Sunday, October 12, 2008

Do I have to? Music, feminism, and obligations

Last winter I discovered Tegan and Sara's latest album, The Con, and fell in love with it from the bleakness of my on-campus apartment. Last spring, I started listening to their previous album, So Jealous. In the summer I bought tickets to their October 5th show at Terminal 5, and continued to work backward through their records. And on Saturday the 4th, approximately 20 hours before I was supposed to go see them, I found myself struggling to explain to my friend Alma: "See, I like Tegan and Sara...but I don't."

I can hear the strangled cries of Tegan and Sara fans across North America now, a chorus of indignant "How can you not like Tegan and Sara?"s. It's a fair question, there's more to like about them than there is to dislike. They write good songs with catchy, but non-annoying hooks, they're great at telling funny stories, their lyrics are quotable, they're wonderfully easy on the eyes. They're out lesbians, and I'm sure that if I were coming out of the closet, that would make them more appealing to me, the same way that knowing that Corin and Carrie had dated made Sleater-Kinney more appealing to me back when I was coming out. They're snappy dressers who put on great shows. Tegan and Sara, one can argue, are the complete package: beauty and talent, humor and poignancy, style and substance. But unfortunately, none of this changes the fact that stylistically, their music is not quite for me.

I feel a certain amount of guilt over this, and it is specifically feminist guilt. The Second Wave of feminism encouraged us to embrace other women -- all women -- without condition, in the spirit of sisterhood. It asked all of us to overlook the mistreatment we suffered at the hands of other women, who usually had more power than us, and support women even when disagreed with them or their views, and asked us to call them our sisters, and this ideal has trickled down through the years and through some current feminist criticism and literature. And I feel like even now, us women of color, us women of limited means, us lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered folk -- have found ourselves wondering, "Do I have to?" Are we really obligated to support all women, even if we don't like them or their ideas? For me specifically, as a musician and as a critic, I ask myself constantly, "Do I have to like this band or artists just because they girls? If I don't like this artist or band, is it because underneath all my feminist dogma, I'm just a huge sexist?"

When I wonder if I'm a chauvinist after all, I remind myself that division between women is not always the product of internalized sexism. Any girl who's ever been socialized with other girls, through school or team sports or a religious organization or whatever, knows that not all animosity between girls is caused by jealousy or competition. Sometimes, with both guys and girls, you just don't get along with a person. Tegan and Sara is a good example of this. If I'd gone to school with Tegan and Sara's music, we wouldn't have been friends or joined the same extra-curricular activities or talked in the hallways. I don't think we would have had big dramatic fights or arguments or anything, but I'm pretty sure we wouldn't have mingled. (On the other hand, if I'd gone to school with Tegan and Sara themselves, I probably would have been all over at least one of them, pined after one or maybe even both of them in an Angela Chase sort of way, but this is a different issues altogether.)

Tegan and Sara are a great exception though. There are a lot of women and girls out there who are making music that I wouldn't have gotten along with in high school, who I would have hated as a teenager. There are a lot of women and girls that are making music that I don't like, not just because it's not 'my style', but because it's bad. It's poorly written, poorly produced, and marketed in such a way that is insulting. I'm mostly talking about pop stars, but there are also country-pop and rock-pop crossovers who are guilty of this. You know who I mean: the Britneys and Christinas, yes, but also the Avrils and Shania-types. I don't feel quite as guilty about my intense loathing of these artists. It's easy to shrug it off with a nasty "feminism is about quality, not quantity."

But this leads to the question: what about this term, "quality"? What if the concept of "quality" is inherently sexist? Isn't there something inherently masculinist and hierarchical about 'objectively' evaluating the mertis and faults of a piece of music? I worry that we've internalized sexism to such an extent that it manifests itself in our hatred of certain things. It's too easy to feel a sexist, leering abhorrence towards girls who slink around in underwear and heels and lip sync to shoddily arranged synth beats and call themselves artists. It's too easy to accuse them of setting feminism and its gains back, to resent them for their hypersexualized looks and behavior and how it affects both us and the men in our lives. Male artists are never, ever accused of being too sexy, and criticisms of the quality of their music are never so venomous as the diatribes that have been written, by both men and women, about people like Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears. "Quality" frequently seems like an excuse to enumerate a girly pop star's many faults, and not just her music.

It's not very sisterly or feminist to have such negative feelings towards any women, no matter how upsetting their words and actions may be. But it's not any better to like an artist just because she identifies as a woman, or to insist that we all like female artists 'just because'. By that logic, we'd all be obligated to like Sarah Palin.

Which is not to compare Tegan and Sara (who made many jokes at Palin's expense on October 5) to the current Republican vice presidential nominee. A comparison between Palin, and say, Britney Spears -- who once announced very publicly her trust in President Bush and his campaigns in the Middle East -- might be more appropriate. But it's the point, not the vernacular: it is unrealistic to expect anyone, including women listeners, to like all women musicians. It's unrealistic to expect us to like every woman we encounter -- men certainly aren't expected to all like each other. Men don't burden each other with the expectation that they will all be perfect representations of whatever masculinity and manhood mean to them, and so long as a guy doesn't have a limp wrist, men don't attack each other for not meeting their specifications. So why should we do that to each other? Why should us girls who participate in music and pop culture, us lady musicians, attack or resent women musicians for not being, say, Beth Ditto, or Kathleen Hanna, or which ever other women we admire?

It will sound like old news, maybe, but the conclusion I've come to is that it's a waste of energy and time to dislike other women so intensely, for whatever reason. It's also a waste of time and energy to feel guilty about not liking someone or something, even when, like Tegan and Sara, it's good. I want to encourage all of us, myself included, to stop thinking in terms of quality, and prioritize our feelings towards music, how it makes us feel, not how we think we should feel. And I want to encourage us to make room for the Britneys, the Lindsays, the Christinas, the Kellys, the Tiffanys, the Avrils, the Jessicas, and whoever else might come along, because so long as they make someone feel good or happy, as pop stars frequently do make younger girls feel, we should be able to give them some space. They might be problematic, and their visibility might inspire doubt or misgivings in some of us feminists and critics, but that's the thing about feminism: it's not about choosing between quantity and quality. It's about having both -- in politics, in art, in music, everywhere.

1 comment:

teresina said...

I agree with all of your post until the end. I don't think we should make room for things that will be "problematic". The very fact that they are/will be problematic should exclude them from being allowed.

Yeah, the Britneys, Christinas, and Avrils of the world make some people happy, but so do the misogynists and racists of the world.

i love you though!