Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Men Don't Know What the Little Girls Understand recently printed an insightful piece about the struggles female music critics face. In Oh, the Unbelievable Shit You Get Writing about Music as a Woman, former Nashville music critic Tracy Moore laments the abuse women critics, who approach their job with serious intention, receive.  Specifically, Moore reports taunts of whore-dom, from a peanut gallery of male critics, who claimed such nonsense as "you have fucked every member of every band you have ever covered."  Moore contrasts her experience with the rather positive response Sarah O'Holla's blog "My Husband's Stupid Record Collection" has received from male critics to suggest an underlying sexism that discourages women from serious critical engagement with music while simultaneously encouraging a passive damsel in distress "show me the way" like respect for the male point of view.     

O'Holla's blog has been embraced and shared and shared again by male critics.  While initially drawn to O'Holla's blog for its "charm," Moore, and other female critics, have become suspicious of a sexist subtext to the adulation.  In short, Moore argues the reaction to O'Holla's blog highlights the acceptance of female points of view only when they are couched in a frame of novice understanding.  By contrast, a woman who enters the room, claiming expert understanding and eager to engage in a serious discussion about music, is shunned and insulted with "get on the tour bus and suck a dick" sorts of minimization. 

Obviously, male claims of supreme understanding of popular music, its performers, and its cultural significance are nothing new. And the notion that women who want to write about music or, for that matter, play music or work in wardrobe for musicians are whores with glorified titles on their laminates is also nothing new. However, there are certain types of understanding available to female spectators of music that are not available to men; and while the ying and yang of sexual seduction and desire are a component to that understanding, there is more than that.  In fact, part of that understanding connects to one of the foundational cultural purposes of popular music culture - the break down of gender constructs - a component that women experience in a much more intimate fashion than men do. 

Before we explore this in greater depth, let's first examine establish the value for a type of criticism for which female critics are often minimized and that is the mention of "details that were about something other than the literal sound of the music, like how the performers acted, dressed, or looked, and how the music was received" (Moore). This attack on attention to elements outside the structural forms of music was echoed in a recent Daily Beast article titled "Music Criticism has Degenerated into Lifestyle Reporting, which points to a recent episode of American Idol where Jennifer Lopez made fun of Harry Connick Jr. for using the word "pentatonic" in his response to a contestant's performance. While I would agree both that music criticism should not rely solely on "lifestyle reporting"  and that it is comical and sad that Jennifer Lopez, a best selling musical artist, is unfamiliar with one of the most basic musical terms, I would argue it's equally comical to suggest that criticism of popular music should ONLY be about melody and harmony and song structure and dynamic and lyric.  That's only the half of it.  Moreover, it is not uncommon for male writers to address external details in their criticism.  Read anything by Chuck Klosterman or Greil Marcus for evidence of this kind of reporting from the male point of view.  As such, I reject the notion that music criticism should exist in a form only bubble. Form is absolutely valuable.  But it is not all that is valuable. 

Now that that is out of the way...let's use a well - known classic song to explore the difference and potential value of the female point of view in rock criticism. In the iconic Doors tune "Back Door Man," Jim Morrison crooned "the men don't know but the little girls understand."  While the song is regularly assumed to be a testimonial of male posturing and braggadocio, it can just as easily be read as a testimony about the experience of male performance and its distinctness from the experience of the male spectator. Morrison asserts this difference when he says:

"You men eat your dinner
Eat your pork and beans
I eat more chicken any man ever seen."

While this is most certainly a bit of male sexual posturing it can be read for greater meaning as well. The use of "you men" speaks to the barrier that exists between Morrison and his male audience. He is not like them. He is a different kind of man. A back door man. The male read of braggadocio is further complicated by "the men don't know but the little girls understand."  Men understand braggadocio and posturing just fine. So what is it they don't understand?

Jim Morrison, the Object and the Ladies Gazing

I contend this understanding relates as much to power and it's relationship to objectification as it does to sex.  In western society, women universally experience the objectification of the male gaze.  Whether it's a man sitting an extra 30 seconds at a stop sign to watch her cross, or a catcall from a car, or an unwanted facebook comment, every woman has endured some kind of objectification; and while women work to subvert its effects and control that objectification, it's never completely divorced from its negative subtext. However, male performers allow female spectators to take on the power position of active gazer.  They become the catcallers, the lingerers, the objectifiers. The male performer, in turn, becomes the object of that gaze, an experience all women can relate to. Moreover, watching the male performer take that position of object and turn it in to a position of power over both men and women, can allow women to imagine their own objectification in a way that feels a little less negative. Additionally, the male performer's experience of objectification becomes wrought with the same difficulty of the female experience when he is subjected to expectations that he maintain the performance when he is off the stage.  This role switch creates a connection, a shared pleasure and a shared frustration not afforded to male spectators, who'll never really understand the difficulty of objectification in the same way. In fact, men fantasize about being objectified because from their point of view, gazing upon someone is only so satisfying. The power to progress beyond the gaze is the fantasy; and that power is transferred to the object. In essence, male spectators perceive the male rock star the same way he perceives women: they both have access to sex anytime they want. Because the average man doesn't have the negative experience of this objectification, his understanding of the experience is are all fantasies.

Of course, this contention of a role reversal is not perfect. Male rock stars are still men and thus have opportunities to exploit and control their own objectification in ways that women can't.  Still, that doesn't obscure the fact that culturally, one of rock music's main functions is to play with the laws of gender; both performers and fans are actors in this play. Elvis's hip sway was controversial in part because dancing was a "feminine" activity.  To dance while people watched was an outright assault on 1950s gender codes.  Hordes of female Beatles fans, out of control and climbing fences in an effort to touch their heroes, was not behavior becoming a young girl.  Boys were allowed to be  unruly, not girls. The way this push and pull is understood by women IS fundamental in understanding music and its cultural role. Discouraging women from sharing their experiences, in ultimately serving to slowly bleed rock music of its real cultural value. Even Kurt Cobain understood the future of rock lied with women. We've already heard the male narrative. Now let us speak.  Let us tell you what we understand. And quit telling us we don't get it...or that the way we get it makes us whores. Even if a woman has slept with every member of every band she's ever written about, that's a story worth hearing. After all sweet sweet Connie Hamzy most certainly understands a few things about those iconic artists that male spectators could NEVER understand.   

1 comment:

Paul Anaya said...

Excellent article! I appreciate your perspective and writing style. I now have a better understand of a female music critic's point of view. I have been aware of the bias you write about and can say that many of the best reviews I have read about bands and musicians I like have come from female music critics. Thanks for taking the time to write this article and for sharing this valuable perspective!