Tuesday, June 29, 2010
I pride myself on listening to a lot of different kinds of music. I’m not a genre snob – I listen to pop and jam bands and hip-hop and country and classic rock in pretty equal measure. I’ve got enough privilege that I can listen to music that offends me politically but appeals to me aesthetically without costing myself too many spoons. My boyfriend has access to huge stores of music, particularly live music, and I try to make a point of varying from the normative white male artists he is often drawn to.
And we’ve had some success. We’ve been going to see more female artists, from Donna Jean of the Grateful Dead to Taylor Swift. We’ve listened to Laura Nyro and Aretha Franklin and look forward to Lady Gaga’s show in September.
But, from my subjective experience, I see a lot more men than women playing instruments. While I see women who are using their voices to create beautiful music, I notice a lot less who are using their fingers, and even less who are only using their fingers.
When I see female musicians, they’re usually singers. This is wonderful, as many ladies have beautiful voices, and it’s important to hear and listen to the voices of women who are often marginalized. If they do play instruments, they usually sing, and their voices are more of a focal point (e.g. Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift).
I began to wonder, “why does it seem that almost all the women I see making music have to use their voices to do it?” Sure, part of it is self-selection, but I see probably upwards of 60 acts a year – some of it’s got to be sexism, right? Why does it seem like vocal talent is often a requirement of lady musicians? Why don’t we see any instrumentalists who are just bassists or drummers or keyboardists, as male musicians so often are?
When a woman who is primarily an instrumentalist does try to pursue her ambitions, she is made to be a singer as well. A good example of this is Orianthi, a guitarist from Australia whom I noticed in Michael Jackson’s This Is It. You’ve probably heard her recently if you listen to pop radio, but it’s her voice that’s most heavily featured on “According To You”.
Now, I’m not saying that there is anything problematic about a multitasking lady musician who sings, or women who use solely their voices. Lady singers are super fantastic! Janelle Monae rock my socks, Beyonce is a terrific pop artist, and Janis Joplin is one of my all-time favorites. Lady singers who also play things are extra terrific! I am looking forward to seeing singer and keyboardist Lady Gaga in September, and I love Laura Nyro’s piano stylings, and I have seen Taylor Swift in concert and she is better than you might think (and has a woman fiddler).
But I would like to see women more women playing on instruments, more women whose fingers are making the music. I want to see women worked into my concert schedule in a widely equitable way, and see more women who aren’t singing onstage. I doubt that all women who have musical talent of the sort I enjoy just happen to have it in their vocal chords.
This is, I hope I’ve made clear, partially because of my own myopism. In fact, while I was editing this post, I came across a reference on fourfour to bassist Rhonda Smith, who plays with Prince:
One of my favorite bands, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, not only has a frontwoman doing double-duty on keyboard and guitar in addition to vocals and songwriting, but also has a lady guitarist, Catharin Popper. Here they are playing my favorite Janis Joplin song, Try:
And Esperanza Spalding is a terrific jazz bassist and vocalist. The following video shows her at the White House performing Overjoyed for President Obama and Stevie Wonder:
Video descriptions and lyrics in the comments.
What I’m saying is that there’s probably not so much a lack of talented female instrumentalists as mine/mainstream media’s failure to seek out, promote, and take notice of these women.
Considering this likely unintentional erasure on my part, I’d like to make this a reader-participation thread. Share some favorite lady musicians, particularly those who play instruments. Share a video. Have you seen her live? If I get some great responses, I'll share them in a future post.