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Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Women's biographies

My boyfriend gave me the book Girl Groups for Christmas, knowing both of my love of reading music biographies and of the girl groups of the 60s, and it's been really interesting. I'm only about 1/3 into it, but already I'm a little saddened by the repetitiveness of the women's troubles.

Now, mind you, read enough biographies of musicians, especially those working in the 50s and 60s, and there are certain troubles that crop up over and over and over again for men and women. Most of the troubles have to do with money, and not having enough of it. In the 50s and 60s it was particularly bad because performers and song-writers had very little legal protection against greedy studios and labels. (There are a number of legends about how little money Willie Nelson made off songs like "Family Bible" and "Crazy", for instance.)

But the stories of women in girl groups who had career troubles or out-and-out quit are particularly repetitive. The three main ones are 1) Got married and had to dedicate life to husband (in one case, a girl quit because her steady boyfriend required more attention), 2) Got pregnant and had to quit to raise children, 3) Phil Spector's controlling behavior drove them off. (Surprisingly often, considering that on the whole, Spector produced for less girl groups than you might think.)

It made me really reflect on stuff. My initial reaction was that thank god the 60s are over and women are not obliged in the same way to choose between family and career. And thank god that sexist pigs like Spector are reined in somewhat. (It's my personal opinion that Spector liked to employ a lot of women not just because he liked their voices better, but also because he thought they were easier to control. Remember, this is the man that thought it would be a gas to produce "He Hit Me", which was written by a woman, believe it or not.) But then I thought about it harder.

Are women musicians really much better off than they were? On one hand, I think a lot less women would just up and quit playing because they are getting married. But on the other hand, you see less women on stage than you would have during the girl group craze of the 60s, though that's a situation that is gradually improving. Why don't more women pursue careers in music?

I have my suspicions that in a weird way, that female musicians are encouraged like men are to see themselves as professionals nowadays means that more girls are probably squelched when they start showing talent at a younger age. A parent of a daughter who is taking to singing and playing the newest kinds of music is probably going to do all the worrying on their daughter's behalf that the daughter herself could be counted on to do in the past: What will this do to her chances of marriage? Motherhood? Who will marry a woman who tours the country for months out of the year? In the 60s, it wasn't a worry because the musician would just stop upon marriage. But now, no one would expect that. So better to squelch her before she blossoms.

Not that people think it through like that. But different sets of expectations on female musicians has probably resulted in more girls rejecting or being pushed to reject that career in the beginning. Just a theory, though. Thoughts?

353 Comments:

Blogger La Lubu said...

Are fewer women pursuing a career in music, or does it just seem that way? I hate to say it, but maybe more women are being shot down in the music biz because they're not "video-friendly" enough. You can be an average joe or a downright ugly mug if you're male, but women are pretty much required to be beautiful. And damn skinny. Alicia Keys was told she'd have to lose weight by the first record company that thought they wanted to produce her. She didn't, and it hasn't hurt her level of success! But hell, if industry people consider her fat, I guess the rest of us are all morbidly obese for pushing the scale over 120!

From my perspective, I think more parents are willing to encourage their daughter's interest in music than the way it was when I was growing up (active discouragement). I don't think many parents encourage their kids of either gender to focus on it as a primary career tho'...hard to make it. I think both genders are told to get day jobs, get an education as a "back-up" (meaning "real") plan. When I was a kid, nobody got their daughters guitars (I begged and begged and begged and begged....). That's not the case now. Parents I've talked to encourage their kids to keep playing, not just because it might net them a college scholarship, but because it will be an activity that gives them lifelong enjoyment and may just keep 'em sane. They just don't want their kids banking on growing up to be rock stars, is all.

Read some of the interviews of female musicians, and you'll keep hearing the same refrain about physical appearance. Extreme thinness, of course, but also changing hairstyle like the weather, altering one's appearance to look more Anglo (bell hooks had some interesting commentary on Madonna's blonde ambition), etc. MTV did a lot to turn the tide of the rock industry away from the punk aesthetic and into a glammed-up version of mainstream. I think there's a lot of talented female musicians out there who aren't getting any play by the industry because they look so normal.

