Posts tagged: women in music

The Femme-Hermit’s Manifesto

Well. It’s certainly been a long time since I’ve updated the MOE blog, and for that I apologize. Many things get in the way, but I most certainly do not want to give the impression that I have given up on musical endeavors.

That being said.

I wanted to write a little bit about a new-found approach, a manifesto, if you will, regarding my work. I have spent some years and months and days and hours attempting to “promote”; to get my music heard and taken seriously in the New York scene; by contacting venues, booking agents, promoters, and labels alike, and all to no avail. Yet somehow, there are reams of complete strangers plus highly regarded musicians who stumble upon and appreciate my music, tell me I am their “hero”, and who scream that it should be heard. I am swimming in a pool of conservatory muck, without “pop” credentials, between a rock and hard place (the hard place being classical training). Who cares if people wholeheartedly believe that my music is “good” - it can always be improved, I will always strive to do better - if I don’t have scantily clad or grungily B+W fire-escaped photo shoots to back myself up, or thousand dollar production, or a massive Twitter fan base, or bizarre Lynch-referencing hipster music videos, I don’t seem to stand a chance. I opt out.

Am I giving up? HELL NO. I am giving up on an industry that I loathe and that saddens me beyond belief. I am giving up on trying to gain monetarily from audiences who mostly obtain their music from Walmart, or, conversely, who crowd the front of DIY shows in Brooklyn to hear the newest, youngest, or most foreign “shredder” improvise emotionally devoid register-oriented soundscapes for other malnourished egos. This is not the same as giving up on myself or on music. After a lifetime of effort, I trust that what I am doing is good. After two decades of performing, writing, studying and listening to music, I trust myself and my own judgements. I just don’t trust money.

For that reason, I have decided to make all of my music free for download and to completely cease trying to promote myself and my work. The sorry state of women in the music industry aside (“see, we are hardcore, clad in leather and combat boots, but yet we will be very polite in your group settings”), I truly believe that all great strides throughout cultural history have been made without concern for recognition. I would rather believe in myself and in my work, in the potential for musical growth in myself and in our culture, and in the capabilities of women to speak up, speak out, be bitches, and tell it like it is. After accepting this, the quality and quantity work has SKYROCKETED, and I am more excited about it than ever before.

I struggle a lot hearing sadness and perhaps a difficult “depressing” nature in my music — but the more time that passes, the more I think that through these judgements I am succumbing to industry and society telling me that women (and especially women in music) are “whiny” or “annoying” at best, if we aren’t gleefully hiding behind Cotton commercials (a la Dechanel) or fronting the “legitimate” sadness written by men. Brahms was depressing and difficult in his era, and perhaps still is. Women are probably really, really sad. We have 3x more PTSD by far than all war vets combined. We are prone to insomnia and anxiety twice as much as men. We still make 75 cents on the dollar for every male salary. We bake the cakes but god forbid we eat them - no fat chicks! And yet our sadness is annoying.

I am done with it — I will do what I feel needs to be done and I will stop trying to play phallo-centric, ego based games. I believe in myself and in my work, and I will continue working no matter what life throws at me. I would rather have this ethic than all the fans or money in the world. So look out for my new album in a few months, or don’t. It will be released either way. After I eat this ginormous pizza all by myself.

Women in Music: Retractions and Elaborations (Schuldeingeständnis)

"I have greatly sinned,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done and in what I have failed to do…” (Mea Culpa)

It seems that I have incurred the wrath of a fellow Joanna Newsom fan, and for good reason - I didn’t do my research in full, and implied serious accusation and judgement without providing a complete explanation. We are all guilty of forming opinions about what we don’t fully understand (we also are all probably aware of the public backlash against Mike Daisy for his more-than-questionable monologue about Apple and Foxconn (poor Ira Glass!)). Artistry and journalism are two very different things indeed. I want to make a few things clear about what I wrote in my post Women in Music: Spectacle and Commodity and elaborate on my sentiments.

