On November 6th of this year, Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson posted a Facebook photo of her erstwhile contemporary, Courtney Love, along with this note:
“I miss Courtney. Looking back, our generation was so eclectic and exciting.
All of us writing our own material. All of us full of piss and vinegar.
Where are all the brand new girls who want to upturn some tables? Please for the love of god, if you are out there, it is time. Savages and Warpaint are leading the way!
It is time to rise up and let your voices be heard. Let it Bleed.
And Bleed Like Me.
I promise I will love and honor you.
Honest I will.
And I’m not the only one.
Now, as a music fan who is primarily drawn to female artists/voices, this kind of pissed me off. I would need an extra pair of hands to count the number of visionary, ingenious women who have self-penned and released records of power and honesty in the last six months, much less the last few years. Neko Case, Alison Goldfrapp, Laura Mvula, Janelle Monae, Florence Welch, Annie Clark, Marina Diamandis, Vienna Teng, Lorde, Lissie, even Lady fucking Gaga: These are women who do things their way and call their own shots. They use their musical gifts, as well as their image and its attendant qualities — joy, fury, despair, vulnerability, sexuality, and everything between — for their own purposes, and with their own intent, attracting fans from across all strata of gender, status, race, and orientation. So it’s difficult to read this comment from Shirley Manson, a first lady of ‘90s alt-rock and an icon of independent, empowered womanhood, and not think, “What the hell?” I’d sooner expect someone like Manson to be writing with effusiveness and pride about the new generation of women in music who are carrying the torch that she and her contemporaries like PJ Harvey, Bjork, Tori Amos, and yes, even Courtney Love, set ablaze in the ‘90s. I mean, yes her post references Savages and Warpaint, but still.
Now, no one can speak to Manson’s original intent with this post, but it turns out I wasn’t the only person who batted an eye at it. Beset by angry comments from fans, many of whom pointed out the ladies I listed above, Manson posted a defensive pseudo-retraction which claimed that in her original post, she was talking about women artists that no one had heard of yet. Ooookay. Still, it was a strange incident in a year that has been strange as a whole for women in music — as creators and performers, and certainly as objects and subjects.
For example: Robin Thicke’s summer smash “Blurred Lines” and its racy video had a whole nation tapping their toes to a tune that stops this shy of endorsing date rape.
Miley Cyrus took things a step further, incorporating Thicke and his song into her cartoonishly raunchy performance of “We Can’t Stop” at the MTV Video Music Awards in September; sporting little more than underclothes, Cyrus stuck out her tongue and gyrated back against a fully-clothed Thicke. The sexually-charged performance (notable in one way because of how unsexy it actually was) ignited a flaming shitstorm of invective and debate that consumed the Internet. Everyone was talking about it, everyone was arguing about it: on Facebook, on Twitter, on countless blogs and message boards. Whether you were decrying the sexuality of Cyrus’s performance, or decrying the quality/tastelessness of it while supporting her right to do as she pleases, or just decrying the people doing the decrying on either side, you were part of a conversation that went on for weeks. It almost seemed to feed on itself and grow in strength: an autotrophic meme.
And it wasn’t just us laypeople and armchair quarterbacks digging in. Because Cyrus is, after all, a woman, and because overt female sexuality in entertainment still raises eyebrows and complicated questions about intent and exploitation, several talented and famous female musicians felt obligated to chime in. Sinead O’Connor’s now-infamous open letter to Cyrus espoused concern for the young star and cautioned distrust of the powerful, male-oriented machine operating around her, but also boxed Miley into a traditional sex and gender role by claiming that her body should be for her boyfriend, and no one else. (This elicited a crass response from Cyrus that poked fun at O’Connor’s mental health; the dialogue quickly deteriorated).
In quick succession, commentaries on the matter from other prominent women in music pasted themselves across our screens: Amanda Palmer wrote to O’Connor, taking issue with the conservative view of sexuality that the Irish singer expressed in her letter to Cyrus; Annie Lennox put the sexualized visuals of the mainstream industry on blast; and then, conveniently enough, Shirley Manson put in her two cents, too. Manson’s comments were more thoughtful than most, expressing discomfort with the exploitation of female sexuality but hesitant to frown on women using their sexuality in their music and their image. Actually, all of these women had acute and truthful insights to offer, but I noticed something strange about their comments. With the exception of Amanda Palmer, all of them, from Sinead to Shirley, didn’t once mention a woman musician at work today as an alternative example of whatever it is about Cyrus, her performance, and the system that they were lamenting. Which I didn’t think much more about until Shirley Manson’s November 6th “where my powerful women singers at?” post.
Here’s the pitfall of wringing your hands about Miley Cyrus, no matter your reason: It makes it seem like the Mileys (and the Katys, and the Rihannas, and the songs by the Robin Thickes) are all that’s going on in music. But that’s patently untrue. They don’t even represent the majority of what’s going on. They’re just the ones with the most exposure. They’re in your face 24/7 — on the radio, on magazine covers, on blogs, on talk shows — because there are Suits with Money behind them. Suits with Money pay millions of dollars to shove this stuff down our throats every millisecond of a never-ceasing news cycle in the hopes that we’ll be snowblinded by Miley Cyrus’ ass and do the very thing many people seem to do, which is completely forget about the strong and independent voices singing out from every economic sub-strata of the music business and instead spend our time obsessing about twerking.
Of course, it’s easy to rant about stuff. It comes naturally. It’s more fun. And yes, pointing out the systems of exploitation that are ingrained in our industries, our politics, and our social hierarchies is necessary. But, dear Internet, we need the other side, too. Calling out bullshit doesn’t help anything if we don’t offer solutions, alternatives, or contrasting examples. I mean, after all…what are any of us supposed to do about the Meat Machine? We can bemoan it all we want, but we can’t strip record and advertising executives of their wealth and exile them to the Island of Misfit Misogynists, unless you have some kind of superhero team on speed dial.
The only thing we can do is be the change that we want to see, and hold up artists who are embodying that kind of change and independent, self-actualized spirit as beacons. Talk about these women! Urge the music on your friends. Write about them on message boards. Because if their contemporaries aren’t going to talk about them, especially in a context where they beg to be discussed, then we — the fans, the consumers — have to. And if you’re someone who spent countless Internet man hours in a froth about Miley Cyrus, but you don’t buy records, attend shows, and spread the gospel of women artists who embody the antithesis of whatever it is about Miley Cyrus you object to…well, you’re actually part of the problem.
Check out part two: Mark’s year-end review of the best albums released by female artists (featuring Tegan and Sara, Vienna Teng, Neko Case, and more).