Skip to content

LADYPALOOZA PRESENTS! The World At Large: How Privilege works in Rock Music

[Hey, dudes and ladies! Guess what we’re still up to? Yes, it is still time for LADYPALOOZA, the badly-titled Ladies and Music and Whatnot THEME POST PARTY on the Tiger Beatdown. We tried to stop it! (FULL DISCLOSURE: We did not try to stop it.) But it was JUST TOO GOOD. For example, you may remember that one of our posts, the first one, by a lady named Silvana, got quite the reaction. Often from prog-rock fans, for whatever reason! Because we have learned that you can write about overthrowing The Patriarchy and de-privilegizing the dudes and also racism and how probably more people are really fucking racist than they realize, and also we’re really into QUEER people having rights TOO, and we maintain that you shouldn’t make fun of fat people because it’s dehumanizing and gross, and you shouldn’t use “retarded” as an all-purpose insult because folks with disabilities also matter, and trans issues are really fucking important and central and your “tranny” jokes are just NOT SO WITTY AS YOU MIGHT SUPPOSE, we can do all of that and people will basically pay us no mind — it’s the Internet, women be shopping and/or conspiring to overthrow the entire culture as it is currently structured, whaddayagonnado — but, whatever you do, DON’T GO AFTER A MAN’S RUSH RECORDS. Because that business IS IMPORTANT. Well, it turns out that when a post gets over 100 comments, we like to do a follow-up! And, you guys, guess who’s back?]

Sometimes, you post something that you know is going to cause a shit storm. But most of the time, when you write something that ends up causing a shit storm, it just hits you like a ton of bricks and makes you think “Dude. I really must have been on to something there, because why else is everyone freaking the fuck out.”

I was not just surprised, but kind of floored at the response to my first guest post here on Tiger Beatdown. One hundred and fifty-nine comments, people. As of right now. I’m not just bragging. I want to know–what is it that my post is tapping into that has heretofore been un-tapped-into, why haven’t we been talking about it before, and what the hell are we going to do to dislodge this righteous anger and put it in a pot where it comes out SOMETHING AWESOME? Because I am ready to rock, I think.

My post was linked by Yglesias. And by Amanda Marcotte. And by Amanda again. You’ve got to read those two posts by Amanda, because they’re great. Also read this post by Spencer Ackerman. While you’re at it, you might as well read this post by Spencer, because it’s a good kick-off for what I want to talk about today.

I have a reputation as a hothead, and it’s pretty well-deserved, if I’m honest. But I have a steady job with an income at a place I love that lets me, for instance, blog at FDL and cover my beat my way. If I was a woman and was half as intemperate, I would not be given second and third chances. I just wouldn’t be hired. I wouldn’t be considered passionate. I’d be considered difficult and hard to work with. I say this thinking of a currently unemployed friend who’s a vastly superior thinker, writer and reporter. Guess what her gender is?

Spencer’s writing about journalism, but I think what he’s saying is so widely applicable that I’m really sorry it didn’t get more attention at the time. I’ve known a lot of men, and I’ve known a lot of feminist men. A lot of those feminist men are willing to acknowledge “hey, I’m privileged.” You’d have to be a real sociopath to think that despite the widespread privileging of men’s bodies, men’s art, men’s opinions, and men’s power throughout cultures and human history, you, personally, had managed never to be the beneficiary of it. No, those admissions of privilege are so banal that they don’t even really get my attention any more. What Spencer’s doing here is acknowledging the specific way that privilege works, and how it has worked for him, using real qualities that he actually has.

The phenomenon he identifies is at the heart of the way privilege works in rock music specifically, and in art in general, which is this: As a woman, you don’t get a break for the negative flipsides of your good qualities.

No one’s perfect. Everyone does some grade-A annoying shit. People who make great art, or write good books or journalism, or fight for social change, are going to do even more annoying shit than your average person just because you’ve got to be different from the norm in order to do anything that’s remotely ground-breaking. The privilege question is: how do people deal with your grade-A annoying shit? Do they cut you a break? Do they respect you in spite of it, because they know that the flipside of your annoying hotheadedness means you’re going to go after a story like that story never knew which way the hits were coming from?

If you’re a man, they do. And if you’re a woman, they don’t. If you’re a person of color, they don’t.

Because when you are a member of the dominant group, the group that has power and privilege and primacy, people are looking for ways to like you, ways to lift you up, because your being good reinforces the status quo that benefits them. And when you are a woman or a person of color, the people that run the show are looking for ways to discount you. Even when they themselves are members of the same disadvantaged group as you. Because of a nifty thing called horizontal hostility, women are called as lieutenants in the patriarchal army of cutting a bitch down to size when she gets too uppity for her britches.

I do it. You do it. We all do it.

But I’m not here to bring you to a come-to-Jesus moment where we all admit that we are bad feminists because we judge women more harshly than we do men, critique, snark, compare, and put other women into our woman-status hierarchy. No, I’m here to talk about rock ‘n roll.