Firstly, you should know that this blog isn’t about one thing or even a group of things. I work primarily as a musician, and everything I mention in regrettably low detail is quite selfishly filtered through the lens of my creative influence. I recently wrote about Plato’s Theory of Forms. If you asked me to describe this theory in depth I’d probably need a beer and the internet if a cohesive summary was going to be forthcoming. I’ve also written about Lemony Snicket and Jessica Valenti, but if you asked me to outline a chronology of their works, I’d draw a huge blank. I’ve read and studied all of these things/people, but I’m not perfect or perfectly educated, and I will be the first to admit that maybe I shouldn’t be preaching about what I don’t know in complete entirety. The world doesn’t need another Sarah Palin. Unlike Russia’s kooky fence-mate, I don’t have a team of eager media coaches at my disposal…

But I still want to speak my mind.

And without further ado, here is the Joanna Newsom Summer School discussion of my writing:

A case of misunderstanding between the artist and the public, or the dangers of irony.

In her post about the sexualism of women in the music biz, Maryofegypt writes ‘Even Joanna Newsom, who is lauded for her musical achievements, poses for the album art of Have One on Me in a very provocative way’ and thus gratifies Newsom with the same motives as Madonna, Lady Gaga and other singers seemingly fond of showing skin, butts, boobs, tongues or finger as a strategy to draw attention. Or is it that she just bows down to the sexism of the industry?

I must say I’m a bit surprised by this interpretation. Let us remind how Newsom presented the incriminated  cover : “All my three record covers depicted “me” in an allegorical setting—embroidered, on the first album cover; painted, on the second; and then photographed on the third. In each case, there are factors relating to physical appearance that can be tempered to underscore the spirit of the album and the identity of its narrator. The photo on the cover of Have One on Me was modeled after typical Orientalist fantasy-figure iconography, like an odalisque or a Venus in Furs—a sort of cartoonish amalgamation of feminine signifiers stylized to illustrate the Lacanian idea “Woman is a symptom of man.” Annabel Mehran, the photographer, used black-and-white film that the artist Becca Mann later hand-tinted over with watercolors. The idea was to mock-up a shabby, 1920s Parisian studio with an absinthe-dulled lady posing on a divan in bits of old drapery fabric, and then paint over the resulting tableau into some idealized, Technicolor, hedonistic fantasy set. The specifically female, earthbound, corporeal, and decadent character in that album art reflects the character of those songs’ narrator as well as the idea of feminine self-diminishment. That was a definite application of the idea of beauty. I don’t know whether that specific application could have any reason to occur again for me creatively. I have no idea who the narrator of my next record will be, and whether there will be a clear physical embodiment of that character.”

Of course there’s a possibility that she’s intellectualizing her intentions and that, deep down, she’s just like the rest of them, a lascivious callypigian pop diva who just wants her chance to be invited at music awards and sports competitions in order to sell more records to the lecherous populace. But I think that we should give her more credit than that.

When I read this post I was floored. As a musician, I deeply adore Newsom’s work (as in an entire summer spent listening to Ys unceasingly, and a homemade piano arrangement of Peach, Plum, Pear). I had read some reviews and interviews, but had never researched in depth what her artistic intentions are re: cover artwork. I give the lady credit, I do! And so I hurriedly wrote to this unknown blogger:

maryofegypt asked: Hello, after posting my “women in music” rant, I have done some actual research regarding my inclusion of Newsom’s cover art and the underlying feminism in this album. I will acknowledge that my discussion of this photo and lamentation of it is perhaps uninformed, thank you for bringing this to my attention. In my defense (of which there isn’t much) I can only say that I was initially disappointed to see the album art.

JSS's response:

I think the relations between Newsom and feminism are complex and somehow ambiguous, and it’s perfectly understandable that one could misinterpret her persona in that regard. There’s a tumblr called allthebirdsabout Newsom and feminism if you’re interested (if you haven’t found it already). I’m not in agreement with everything they say but their posts are interesting reads.

I just wanted to point out that Joanna Newsom probably didn’t deserve this critique, that her approach to beauty and seduction couldn’t be compared at all with the pop singers’ behaviour you mentioned.”

