News articles that go “viral” often feature ideas that a) ring instinctively true with a lot of people, but b) aren’t being expressed commonly, or very well.
Maura Johnston’s “How Not to Write About Female Musicians: A Handy Guide” for the Village Voice’s Sound of the City blog certainly fit the bill, on both counts. In it, she targets a number of recent, questionably-written profiles of female musicians—New York Times’ Magazine feature on Lana Del Rey and Chuck Klosterman’s Grantland piece on tUnE-yArDs in particular—and rightfully calls out some pretty lame gender skewing that occurs all too often in music writing. It would be hard to read the piece and not feel a little bit of “fuck yeah!”
But I hope that people don’t take the wrong message from Johnston’s righteous takedown. As I was reading it the first time, I got nervous that people might mistake her argument for “don’t write about gender in music criticism,” when what she’s actually arguing is “don’t write stupid, lazy shit about gender in music criticism.”
One of the quotes that I felt veered a bit too close to the former is in her first argument – the one about how in some articles about women musicians, if you flip the artists being described to male they sound ridiculous. She critiques a statement where Jacob Brown compares Del Rey to a wildly varying list of female artists:
Does this statement say anything about the music being made, and how it plays off Born To Die? No, it focuses on their public profile: overexposed, fat, crazy-slash-dead—and the result is a bunch of recycled cocktail-party chatter, turned into a doorman’s grudging nod to those people Cool Enough To Know What’s Good.
I’m always weary of these sorts of “write about the music!!” statements, even when they come with good intentions. And that’s because I don’t think that the primacy of “music” in music criticism is necessarily a given. In our multimedia culture—visual, digital, artist-audience relationship focused—there’s a hell of a lot more that goes into an artist’s appeal than just the recorded artifact, and many of them may actually be more important sometimes.
I tend to ascribe to Philip Auslander’s point of view that what musicians perform, first and foremost, are personas – identities that flow through their work and are front-and-centre in their commercial and reception relationships with fans, marketers, etc. Those personas connect, crossover and mesh with their work, blurring lines and making it incredibly difficult to discuss “the music” as an autonomous, distinct concept. So it’s only fair that, when appropriate, the persona can become as much a focus of our analysis as the music.
Lana Del Rey is a great example. “Video Games” was a multimedia performance from the get-go. Its YouTube video, mixing washed-out home movies, archival footage, and Del Rey’s ripped-from-the-60s vixen persona, were as crucial to the whole experience as the song’s smokey vocals and blurring of modern angst and classic nostalgia. The things that are compelling about her—her “dead girl” image playing to male desires for control and heroism, her ‘out of time’ historicism, the vacant fatalism—do show up in her music somewhat (especially in the title track), but mostly they’re image-based. And they explicitly involve her image as a woman. (Hell, she even has a song called “This is What Makes Us Girls”!) Likewise, can we really write about Bruce Springsteen without examining his characters’ quest for male status, and the sometimes-complicated sexual politics they create?
It’s good that we critique how we write about gender. But if our goal is to understand what makes music effective, sometimes gender is decidedly the point.
* * * * *
Which segues nicely into considering Adele.
That she swept the Grammy Awards last night was hardly a shocker – not only was her competition weak (album of the year, in particular, suffered with Grammy favourites like Kanye West and Taylor Swift being inexplicably absent) but she nails all the Grammy quadrants: successful hits, massively-selling album, critical acclaim AND a great narrative (not only her biography, but her struggles with vocal health).
Adele is a case in point as to why, and how, gender and persona matter in music criticism. Because while Adele’s songs are strong enough to succeed on their own (that four-on-the-floor beat in “Rolling in the Deep” is unstoppable) it’s her persona and how it’s performed—on the record, live, in interviews and press material—that’s transformed her into a phenomenon. Adele’s become a superstar, in no small part, based on a perceived “authenticity” from the way she fuses performance and autobiography to express feminine heartbreak.
I use “authenticity” in quotes because whether Adele is actually authentic is irrelevant. What matters is that listeners perceive her as such, and while her go-for-broke vocals unquestionably help sell what she’s singing about, her promotional team also went to great lengths to emphasize that these songs were written about her being wronged by an ex-lover. In fact, they specifically identified that it was the same dude she was falling for when she wrote songs for her debut album, 19. Even the album’s name plays to this idea (she was 21when she wrote 21.)
It’s interesting that in a year where the “male” and “female” categories were largely excised from the pop Grammy categories, the evening’s big winner expressed ideas in a definitively feminine voice. By placing her sentiments in an autobiographical context, Adele built a compelling persona that fused both “wronged woman” and “redemptive woman.” Her stunning performance of “Rolling in the Deep” hit both notes last night, the latter doubled down by the fact that she was returning from a period of vocal duress.
