Women, Men, and Music: the XY factor (part one)

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Let me begin with some residual New Year bonhomie by saying that the New Yorker‘s Alex Ross is not the problem here. It’s just that you sometimes need to take an inventory of the symptoms before starting on the cause. Last month I attended a talk by Ross on the release of his latest book. The talk and the discussion which followed were interesting enough, but throughout the evening I couldn’t help noticing that, although there were several women in attendance, every single raised voice in the room was male.

Hardly revelatory, I know. This time last year, I contributed to a relatively prominent and very good music blog’s retrospective on the best songs of the past decade. More depressing if grimly predictable than Kate Nash’s inclusion in the best-of was the fact that, out of over 40 contributors, I was one of only two women. From the demise of  Plan B magazine, with its conscious commitment to encouraging female writers, to Anwyn Crawford’s recent rebuke of The Wire, the relative lack of female voices in mainstream music criticism is a truth universally acknowledged.

As part of Ross’s audience, I’m not saying I felt excluded or unwelcome, nor did I find the questions less interesting, relevant or articulate for being asked in a masculine rather than feminine register. But something did click with me when, towards the discussion’s end, a man towards the front reticently asked Ross: “This might sound a silly question, but – do you like to dance?”

The opening caveat there is as important as the question itself. Let’s start with the latter, which threw into sharp relief the varying ways one can engage with music. Let’s call the difference that of Pure versus Applied. Where Alex Ross excels is his ability to demystify music, separating and examining its component parts. This scholarly and almost clinical approach can succeed brilliantly, particularly when discussing Ross’s first love, classical music. But, as an exclusive approach, I find it lacking, and the absence of attention to dancing helps explain why.

I find it very hard to think of any song I truly love that I cannot also dance to – whether by ‘dance’ I mean drunken mock-waltzing to ‘(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais’ or that routine you do to ‘Killing in the Name Of’ which involves attempting to stab your knees with your eyebrows. I intellectually analyse the music I love, scouring its lyrical content and its social and cultural context for meaning to enhance my enjoyment of it, but not necessarily to justify my enjoying it in the first place. I am equally interested simply in experiencing its rhythm, its flow, its grind, its melody, the way it makes me want to move as well as the mechanics of how it achieves that, its impact on my body as well as my brain. I attach as much weight to a physical and emotional response as to a cerebral anatomising of music. Until that question was asked, the talk had concentrated wholly on the latter, lacking any consideration of the former, equally useful, dimension of how music works. So no, it wasn’t ‘a silly question’. Why the questioner might have felt that it was perhaps approaches the heart of the matter.

I’m sceptical of the patronising and reductive idea that men and women appreciate music in intrinsically different ways, men with a cold and technical analysis and women with an exclusively personal and emotional response. But this scepticism has to struggle against the weight of cultural conditioning and its success in bequeathing to boys and girls approved modes of engagement. The male = analytical/female = emotional dichotomy is a counterproductive product of social training, and identifying and questioning this assumption in relation to engagement with music is part of breaking down the barriers between genders and combating sexism in general. Doing so is hindered, however, by the extent to which these different approaches are accorded varying weight in wider discourse, with prevailing attitudes in mainstream music criticism privileging one over another.

The implications of this will be looked at in Part Two.

Originally written for the excellent ‘feminist pop culture adventure’ website Bad Reputation, reproduced with kind permission. Rhian Jones blogs at Velvet Coalmine

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