Yes, intelligent stranger, you are right. Her approach to beauty should not be compared to that of Madonna or M.I.A. But I thought, when writing the post, I had made it clear that Newsom was in a category of her own. The bulk of my discussion of the other singers I mentioned was regarding poor musical-decision-making and safe-bet songwriting. I meant to include Joanna as a polar opposite to their works, and I should have stressed that more firmly. But as you say, the relationships between Newsom and feminism (or really, any woman and feminism) are “complex and somehow ambiguous”. Indeed, I’ve misinterpreted an “irony” that she has utilized in crafting her cover art. I am happy to be more informed regarding Newsom’s intention to depict herself “in an allegorical setting.” Even if she is intellectualizing her intentions, she’s done so in a very interesting and artistic way.

Here’s a bit from an interview with Newsom about the title of said album:

"[Have one on me] refers to a kind of self-sacrifice that is a theme in a lot of the songs. It’s a very feminine thing as well. It’s the giving of yourself in […] drinking terms, like pouring something from a bottle, and the level of the wine goes down and down and down with each glass that you pour and hand out. And it relates to the title track because that’s sort of essentially what I saw in Lola Montez’s life [Lola being the dancer who was the mistress of the King Of Bavaria, who ultimately lived and died an outcast in America, who is the subject of your title track and Newsom seems to be referring to in the album inlay photographs.] This constant wandering and diminishment of the self through the giving of the self, through performing, and just as the myth grew, the self shrunk until she just died poverty stricken and alone[…] The way women were, and the way women are in that sense, is fundamental."

Now that I’m more fully informed, I completely get the album cover art. Newsom is giving herself, physically as well as musically.

But here’s the rub: I, personally, as an individual woman who may or not be in agreement with other wonderful individual women, see ironic or artistic self-objectification as confusing. Because at the end of the day, to me it is still what it is upon first glance- objectification. I love Have One on Me. I actually bought it twice because I misplaced one of the three gorgeous discs (the second). All the praises I can sing aside and in all honesty, when I first picked up the album, I was shocked to see Newsom looking like a pin-up.

Wanting to put “herself” on the cover of such a unique work is not something that I am critiquing, as a fellow champion of individual creativeness. But I feel that this goal can be accomplished through many, many other visual venues besides including an image of the self’s visual appearance. None of my other favorite albums have ANY artwork which contains the creator’s image, and yet they manage to present a visual representation of narrative voice and self.

As an independent musician, I made the decision early on to never include a photograph, painting, etching, stitching, drawing, sculpture, cartoon (you get the idea) of an identifiable image of myself on an album cover. I even shy away from promotional photos. It’s probably because, when I listen to music, I like to close my eyes. The image of the artist is distracting to me. I acknowledge again that maybe it’s just a personal preference.

I actually have a reoccurring problem with David Longstreth and his tendency to visually hide behind his (albeit gorgeous) female bandmates. I first saw the Dirty Projectors perform years and years ago, before they were well known, at a small Brooklyn venue, where much of the audience walked out halfway through his set. I was struck by the fact that Longstreth seemed to cower at the back of the stage - the pretty girls were at the forefront, but the creative genius preferred stationing himself, nearly unseen, next to the drummer:

 Music is often an experience that fundamentally lies both inside and outside of the auditory domain (as my readers will have heard me mention many, many times over). When I write music, my physical appearance is the last thing on my mind. However, I myself write a LOT about female self-diminishment and female mythology, both in my music and in my blogs. A ton of prevalent artists are always writing “about” something. While it’s true that there are many musicians whose main concerns are sound and texture, etc, it’s also common to encounter those who are writing about social, cultural, political, linguistic/poetic, or philosophical issues.

But those artists are usually trying to capture and depict their “extra-musical” ideas inside of the auditory domain. I find that women artists, as wonderful and groundbreaking as they are, are much more prone to resort to depiction of artistic sentiment (like self-objectification) in their visual representations.

Let’s take Feist as another example of personal opinion. The Reminder remains a catchy yet consistent fave of mine. I had looked forward with childlike anticipation to seeing Leslie play live at Radio City for an AIDS benefit concert (also, David Byrne and Dirty Projectors were playing, it was a musical wet dream) a few years ago. When Feist was set to take the stage, I collapsed inwardly when she walked on wearing a see-through white blouse with a black bra underneath. Then (speaking of irony), she went on to sing a song with strong feminist themes: “a slave to her husband for the rest of her days”.