Yesterday, I was driving, and listening to an old favorite, the Modest Mouse album Good News for People who Love Bad News. Yeah, ok, I know that Isaac Brock might be a rapist. And they really are a horrible band live. But I still love Modest Mouse. Especially Lonesome Crowded West, which, if anyone asks, is obviously the best Modest Mouse album. To get the full effect of my point, you need to listen to the first track. Listen to Brock’s singing. What a weird kind of vocals those are, right? He sounds kind of like a 12-year-old boy. Wavering, uncertain, about to break. Kind of annoying. Now listen to the second track. Whoa. Who is that? Same guy. Totally different vocal styling. Also kind of annoying. Really open vowels, overly dramatic flourishes.

What Brock is doing on both of those songs is not “good” singing. It sounds weird. It takes getting used to. But the more you listen to it, the more you like it, the more you find the color and timbre of the vocals compelling and you find yourself imitating his voice when you sing along because that’s what sounds good with the song. And I’m guessing he figured it out as a result of a lot of vocal experimentation

That’s the kind of experimentation that is hard to do when you are a member of the oppressed sex class that is women. Because for women, prettiness reigns. Being pretty, sexy, fuckable, is of paramount importance. This extends not only to appearance but to action. Which is where rock ‘n roll comes in. Because in order to make good rock music, you have to be able to do things that are not pretty. Pretty is not interesting, pretty is not groundbreaking (unless it’s juxtaposed with things that are not pretty), pretty is boring. And pretty is the thing that our culture enforces on women with a vengeance. The prettiness problem excludes women from rock ‘n roll in a three-phase process.

1. The prettiness imperative is self-inhibiting. I can only speak from personal experience here, but I’m guessing a lot of women agree: not-pretty is hard. I’m a trained singer with an incredibly versatile voice. I can imitate just about anyone’s singing style. But my own voice, my own sound? It’s pretty, and therefore boring. I can imitate non-prettiness, but I can’t come up with it on my own. Making music is a physical act, and it’s very difficult to let your body do things that aren’t pretty when you’ve spent your entire life trying to make your body be as pretty as possible. Especially because (and I can’t find a link for this, so you’re gonna have to take my word on it) women artificially raise their voices around the time of puberty, limiting their vocal range and depriving themselves of full use of their from-the-gut voice. Ever known a woman who seemed to find it literally impossible to speak loudly enough to fill a room? It wasn’t a physical problem. Also, the thing that teens start doing where you are constantly sucking in your stomach? Not good for talking loud and singing in interesting ways.

2. Defying the prettiness imperative gets you punished. If you can manage to do something that’s experimental, interesting, and against the prettiness imperative (or, even crazier, subverts the prettiness imperative, see, e.g. Joanna Newsom) then, you are ridiculed, your music is weird, and you are a fairy/witch/slut/whore/weirdo. Or it’s just simply not good. Because people don’t like the way it sounds, since they are not used to women doing things that are not-pretty, and they don’t like it.

3. Not defying the prettiness imperative is boring. See how that works? You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Because if you violate the standards, go outside your comfort zone, and do something really new and interesting, people don’t find it palatable. But if you don’t, then what you’re doing isn’t noteworthy.

This is why all the stuff I was saying at the beginning of my last post, where I was talking about how women in bands have to be pretty and sexy, is relevant. If the taste-makers and the cd-buyers who influence the trajectory of women in music have their say, the defiance of the prettiness imperative is only going to be palatable if it comes wrapped in a visually pretty package. So, they’ll listen to a woman whaling on the guitar and shouting, maybe, but only if her work is technically flawless and she is extremely conventionally attractive. That’s what I meant earlier by getting breaks. If you want to be a woman who’s successful in rock, you have to be so much better than the men who are your peers, because you aren’t going to catch a break for your shortcomings, whether it’s in your personality, your music, or your appearance.

It’s a shame, really, because having an outsider’s perspective is an extremely good way to be in the mental head-space that making really good, original music requires. It’s no accident that most of the men who are successful in rock are outsiders in some way, and view themselves as part of various marginalized groups who have been subjected to ridicule. So they feel like, by making music and kicking ass and being awesome, they are engaging in a kind of subversion.

I think it’s the subversive flavor of my original post that got so many boxers in a twist. Women have been made fun of for trying to make daring, original, non-pretty music since the day they started trying. What I was doing, in addition to being angry about the way I’d been treated by male musicians and male music fans, was mocking them. That, somehow, is not okay. With mockery comes a certain amount of power, and if a woman like me (or Sady) does an unseemly power-grab by using mockery to make a point, she’s very mean and bad (and pathetic!).

I was not sufficiently reverent about Dude Music. I painted with a broad brush. I made generalizations, in order to make better jokes. In that way, like the women who defy the prettiness imperative, I was going off-script, outside the lines drawn for acceptable female behavior. I was commanding authority and making definitions. Like commenter Paul on one of Amanda’s posts says:

Defining from the center, aka “I know it when I see it” is a position of power. Traditionally available only to old white men wearing black gowns, er, robes. So pretty obviously any guy who is into Dude Rock is going to be mortified and furious when a woman defines Dude Rock from the center.

