Being Female is a Bad Career Move for Musicians and Other Artists

Music is a male dominated field, particularly when it comes to playing musical instruments.

I’m on an acoustic guitar list and periodically the topic comes up regarding how few women play guitar in comparison to men.  Invariably the few women on the list will point out how few role models women picking up the guitar have.  The men then grind the mental gear box and come up with Maybelle Carter.

Women my age come up with Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell etc as influencing our picking up the steel string acoustic guitar.

In 2004 we went to Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival when it was here in Dallas.  We saw hundreds of guitarists, some of the best in the world.  Of those hundreds of guitar players there was exactly one woman and she played with J. J. Cale’s Band.  She was not a featured artist.

I came away from the festival wanting to start playing guitar again after not having played for nearly 20 years, so seeing those guitar players was inspiring.  But I was also struck by the fact that Clapton had not considered one woman a serious enough guitar player to have as a featured artist.

Later that year we saw Bonnie Raitt and I thought, “Why wasn’t she one of the artists at Crossroads?”

The next year I was turned on to Kaki King.  She blows my mind with some of the stuff she does and could blow half the male guitar players I’ve seen in my life time off the stage.

We saw her in a small club and unless you follow independent women artists like Ani di Franco or cult guitarists you may well have never heard of her.

We’ve seen Joan Baez twice since we have been here in Dallas.  Both times at a smallish theater.  Once upon a time she used to fill concert halls and large theaters, but she is politically out spoken and folk music is considered passe because it has substance and today style and sexiness counts more than talent or substance.

Tina and I listen to jazz.  Jazz is a genre with a small fan base that once filled concert halls and like folk music today often depends on “house concerts”.  I can name hundred of players and can often identify them by their style of playing, yet I am hard pressed to name women instrumentalists.  The women in jazz are mostly singers.  Lady Day, Nina Simone, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald I could go on and on.

In fact I can only think of a handful of women playing instruments and they are piano/keyboard artists. Carla Bley, Jessica Williams, Toshiko Akiosho, Kiko Matsui.

The sexism of the jazz world makes me want to ask why does having a dick seem to be an essential part of playing an instrument.

Rock and roll.  I’m old enough to remember falling in love with Suzi Quatro because she actually played the bass and wore leather when she performed.  She strutted on stage and screamed out the songs as she played.  That was in the early 1970s when the Second Wave was cresting.  I bought a Gibson SG because it was really popular in the 1960s acid rock/psychedelic bands and was lighter than the Les Paul that was so popular in the 1970s.

But damn it was like pulling teeth to get male guitar players to show me or tell me anything about playing electric and we didn’t have all the DVDs filled with lessons in those days.  But we had The Runaways, The Pretenders and Tina Weymouth with the Talking Heads.  Punk was kind of DIY and girls could rock too, no experience or training necessary.

In the early 1970s I took up photography.  I had seen the movie Blow-up in 1967 and couldn’t decide if I wanted to be one of the models or the photographer.  About the time I bought my first Nikon, a Nikkormat actually, I also went to modeling school and tried modeling.  I thought, “I’m really cute and modeling/acting seems like it would be fun.”  I soon discovered I was more interested in what and how the photographers were doing when they were taking the pictures than I was in posing and prancing in front of the camera.  I was cute and the photographers liked me. We would hang out, smoke dope and sometimes fuck. They were more generous with explaining how lighting and developing pictures and offering a critical eye regarding my photographic efforts giving advise and telling me when they thought something was good.

I found it far harder to get that sort of respect from rock musicians.

Lead guitars are more than happy to fuck cute chicks and smoke dope with them but their misogyny gets in the way of actually showing that same cute chick how to play a certain lick she might want to learn.

I’ve found male folk musicians more generous in that area than rock dudes.

I have been going to art galleries and museums since the 1970s.  I’ve taken classes in Art Schools CCAC and the Art Students League.  There are a lot more women taking classes than are ever shown in galleries or museums.

So much so that women founded the Guerrilla Girls in the 1980s to protest the absence of women artists in museums and galleries.

This last week end we watched the Grammys. Women performers seem to be required to be glamorous babes, youth and sexiness seem more important than the music they produce.  Guys can be of any age and widely varied in appearance where as women seem to come with an expiration date of around thirty something. They also seem to have to come from the sex object clone factory.

Lost in all the assertion of gender that is part of the anti-feminist backlash is the idea that women can be serious musicians or artists and not be the wet dream for some dick.

Not that guys are particularly into seeing women perform.  When we go to concerts featuring women often times the audience is made up of women and gay men.  When heterosexual couples are there it often seems as though the man is there because his wife dragged him there.

This seems to vary somewhat with the age of the audience.  When the audience is full of boomers who lived through the 1960s and 1970s one is more likely to see men as well as women who are as able to show appreciation towards a female artist.

It isn’t just in music and the visual arts, where women are few and far between.

Have you been to the movies lately?

