Of course music taste is not exempt from a culture in which almost everything has the potential to be described in terms of the gender binary. With a predominance of male musicians being discussed in music journalism, which is mostly written by men, the consensus that has been developed is that intellectual music taste is associated with masculinity, and that women do not experience music on the same level. When attempts were made to balance out the predominantly male audience of BBC 6 Music, former BBC chief of popular music Lesley Douglas cited the changes as a recognition of women’s ’emotional reaction’ as opposed to men’s ‘intellectual’ attachment to music. But because critical acclaim is just the opinion of mostly males, it’s just as easy to see the association with males and “intellecutal” music as just the link between men and music that other men like. There is nothing intrinsically complex about critically-acclaimed rock music, nothing confoundingly intellectual – perhaps there is more of a link in discussion of contemporary classical music, but not in rock criticism. It seems that that which is critically acclaimed is conflated with that which is challenging and cerebral, even though we’d also think of classical music and opera as more intellectual than rock music.
So simply to contradict Douglas’ use of the word “intellectual”, I’ll cite a 1995 study which found that amongst UK secondary school students, ‘girls expressed liking for a wider range of styles than did boys, especially “serious” ones’.1 In this study, Hargreaves, Comber, and Colley found that the girls in their study had more positive reactions to a wider variation of music; the only statistically significant genres preferred by males were rock and heavy metal – which is dismissed by the researchers as being due to ‘the stereotype of masculinity that has frequently been associated with these styles of music’. (I’ll cover stereotypes later). Interestingly the study deals only with adolescents, who are described as generally lacking the ‘open-earedness’ that they had up to the age of 8 and would redevelop in early adulthood (only to become more close-minded in old age). The study is flawed (it doesn’t mention gender of singers in the music) and narrow, but essentially, this suggests that females, at least at this age, have a more intellectual, open-minded approach to music.
In other studies, girls have been proven to have a more positive and active approach to music at all ages between 12-18 (1982),2 although a recent study of university students suggests that men have a broader taste in genres, with no significant results suggesting they like more “sophisticated” music3 (I might suggest that the study is biased; I believe that much of the music in it would be performed by men, if not, all of the genres were certainly popularised in mainstream media by men; also, that the way these studies are conducted might not be the most representative way of gauging musical open-mindedness; I might have thought the samples were really bad examples of the genre!) An extensive list of gender and music-related sociological studies can be found in Ann Colley’s article ‘Young People’s Musical Taste: Relationship With Gender and Gender-Related Traits’,4 which suggests that women are more likely to take up instrument tuition and approach music creatively. I’ve not had much luck searching for studies relating to older participants – which is a shame because some of the stuff I’ll go on to talk about is more about middle-aged Wire readers than identity-forming teenagers.
So in spite of this contrary evidence, we still have this cultural consensus (for which I’ll provide more evidence later) that men are more intellectual in their approach to music, presumably because most music journalists and personalities are men – and because apparently, in patriarchal society, “intellectual” is synonymous with “masculine”.
To be fair though, Douglas is referring to a type of intellectualism familiar to the male BBC 6 listener, not so much that which is complex, but as a tendency to focus on, in her words, ‘the tracks, where albums have been made, that sort of thing’. This is a bit vague but it encompasses equipment, production techniques, personnel, trivia, as well as (I would argue) music journalism/criticism. In the internet age, the link between this obsessive approach to music and “intellectual” appreciation of music is stronger, because of the impersonal nature of interaction over the internet and its usefulness in honing out one’s music taste. We are likely to encounter more by a quick text description of label, production, personnel etc., as well as things like genre/style or even mood and themes (eg. the AllMusic Guide info – note the left hand column for a reduction of such a wildly emotional album to an alphabetical handful of adjectives). The effect is that music isn’t presented as emotionally, and therefore emotion can get dissociated with music. This could be one of the reasons why women’s music taste is so often disparaged – because when discussion and description of music is reduced to text, it doesn’t align with the way women more often experience music.
This link has been drawn before, in this article about androcentrism in The Wire magazine by Aiofe Barry. Unfortunately the article to which Barry refers is no longer available but her views are nonetheless important. She criticises the clinical, detached presentation of the music described in the magazine, drawing parallels between its approach and the androcentric focus of artists it promotes, contrasting it with Plan B (which is now defunct, but you can download dated issues from 2004-9 on their website). The Wire covers in question do at least portray women in exactly the same way, without exception, as the men – the problem is solely balance rather than image and context of women, the main offence in pretty much any mainstream music publication, as Barry points out; the masculine bias here is part of why fewer women than men pursue the role of “intellectual” tastemaker, professional or otherwise. Women are not presented any more sexually than the men on the Wire covers, and any of the artists could have been replaced by someone of another gender without anyone batting an eyelid (and it’s also worth noting that there have been at least two transgendered people portrayed on Wire covers in the past four years). But it is mostly written by men, in an analytical style which bolsters the link between intellectual and masculine; to use Jacques Derrida’s terms, it’s the same phallogocentric logic that is fundamental to patriarchy.
But the same logic pervades in non-professional and community-based music websites too; I found some particularly striking results on the music database/library/communal reviewing & rating website, which (to clarify) I refer to several times a week, Rate Your Music. The concept of RYM is brilliant, and I believe the way in which they present their website is admirably non-biased, however, it’s let down by a rather questionable community. OK, it’s a community of tens of thousands, but still, I can’t help but feel that this isn’t a very good representation of music fandom. For a start, have a look at the main album chart (which is determined by an algorithm taking into account not just mean rating, but number of ratings cast). As of 23/8/11, the highest-ranked female artist is Joni Mitchell (with Blue) at #141. There are just 12 mixed-gendered bands in the 140 albums preceding Mitchell, the highest being the Pixies at #20, and all 12 of those are predominantly male. In terms of personnel for the other 128, the odd female session musician popping up during my Google double-checks (Carol Kaye on Forever Changes, for instance), but it’s a staggeringly male pile of albums. I’d like to say, “imagine the outcry if a professional publication were to release a list as androcentric as this” – but as Aiofe Barry found, magazines like Total Guitar are all too open about the practise of featuring “token” females, and I might add that no female artist has ever received a 10.0 from Pitchfork. We are being tricked into thinking that women cannot be geniuses, and it’s reflected in this user-created RYM chart.
In Brett Millar’s study of 18-25-year-olds, it is (unsurprisingly) revealed that men are more likely to identify male artists as their favourites than women, and more likely to believe male artists are more critically-acclaimed, although the ratio of males to females is balanced heavily towards males in both genders.5 Like me, Millar blames the media representation of women in music for the discrepancy, as well as more deeply-ingrained social aversions to women. He cites studies that find more positive reactions to male than female voices, pro-male bias in music teachers, and children’s (to some extent adults’) tendency to dissociate themselves from the opposite gender, in men more than women. So this suggests that RYM users are mostly male – internet communities are thought of as masculine, so the users are expressing masculinity through music taste.
Indeed, some users seem to have clocked on to how male-dominated RYM is. In this thread, there is more citation of the stereotypes of men as intellectual, statistics-oriented (the latter might hold a grain of truth), and that the internet is a masculine area, but essentially, heavy RYM use is a sort of territorial, identity-forming practice, a characteristic I’ll explore later in my analysis of High Fidelity. And I suppose, like any online community, women can feel threatened by the choice dickheads who use their internet-anonimity as an excuse to fill with lechery the inboxes of any women who dare admit that they are female. But the prevalent masculinity of RYM prompts ordinarily-erudite scholar “slipknotmaggot666” to opine “I am not the sexist type, but I just think men enjoy music more than women”. Perhaps it is the internet age’s preoccupation with the reduction of arts to statistics and information (last.fm, Hypemachine, and Metacritic do the same) that doesn’t appeal to women, if indeed they cannot have this perhaps more “masculine” experience of music.
Even the reviews themselves display gendered attitudes to music taste. Here’s an oft-cited compendium of reviews, which to be honest is mostly hilarious, but #3 displays some gender trouble. This review of Bring Me The Horizon offends not just cause Oli Sykes is my cousin’s cousin (srsly!) but is mostly just a bitter attack of androgyny; it’s not so much transphobia as an assertion of masculinity, using the idea of “feminine” as an insult, verbally abusing effeminate men.
But I’m fascinated by #5, which creates an extended metaphor in which ( ) by Sigur Rós, one of my favourite records of all time, is described as an idealised woman. I feel totally compelled by the review, but its complete reliance on gender stereotyping is a bit off-putting. It implies that ( ) is a feminine album in its aetherial nature, free from any sort of restriction or real outside influence, even language itself. There are no hard edges or any real tropes of “masculine” rock music, so in spite of being made by four men, ( ) can be characterised as “feminine”. But the review (and I know I’m taking this too seriously, but still) swings a bit close to the baffling stereotype of “crazy bitch”, a dramatic reaction to the minor-key shift of the record’s second half. So why is the review gendered? I suppose because ( ) is this passive thing of beauty that is so often adored by people in utter awe of it; it doesn’t conform to patriarchal expectations and it’s amazing and mystifying.
Both of these reviews are popular because they fit into a community of reviewers who are assertively masculine, and their peers are automatically assumed to be heterosexual male; reviews like this perpetuate the stereotype. These are the people who are deterring women from assuming the role of tastemaker, and they are who define “intellectual” music.
There’s also the issue of aggressive or heavy music as being a masculine endeavour, and that women are not able to emulate, enjoy, or understand that which is aggressive. The same could apply to anything really – sports, action films, spicy food – and music too reinforces images of masculinity not just with the whole “phallic guitar” thing, but standards of machismo feeding in to many different genres. This can apply not just to the fashion or “scene” associated with a style of music, but a link between masculinity and technical complexity. This image pretty much inspired this post, because it implies that the ability to enjoy something “extreme” and “technical” is necessarily masculine, as well as that women are more concerned with “scenes” than objective artistic value. Or just simply that only men can appreciate art. And refer back to the Total Guitar covers that reinforce the idea that only men can rock out. It’s even been used in reference to indie-rock, which wasn’t ever the most macho genre, but check out this Jim Farber article in which he chastises “girly men” in indie-rock. Not only does he flaunt the common misogynist trick of using “feminine” as an insult, but in focusing on men he completely denies the capacity for women to inhabit the same space as critically-adored, hipster-approved, progressive men in music; not to mention the fact that he misses the point completely.
Another much-cited stereotype links technological aptitude and masculinity, and nowhere is this as obvious as in music criticism. Check out the androcentrism of these lists for top albums of 2010 by electronic music magazines Mixmag and Resident Advisor: in the former, the first female is at #15 (half of Crystal Castles), and the latter only features one female, Christabelle, as a collaborator with Lindstrom, who twiddled knobs on the record. Although to be fair, Resident Advisor’s other lists are mostly more gender balanced than other like-minded publications (DJ Sprinkles and Fever Ray got albums 1 & 2 of the year for ’09; but that is to say, still overwhelmingly focused on men). Most other electronica critics will yield similar results; magazine covers too are worringly male-oriented. Mixmag covers tend to sexualise women and present men as neutral, while OHM covers demonstrate a general androcentrism that isn’t going to encourage women to make electronic music. Production and music technology is male-dominated, and publications like these are at least partly to blame.
Nick Hornby engages with the debate in his novel High Fidelity,6 and explores this idea of a “masculine” approach to music, taking the stereotype to an extreme with his character Dick, who works at narrator Rob Fleming’s record store. Dick is so obsessive about music that his entire personality is based around it, however, he approaches music as something to be collected rather than enjoyed. Our introduction to Dick suggests his autism, his incapacity for emotional response:
[Rob:] ‘Good weekend?’ […] [Dick:] ‘All right, yeah, OK. I found the first Liquorice Comfits album in Camden. The one on Testament of Youth. It was never released here. Japanese import only.’ (p.31)
Rob neglects to tell Dick about his recent breakup, explaining that ‘if I were ever to confess anything of a remotely personal nature – that I had a mother and father, say, or that I’d been to school when I was younger – I reckon he’d just blush, and stammer, and ask if I’d heard the new Lemonheads album’ (p.32).
The other co-worker at Rob’s shop is Barry, an intimidating figure who terrorises Dick but exhibits a similarly obsessive personality, similar methods of categorisation. If Dick compulsively collects and listens to as much as possible, Barry compulsively lists that which he has experienced: ‘if he has seen a good film, he will not describe the plot, or how it made him feel, but where it ranks in his best-of-year list, his best-of-all-time list, his best-of-decade list – he thinks and talks in tens and fives, and as a consequence Dick and I do too’ (p.34). He takes his own lists as dogma, refusing to accept that subjectivity allows for disagreements with him; he is defensive when others disagree with his tastes, saying ‘if it’s the wrong preference, it’s bollocks’ (p.36), exhibiting the defensive competitiveness that characterises patriarchal motives, but over something as subjective as musical taste.
Rob has similar qualities to both of his co-workers, frequently pausing in his narrative to catalogue a ‘Top 5 List’, his first sentence introducing his ‘desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order’ (p.1), as well as sharing lists like his ‘Top 5 films’, both American and ‘subtitled’ (p.21), ‘Top 5 Episodes Of Cheers’ (p.110), and ‘Top Five Bands Or Musicians Who Will Have To Be Shot Come The Musical Revolution’ (p.124 – Simple Minds, Michael Bolton, U2, Bryan Adams, and Genesis, in case you were wondering. This was pre-Coldplay). These lists are made with his peers in mind, for example, when prompted by Barry to choose his ‘top five Elvis Costello songs’ (p.76), Rob reveals: ‘I go for “Alison”, “Little Triggers”, “Man Out Of Time”, “King Horse” and a Merseybeat-style version of “Everyday I Write The Book” I’ve got on a bootleg tape somewhere, the obscurity of the last cleverly counteracting the obviousness of the first, I thought, and thus pre-empting scorn from Barry’ (p.76).
While to some, it might seem odd that Rob is being a bit dishonest with a subjective list, constructing it according to opinion of his peers rather than instinct, (aside from any scepticism about the formation of any music list), this behaviour accords with the results of a 2000 study by North, Hargreaves and O’Neall, who found that (in adolescents) ‘females seemed to report that music could be used as a means of mood regulation whereas males reported that music could be a means of creating an impression with others’.7 The fallacy of this idea is pointed out, as the study also finds that music is a largely solitary experience: ‘if they listen to music in isolation, they must make a point of informing others of the activity in order to create this impression’.8 The implication is that females have a more “honest” appreciation of music, that their enjoyment of music is more personal. The subjectivity of music is appreciated, whereas males apparently strive to fit their music taste to their social identity, subscribing to the myth that music taste is objective, like a form of competition. It’s patriarchal logic, manifested in something as seemingly unrelated as music taste.
On the other hand, Barry, Dick, and Rob’s obsessive list-making and categorisation suggests an inability to engage emotionally with music, which is suggestive of traits of autism. Autism is more common in men, but the reasons for this are unclear: while most research is into genetic differences (a 2009 study inconclusively suggests that the answer lies in the XX/XY chromosomes) , there is a strong argument that ‘diagnostic issues and gender bias’9 are to blame for the perceived difference. Autistic tendencies are more socially acceptable in men, which is partially why autistic women are more frequently undiagnosed,10 and women with autism are often overlooked. If autism is more strongly connected to masculinity, it follows that a “masculine” music taste is less emotionally-engaged than a “feminine” taste.
I’m not familiar with Hornby’s other work, but from what I’ve learned, these autistic qualities are all quite typical of his characters, and indeed, you get the impression he bases them on his own traits. The cover of my copy proudly boasts a quote from Harry Enfield: ‘a very funny and concise explanation of why men are as we are’. Hornby is trying to capture some sort of essence of masculinity, acknowledging that the domain of the record shop is inhabited by ‘young men, always young men, with John Lennon specs and leather jackets and armfuls of square carrier bags’ (p.30). So it’s somewhat revelatory when Hornby finally reveals a female perspective of enjoyment of music, when Rob’s romantic interest Laura confesses that she prefers Art Garfunkel to Solomon Burke:
[Rob:] ‘Can you really not see the difference between “Bright Eyes” and “Got To Get You Off My Mind”?’
[Laura:] ‘Yes, of course. One’s about rabbits and the other has a brass band playing on it.’
‘A brass band! A brass band! It’s a horn section! Fucking hell.’
‘Whatever. I can see why you prefer Solomon to Art. I understand, really I do. And if I was asked to say which of the two was better, I’d go for Solomon every time. He’s authentic, and black, and legendary, and all that sort of thing. But I like “Bright Eyes”. I think it’s got a pretty tune, and beyond that, I don’t really care. There are so many other things to worry about. I know I sound like your mum, but they’re only pop records, and if one’s better than the other, well, who cares, really, apart from you and Barry and Dick? To me, it’s like arguing the difference between McDonalds and Burger King. I’m sure there must be one, but who can be bothered to find out what it is?’ (p.201)
Coming near the end of the novel, this passage somehow makes Laura look at once ignorant (‘brass band’) and the voice of reason (‘there are so many other things to worry about’). There’s a thread of bitter irony running through Hornby’s narrative in which you realise that his narrator’s convictions are conflicting; his obsession with music gets in the way of his compulsion to patch things up emotionally; this passage reveals much about the source of tension between Rob and Laura.
