Women in Music: Review by Madeleine Wallner
11 December 2015
On a wet and windy Saturday afternoon, the upstairs studio at New Art Exchange slowly filled with mostly women and a handful of men, to listen and discuss Women in Music. A topic with many subjects for discussion. However, today was about certain challenges women face, as females in this industry.
Heading the seminar was Jackie P from Kemet FM, with a cross genre of panellists's including Valerie 'Lady V' Robinson from V Rocket Sound System, Reggae Takeover's DJ Princess, Colette 'C Doll' Hutton, drummer from the Smears (now in You Want Fox), and Emma O'Neill, guitarist and lead singer from The Smears.
Before attending the seminar, I did a quick google search, and upon typing in Lady V, I came across the music video of a certain Lady V entitled 'How Bout Dat.' This was not the Lady V of V Rocket who I would be seeing at the seminar (unbeknownst to me), but a black woman in a blonde wig. It was the first thing that struck me. It made me ask why? Why is she wearing it and why am I bothered? Is this because the pop music industry has in the past been so saturated with white women, and blondes seem to have more fun/money/success? Are white women being emulated by black women to get recognised because blonde hair stands out? This is not so, surely? Suddenly I feel as though I'm re-opening a can of secret worms on this subject on which the lid was firmly closed a long time ago and now they are free once more. For one, I find it strange (if true) that this is still happening with so many amazing black artists out there. Secondly, it is sad to think that success is born from image. Maybe I am looking far too deep into something that should be seen quite simply as she is wearing what she wants because she likes it. But it immediately made me think back to an article I had read: The Passion of Nicki Minaj by Vanessa Grigoriadis for The New York Times Magazine, where Nicki talks about the fact that mainly skinny white women are now glorified in hip hop, where before all types of girls were sexy and fly too.
I believe there is a prejudice within the mainstream of manufactured pop music to look a certain way to be able to make money and have success in this area, and this was one of the points of discussion, one that we also collectively discovered we didn't want to dwell on as this is exactly what the media does, let's talk about what she's wearing rather than the quality of her music and talent. Beyonce and Adele came up as great positive examples of female representation, known for their talent first within popular music.
As we are aware, this prejudice is apparent when the music industry is run and controlled mostly by men, and the idea of what sells to a certain target market. However when other young impressionable girls are the target, the message this is sending out is not so much about the music, but about image and consumerism, sold in magazines that then sell this directly to our young girls. Scary.
Getting to the core of this problem will not be achieved by discussing this aspect further. Sex sells. We are all well aware of sexualisation, and women should be able to wear what they want. We live in a visual world and we are visual. It matters to us, as does what we put on everyday matters to our self esteem. We all want to be successful and make some money from our endeavours. We wear what we feel good in, whatever that may be, it should primarily be for us.
So, if women should always feel free to express themselves and wear what they want, why would they want some pre-made ideal, dreamt up by a mainly male led industry? Short routes to success are not necessarily the right way, as we see from the results of reality TV stars, most 'enjoying' a fleeting period in the spotlight and some (if they look right), being asked to pose for FHM or Playboy, being asked to reveal their bodies as if they have nothing else to give. Young impressionable women are often faced with succumbing to a male ideal as their only chance for success. Identity is what is becoming the fight, because image is everything and new age feminism seems to extol "wear what you want, be empowered." Is this what it means to be free? The aesthetic is different for everyone, although lad culture did a lot to encourage a one dimensional view of women in general. "Being good at what you do is sexy" says Emma O'Neill, and that should be enough.
Back to my google search...
If I had typed in lady V, V Rocket Sound System I would have got a much better result, as I later discovered the next day. Lady V (Valerie Robinson) is mentioned much later on in an article by Can't Stop Won't Stop.co.uk.
Herein lies the problem of crediting women in music. If I hadn't been to the seminar, I wouldn't have known that it was Valerie who helped grow V Rocket's sound system with her brothers, who had taken it over from her parents. She sorted out events and brought acts over from Jamaica rather than waiting for bookers, bringing a unique selling point through a lot of hard work, knowledge and determination. She felt that as the only female, she was able to do this within a protective family environment, looked out for by her brothers who worked alongside her at the time. This is a good story, a success story, with all the graft that one expects, but an extremely hard graft because she was female in a male dominated world and full credit is still not given or celebrated in the media.
There are a lot of people quite happy, I am sure, to remain busily working behind the scenes without much credit. It can otherwise appear egotistical and does not always represent the real reason why the person is doing their particular job. Their love and passion is music, or film, or photography and so on. That is the nature of these types of industries, be it film, music or television; heard but not always seen, just like songwriters that aren't singers. It just doesn't feel balanced enough yet for women, compared to their male counterparts. It is an abomination that there are so many talented women missing out, with the statistics revealing that only 5% of producers in the West are female. It seems there is a message now from female artists in the music industry that you have to be behind the scenes as well to succeed today. Know as much as there is to know. As Emma O'Neill says, amongst all the other women on the panel, watch online tutorials, learn how equipment works, and use it, even if the men don't want to listen, show them that you know.
