Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Decade Under the Influence.

The year is almost over and it seems like every music blog, website, and magazine I look at is sizing up the last ten years' worth of music. It's to the point where I've been wondering if I should be writing a daily post on the best songs and artists of the decade.

But I'm not inclined to look back, or to look at these best of lists being compiled by the informative and provocative NPR, the obnoxious Pitchfork, and dinosaur bones like Rolling Stone and Spin. There are three main reasons for this.

1. None of the bands I really care about at this particular moment will be mentioned.

2. The journalism itself will be disappointingly masculinist.

3. The lack of attention to women artists will be infuriating.

The second issue is probably the hardest one for me to deal with, and also the one that requires a bit of explanation. The masculine/male-oriented standard for most writing is objectivity. The men who run our society pretend to not have agendas -- i.e., not be 'subjective' -- in order to obscure their privilege and discredit varying view points from marginalized groups.

I feel like I see this constantly in literature on music. So much of music criticism seems focused on comparisons, name-dropping, and the general reification of the rock hierarchy. The goal is to declare whether something is 'good' or bad, rather than to look at what music means or says about our time and place.

Which doesn't make sense to me, because people don't need music critics to tell them what music is 'good' or bad or worth listening to. What we need is well-read and well-listened individuals to help us understand the context of the music we listen to, i.e., how and where it was produced, what earlier work influenced, what the artist hoped to accomplish, and the work's place in culture.

Oddly enough, I've been trying to approach writing about music in this way for about the last ten years. Towards the end of my time in high school, my favorite teacher and conductor, Mr. Mora, asked me if I knew what I wanted to do when I finished college. I told him, "I was thinking about being a music critic. But the thing is, I don't want to have to put musicians down or write about music I don't like, I don't want to be some snob, I just like writing about music. I like describing it, and I like explaining it."

Mr. Mora was my conductor and teacher, but he was also my equivalent of the Helpful Record Store Guy. He loved popular and classical music, and could discuss both with ease and patience. He was never arrogant or condescending. He was a Christian in the true sense of the word; no hatespeech or words of intolerance ever came out of his mouth. He was a former hippie who didn't trust newspapers and wanted to write an orchestral suite for Lee Harvey Oswald, because the man "didn't get a fair shake, or a trial, even!" This probably makes him sound like a nut, but Mr. Mora was kind of perfect.

He's why I try to keep negativity out of my writing, why I'm able to appreciate music, why I'm able to write about it at all. A fellow music writer once wrote to me that maybe there are less women in music journalism because women don't learn to write technically and 'critically' about music. Thanks to Mr. Mora, I learned to think and speak critically -- as in, socially or culturally critically -- in a safe space. I learned my music history, but from a person who genuinely loved music. I didn't learn from jerky, entitled young hipsters who sublimate their insecurities through hostile record and show reviews.

Is the hostility, the insecurity, the mudslinging, and the generally sloppy writing what discourages women from going into music journalism, or the music industry in general? Or is it what keeps women from advancing in the industry? If so, then forget the last ten years; in the next ten years, what I want to see is change. I want us to demand better, more inclusive music journalism.

In the meantime, all I can do with these sexist wanks and berks at places like pitchfork and brooklynvegan is tell them what Mr. Mora said to me a decade ago: no one ever erected a statue of a critic, kid.


Bev said...

Well said.

I think there are fewer women writing about music because the whole music marketing apparatus is directed at young men. As VenusZine founder Amy Schroeder points out, nearly all music rags are basically men's magazines with a pop music focus. Look at the ads. Not a cosmetic brand in sight. (Nylon deserves props for covering music as much as it does.)

Also, some women, even women writers, hesitate to claim authority on rock or hip-hop because they lack a sense of ownership of these cultures that are so male dominated, even if it is the music that they listen to.

Then again, there are a decent number of women out there writing about music and I think there's a post-riot grrrl generation of women who have come of age downloading music omnivorously, who won't be so hesitant because of the way the Internet democratizes the process of finding out about music.

jamie said...

You might not believe it, Bev, but this comment kind of made my week.

I hope you won't mind if I post it in my actual blog soon, and write a little bit about it.

Bev said...

It would be an honor.