1/12/2005

 
Blogger Roxanne said...

Does the book talk at all about the writers at all?

1/12/2005

 
Blogger lawrence krubner said...

It's hard to keep track of all the trends and counter-trends of female employment, and it is even harder to come up with consistent theories that explain them all. Women recieving advanced degrees in computer science peaked in 1989 and has since declined. Why the decline? And why would 1989 have been the peak year?

I'm also curious if the book has an exclusive focus on groups, rather than individual singers, and were you thinking about individual singers when you said you felt the current era was not as good as it was supposed to be? It seems to me that the stretch 1987-1995 saw something of a boom in individual female folk-singers: Ani Difranco, Traci Chapman, Allanis Morrisette, Tori Amos, Sheryl Crowe, Fiona Apple, Suzzane Vega, etc, quite a few. I'm not aware of too many new ones in the last few years, but the cast from 87-95 is still going strong, yes?

1/12/2005

 
Blogger Amanda said...

The book is primarily focused on women in harmony-oriented singing groups, so while individual artists are highlighted (like Patti Labelle), the groups are primary.

The book emphasizes the singers, not the writers. However, the writers are a big part of it. I guess I didn't linger on it, because being a big nerd I thought it was well-known, but for those who don't know--Carol King was probably one of the biggest writers for girl groups in the 60s. She wasn't surpassed and probably only equalled by Leiber and Stoller.

1/12/2005

 
Blogger zuzu said...

Sweetie, I love you, but it's FEWER girl groups and FEWER women. If you can count it, it's fewer.

1/12/2005

 
Blogger Amanda said...

The worst part is I know that, at least in theory.

1/13/2005

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The entertainment industry is such a tough place to make a living. I would have a hard time with my child aspiring to a career there. I don't think I would treat my daughter differently from my son in that area. I think it would depend on each's natural talent and ambition.

As much as I enjoy the arts, I don't feel the industry as a whole is the best place to put one's life work. Certainly, a piece of music or a film can be profound, enlightening or cathartic to the audience, the industry as a whole just seems so pathetically superficial where you're only as good as your last work and your achievement depends more on who you know than how good you are. So many people have to sell out in order to succeed, feeding the corporate greed.

Since my oldest is 4 1/2 and my youngest is due in April, I guess I have a little time to change my mind...

Valerie

1/13/2005

 
Blogger Steve Pick said...

There are way more women playing music professionally in 2005 than there were in 1963, but then again, there are way more people making records and touring than there ever were. I think the percentage of women vis a vis men has gone up, but not nearly to the level of 50%.

Part of this stems from the pressures of mixing family commitments to music, which would account for the somewhat larger number of women who have historically dropped out of the business entirely. I would think also there are stronger economic pressures on women performers. Women earn less in music, as a rule, just as they earn less in every other field. (It has also always been rare to find women leading bands; certainly in the 60s, they may have been the names on the records, but they weren't in charge of their music very often. This has changed dramatically in the last 20 years, though it's still a disproportionately male field.) It's hard enough for anybody to earn a living as a musician, but it's even harder if you're paid less than the average man.

1/13/2005

 
Blogger Sally said...

If I were thinking about music as a career, I would certainly be put off by the MTV emphasis on dewy adolescent sexuality. In the mainstream music industry, a woman is over the hill by the time she's 35. She may stretch it to 40 if she takes really good care of herself. But I can't think of a female equivilent of, say, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, etc.: a musician who continues to sell records while looking like a middle-aged person.

But I went to high school with a couple of kids who are now musicians (more indie darlings than rock stars, but you've probably heard of them), and I'm not sure they ever decided to "have a career in music." They started a band because they were kind of geeks and being in a band would make them cool. They did that through high school, and their band kind of started to get good. They got gigs. They had a following. When they graduated, some of them decided to go to college in the same area and see what happened. One thing led to another which led to a record deal. If things hadn't worked out that way, they would have finished college and got jobs and been normal people.

