Despite today’s female chart-toppers and women making strides in the music industry, popular music publications often portray female artists differently from their male counterparts. Periodicals like Rolling Stone and websites like Pitchfork Media — which have largely usurped print publications — tend to discuss the appearances of women more often than those of men, take their music less seriously, stereotype them, and incorrectly attribute their successes to male coworkers. These double standards govern how women and men are viewed throughout our society, and music journalism is but one way they manifest. Music criticism and reporting are products of cultural gender roles and consumer demands. But when this culture combines with mainstream publications’ largely male staff and the sexism already prevalent in the music business, critics unwittingly carry on tropes that they might have the power to ameliorate.
A disproportionate amount of attention female artists receive in popular music publications is directed toward their appearances. For example, a perusal of Rolling Stone covers reveals a double standard to which the magazine holds female and male artists. The overwhelming majority of cover-featured artists are male, and when women appear, they are nearly always scantily clad and accompanied by suggestive headlines. Sexualized photographs of male celebrities exist, but the difference is that it is hard to find even one photograph of a woman who is not young, fit, and seductively positioned. Plenty of male celebrities who make the cover, on the other hand, are long past their prime for both music-making and sex appeal (Johnny Cash, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards), overweight (Ruben Studdard, Michael Moore), or otherwise not in accordance with attractiveness conventions. When men are pictured seductively, they are still more thoroughly clothed and accompanied by less suggestive text than their female counterparts.
Headlines on covers with men usually have to do with their careers or their personal philosophies, while covers with women usually contain sexual innuendoes and are sometimes hard to distinguish from front-page pornography teasers. Christina Aguilera appeared completely nude on a 2002 cover with the headline “Inside the Dirty Mind of a Pop Princess” — a stark contrast to the aged Keith Richards on the previous month’s cover, which read, “Keith Richards: On Life and How to Live it.” The only suggestive titles I could find next to pictures of men were “How does Madonna’s Dick Tracy Keep it Up?”, “Kid Rock Gets Lucky” (1990 and 2007, referencing women), and “What Makes the Rock Hard” (2001, conveying hyper-masculinity more than objectification). However, text accompanying female cover stars usually objectifies, infantilizes or demeans women by portraying them as groupies and professional man-pleasers. To illustrate, here is a representative (though not comprehensive) sample:
“Madonna Goes All the Way” (1984)
“Look Who’s Hot!” (1990)
“Housewife of the Year: Jessica Simpson” (2003)1
“Katy Perry Turns it Up” (2011)
Sometimes music criticism’s obsession with women’s sexual value is more than complacency with the status quo; it’s blatant endorsement of it. For example, a Spin reviewer called Patti Smith “the most unattractive woman I’ve ever seen,” according to Celia Farber, another Spin music journalist, who reacted to the story: “How many rock stars aren’t totally unattractive men? With men it’s like a shock if a woman isn’t attractive.”2 Rachel Felder, another rock critic, says such instances of selective attention help nourish a culture in which “you don’t see overweight women rockers” or unattractive ones. Felder points out that the critic not only gave unnecessary weight (pun intended) to the artist’s appearance, but also saw her image as exceptional because it wasn’t ideal.2
Gendered language in descriptions of artists is found in praiseful reviews as well as negative ones. Joanna Newsom, a skilled harpist whose primary aim with her eccentric style is clearly not to cultivate sex appeal, still receives attention from male critics regarding her attractiveness. Despite the near absence of sexuality in her music and image, the Rock Town Hall dedicated a blog post to her titled “Triple Your Pleasure With Joanna Newsom.” This could be overlooked as a reference to her three-part CD — if the lede did not refer to her as an “indie darling.” And if the next line did not promise that the reader would “get off” on the album. And if it weren’t that, after mourning that there is no DVD of her concerts lacking sound, the author asks readers how much they would like her if she were less attractive. Critics have imbued Newsom with all sorts of wild-woman, witch-like qualities, describing her as a “Lady of the Woods” with shiny hair and a “bold cackle.”
