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Female Music Critics Transcend Fan Culture

by Georgia Kral


Scan through the pages of a major music magazine, the arts section of The New York Times, Pitchfork.com or myriad other sources and count the number of female bylines you find on pop music criticism. Not many, right? (Or in the case of The Times, zero.) In music writing, gender disparity is a persistent feature.

One theory that has caught on about why there are so few women in pop music criticism builds on the idea that a woman is trained from a young age to be a fan and not a critic. In an article for the music-oriented Loops Journal, critic Anwyn Crawford writes that young girls are socially trained to be reactive, as opposed to considered and thoughtful, in their response to popular music. Girls absorbing this sensibility decrease the likelihood that they'll become, or even see themselves as, critics.

"Wordless, intensely emotional and undeniably sexual -- this is the state in which teenage girls are understood to connect with music, and with those performing it," writes Crawford, an Australian journalist known for her feminist music criticism. "It is all in their bodies: they do not intellectualise; their opinions are instinctive rather than considered."

Stereotypes and hardened historical frameworks are hard to shake. According to Crawford, if women are placed in the position of adoring fan at an early age, they are less likely to believe that they can then be critical -- or harder yet -- thought of as critical.

In an email, Crawford said she sees the "gendered split between men as critics and women/girls as fans as being part of a broader gender dynamic in which men are valued for thinking analytically and women for thinking emotionally."

Chicago Reader critic, blogger and author Jessica Hopper agrees, and said in an interview that she thinks women, in general, "are socially discouraged from having a critical opinion."

"There are two archetypical images of a woman enjoying music," said Ann Powers, veteran popular music critic and chief pop critic at The Los Angeles Times in an interview. "1: She's dancing with a girlfriend and being silly or 2: She's screaming at Justin Bieber or whatever teen idol" is popular.

This female "hysteria," or emotional response that is deemed out of control, is so rooted in our collective understanding of popular music that it has, in fact, influenced the gender make-up of the profession designed to make sense of it. Without parity, a subject as diverse as popular music can't possibly be explored as deeply as required.

Having more female critics is important because women need to see more examples of what they can do, but also because women, particularly feminists, bring a much needed perspective to bear on the cultural subjects they are discussing. The same is true with people from different races, cultural backgrounds or sexual orientations.

Rock and pop music has always been a boys' game, which also explains why fewer women are willing to try and play themselves.

"The hard-living, hard-drinking man who was as much a rock star as the artists he wrote about…That's been a difficult myth to dispense with, and a hard one for women to live up to," Crawford said.

But why hasn't this gendered division changed over time? Countless articles have been written about what it's like for women in the music industry, both as musicians and critics, and recently NPR Music hosted a roundtable on the subject with some of the preeminent female music writers working today.

Little has been done in the way of formal studies or analysis of the pop music criticism field. There aren't even clear-cut statistics to show gender disparity. But ask any female pop critic and she will likely have a story to tell about how she's been treated differently because of her gender.

Powers says, however, that the conflict is what makes the prospects of writing critically about music so rich. Critics are given the opportunity to explore the unwritten social conventions and stereotypes that are present not only in the cultural product but also the culture that surrounds it. She stands up as a "feminist pop critic" because "pop music is the place where sexuality is most clearly on display in our culture."

In a speech, "YOU BETTER THINK: Why Feminist Cultural Criticism Still Matters in a 'Post-Feminist,' Peer-to-Peer World," she said that her work as a pop critic "relates to the larger, never-ending project of feminist cultural inquiry."

Change is slowly happening. Powers points to the growing number of female critics working at small city dailies as proof.

Hopper echoes this positive thinking. "Women are making major inroads into the male dominated world of criticism, and the feminist perspective gets a lot more play than it did a decade ago."

Being aware of the gender imbalance is the first step to working for change, says Crawford. This means seeking out female writers, encouraging them, and publishing them. And, she adds, "Men have to be willing to give up a little bit of their own privilege."

September 13, 2010

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Georgia Kral is a music writer in Brooklyn and the social marketing manager for On The Issues Magazine. She has written for The Village Voice, WNYC Radio, The New York Times and other publications. She blogs at Microphone Memory Emotion.

Also see Defeating Racism and Sexism with the Politics of Authenticity by Lu Bailey in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

Also see The Art Perspective presents a mini-retrospective of the art of Regina Frank in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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