Javier Albelo    February 9, 2016

Women In Popular Music Part 1

Question: Who is the best female guitar player ever? Nobody knows.

Who is the best male guitar player? Mainstream magazine Rolling Stone has the answer: the best male guitar player ever is Jimmy Hendrix. Among a hundred possible candidates there are, apparently, not any women. Why is that? Are women born less competent to learn guitar? Obviously not.

Despite the fact that until recently history has always been written by men, the problem is when this history becomes known as canon, and whether you like it or not, it applies not only to popular music but the entire history of Art. History and canon end up determining whom the most important artists and artworks of all the times are – whether they actually are or not.

Let’s ask the question again to see how it works: who is the best painter ever? The biographer Giorgio Vasari wrote in his famous book Lives of the most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550) that renaissance painter Michelangelo Buonarroti was the most important. If you ask that question today you will find there is a series of genius and artworks always repeated: Leonardo da Vinci – Gioconda, Pablo Picasso – Guernica, Andy Warhol – Campbell’s Soup Cans, etc.

The same happens with the writers: Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote, William Shakespeare – Hamlet, or Fyodor Dostoyevsky – Crime and Punishment; and so it is with the classical music composers: Mozart – The Magic Flute, Beethoven – The Fifth Symphony, Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring… As you can see, no women anywhere.

However, the simple consideration of women as human beings capable of producing great artwork has been a difficult process and mostly been a real fight against the establishment. Throughout history women have been relegated to be the partner of the genius but not the genius itself. Nowadays it is difficult to understand but in the past women weren’t allowed to be students in the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris until 1897, and when they were finally accepted, they had to be accompanied by their mothers in order to maintain the ‘decorum’. Of course, they couldn’t go to the famous cabarets or to the woods to paint at ‘plein air’ as their male partners could.

It was only after the Second World War that women started to be involved in the art scene due to the social changes that were taking place. Women began to be part of the workforce and little by little they could conquer their own space of freedom, but even today women are being discriminated against and are not always treated as they deserve (take a peek at some statements made by Jimmy Iovine from Apple Music about female music fans, and female Spanish band The Hinds reaction).

Especially in regards to popular music, the last decade has seen many articles discussing these topics, and the conclusions are that, for instance, in Rock music, the vast majority of renowned bands are composed of  ‘western, white, male, heterosexual people.’ Of course there are women, people of other races and homosexuals and we all know about them, but the official line is the one I mentioned before.

The human brain needs these lists or labels in order to understand the complexity of the reality, but at the end of the day this is only a reduction, a summary of what is going on in the real world. That’s probably the reason why this ideology has become so criticised in the last few years, especially for those who come from a gender studies background, such as Sheila Whiteley, whose influential book “Women in Popular Music: Sexuality, Identity and Subjectivity” (2000) has helped to improve the perception of female music talent.

However, we still have a ways to go in overcoming this obstacle. Why? Because, apart from the sexism, from my perspective, this new situation has contributed to create a new ‘ghetto’, a new perception – one focused on females. Moreover, we can find even more accurate stereotypes, such as ‘black women singers’ or ‘white queer singers’. So, my proposal is simple: we should consider all of them as part of the same reality.

The history of popular music is composed of a wide variety of people, no matter if they are from one race or another, no matter if they are gay or straight, or if they are male or female. And so it is in the rest of the arts. For this purpose I suggest against making such distinctions between female when talking about popular music, for example, when talking about Janis Joplin or Jim Morrison. We need to concentrate on their work and their legacy because I truly believe they were two of the most important artists during the sixties, no matter if they were women or men.

Malta has several talented musicians – and many of them are of the fairer sex. Arguably, Malta’s most popular musician today is a woman, Ira Losco – but if you look into any scene, be it metal or pop or even beatboxing, you will find quality music being made by quality musicians. Look out for Part 2 of Women in Popular Music to see what some local female musicians have to say. 

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