Journalists also praise female, but less often male, music stars through the rhetoric of the teeny-bopper-pop-princess-turned-sexy-woman. Discussing the transformation of a young female artist’s image often goes along unquestioningly with descriptions of her evolving music, as if the former is a code for the latter. An On Portland concert review describes Miley Cyrus’ initiative to “explore her blossoming adulthood,” then proceeds to describe in detail her outfits, the size of her breasts and her “burgeoning sexuality.” Even Taylor Swift, tame in comparison to the Miley Cyruses and Christina Aguileras who have made grand entrances from the territory of cute to hot, has been met with similar caterpillar-to-butterfly terminology. A November 2010 issue of Rolling Stone quotes a country radio programmer as saying, unlike “Miley Cyrus trying to jump from Hannah Montana to being a supersultry pop star,” Swift has transformed from “teen superstar” to “beautiful woman.” The fact that a supporter said this illustrates that many of these publications passively transmit rather than intentionally produce gender stereotypes.
To give these writers, photographers and editors the benefit of the doubt, the emphasis on the visual is no magazine’s invention. Many female celebrities embrace seduction as part of their image, a trend by no means limited to the music industry, so it is not hard to imagine that some came to their photo shoots already planning and hoping for profit-producing clothes-shedding. However, this compulsory presentation of women as eye candy may be undermining their roles as serious artists. When the discussion is stripped down to the music itself, the artists with the most albums in Rolling Stone’s “Best Albums of All Time” are all male soloists and all-male groups.
Granted, the publication released issues titled “Women in Rock,” “Women of Rock” and “Women Who Rock” (a bit repetitive, but perhaps necessarily so). Curiously, though, in addition to fitting the cookie-cutter cover girl image, many — though not all — of the featured women in the October 2002 “Women in Rock” issue were pop singers and hip-hop artists rather than rock stars. Shakira, Britney Spears and Mary J. Blige appear on the cover. Rock musician Maya Price wrote a letter to Rolling Stone, which the magazine (revealingly) never published, but which was posted on Price’s website, lamenting the lack of female rock stars in the deceptively titled issue. The issue presents rock as “no longer a style of music but a trendy costume to be whipped up by expensive stylists and slapped onto the latest pop tart barbie doll,” she wrote, adding that she might expect as much from “a magazine whose cover shot is regularly a naked underweight actress.” Donna Anderson of all-female rock group The Donnas had a similar reaction, telling the Dallas Observer, “These are not really women, and it’s not really rock. It’s, like, girls, and it’s pop.”
Making it in rock music is notoriously hard for women, though, so perhaps the magazine is working with what’s out there and making an effort to include female stars. The success of women in the music industry, as described in a Jezebel article, is tilted toward pop: “Yes, 50% of the top selling artists this week are female, but they’re all, to a woman (Rihanna, Natasha Beddingfield, the abhorrent Katy Perry, etc.) beautiful, under 25, and singing pop. Several of them do not write their own songs, and their popularity is largely driven by their packaging, not their music.” But this is not enough to explain Rolling Stone and other mainstream periodicals’ stingy coverage of female rockers. The media’s portrayal of women in music is not just an effect, but also a cause, of their limitations. “Women keep being left out of the histories, so if you’ve grown up on the rock magazines, then you always think that women are a new big deal,” said Lori Twersky, founder of the feminist magazine Bitch.2
The excessive attention to women performers’ images has been used to circumvent the messages in their songs, Susan Douglas argues in Enlightened Sexism. Coverage of the ’90s Riot Grrrl movement was particularly problematic. For instance, next to the article in USA Today about the first Riot Grrrl convention is a feature on the artists’ poor fashion choices (“The Riot Grrrls’ Punk Feminist Look is Pure in-Your-Face Fashion”). This attitude allowed reporter Elizabeth Snead to conveniently dismiss the musicians’ politics as “strident,” “anti-male” and “self-absorbed” in the adjacent “Feminist Riot Grrrls Don’t Just Wanna Have Fun.” It also allowed Newsweek to knock Courtney Love’s stand against sexual assault, deeming it hypocrisy that she “wears vintage little-girl dresses that barely make it past her hips — all the better to sing songs about rape and exploitation.” This profile also couldn’t get over the Riot Grrrls’ “anger.”3
Anger is not as often seen as a negative quality in male artists, especially rock musicians. This glorification of macho qualities is raveled in rockism, the trend of equating a song, band or album’s success with how much it resembles hardcore rock. One critic’s description of a band as “testosterone-driven hard rock à la Guns N’ Roses” makes this conflation of rock music and masculinity clear. So does a New York Times review describing Nirvana’s rise as “a group with loud guitars and louder drums knocking the whimpering Mariah Carey off the top of the charts.” Is it a coincidence that the criteria that lend music gravity and respect from journalists are also masculine ideals?