I find it problematic that Hornby portrays Laura so simplistically; her views are obviously contrary to Hornby’s own (he’s penned a collection of essays about pop songs titled 31 Songs) and here she may as well be representing all women – most men in the book share Rob’s obsessive qualities, whereas women largely deride him. In an early, inconsequential episode, Rob encounters a vengeful wife of an adulterer, who attempts to flog her husband’s extensive and rare record collection for just fifty pounds – he can’t bring himself to deprive the stranger, no matter how morally corrupt he is, of such an achievement of a collection. It is only country musician Marie LaSalle who is portrayed intellectually, and very differently to the men, because she is a part of the music industry. He perpetuates the myth of masculinity being aligned to intellectualism, even if the men in his novel are always hapless. Rob actually marginalises Laura’s intellectuality, continually disparaging her in an attempt to sidestep her superior social standing. At one point he refers to her as ‘Mzzzz Hot Shot City Lawyer’ (p.203), undermining her feminist inclinations, and deriding the idea of a women with a career. Hornby is hinting towards patriarchal rhetoric which leads towards women being denied of intellectualism, perhaps ironically, but I can’t help but feel that his tendency to centre on men as arbiters of taste in the novel is part of the problem.
High Fidelity is just another example of a cultural hegemony in which privileges a masculine approach to art as the most intellectual. The “masculine” and “feminine” approaches to music which I have described are not by any means rigid, in fact I think one of the reasons we feel the need to gender music taste is because our society adheres so closely to the gender binary. To conclude in a sentence: men often assume that women have inferior music taste because the androcentric agenda of the patriarchal arbiters of what is “intellectual music” actively excludes women, and marginalises a “feminine” approach to music. In my research I’ve found so much ridiculous internet which genders music taste, but I’m going to leave you on this one that I found particularly absurd:
Girls with good taste in music DO EXIST!!
I’m studying to become a teacher, and I was talking to this girl in my class. She told me that she’s 18 years old (I’m 24) and we talked for a while about music and stuff. Then she showed me her iPod and I found that she had every Stevie Ray Vaughan album in there.. and then I saw that she had ALBERT KING, early Pink Floyd and Hendrix in there. Awsome! A similar situation happened when I was invited home to my ex girlfriend the first time. She showed me her record collection and I found that she had “WIRED” by Jeff Beck, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac “Live” and lots of Zeppelin albums. It’s so great to see that there are young girls with good taste in music nowdays!!
But wait! Surely not!
Hmm, interesting thread. Something did just occur to me. Perhaps the music on her iPod was given to her by her Dad, older Brother, Cousin etc. Did she say that she was really into a lot of that stuff? Ya never know, she could’ve gotten it as a gift, and whoever was the giver loaded it up for her with whatever they had on their drive. It could happen.
References: (print/journal references are footnotes, website references are simply linked in the body)
1 David J. Hargreaves, Chris Comber and Ann Colley, ‘Musical likes and dislikes: The effects of age, gender, and training in British secondary school pupils’, Journal of Research in Music Education, 43 (1995), 242–250. [link]
2 Robert D. Crowther and Kevin Durkin, ‘Sex- and age-related differences in the musical behaviour, interests and attitudes towards music of 232 secondary school students’, Educational Studies, 8 (1982), 131-140. [link]
3 Ann Colley, ‘Young People’s Musical Taste: Relationship With Gender and Gender-Related Traits’, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38 (2008), 2039-2055. [link]
4 Ibid., pp.2039-2042.
5 Brett Millar, ‘Selective hearing: gender bias in the music preferences of young adults’, Psychology of Music, 36 (2008), 429-445. [link]
6 Nick Hornby, High Fidelity (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2000).
7 Adrian C. North, David J. Hargreaves and Susan A. O’Neill, ‘The importance of music to adolescents’, British Journal of Educational Psychology, 70 (2000), 255-272. [link] (p.269)
9 Tessa Taylor Rivet and Johnny L. Matson, ‘Review of gender differences in core symptomatology in autism spectrum disorders’, Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 5 (2011), 957-976. [link] (p.967)
10 Ibid. (p.964)