It’s all very confusing. I’m incredibly afraid of how this inward disappointment of mine could stem from a sort of female misogyny. I want to clarify now that I think women should be free (and safe!) to dress however revealingly or seductively they so choose. Self-expression is the ultimate freedom and equalizer.

However, I also am very afraid that women have to to be seductive and attractive in order to be taken seriously as artists. I am afraid that, though they may have the best of intentions and be attempting to celebrate femininity and beauty in general, they are doing so through the male gaze. If a woman writes beautiful music about women and women’s issues, that will come across in the music itself, as it does in Newsom’s auditory work. Furthermore, the common inclusion of sexual images seems to imply that beauty is the domain of women, or a “feminine” pursuit. I admire that Newsom embraces the female voice wholeheartedly. But men can give themselves too. Men (and the transgendered, and the asexual) can work towards the creation of beauty, softness, and generosity. They just seem to do so without providing their bodies as a backdrop.

Does that mean that performers shouldn’t pose provocatively if they so choose? No. It just means that sometimes, I personally wish they wouldn’t, because in my own mind it comes across as confusing if not self-objectifying.

Maybe I just have a problem with pop music in general. Classical musicians, though they are often required to provide sensual head shots and promotional materials, are much more concerned with auditory experience. They’d rather be masters of technique/artistry than masters of fashion. Look at Angela Hewitt, whose manager told her she’d never make it professionally because she “looked like the girl next door” (this info from an Eastman prof in my piano lit class!).

She is now hailed as one of the greatest Bach interpreters of our time.

Perhaps, since Newsom’s work is so thoughtful and through-composed, I have mistakenly assumed she is a “classically” leaning artist.

"I would place myself squarely on the nonclassical side. As a composer, I require assistance. I have ideas and I have an album in mind but I’m limited, I need help making the record. I’m a very poor composer. I really am. That may change over the years, but right now I have such a huge gap between what’s in my mind and what I’m able to notate. I think it would be disingenuous for me to claim to be part of the classical world." - Newsom,9171,1969718,00.html

I don’t want to conceive of music as genre-specific. If Newsom is appreciated in both classical and indie spheres, it shows me that music, at its best, is unclassifiable. And that’s because even the blind can enjoy it.

Women in Music: Spectacle and Commodity

I don’t follow sports. There, I’ve said it. But the 2012 Superbowl was brought to my attention by the Atlantic, which posted an article about its female-dominated (and controversial) halftime show. Why is it that every time women grace the stage at this testosterone-full event, they make spectacles of themselves and spark media outrage?

"No stranger to controversy herself, the Like a Virgin superstar who kissed Britney Spears at the MTV video awards in 2003 will be the first female to headline the Super Bowl halftime show since Janet Jackson’s infamous bodice-ripping "wardrobe malfunction" incident of 2004, when Justin Timberlake tore off a chunk of her bra."

The fact that Madonna made her career by sexualizing women in music aside, can we just be happy that females at least are getting the opportunity to perform twice in ten years (20% of the time) at one of the most highly viewed television events in the country? How did it go? Without a hitch, I’m sure.

"When M.I.A. flipped the bird to the 150 million or so people watching the game, she ignited a Twitter and media frenzy."

OMG! It is truly true. For about a millisecond, you can see MIA flashing her middle finger while singing the lyrics “I don’t give a shit”. (If MIA really didn’t give a shit, perhaps she wouldn’t resort to such attention grabbing stunts to bolster her public presence).

In case you didn’t pick up on my sarcasm (see above), let me just say that I am not so concerned with writing about this controversial happening (there’s enough discussion out there to fill a book). I am more concerned with what this type of behavior (and the ensuing commentary) says about the state of female musicians at the top of the charts.

The Atlantic article I referred to in the opening of this post is entitled 2012: The Year of the Dissolving Diva, and discusses (laments?) the fact that strong female personalities in music seem to be watering down their musical approaches in their new releases.