Intelligent movies have to do battle at the box office with inane CGI driven action films with grotesquely distorted male leads and if there is a female in the cast she will almost certainly be a sex object.  The other genres favored seem to be movies of developmentally impaired Peter Pans acting in a manner that should have the MRAs (men’s rights advocates) up in arms.

Films that feature intelligent women or more than one or two sex objects are called “chick flicks”.  The default for movies being “dick flicks”.

Sexism is alive and well, it is as though second wave feminism never happened.

Now we don’t even dare call it sexism because we are scared shitless by the word sex.  Now it is gender and is supposed to define us as men or women.

Never mind that gender defines being an artist as being male by default.

Never mind how gender has returned us to a level of sexism at least as bad as the 1950s particularly for women in the arts.

Maybe it is time to ask why women have to be sex objects to be heard in the arts and maybe wake up to the idea that sex objects can never be taken seriously.

Maybe it is time to ask why men can be performers at 80 while so many women’s careers as artists in the field of music end with the beginning of winkles, when they are no longer perfect sex objects.

10 Responses to “Being Female is a Bad Career Move for Musicians and Other Artists”

  1. quenyar Says:

    There’s always Namoli Brennert 🙂

    • Suzan Says:

      Folk music is a haven for for women who play acoustic guitar, some might say a ghetto. In the 1970s the women of Olivia Records were pretty much “folk” musicians. House concerts, small venues and DIY CDs and MP3 albums are the hallmark of artist who aren’t part of the corporate elite.

  2. quenyar Says:

    I’ll always remember a quaint little place in Philadelphia called Hackett Circle – a coffee house. 10 cents at the door, later raised to a quarter. I was there one evening when some of the other patrons recognized some people having coffee and persuaded Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins to get up and do a set. To my memory that’s the only time they ever played together. It was magical.

  3. edith Says:

    I discovered Christine Lakeland a short while ago on Youtube. I am not all that familiar w/ JJ Cale but I know he goes way back.

    Nina Gerber is someone, I really like. Of course she is a fixture in the folk music world, closely associated w/ Kate Wolf but she is an excellent guitarist who can crossover to various genres. She’s been playing with Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women who are hot. Cindy Cashdollar is a fine dobro player and, of course there is Laurie Lewis on fiddle.

    I don’t know what it is about rock. Susan Tedeschi can certainly hold her own and yes, Bonnie Raitt! Maybe it’s the ego mania of the solo. If you go on line and look for fairly complex finger style country blues in the tradition of Mississippi John Hurt you can find a lot of accomplished women players.

    What I find is you find a lot of female virtuosos on the fiddle. Bluegrass and old timey is particularly sexually egalitarian. There’s Alison Krauss, Laurie Lewis, Rhonda Vincent, the list goes on and on. Traditional Celtic music, oddly enough, is probably the most egalitarian genre but you really have to know where to look. The fiddle and the wooden flute is most often the instrument of choice. There are plenty of good players, Liz Caroll is great. There is Winifred Horan and Karen Casey, Yvonne Casey, The Kane Sisters on fiddle and players like Joannie Madden on flute. Natalie McMaster is a great Cape Breton fiddle player.

    I was watching a video of Edgar Varese’s Ionization, the other day. I was amazed at all the female percussionists. I have noticed a lot of women drummers and percussionists lately. Sherry Maricle w/ Jennifer Leitham is an interesting combination. Sherry pulls no punches.

    I recently watched Frank Zappa doing Bobby Brown (no, not the Bel Biv, Devoe, New Edition, Whitney Houston Bobby Brown). It isn’t very difficult to see how rampant misogyny and homophobia runs among the geniuses of rock, jazz and the avant garde. That could explain the lack of attention women receive in the field of rock.

    • Suzan Says:

      I think y’all are missing the point, which is women have a far harder time making it in the arts than men do. and that making it requires them to be sex objects as well as talented.

  4. quenyar Says:

    There is a kind of backlash prejudice that goes something like this: As a man, who got where I got by long hard work, talent and sweat – I am not going to respect or support some candy ass girl who got where she is by being cute and desirable. Her success is an affront to my talent and years of toil.
    Also, being swamped by groupies isn’t going to improve your opinion of women and many once successful musicians end up in a decision making capacity in the industry.
    I am not justifying these things – I am just saying that institutionalized prejudice evolves from many different influences and the effect of normal human reaction to extraordinary circumstances.

  5. edith Says:

    Well, I won’t deny that I might be missing the point but isn’t a lot of rock and blues about women as sex objects? I’m old though. It’s hard for me to keep up. I have been listening to more contemporary stuff lately. The stuff seems sweeter. I didn’t watch the Grammys.

    This guy has a great show based along the lines of stuff you won’t hear at the Grammys:
    There is also the WERS(from Boston) playlist, which is more contemporary pop and sweeter than the edgier stuff Slota plays on his show, that I won’t link to. You probably have similar fare in Dallas. It seems if you stay out of the money producing mainstream you can defy stereotypes. If I am off base correct me. It’s only my opinion but I just think the commercial demographic is fixated on outdated stereotypes a la entertainment t v shows like Extra.