Defining at the edges is what less-powerful people are pushed into doing, because the process implicitly marks everything outside the edges as the territory (cognitively or politically speaking) of the people doing the pushing.

To get to the heart of it, that’s what makes male rock-makers and rock-fans so uncomfortable about women in music. When you make daring, original music, you are a taste-maker, you are commanding. Even if you say nothing, you are positioning yourself as an authority figure. You are saying, I made this music and it is good and you should listen to it.

I don’t have a pat lesson or theory to take from all this. But I think it’s important to remember that what you’re doing when you assert your taste in music, when you choose women artists, or choose to make music yourself, you are acting as an authority, and are therefore subverting male authority. Think about that. And then do it more.

[Silvana is a lawyer and freelance writer who lawyers and writes in Washington, D.C., and blogs as “M. LeBlanc” at the blog Bitch, Ph.D. She likes ladies who make music, hating on the prison-industrial complex, and french fries.]


  1. Early wrote:

    I’m a little confused…
    Is the point here that certain words combined with certain melodies, harmonies, and rhythms are inherently Dudely and, therefore, evil? Or is it that many guys minimize the tastes of many women because they guys think, consciously or not, that women don’t know anything about music, be they listeners or performers. If the latter (which I suspect), then Dude Rock has analogs everywhere — Dude Art, Dude Cuisine, Dude Engineering, etc — and it’s not so much the music Dudes listen to as it is the fucked up Dude paradigms about how to relate to women and their tastes or abilities in whatever arena.
    Please help out a poor dude.
    (My apologies if this double posts.)

    Sunday, April 25, 2010 at 2:23 am | Permalink
  2. Emily Jane wrote:

    “3. Not defying the prettiness imperative is boring. See how that works? You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Because if you violate the standards, go outside your comfort zone, and do something really new and interesting, people don’t find it palatable. But if you don’t, then what you’re doing isn’t noteworthy.”

    A personal anecdote that this post, and this step in particular, reminds me of:

    Years ago, a friend told me that she didn’t like women musicians, particularly vocalists, because she liked passionate music, not pretty music, and women only sound good when they make music that is pretty and not passionate.

    I think after my initial reaction, which was just “…WHAAAT?! Can. Not. Compute.” I gave her some listening suggestions…but was unable to have a serious discussion with her about her perceived discrepancy between prettiness and passion and women’s roles in music.

    So frustrating! And a haunting comment that has, unfortunately, stuck with me for a long time.

    Sunday, April 25, 2010 at 6:35 pm | Permalink
  3. Silvana wrote:

    who it is exactly that you’re calling out on this point

    Maybe due to some unconscious prejudice, I’m not sure, but, though I usually have no problem enjoying the deadpan, tone-deaf vocals of a Stephen Malkmus or Lou Reed, when it’s Kim Gordon or Exene Cervenka, it kinda drives me up the wall a little bit.

    I’m calling out guys just like you, but who refuse to acknowledge their own prejudice or even identify a discrepancy.

    Sunday, April 25, 2010 at 11:10 pm | Permalink
  4. Dennis wrote:

    That is a terrible shame, considering people like Colin Meloy and Conor Oberst get so much attention when (much as I do really quite like The Decemberists and Bright Eyes respectively, in spite of their dudeliness) they can’t really sing at all, in the conventional sense of the word. I hope people start listening to you soon.

    It’s interesting, actually, that when it comes to female voices the ones we hear most of are mezzo-ish – you don’t hear many low altos in the mainstream, nor many high sopranos. Weirdly, I also struggle to think of any basses in the mainstream apart from Barry White.

    Monday, April 26, 2010 at 1:17 am | Permalink
  5. Keys wrote:

    Great post. I actually feel refreshed, if not threatened.

    One thing I can tell you: it’s important to attack the status quo. What you said early in the post about knowing you’re doing something right really resonates.

    Sunday, May 9, 2010 at 9:41 am | Permalink

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Traditionally available only to old white men wearing black gowns, er, robes . So pretty obviously any guy who is into Dude Rock is going to be mortified and furious when a woman defines Dude Rock from the center. ….. I feel like if the Yoko Is Ugly brigade were introduced to her as a person they might know rather than a Woman Entertainer, more people would be boggling and saying, But she’s beautiful! Because we kind of tend to expect out Woman Entertainers to be …Continue Reading… […]

  2. links for 2010-06-03 « Embololalia on Thursday, June 3, 2010 at 2:03 pm

    […] Tiger Beatdown › LADYPALOOZA PRESENTS! The World At Large: How Privilege works in Rock Music The phenomenon he identifies is at the heart of the way privilege works in rock music specifically, and in art in general, which is this: As a woman, you don’t get a break for the negative flipsides of your good qualities. (tags: female.musicians feminism gender music men privilege women) […]