The Obstacles to Tackling Sexism in the Music Industry

As the empowering bellows of feminism seep into the politised arena of pop music – from Lady Gaga’s anthem for rape victims to Beyonce’s intersectional feminist message – the industry most often accused of being sexist must stand up and face the claims being made by it’s indispensable popstars. But whilst the purported male-domination of the music world clouds the industry all across the spectrum – from a producer’s sexual-coercion, to an artist’s interpersonal altercations, to consumer prejudices –  it is those celebrities who make the most alarming claims that must enact change from within, whilst withstanding the necessary rigours of public scrutiny.

The most high-profile charge of sexist behaviour in recent times was that made by Kesha. Indeed, after the Supreme Court of New York dismissed her lawsuit, Adele, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift were amongst those showing solidarity with the popstar who claimed to have been assaulted and harassed by her manager, Dr Luke. But, as Lauren Southern wrote, ‘tears and mass celebrity support are not enough to prove someone committed a crime.’ Moreover, with the claims being legally out of time, the testimony contradictory to that of 2011, the evidence scant and forensic proof non existent, the volume of supportive tweets from celebrities conspiring to ignore the facts must itself not be ignored. There is a tacit understanding that these messages of empathy arise out of experience, especially when so many female artists forego skepticism and believe what never came close to being proved. Commensurately, an increasing air of separation between consumer and artist descends; an esoteric veil behind which murmurs the ominous giant of endemic sexism, exploitation and general misfeasance at the expense of women. Whilst high-profile claims go unsubstantiated but garner overwhelming support for victims, mystery accumulates around the sexist inner machinations of pop music production.

But what can we do as consumers? Firstly, there is little to gain from hashing it out in the twitter courts of justice where the minimum of evidence is combined with the maximum of social justice conviction or equally unhelpful bouts of outright denialism. Secondly, whilst we must ask questions – like how commonplace are the claims and what legal protection is worked into contracts – something in the way of answers must be generated from within. But isn’t this what Kesha tried to do and wasn’t the court ruling proof that music industry powers are centralised under the dictates of exploitative contracts? Unfortunately, no. In fact, what Kesha did by embroiling sexual assault charges into a civil suit, outing such depictions of harassment without any concrete evidence or straight-storied detail, serves as a good example of how not to tackle these problems.

When prompted to respond to Kesha’s plight, Grimes spoke of her experience: “I’ve been in numerous situations where male producers would literally be like, ‘We won’t finish the song unless you come back to my hotel room.’” The blasé way Grimes unveils widespread sexual-coercion really highlights how those who seem to be suffering most abjectly and most directly from sexism are the ones most ill-prepared to do anything about it. Choosing between your career progression and openly tackling such a pernicious problem is a hard corner to be backed into, but letting it pass until the climate of sexism rises, until your story appears to have greater capital, and clinging to this a symptom of a problem you are not prepared to tackle beyond just ‘calling it out’ smacks as hypocritical and opportunistic. If high-profile artists aren’t going to pursue criminal charges – instead of breaches of contract – and aren’t prepared to do so with robust evidence, they do no favours to the critics of the industry and fuel the cynics often unwilling to even have the conversation.

But the music industry is more than just behind the scenes coercion from the top. There’s sexist lyrics, sexually entitled behaviour at gigs, the token assumption that females are just singers and not musicians (treated like a genre not a gender), as well as further sexual objectification from consumers and managers alike. But where is the evidence for this? There needs to be a much more robust basis for claims of harmful sexism than pointing to the Reading and Leeds line up as 90% male and lamenting the dearth of female rock musicians. It is lazy to chalk this up to a toxic climate, wherein the focus on sexuality over substance disproportionately affects or is exclusively demanded of women. As producer Steve Albini recently remarked the presumption of male exclusivity is archaic.’ Quite simply, major festivals want to make money and thus are a good yardstick for consumer demands.

This isn’t all that surprising when the best of female-fortified rock music is cringingly neofeminist. With Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino recent tirade about ‘rape-culture perpetuating’ lyrics, widespread support for the banning of Blurred Lines and Perfect Pussy’s stale rebuttal against a music journalist who was just too critical  – of course the fever of supposed sexism will rise.  This happens either as the bar for what counts as sexism is set ever lower or the backlash against creeping authoritarianism outstrips its good intentions with regrettable ugliness on social media. However, at the bottom of the problem lies the truth that no arena more perfectly distills the toxic masculinity that feminists so deride than the do-what-we-fucking-want weltanschauung of rock music. Want to wear some crazy garb at a festival and get off your fucking tits? Don’t bother; your outfit is cultural appropriation and your inebriation makes you sexually entitled. In 1983 when the Red Hot Chili Peppers took the stage almost entirely naked, kicking off their famous socks-on-the-cocks routine, no one was yearning for trigger warnings or worried about heteropatriarchal aggression.

