Jen West
Music/Features

Music’s biggest stars are challenging the industry, but is anyone listening?

March 8, 2018

The #MeToo movement has provided an empowering platform to reclaim experiences with violence. But, it can also be opportunistic if used improperly.

To take a brief, general look at the music industry, you would absolutely think that the role and space for women in it is changing for the better. Cardi B is the rap talent (and motivational speaker) we have long waited for. Beyoncé is capable of changing the conversation around reclaiming motherhood in the midst of superstardom. In rock music, women like St. Vincent and Mitski have mastered their instruments, pioneering sounds and moods in the process. They’ve made us want to open up a fucking pit or weep into our pillows—sometimes both at the same time.

But I said brief because the music industry is a disheartening place in many ways when you scratch beneath its surface. We saw that recently with the comments the president of the Recording Academy directed to women after all but a handful were shut out of this year’s Grammy awards. That in the same year Kesha delivered a gut-wrenching rendition of “Praying” during the telecast from her acclaimed album Rainbow, Neil Portnow followed-up her performance by saying that “ women needed to “step up” more.” And earlier this year, Lorde placed a full-page ad in a New Zealand newspaper where she thanked fans for believing female musicians, which was both a deliberate statement on how an outpour of support for female musicians is still something to be celebrated, and a reinforcement of how much saying that matters.

In all corners of the industry, women are expected to perform emotional labour, to do the work, which Kesha did on Grammy night for the entire industry, but they don’t get acknowledged. Is this what progress looks like? What does it ultimately do? Yet, what does come so easily, are the men, usually professionally higher-up than us, or cerebrally in belief that their words matter more, telling us it isn’t enough. The spaces are there for us to make a massive impact, and we’re increasingly speaking out against the institutional shortcomings in music, but does it matter? For every moment of triumph, there always seems to be someone on the other side trying to diminish it.

I struggle with this as a music writer and woman. Often, I’ve thought about exactly who the sharing of traumas, experiences, and wisdoms has benefited. Usually, and cynically, I have thought it has benefited men for the most part because they take from the work and time we put in. I’ve found that there is some comfort in watching women share their work and themselves, in spite of the many grueling efforts to deter them. Knowing you can find women at the center of something is a relief. Their visibility—and ability—to use their platforms to speak to and about the often painful, but crucial, experiences so many women identify with is a massive step forward. For many, sharing their stories, first privately, then publicly and now collectively, has become a vital way to cope.  

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I think about the fact that Halsey sharing her poem about sexual abuse at this year’s anniversary of the Women’s March went viral. How, when a story like this is shared on social media, “advocates,” especially male advocates, receive ally points for sharing and supporting a cause. Those actions can also trample our voices, even when it is our traumas we’re speaking of. But in an era dominated by clicks and online traffic, it can be easy to forget who is actually paying attention to what, and why, or, more importantly, the real reason for bringing personal experiences to the public realm. How Halsey’s poem impacted one woman (or thousands) for the better, to make someone feel both seen and listened to, is essential. Women need to hear each other; we look out for each other, and support one another on a broader level, and even when it’s so imperceptible, but it’s always there.

I’m tired a lot, but I, a perfect human, am not a pop star so I can’t even fathom what someone like Lorde or Halsey or Kesha endures and how to compartmentalize a day-to-day public existence as both a woman and a musician. Yet, I’ve often been told to expose my wounds to validate a publication—and the men who are involved with it—rather than for my own benefit. I’ve been pulled onto projects solely for my “female voice” to be used as a token. “You’re here because you’re a feminist” is something a human male actually said to my face once. I’ve come to realize that whatever emotional labour (or anguish) I endure from sharing intensely personal or potentially sensitive perspectives is something I should deal with on my own time. Sometimes I find myself censoring this because it’s safer and kinder to the state of my mental health, but it’s a risk to my job as a writer.

We form a protective bubble to echo cries of support, perform the work along with each other, and be a safe place when we need to crash.

To be honest, sometimes I feel like I am one Facebook comment calling me a whore away from closing up shop on this job altogether. Watching my friends go through similar experiences, in some ways, feels worse than my own. An undeniable component of emotional labour is the way it is shared and compounded. While I feel tough enough to deal with the many ways men have reduced me to nothing, it’s nearly impossible to watch the cycle multiply with astoundingly talented people who are subject to the repercussions of a broken system.

It’s reasons like this that show how exhausting it can be for everyone, from pop’s biggest stars to a label intern, to feel like you’re doing so much—showing up for yourself, experimenting with new approaches, attempting change from the inside out (usually without the same amount of money or title as a man in your field)—and still feel like you’ve got a hell of a way to go. Place any additional barriers like those involved with class, race, or gender preference, and it immediately becomes that much harder.  

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But then, once in a while, I get an email or tweet from a teen-aged girl thanking me for writing about X band or sharing an opinion on Y issue, and I feel a sense of responsibility to keep going. I do this job, for the most part, for the 16-year-old idiot me who wore expired blue eyeshadow to shows and found joy in watching her songs download on LimeWire. She loved this shit—this idealistic, pure notion that what other women actually said fucking mattered in the music industry.

I get an immeasurable amount of elation seeing a woman succeed and thrive off of the adrenaline rush of sharing her work, herself, and her community supporting that. Supporting her. My female-identifying friends in this industry (writers, musicians, publicists, anyone and everyone in-between) often speak about how tired they are too but they get on with it. We form a protective bubble to echo cries of support, perform the work along with each other, and be a safe place when we need to crash.

 

The wide net cast by a hashtag or a group of women who want to listen to you and support you is our best shot at moving forward.

With the addition of #MeToo into our vernacular, the casualness and accessibility of being able to share a painful moment is important—and potentially opportunistic, if used improperly. If the weight of the words or meaning behind a woman sharing something isn’t respected, encouraged, or seen as valid, then what is the point of sharing it in the first place? Historically, we’ve depended on each other to make sense of the world, and the more open we are, and can be, with each other, the easier it is to exist within it.

Female-identifying folks in the music industry do that every day just by being visible in it and then by telling their stories, which may look a lot like your stories, or my story, and that’s comforting. The wide net cast by a hashtag or a group of women who want to listen to you and support you is our best shot at moving forward. It’s also the most effective way to keep the momentum of the moment’s movement going so things actually begin to change in our favour.

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