Female Artists and Audience Subjectivity

The recent post by The Only D which emphasizes new music by women came (serendipitously or not) just around the same time I had a conversation with my brother about the fact that we don’t talk much about female performers. If that weren’t enough, my wife has been telling me for years that I don’t really listen to or like to female performers and that this is an indication that my dedication to gender equality is shallow at best.

So, a month after Women’s History Month and not much wiser, I want to redress the issue. Of course, I won’t do this without some kind of elaborate and defensive explanation. While I do suspect that seeking out artists because they happen to be female is almost as problematic as avoiding them because they are, I cannot dispute some simple facts. I do, insistently, disagree with my wife about why I don’t seem to listen to many female artists. I cannot, however, disagree with the facts when my music collection is at least 90% male dominated.

A shameless opportunity to post a They Might Be Giants song.

This post will consist of two lists: first, my weak explanation for my gender-bias; and second, a list of the female artists I do love.

Here are some disorganized thoughts about audience-subjectivity and gender-bias:

  1. There are more male artists in general (pop, rock, rap are dominated by men). If I narrowed down the list to artists I actually really liked the list would have slightly better distribution.
  2. As a student (and teacher) of literature I am sensitive to subjective experience in artists and readers. From my experience, male readers tend to find male authors more compelling than female artists. I don’t think that this is on purpose. But I do think that this is hardwired into our psychology and sense of artistic aesthetic.
  3. Male and female gendered experience remains very different. From a young age, men and women are encouraged and praised in different directions; subsequent life experiences as conditioned by gender lead to even more different tastes and expectations.
  4. Readers/audience members respond more often to voices or aesthetic experiences that communicate to or resonate with their womenmenown experiences—hence, male audience members more often respond to work that is in some way ‘masculine’ or harmonious with their masculine experience.
  5. Female performers are (generally) limited from genres in music that I have found attractive. Women (from a young age on) gravitate towards or are pushed to (probably the later) musical forms that are less experimental and more conventional (this is only anecdotal).
  6. Female performers are often marketed and prized through sexual objectification. I may not be enlightened enough to escape my own subjectivity as an audience member; but I am certainly aware enough to find the dominant erotic presentation of many female performers off-putting.
  7. For various conventional reasons, female artists tend to sing (and play) ‘prettily’. (This is the least true and most unfair of my assertions.)
  8. The result of all of the forces and trends I have mentioned so far have conditioned me to respond (subconsciously) to music by male artists. And, I must confess, mostly male artists who conform to conventional gendered identities.

So, there, in eight simple steps, I have tried to explain to my wife (and myself, I guess) the conditions that have resulted in an iTunes library that is, as she calls it, a “digital sausage-fest” (which, I surmise, is probably the name of an explicit website).

But, in truth, there are some female artists I feel strongly about. And, more so than the list above, what I love about them reveals (by contrast with other female performers, perhaps) why there are fewer female artists I feel so strongly about (to repeat myself). The list has numbers, but the numbers really don’t mean anything.

1.       Kori Gardner, Mates of State

I have written before about how much I love this band. In truth, what I really love about this band probably begins (and ends) with the keyboardist and vocalist Kori Gardner. First, she sings with abandon—she doesn’t try to sound pretty, she just hits the notes honestly and then blasts through them. She has a dominant alto-voice that she mixes with a head-voice (which is a bit less strong). She often sings in unison with the drummer and crosses harmonies in such a way as to confuse a (passive) listener.

Gardner stands apart, I dare say, because she doesn’t hesitate and sings without trying to sound like a diva. It doesn’t hurt that she plays a mean keyboard and writes innovative and challenging songs. I don’t think anyone will ever accuse Gardner of having an exceptional voice; yet, the voice she has is used exceptionally well.

2.       Kim Deal, The Breeders

I have recently written about how much I love this band. I have mentioned probably a thousand times about how much I love the Pixies. Kim Deal’s voice, bass playing, and artistic sense were essential to both. When she sings lead (infrequently) for the Pixies, she showcases a voice made for alternative rock. She creates unforgettable harmonies that give many of the Pixies’ greatest songs their essential mark of difference.

And yet, even though her voice was enough for these two great bands, Deal too has a raw instrument that no one would consider material for a vocal competition. Her tone is pure, perhaps too angelic, but her voice is largely a thin lower-soprano—she has little depth or heft behind it. Despite this, she uses her voice almost perfectly. In the cover above, the vocal is almost sickly sweet—the type of verse you could imagine an old girlfriend singing late at night or early in the morning.

A common thread? Both Deal and Gardner are song-writers and musicians. Their vocals are merely part of their repertoire.

