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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Moving beyond skinny jeans and shaggy hair

Published: April 30, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

Quick: name five female artists you listen to on a regular basis. Now name five artists of color. I came to the somewhat startling realization, as someone who identifies as a feminist and is interested in anti-racism, that the vast majority of music I own has been produced by white dudes. Most of it is indie rock. The artists of color I listen to tend to be in completely separate genres. It seemed bizarre that, almost without my noticing, I had consistently excluded women and people of color from my music collection, even though it spans several gigabytes on my hard drive.

This realization led me to seriously ask myself a few questions. What’s the explanation for this? Should I consciously try to fix it? How has nearly every album I’ve reviewed for this paper been something made by one or more white men in their 20s and 30s? To me, these questions are of pretty serious importance. Music is a huge part of my life. I’m deeply immersed in online music journalism. And, of course, I spend out-of-class time writing about music for this paper. So it was disheartening to realize that there’s a bland sameness to the music I own.

Without a doubt, part of the problem is who’s making music: signed artists are overwhelmingly male and non-minorities. When music scenes are already skewed this way, the problem becomes further exacerbated by the fact that reviewers tend to focus on white men when talking about “serious” indie rock. The rare reviews written about the work of female artists tend to shift credit for their work at least partly towards adjacent male collaborators. When M.I.A. first emerged, tons of ink, both real and virtual, was devoted to discussing producers Diplo and later Switch and the substantial impact they must have had on the album. When I look for new music, the vast majority of music that gets publicized is made by the same demographic that’s already substantially overrepresented in my collection.

Another part of this problem is that male lyricists who write vague lyrics can somewhat easily be interpreted as writing universally. But that’s not the case for other artists, who are easily pigeonholed as writing exclusively for other women or for their own race. This sort of perspective is frequently enforced in critical writings about music—that music by white guys represents the default perspective but music made by anyone else is more niche-oriented. There’s no reason for this, really; all artists are writing from their perspective. It’s just a question of whose perspective we’re used to identifying with.

Biases in music criticism are the easy explanation. But that’s not the whole story. I’ve internalized plenty of social biases about who is “talented” and making “legitimate” art. I personally don’t seek out marginalized artists. I don’t give female rappers nearly as much leeway as male rappers. I’m far more likely to give “difficult” all-male bands more listens. That’s partly because of the general narrative that men are auteurs while women are accessories for rock bands. The more I try to rectify the situation, the more clear it becomes that a large part of this stems from the preconceived notions I’ve absorbed and unwillingly hold about music. My listening patterns have absorbed much of the free-floating cultural detritus about women. It’s easy to talk about why there should be more women in music (which there should be! Riot grrl is awesome!), but a lot harder to talk about how I don’t support that many female artists myself. It’s a shame, and the inevitable result of marinating in a culture in which women’s contributions aren’t valued highly.

All this isn’t to say that there isn’t merit in music played by the aforementioned white men. I do, after all, listen to the music I have; I like it. But it’s clear that institutional and internalized thought patterns have consistently limited my exposure to diverse forms of music. It’s startling to realize that decisions I make on an individual level, like what music to acquire, are profoundly shaped by mostly invisible external dynamics. And if diversity of experience is desirable in a Supreme Court nominee, then I think I could at least try to seek out minority artists.

Does what I listen to matter in the grand scheme of things? It doesn’t feel like it. But the artists I listen to are the artists I might spend money on to go see and the artists I tell other people about. So, as long as my listening habits are geared this way, I will be, in my own small but decidedly capitalistic way, furthering the very same system that I currently find problematic. It’s not that I don’t like the music I have; it’s that there’s a whole mess of historical oppression that influenced my tastes long before I purchased any of these albums. It’s that the music I have is shaped by structures that are both invisible and beyond my control. And it’s not much, it’s not activism and it’s not a cure for oppression, but it’s a start; from now on I will prioritize marginalized artists when looking for new music. It’s the least I could do. I encourage you to make an effort to do the same.