Male and female artists alike get judged by rockist standards. Pitchfork critic Chris Dahlen expresses an affinity for the half-sung, half-shouted swear, lamenting the “sedate” language and music in much of Rilo Kiley’s album More Adventurous. But in several tracks that save the album, he writes, “the guitars spike and roar, and [front-woman Jenny] Lewis stops worrying about ripping her best dress.” Dahlen also cites Lewis’ “taking no shit and saying ‘fuck’ a lot” as the source of her “empowered indie rocker” status.
This review illustrates another point of departure of responses to male versus female artists: descriptions of the voice. Dahlen describes Lewis’ voice as “as pure as chilled spring water … cute ….” A different Pitchfork reviewer characterizes acclaimed indie folk artist Laura Veirs’s vocal aesthetic as “angel-sweet,” and according to yet another Pitchfork writer, her voice is a “vaguely sexy purr.” These reviews focus more on the artists’ physical qualities than their music, embedding their voices with either pure and angelic or dark and seductive qualities.
This dichotomous virgin/whore classification of voices does the same thing The Awl does to Newsom’s “cackle”: it places women’s music within the limiting descriptive framework of female stereotypes. Also praising a woman artist with language related to traditional female stereotypes, a trivializing Guardian review describes Veirs as “chanteuse” — a female nightclub entertainer — in the first paragraph, which mentions not her performance but her “elfin body” and pregnant stomach.
Inability to fit women artists into pop culture tropes or flatten them into a stereotypical image can result in poor or misguided writing, according to a Stereogum op-ed. Folk group CocoRosie, for instance, is “dismissed because their visual presentation frustrates many male writers’ abilities to sexualize them” or otherwise pigeonhole their experimental artistry. Singer-songwriter and guitarist Liz Phair similarly wrote about being “frustrated” with the way her interviews are edited to depict her as either wholesome girl next door or sex kitten. These ingrained categorizations make writers “unwilling to allow my overactive will to cohabit with my feminine, almost girlish, demeanor.”4 I would suggest it is not so much writers’ unwillingness to depict her multi-dimensionality as the whole culture’s difficulty conceiving of such a figure.
Some words of praise are so marked with masculine qualities that they don’t fit within any female caricature. Phair mentions the almost exclusive application of the term “genius” to male artists: “You would be surprised how may men who run in the indie music circle, who run around with women who are clearly in control of their lives, literally do not believe that women can be geniuses.”4 Journalists’ stinginess in granting female musicians genius status reflects an old but stubborn myth evident in Victorian writer H. R. Haweis’ 1872 Music and Morals: “the woman’s temperament is naturally artistic, not in a creative, but in a receptive, sense. A woman seldom writes good music, never great music.”5 The depiction of women in the music industry as entertainers with pretty voices and faces, rather than artists or intellectuals, is a later incarnation of Haweis’ philosophy.