There's also being powerful, outspoken and in control. One of the white girls in the audience asked whether she came across as a bitch when she asserted her power. The word 'bitch' has been reclaimed by many female artists, including Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and Madonna. Boss Ass Bitch, Bitch I'm Madonna are two recent track titles from Minaj and Madonna. Is it true that the white woman is celebrating and emulating female black artists and their music more because they feel free to assert this type of power by collaborating? Surely this cannot be a bad thing if it's about sticking together and supporting each other.
Being outspoken and in control can often be seen as aggressive by men, or that you're making them feel inferior by knowing more or the same, or putting them down. That's their problem, they have to deal with it as they would with any other male colleague. Some women are obviously fearful of coming across as masculine or aggressive because this appears to be the labelling that's used by men (and other women), which needs to change. And in turn, men are also often fearful of women, that they will be usurped by them rather than celebrating them for their obvious achievements. Sexual repression has been upturned by female artists 'owning it,' their sexuality, by emphasising it more. Just like Lady V giving out flyers, having to thrust it in the face of passers by because they were less likely to take it from a woman, she had to make it stand out and look better, as women artists are in your face with their sexuality more than ever. If we (women) keep doing it (whatever that may be within the industry) and stick together and support each other, things will eventually change. I think we are all agreed on this point.
Young people are exploring new gender frontiers, in charge of their own. Just like Miley Cyrus exclaiming herself as "genderqueer," neither male nor female. It is an area which is increasingly coming into the spotlight.
Female artists are giving as good as they get it seems, playing men at their own game, although this is in danger of becoming a stance whereby women have little left to show off, although there's always another bright new young thing ready to take over, to satisfy desires. This is where women could slip up, and attitudes come full circle, by not focusing and celebrating their talent first, with their willingness to expose their bodies and discuss what they wear foremost. Unless you are making another point, as Lady Gaga seems to, by wearing 'art.'
The term musician alone seems to be a difficult label for women to attain, preferred by the industry to be described as a 'Female Musician.' Or as Colette Hutton says if a woman is the best drummer, she is the best female drummer, not best overall. A woman cannot simply be a musician she has to be a female musician. When was the last time you heard a male drummer being described as male first?
It seems that in the higher end of the industry, women do often gain respect, as one of the men in the audience revealed (a sound engineer at Capital FM Arena), says that on the whole women get treated very well by the industry. If somebody is an arsehole, they're an arsehole. So, it seems that at the high end it's not such a big problem. Maybe because as an artist there's a bigger risk of lawsuits and money involved. This artist has achieved status and power and with that comes money to look after themselves, perhaps by being able to threaten with a lawsuit on the grounds of discrimination, and feeling protected by bodyguards. But it's at the grass roots level where women are in danger of becoming pushed out: talented female sound engineers, directors, producers and so on. All artists and creatives need money and to re-invest this to work their way up. While there is still inequality here (in terms of pay) for women, there will be little progress. This is another aspect at the very core of this challenge many non-privileged women face. As I have often discovered, it's not always what you know but who you know, and this comes in social circles and being able to get yourself out there to network, which sometimes costs money that artists and semi professionals don't have.
Working harder for anything makes us stronger. It cannot break us.
As Jackie P concludes, "nobody said life was going to be easy". She too says that there is a distinct lack of female representation in her workplace. So, let's hope there are more Annie Macs, Beyonce's, Madonna's and our local Nottingham band, Babe Punch to celebrate, that have both talent and know-how to boot.
There you have it, if it's too easy then it ain't right. Watch out, because there will be a lot of women in the industry who have the triple threat.... Talent, Technical knowledge, and ... Tits, yes that's right!
- Madeleine Wallner
About Madeleine Wallner
I love to write about the arts, fashion, music and popular culture in general. As a bachelor of Arts with a fashion promotion degree, I like to get out and about and to be aware of current and future trends in art, design, fashion and lifestyle. My first piece of recent writing was for for a local PR company, reporting on the Alexander McQueen exhibition Savage Beauty. I also run an independent clothing label called Thrift Generation, offering unique eclectic apparel to a wide range of customer's far and wide. I currently sell on Etsy and depop, and occasionally you might find me at the Sneinton market during summertime. I am hoping to start dance facilitating soon at NGY as this is what I trained to do several years ago when I used to teach dance to people of all ages. I have performed and taught burlesque and pole dance too which was great fun! I used to be a lifeguard in Brighton and this is where my love of surfing evolved! It may be that time again soon to hit the road for a surf safari and go exploring! For now I'm mainly concentrating on writing and remaining creative with some new ideas for my label, expanding into homeware and collaborating with new artists and designers. I'm gearing up to start learning some screen printing skills in 2016. Watch this space.
You can find out more about my label here: