I suspect will be the most contentious of the points raised here happens also to be the most concrete example (there must be something vulnerable inside detail and transparency.) That is, there is a titanically vast chasm between being attracted to the ‘one female bass player’ in the band and actually promoting anything in the way of sexism. In a community that ought to be, and has the potential to be, one of the most tolerant, understanding and inclusive subcultures – for all permutations of creed, race, gender and sex – I think it is a grave mistake to start demonising expressions of sexuality. On such a controversial point I must elaborate.

I believe reflexively calling out sexism on someone who is interested in the female member of a band, who wants to chat with them or, yes, even refers to them as ‘the hot bass player’ is a mistake. Expressing sexual attraction towards someone does not make them sexist. They might also think of them as the extremely talented bass player that they would dearly love to hang out with and learn more about musically, don’t conflate genuinely damaging ‘objectification’ with  healthy sexual interest: the fallacy of pre-emptively mind-reading and calling someone sexist goes hand in hand with taking away the right of someone to ruin their own reputation when they are genuinely sexist. Context and content is everything, and I say this acutely aware of the slippery-slope that veers off towards patent and unconscionable sexist behaviour. There are no overarching principles, but I try to refrain from vilifying people for self-expression, even if it that borders on the infinitely subjective perimeter of offense; remaining tolerant and retaining the power to ignore is critical. To illustrate, would we consider it sexism if the corollary comment was made by a female who was enamoured with ‘the hot drummer’, what if the hot drummer was female? What if they were both male? The likely sex imbalance at most math-rock gigs is no excuse for latent hypocrisy or double-standards.

In a related sense, I very much detest the pitfalls of becoming overly-conscious of women’s oppression in the scene. This can manifest in ingratiating and patronising treatment that infantilises women: the females of the math-rock world can decide not to read comments or decide to engage, exercise stoicism or report abuse, avoid or confront people they don’t like at gigs: the great success of second-wave feminism was channeling enlightenment principles of individual justice and agency into women’s liberation. And we all have that same freedom to try to change people’s minds or to ignore them: sexism is going to exist in sporadic pockets of all music scenes, we must individually choose either to try to persuade those people spouting genuine bigotry or to insularise them. I believe a serious obstacle to increasing the inclusive ethos of the community is in falling somewhere between the two; in goading or going blow for blow with people whose presence can be an unwelcoming deterrent for everyone; in remaining hostilely engaged long after the queues that our interlocutors mind can not be changed have arisen.

People, by and large, should remain free to say whatever they want on the internet short of inciting violence or being sincerely threatening – and we should be free not to engage with them. That said, we do have a duty to each other, as individuals amongst thousands of dedicated math-rock lovers, to maintain the quality of our community and to aid in its expansion by ensuring the environment is inclusive and welcoming for all. Fortunately, I don’t think we have a particularly pernicious problem with sexism at the moment (as anecdotal as it is, ArcTanGent feels like the safest, most warm-hearted festival environment around.) My personal opinion is that we should all keep doing what we’re doing but take this opportunity, take the prods to contemplation that this question has instilled, and continue to do the best we can in treating each other as thinking individuals who all share the same ecstatic proclivity for incredible music.

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