Ah, middle school — an awkward time of change and newness for all. Perfectly clear complexions become pocked with zits, a once-simple interaction with a person of the opposite gender becomes nervous and overthought, and Saturdays that were once spent “playing” are now spent on more serious things, like getting your ears pierced at Claire’s.
For most, a shift in the type of entertainment one consumes changes around this time too. While I liked music as a kid (Disney, musicals, etc.), it wasn’t until I was about 12 years old that I started to really care about popular music. Boy bands like *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys were big, as were Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. And even though they were wildly popular among most girls my age, there was also an acknowledgment that liking them was lame.
“I had a sense that men” — brothers, male friends, classmates — “were the arbiters of cool,” a friend of mine recently admitted. So essentially, the second that girls start really loving certain music, they are told that that exactly music is unacceptable. Did we argue with the males who told us such? Maybe some girls who were bolder and self-assured did. But what girl, at age 12, is self-assured? So, we accepted it.
While in many ways my female friends and I have grown into bolder and more self-assured adults, there still seems to be that one thing that so many of us are unwilling to defend — our taste in music. Yet men, on the other hand, have never seemed unwilling to protect their favorite bands. Why exactly is that?
For the purposes of this article, I’ve dubbed the music that mostly women listen to as “girl music.” Not all female musicians make “girl music” (there are some female acts who have made music that is apparently worthy of straight male praise — Patti Smith, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, St. Vincent — to name a few). But largely, extremely successful female musicians — Taylor Swift, Cher, Katy Perry, Shania Twain, Janet Jackson — are liked primarily by women (and some gay men).
Beginning back in the late 1960s, magazines like Rolling Stone and Creem began taking popular music seriously by writing thoughtful criticism of musicians like Bob Dylan and John Lennon. Unsurprisingly, most of these critics were men — a trend that continues to this day. Later, in 1983, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was founded in order to honor a select group of top-notch musicians, adding a few new names to the group each year. Of the current 317 RRHOF members, only 43 (13.5%) are women. There is also the GRAMMYs organization, whose president, Neil Portnow, recently took some heat in the press for saying women musicians needed to “step up" after it was noted how few women were nominated for GRAMMY awards. (Nine percent of the award nominees were female in the past six years.)
I mention these institutions and organizations not because they know what makes objectively “good” and “bad” music, but because their opinions on this subject are essentially what all current music criticism and organizations were built on. Clearly, there are now all kinds of new publications of music criticism that publish their own opinions on music, and new organizations awarding prizes to the musicians they deem “best.” Yet still, I can’t help but think that the qualifications of what makes some music “good” stem from criteria established decades ago.
If I were to divide “girl music” into two categories (that’s how I imagine many men see it, at least), it would be into "dumb pop stars" and "angry feminists."
There have been angry women in music for decades, however, the particular decade that comes to the forefront of my mind in this context is the 1990s. In 1995, Alanis Morissette, at only 20 years old, released Jagged Little Pill, a wildly successful album that spent 12 weeks at number one on the Billboard charts. It produced six singles, three top-10 hits in the U.S, and went on to sell more than 33 million copies to date. Yet in the Rolling Stone list of “100 Best Albums of the ‘90s,” it was ranked way down on the list at #45 (!!!).
I get that sometimes objectively terrible music sells well (“Who Let the Dogs Out” was a hit, after all). Yet, listening to Pill as a teenager, it definitely spoke to me, as it clearly did to 33 million other people. She sang about the perfection expected of young women, of what dating can really be like, of eating disorders, and learning by living through tough experiences. Though the hard rock instrumentation and Morissette’s voice are also objectively expressive and excellent, I can’t help but think that the reason it landed at only #45 on Rolling Stone’s list has to do with the dismissive attitude that people of other demographic groups have toward the feelings of young women. Even when these extremely valid and real emotions are presented in artistically interesting and well-articulated ways, these female musicians are still not respected in the same way that their male peers are.
I was tempted, at first, to believe that maybe music by men is just less emotional, and that maybe it’s emotion in general that is a turn-off. Then I thought about Radiohead and “Creep” (“But I'm a creep, I'm a weirdo / What the hell am I doing here?/ I don't belong here”) and about R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts.” I thought about “Heartless” by Kanye West, and about the entire musical genre of emo. I thought about all the sentimentality in country songs and about bands like the National and the Smiths. These men are expressing feelings of heartbreak, alienation, grief, and love. Yet why is it not as celebrated when women express their emotions?
Many of my female friends tend to be more into female pop musicians like Carly Rae Jepsen, Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, and Lorde (you know, the one woman nominated for a 2018 Album of the Year GRAMMY award, who wasn’t invited to perform live on the show like all of her male competitors were?). In a recent Rookie interview, Carly Rae Jepsen was asked about her music being seen as a guilty pleasure. Jepsen responded:
I understand that there are sometimes negative connotations around pop music as being a little more trite and a little more radio-friendly, which can be thought of as simplified ... It’s like a 1940s jazz song—condensing all of these emotions into really potent words. You don’t have a ton of them to use and you gotta make that melody do the other half of the work and it’s gotta be a one-time-listen love, that’s part of the trick. I find it more challenging for me to make pop music than any other—folk music comes way easier. Pop music is a challenge.
What Jepsen says here seems like it would be the case for a lot of songwriters — that it’s far more difficult to write a good pop song than a song of another, perhaps more traditionally high-brow, genre. And while I don’t want to discredit excellent, acquired-taste bands like the National, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to label pop music as “inferior."
It makes sense to me that with all of these negative opinions stacking up about the music that many girls and women listen to — from professional music critics, legendary music organizations, and from music snobs in the comments sections of music publication Facebook page posts — that some women would start to feel a little bit bad about liking the music that they do, that this might bring about a sense of shame. And why not? Women are shamed about everything else — their bodies, their lifestyle preferences, the food they eat, how much they drink, who they sleep with — that, what the hell!, let’s throw the entertainment they choose to consume onto the heap! They can take it!
It’s personally taken me a long time to reach the point where I really don’t care very much if I like “good” music, but perhaps that’s because a lot of the music that I tend to genuinely like is music that’s celebrated by magazines like Rolling Stone and institutions like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For every Lady Gaga song in my iTunes library, I have a Jimi Hendrix track that “redeems” my taste in music. But for those women (of which there are many) who couldn’t care less about Hendrix or Led Zeppelin or Nirvana — is it really ok for them to be looked down upon simply because their music preferences don’t align with the "experts"? All that I can hope for is that female musicians keep making “girl music” and that women continue to move into positions of power within musical institutions like the GRAMMYs and at publications like Rolling Stone and Pitchfork to make sure that the female musicians are receiving support equal to their male contemporaries.
top photo: still from Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" music video
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Julie Kocsis works as the Music Editorial Assistant at W. W. Norton by day and as a music journalist by night. She's interned and worked for the Music Department of Saturday Night Live, various radio stations, and at Guinness World Records. Her writing has been featured on the Huffington Post blog, at Short and Sweet NYC, in the Brooklyn Rail, and on her own "music blog with a sense of humor," Your Face Is a Mess. Follow her on Twitter @MessyFaceBlog and visit her blog at www.yourfaceisamess.com.