  6. Angela Says:

    I think visual artists often develop later, which can help women, and there has also been a massive theoretical input from feminist academics and artists, not all of them women, which while it can be confusing in some ways provides rich ground for artistic production.

    In the early part of the last century there was an artist called Hilma af Klimt who invented many of the concepts being used by male artists at the same time or slightly earlier. She lived in Sweden, which is not where it was ‘at’ at the time, but she did it anyway. These days she is well known amongst artists but not the general public. Whereas an artist such as Frida Kahlo is more famous, but then good as she was, she is perceived as dealing with ‘womens issues,’ not the grand existential stuff that men deal with. Of course she did do this. Tracey Emin and Yoko Ono get the same treatment. So do gay artists if they are open about their gayness in their art. Nick Fox for example makes paintings about love and loss and longing… but they happen to include images of men kissing, which some people might find a problem.

    But art schools are full of young women, because art is perceived as feminine, as long as you aren’t too successful. It is also seen as useless, and so suitable for non-people such as women, children and the sick and damaged.

    The cross over with craft is interesting because this can give a richness to womens art work which can be abseent from the ‘male genius’ type of work, and it can give a groundedness to art that is sometimes lacking in the stuff valued by the rich and famous cogniscenti. But these days craft can mean a lot more than tradition.

  7. tinagrrl Says:

    I also think many folks are missing the point. There are a TON of GOOD players out there. There are an awful lot of GREAT female players out there.

    If you take Jazz, as an example, a great female instrumentalist has a VERY hard time both getting gigs and being taken seriously.

    Heck, back in “the old days”, there were quite a few “all girl orchestras” — Ina Ray Hutton, Thelma White, Phil Spitalny and his “All Girl Orchestra – featuring Evelyn And Her Magic Violin” — this from Wikipedia: “Spitalny’s 22-piece band was known as the Hour of Charm Orchestra during the time it appeared on the radio program, The Hour of Charm, hosted by Arlene Francis. The program aired in various timeslots on CBS and NBC from 1934 to 1948.”. A 14 year run on network radio means they were not “chopped liver”.

    In the field of Jazz there have been some amazing female players that you will only hear about if you DIG very deeply. Who among you has ever heard of Cora Bryant? She was a trumpet player favorably compared to Louis Armstrong. How about Nellie Lutcher or Hadda Brooks?

    Here is an excerpt from a piece on “Women In Jazz” from NPR: “During the later years of World War II, when many male jazz musicians had been drafted into the military, a number of all-women jazz bands began to become popular. These bands were racially segregated at first, mainly due to the division in their audiences — white Americans were mostly listening to Ina Rae Hutton and her Melodears, while blacks were digging the sounds of The Darlings of Rhythm and the Prairie View Co-Eds. The International Sweethearts of Rhythm was the best known of the all-women jazz bands.”

    Now, don’t try to tell me there was ANYTHING but MISOGYNY that kept at least some of these women from going on to post war careers!

    There are a some female piano players around. There are a fair number of female members of large orchestras – but, however you look at it, their road is more difficult — and, their success is often questioned. Typical male questions like, “I wonder who she had to fuck to get that job”, etc., etc., etc.

    Except for fashion, folks rarely ask who some guy had to blow (or fuck) to get his job. It’s ALWAYS about how hard HE had to work. The assumption is a woman did something “else”.

    Pointing out female players in what seem to be (at least in part) “female ghettos”, does NOT mean equal opportunity.

    Finally, from NPR’s “Women In Jazz” — “If women have played jazz all along, why don’t we know more about them?

    Feminist historians argue that commonly held definitions of “woman” and “man” are not just about natural attributes, but about social meanings ascribed to “femininity” and “masculinity” and how these relate to power arrangements of a society. In other words, while no inherent differences exist between men and women that would make the latter less suited for jazz musicianship, societal definitions of appropriate gender roles result in quite different expectations, attitudes, and career paths. So while it is true that jazz is a demanding and competitive field for both men and women, it is also true that a woman who shows up for an audition or jam session with a tenor sax or trumpet in her gig bag is greeted with a special variety of raised eyebrows, curiosity and skepticism. Is she serious? Can she play? Time-worn questions about women and jazz buzz through the room before she blows a note.

    To ignore the gender of jazz musicians is to ignore the ways that male and female jazz musicians have been differently perceived. But to hail contemporary female jazz musicians as trailblazers is to ignore the hundreds of women who preceded them. Efforts to push beyond “Can women play?” include incorporating knowledge of historical jazzwomen in sites such as this, as well as projects such as the Sisters in Jazz mentorship program of the International Association of Jazz Educators, Cobi Narita’s International Women in Jazz, and the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival. All of these work toward a jazz future in which special festivals, organizations, and articles geared toward women in jazz will no longer be necessary”.

    Also interesting, how many female players put aside their horns and took up vocals, piano, or organ because they at least had a chance to succeed?

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