Where they differed from the girls in my social circle was not, I think, that they decided to make music a career. It was the initial stage of joining a band in high school. I was a pretty active scenester, but I would never have joined a band. I didn't know how to play an instrument. (This wasn't something that ever seemed to stop guys...) I thought I was too fat and ugly to get up in front of other people. And it just kind of wasn't done. The only women in bands were the "girl bassists," and they were all babes. I wasn't a babe: I was hideous. If I got up there in the babe slot, people would think I thought I was hot. I didn't want to make a fool of myself.

I think it's a bigger risk and a bigger act of self-assertion for a girl to be in a band. (And this probably goes back to the "why are there so few women in hip-hop" thing that's being addressed on feministing today, too. It's also a bigger act of self-assertion for a woman to rap, especially since women in hip-hop are supposed to be babes. If you're not a hottie, you're setting yourself up for ridicule.) Not very many women get to the point where they have to decide whether to make music a career, because not very many women ever take up the drums or join a band at all. It's like asking why women don't become physicists without looking at why girls don't take calculus.

So on the one hand, you have the model of Britney or Beyonce: sexy, conventionally good-looking teenagers who put more effort into their abs and their dancing than playing an instrument and who are going to have a tough time having a career when they hit middle age. And on the other hand, you have a male model of rock stardom which hinges less on being young and conventionally sexy (male rock stars seem sexy even if they're kind of ugly), but which isn't all that open to women. It's kind of a lose-lose situation.

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Blogger Amanda said...

Don't tease, Sally! Who's the band? Feel free to namedrop around me. I wish I could get away with it more, myself.

1/13/2005

 
Blogger kim said...

The female musicians I know who have pursued careers in music have all been drawn to more conventional professions such as teaching or music therapy rather than anything related to performing (even though they have the talent to do it). Some of it could be their individual personalities but I think it's likely that some form of internalized pressure pushed them to take 9-5 jobs instead of following the unpredictable path to stardom. I think that in music, like in many fields, men are encouraged to be risk-takers while women are prodded toward safer routes with fewer opportunities for great rewards.

1/13/2005

 
Blogger lawrence krubner said...

"I didn't know how to play an instrument. (This wasn't something that ever seemed to stop guys...)... I think it's a bigger risk and a bigger act of self-assertion for a girl to be in a band..... Not very many women get to the point where they have to decide whether to make music a career, because not very many women ever take up the drums or join a band at all."

Those are very interesting points. How can the situation be improved?

1/15/2005

 
Blogger drumgurl said...

The Washington Times has a good article about this at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A19175-2004Aug20.html.
It includes good quotes from the likes of Joan Jett, Kittie, and the Great Kat.

I'm a drummer, and I can also play guitar. I used to also sing lead, and I'm arguably a hottie. Being attractive made me as a lead singer look like a joke, even though I have talent. My bandmates (men) generally wanted me to be their puppet, and they wanted me to wear revealing clothes.

I then decided to choose my own destiny and learn an instrument. You have much more power in a band when you can actually play. I chose drums because 1) I get to hit stuff and 2) I get to sit in the back-- making my gender and attractiveness much less of an issue.

However, I play metal, which is definitely male-dominated. There is still the attitude that women can't play aggressive music. I can only do my best to prove them wrong. Also, other women are very hard on me, especially the groupie-types. When I get on stage, I can hear them say, "Who's THAT girl? Who does she think she is?" It's quite discouraging, but I love music, so I put up with it.

The worst part is being treated like a groupie by the owner/manager of the bar, the sound person, and the other bands. I have been told to leave the "band only" area before. That's because they don't think I'm in the band; they think I'm a girlfriend of a bandmember.

Then, of course, there are still the people who just want to see a hot chick beat on the drums. They don't want to HEAR-- they want to SEE. That pisses me off. Then other jerks just want to stare at you and wait for you to mess up, so they can say that women can't play. I often feel like I'm under the microscope when I play.

I think women with talent don't get signed. The industry doesn't want talent, even if you are hot. There are lots of pretty women who can sing better than Brittney Spears. But the industry doesn't see that. They only see that they want a blonde hottie. Whether or not she has talent is up to chance.

They definitely don't want women who can write songs or play instruments. Your best bet is to be hot and untalented, or hot and just a good singer. Don't try to write or play.

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