Fortunately, many female musicians are doing their best to avoid the fixation on feminist theory; take Madonna’s preference for humanism or Bjork’s characterisation of feminism as ‘complaining’. Importantly, artists like Sia have given startlingly honest interviews about the inner workings of the music industry, her top ten single Chandelier was even parsed as a subtle critique of girl power, depicting the the limits of social-liberalism and the problems with shunning traditional paradigms of female happiness. Breaking down the veil of commercial mystery with frankness about the money making hit-factory of pop music, Sia’s insights culminated into an album of rejected songs written for other artists appropriately titled ‘This Is Acting.’

The unique collision of art and commerce that Sia embodies goes some way to outlining the platform from which Chris Brown’s music and Blurred Lines can be seen as justifiably money making as well as artistically valuable. Her honesty about writing dynamics and prefabbed lyrics, “When I work with artists, I basically check my ego at the door and I become their bitch […]Because I’m so fast, for me, it’s all channels. Words come out and it’s just like, “bluh.” It comes out, and I’ll just write the lyrics. I don’t overthink it. “, undercuts the interpersonal themes and race-based activism of Beyonce – an artist Sia has previously written for. In giving us this access, she breaks down the internecine conflict between consumer and artist, a conflict that will continue to rise as glimpses of transparency fail to gain enough mass to meet public demand. As consumers, it is not too self-important to want to know the nitty gritty of an industry we invest so much time and money in. As allegations of assault and male-exclusivity continue, why shouldn’t we know the sexist producers that profit from no small percentage of our itunes downloads or what businessman encouraging sex over style and penning exploitative contracts we are lining the pockets of?

Meanwhile, the mimesis of the most backwardly feminist musicians is strong in social justice circles. The online frenzy from self-appointed arbiters of sexism often amounts to a low tolerance for tackiness in music culture, a phenomenon that is distracting from the more harrowing claims as well as artistically stifling; by focusing on the all-encompassing tide of microaggressive misogyny, critics dilute the clout behind the cries of sexism. They are all too ready to exaggerate the instances of groping at gigs, insist racy lyrics perpetuate rape culture and complain about the objectification in music videos featuring female dancers content with the totality of their career choice. Once more, this is no surprise; like all creative outpourings, music is a mirror to the moral panic of the time, increasingly politicised and increasingly weaponised.

It is an obstacle to open discussion that the social-justice climate is so charitable towards individual plight over larger trends of increased harmony and the vast improvements of our less-violent, more tolerant society. The modern refusal to embrace the free society, with it’s rewardingly uncomfortable diversity of ideas, goes hand in hand with a wish to manipulate our cultural-sensitivity to meet the gold standard of progressivism. But unfettered free expression can, and should, be channelled into risqué lyrics. Female dancers and models should be free to ignore the responsibility that has been foisted upon them to cater to the self-esteem of fragile millennials. Female artists should be free to wear whatever they want and do whatever they want without drawing the ire of new-wave-prudes and the sex police. Sia said it best when she tweeted “I truly believe that feminism is being nice to other women, and allowing them to express themselves however they choose, without criticism.”

Whilst everything from assault to naff lyrics are united under the banner of misogyny, criticising the distraction that is identity politics should be seen not as offensive but as constructive. Embracing viewpoint diversity would not just be the final victory in the politics of pluralism, but a step in redirecting the narrative towards the serious sexism at the top, insofar as it must exist beyond unsupported allegations. The era of carefree, emancipating, even rebellious rock music has long gone less a racy lyric trigger your pathologised sense of distaste or your festival sombrero be culturally appropriative. We must embrace the spirit of the freely expressive, let-loose underground rock scenes of yesteryear whilst demanding to see behind the veil into the world of contemptibly sexist producers and managers. But we must also admit that even if we are afforded this much, those best placed to tackle genuine sexism are those suffering from it directly but behind the scenes – with our support – but thus far without a tactful plan to overcome it.


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