3.       Feist (Leslie Fiest)

I am more than a little shocked that I have not written an entry about Feist yet. If I were to write a list of my top 20 favorite songs (ever), not only would “Mushaboom” and “1234” be vying for position, but the less well-known “I Feel it All” would be knocked off the list by the even less popular “Inside + Out” (a track recorded as a dance number but absolutely flooring as a stripped down torch-song in this remix.

Feist’s most recent album (Metals) didn’t make a similar impact on me to that of her earlier releases, but I will buy anything she puts out. Her voice is more impressive than the first two on this list—she has a jazz singer’s sensibilities and grows into some notes with a crescendo while allowing a vibrato to hum on others. She really knows how to sing.

But Feist, too, is a songwriter and not merely a performer—her alt-rock bona fides were established by her work with the Broken Social Scene and her laboring on the Canadian music scene.

Two from Feist. Go ahead, hate me.

4.       Fiona Apple

I don’t hate Fiona Apple because she was originally marketed as an underaged sex-object. I love her because she embraced it, used it, and then went her own crazy way. I have loved her voice since I first heard her—the lower-toned anger of it was striking and to this day she sings with so much power, even if her longer notes are a bit more tremulous and her tone a little more mature.

Apple, about whom I have written before, also stands apart as a master musician—her arrangements on her later albums are breath-taking at times and her piano playing is nearly that of a jazz master. Even as her music has become more mainstream, Apple has never slacked in demanding more from herself and her audience.

The last three performers are a little different…


5. Whitney Houston

I have talked about Whitney before—both as the artist I remembered loving when she passed to early and as a vocalist whose talent and style differs from Mariah Carey’s.  I have never owned a Whitney Houston album, but I have never stopped loving the sound of her voice. This gift she had and shared was a once in a generation (or more) thing. We were all lucky to hear it,

I could wish (unfairly) that she had used this voice for different songs—but, then, she wouldn’t be Whitney. Check out the improvisations and trills on this live performance. No one will sing like her again.

 6. Nina Simone

It is someone like Nina Simone whose vocal talent was matched only by her general musicianship and sense of art that makes me impatient with many young performers. When she tries to sing well, she has a jazz voice bar none. When she tries to be raw, she can wear you down to your bones.

Any song, any standard or anything new—if I can listen to a Nina Simone version, I learn something new about the song (and the performer).  There aren’t many singers who can do this.

 7. Ella Fitzgerald

Whether it is from a standard like this song or just in the breakdown of a scat solo, Fitzgerald is probably one of the finest singers and the most magnificent jazz/blues performers of the 20th century. Like Simone, she proves that you don’t have to sing pretty to sing well (although she can do both). And, she shows that you don’t always have to sing well to amaze (and again, she almost always does both.)

So, my brother, I stop my list here. I know you will think of others, but consider my explanation and consider my list. I have to go change some diapers…

13 comments on “Female Artists and Audience Subjectivity

  1. theyoungerj says:

    First of all, your wife gets some type of award for the term “Digital Sausage Fest”, I laughed out loud. This has got me thinking about why i don’t listen to more female artists and you pretty much aligned my own thoughts perfectly there. I often forget about the sometimes truly opposite ways males and females experience things and our this shapes all of our interactions. I would listen to more female driven music if I had a girlfriend or close friend who was a girl who listened to a lot of that type of music. Working on the former. I cannot improve your list but I can make my own playlist of female artists.
    I listened to “Driving on 9” again right here…..I swear to God it gets better every time. I felt both happy at the tune and kind of sad cause it’s so pretty.

  2. Jake says:

    What happened to your love of Tegan and Sara?

  3. professormortis says:

    My brother has an inordinate amount of affection for bands with front women, not solo artists, but specifically male bands fronted by women. So no, say, Go-Gos, but, say, Blondie. Not Madonna, but Siouxise and the Banshees. The key always seems to be a woman fronting a band, although sometimes there are equal numbers of male and female members of the band. No Doubt was on that list too. Wish I could think of every band in this category he’s a fan of. I’ll never get what it is specifically musically about that that gets him to tune in.

  4. Nice! I’d definitely add Ann & Nancy Wilson from Heart on this list, as well as Amy Winehouse.

    • theelderj says:

      You know, I couldn’t quite figure out where I would put Amy Winehouse on here or Adele. Both are recent singers whose voices I admire but neither of them are musicians whose albums I have purchased.

      And Heart? How could I forget. Because I was a little young during the 80s many of the decade’s rock sirens are barely blips on my memory radar!

  5. […] I have been procrastinating on writing my own women who rock type of post and after attending my first two bride wedding last week right before the historical decision […]

  6. […] have slacked again on writing a response to my brother’s wonderfully written essay on female artists and why we don’t write more about them. For no one reason and certainly not consciously, we […]

  7. […] interesting and just added some needed energy to a slow Saturday afternoon. A little bit of punk, a female vocalist (with some Yeah Yeah Yeahs sound) and the kind of raw production that value that makes the early […]

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