The assumption that the genius in the music business is most highly concentrated in male brains may explain reporters’ frequent assumption that male producers are the masterminds behind female artists. This has on various occasions lead to factually inaccurate reporting. Journalists have wrongly stated that indie pop artist Allison Goldfrapp just sings (she writes and plays the synthesizer), that M.I.A. producer Diplo’s (actually nonexistent) musical collaboration played a significant role in Arular’s success, that Bjork’s computer programmer and recording engineer (nothing more) wrote and produced one of her albums (Bjork) and that the Beastie Boys produced a (self-produced) Indigo Girls album.6 Critics also portray female artists as incapable of influencing men, as evident in online music journal NME’s description of Regina Spektor as a “Big Sis” to other female artists, painting her professional influence as a stereotypical nurturing female bond that involves borrowing clothes.
The ideology that considers women supporters and reactors rather than creators and shakers, singers and sex symbols rather than writers and producers, also encourages them to be fans rather than critics. Just 15% of executive leaders in top communications companies are women, according to the 3rd Annual Annenberg Public Policy Center Analysis of Women Leaders in Communication Companies. The shortage of women in journalism is especially true in leadership positions, as critics, and in rock music publications. With all these effects at once, female critics in leadership positions at rock publications are scant. Most of Rolling Stone’s editorial staff, most New York Times critics, and 10 of 12 Pitchfork editorial staffers are male. Though male writers aren’t necessarily sexist, a nearly-all-male staff increases the industry’s risk of old-boys-club mentalities. That music journal Blender is owned by the same corporation as Maxim, for example, suggests that it is not under particularly feminist leadership.
Anwyn Crawford argues in music journal Loops that the culture of the groupie and the related ideology of female fans swooning over male performers discourages girls and women from looking at music critically and undermines their opinions as hysteria. It doesn’t make the situation easier when band members hit on female interviewers, confining them to the more accepted role of the groupie. Women who want to work with music-related communications more often get involved in public relations, more socially acceptable because it is considered a “service” profession.7
Rampant sexism in popular music itself also contributes to the sexism in music journalism, which often acclaims artists without explicitly endorsing – but also without challenging – their most egregious lyrics. Metro Times included N.W.A.’s “She Swallowed It” in a list of best sex songs, even though it contains explicit justifications of rape, as do several of their other songs. Rolling Stone also gave the group rave reviews, declaring it the 83rd best artist of all time. A different issue of Rolling Stone discussed groupies and their various services in detail with Incubus. Bassist Dirk Lance complained that “girls” often want to have serious discussions about his music; when the interviewer suggested that this is a good thing, Lance responded, “Sometimes you just want a girl who will sit on a bottle.”8
Despite all these problems, there are female music critics making headway into a traditionally male-dominated field, positive reviews of female artists, and female chart-toppers. As I write this, 4 of the current top 10 iTunes song downloads are by women. The fact that there is information available on sexism in reception of musicians suggests that this issue is being addressed. Still, it is an issue. Music publications’ objectifying, demeaning and under-crediting of women are symptoms of two larger epidemics: the prevalence of these attitudes all over the media and the shortage of women in positions powerful enough to change them. As for the remedy, it is doubtful that magazines will give up their eye-catching covers, or critics their attachment to rockism. But perhaps as non-commercial websites become go-to sources for reviews, consumers will become more empowered as critics and aficionados with feminist leanings will have an outlet to spread awareness not only of overlooked artists but also of why such artists have been overlooked.
- Housewife: “a woman who manages her own household as her main occupation” (courtesy of thefreedictionary.com). This hardly describes a lucrative pop star like Simpson.
- Garr, Gillian. She’s a Rebel.Seal Press. Seattle, WA: 1992
- Douglas, Susan. Enlightened Sexism.New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2010.
- Raphael, Amy. Grrrls: Viva Rock Divas. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin,1995.
- Cooper, Sarah, ed. Girls! Girls! Girls!New York: New York University Press, 1996.
- Dickerson, James. Women on Top. New York: Billboard Books, 1998.
- Sullivan, Caroline. “The Joy of Hacking: Women Rock Critics.” Cooper, Sarah,
- Girls! Girls! Girls!New York: New York University Press, 1996.
- Strauss, Neil. “One Night of Sin with Incubus.” Rolling Stone: 53. 25 April 2002.