Placed together, this is one hell of a compelling package: a feminine “realness” around which an entire Adele persona is built. Watching the Tweets roll in last night, many of them were specifically contrasting her with the rest of the evening’s female pop stars. They talked about her voice, her song, her look—and yes, her size—and framed all of them in terms of how great it was to see something “real,” especially after several showy, heavily backing-tracked performances earlier. She got immense credit for her moments too: the post-performance giggle, the genuine cry, the “snot.” It’s not just music writers who compare within gender: fans, too, seem compelled to size Adele up against the likes of Rihanna, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj.
That’s because in a world of personae, these vocalists are not just performing songs: they’re performing women. And in this performance game, Adele’s performance is “real” woman – honest, redemptive, powerful.
Hard to argue with celebrating that, no matter how “authentic” it may be.
* * * * *
Easier to argue, of course, with how it is that the Grammys can simultaneously celebrate Adele as “powerful woman,” and then turn around and also celebrate Chris Brown.
I’m not surprised that a lot of people were upset that Chris Brown not only got to perform on the Grammys (not to mention won for Best R&B album). Heck, the Hello Giggles post about it spread so quickly that it actually crashed the website for several hours last night. But I am surprised why the Grammys, in particular, got people so upset: have they not been paying attention for the past year?
It was almost a year ago, in fact, that I wrote about how our cultural infrastructure has a remarkable ability to look beyond the “indiscretions” (to use a too-polite word) of its stars if they are able to deliver great material. (Call it the “R. Kelly rule.”) And since Brown had the hits (“Yeah x3,” “Look at Me Now” – both great tracks) I hypothesized that the only thing keeping him from being culturally rehabilitated was that he hit someone familiar to us.
Over the past year, that’s kind of fallen by the wayside. Chris Brown has gotten radio play, music video play, television appearances, huge guest spots, you name it. To those who don’t pay close attention to R&B and hip hop, last night might have seemed like a surprise: the Grammys, on their own, making the choice to give Chris Brown the spotlight. But that was hardly the case: given that the Grammys reflect the music industry (or some simulacra of it), it would almost be strange if Chris Brown wasn’t there, given the year he had.
Except for, you know, that tiny thing where he beat a woman.
I admire people who consider that fact the start and end of the conversation. Myself, though, I’m not sure I like the idea of Chris Brown being forever blacklistedfrom making a music career. I confess that even just writing that makes me feel weird, like I’m somehow justifying or excusing what he did. I hope I’m not. But I can’t help but feel that our relationship with pop culture can often take the shape (and even, sometimes, the weight) of an interpersonal one, and I don’t think it’s healthy for that relationship to not carry some (however slight) possibility of repair when it’s been violated. In fact, I’d argue that a culture that doesn’t allow for that sort of honest, open discussion (even if it results in “Sorry, Chris, but you can’t be famous again”) actually ends up worse for wear, and you end up with things like this shocking Buzzfeed thread of Twitter posts of people saying “I love Chris Brown, he can hit me anytime” – or the fans who screamed extra loud for his win last night.
But if we accept that a Chris Brown comeback is something that can happen, who decides at what point, and how? I think what’s really distressing for people about seeing Brown on-stage at the Grammys (three times!) is that they feel like that discussion never took place.
What’s worse, there may not even be a good answer: Brown’s comeback has happened without a “come to Jesus” moment, or a grandiose public gesture, or any single moment that resonated as strongly as the awful incident that started this whole fiasco. Brown has never really engaged in a public discussion of what was a VERY public incident – and, one could argue, a betrayal of the public image he’d built. Instead, he just kept singing his songs and dancing his dances and, eventually, did them well enough to get back into the spotlight again.
He succeeded because our pop culture business model is biased towards star retention; it’s far easier to sell someone something they know than to sell them something new. In the decentralized media age, all it takes is a series of small decisions—radio playlist adds, TV performance bookings, watching Youtube videos, Twitter follows or Facebook likes—done in the interest of embracing something familiar to get a comeback kickstarted. Throw in the emotional appeal of a comeback narrative (something that only works with people who once had an affinity for Brown, but still powerful) and you begin to see how Brown’s career resurrection could steamroll without having to really address the domestic abuse-sized elephant in the room.
Which suggests that the Grammys should have taken a stand last night and not featured Brown so prominently. (At the very least, they certainly shouldn’t have put out a press release suggesting that they were a “victim” of “what happened.” Puke.) The Grammys chose to be a reactive vehicle, responding to all the other music industry mechanisms that made small choices, individually, that prioritized Chris Brown over an honest dialogue. The Grammys could have sparked a conversation.
Instead, they left it for the rest of us to do so. All of these issues—how we write about women musicians, our need for a “real” presence in women’s music, the casual comeback of Chris Brown—are the sorts of things that if left to the devices of our culture to decide, would go unspoken and unaddressed. And thankfully (judging by the Twitter/Facebook/watercooler talk last night and this morning) it seems like we’re speaking up.