"A slew of music publications called 2011 the Year of the Woman: a year in which major female artists with equally major personalities reigned in sales and critical discussion. This wasn’t really the case (any year offers more than enough triumphs and flops by female artists to claim a trend), but let’s briefly pretend it was. If so, then 2012 is shaping up to be the opposite: the year those personalities and their acclaim recede"

What does this have to do with the Superbowl, you might ask? The three artists who performed at halftime are narrowed in on for discussion of their “receding” personalities, both through musical and cultural critique. Since I am wary of just reposting the entire article, I will limit my focus to the criticism of Madonna’s new album, MDNA.

"It takes nerve to sing "every record sounds the same" on a record that reigning hitmaker Dr. Luke could have produced with a dubstep bridge so predictable you could guess its timestamp before hearing the track….Anyone could make these tracks. In interviews, Madonna acknowledged this as "ironic"; a better term is "sad." " (

Indeed, Madonna and her cohorts seem to be regressing back to the tried and true techniques of older pop music. MIA is criticized for producing not-groundbreaking “pop-rap” and Gaga(gag) for her rehashing of 80s electronica. After their eye catching stunts to achieve “spectacle”, these successful artists musically resort to playing it very, very safe. Not only are they criticized for this artistic decision, some musicians are criticized for NOT making enough spectacle of themselves.

"no one’s talking about Nicki Minaj, who performed with M.I.A. and Madonna on the latter’s new single, "Give Me All Your Luvin’." And it’s not because Minaj is averse to attracting attention via controversy. From her always wacky outfits to her rapping style (half aggressive, half cupcake sweet), Minaj is as much of a provocateur as M.I.A. She’s just not as good at it."

No one will pay heed to your music if you don’t a) flip off millions of people, b) flash your ta-ta “accidentally on purpose” or c) kiss a girl and like it.  This Huffington article actually encourages Nicki Minaj to take a hint from MIA and get with the controversy program. But at the same time as these provocative acts are being a-flurried all over the internet, the musical offerings diminish in quality.

My brilliant (and perhaps devil’s advocate) sister reminds me that “spectacle” is not limited to the female pop-music world. From Jim Morrison to Charlie Looker, male musicians and artists are just as guilty of relying on personality and controversy to garner attention. But the proliferation of this kind of action is to a lesser extent.

"pop music reflects the national climate—in this case, a presidential race that revolves mostly around highly politicalized women’s issues. Or perhaps it’s[…]a reflection of what sells in pop: beats over personalities, where a voice is just a more supple kind of instrument[….]the artists whom one imagines would make music as vibrant as their personalities, as if noticing the trend, seem to be hunkering back to anonymous tracks, to safe chart bets." (

It is very confusing. Beats sell over personalities, and yet the personality must be there to garnish the beats. But I would argue that the spectacle and the sexualization are much more prevalent for female artists. Even Joanna Newsom, who is lauded for her musical achievements, poses for the album art of Have One on Me in a very provocative way.

“Spectacles are those phenomena of media, culture, and society that embody the society’s basic values, and serve to enculturate individuals into a way of life,” writes Douglas Kellner.  Mediated spectacles “dramatize[s] our conflicts, celebrate[s] our values, and project[s] our deepest hopes and fears.”

I am not saying spectacle and showmanship are completely out of place in the music world. I was lucky enough to see Sufjan Steven’s Age of Adz tour and was blown away by the wonderful integration of visual stage technique and dance with the music itself. His loony twitching moves plus the accompanying auditory images seemed a perfect compliment to his artistic statement and were enmeshed with the philosophical intent of the album as a whole. However, the fascinating capability of spectacle used to enhance auditory experience is rarely utilized in such a successful way, especially by women.

"The denigration and sexualization of women during the Super Bowl is indicative of the ways in which spectacles operate within our cultural landscape.  From the first quarter right until the end of the game, the place of women is made clear: as sexualized objects whose presence figures in eliciting pleasure from the male gaze."

Women have been used to “hock products” for decades upon decades. They are as much of a commodity as the things they are selling. This fact, in turn, makes women in music and media feel a necessity to hock their own sexual image as a selling point. Sex, controversy, and spectacle are all “extra-musical”, i.e. they lie outside of the auditory experience (as much of the music industry does).

How many times have I been told to “sex it up” on stage, that I’m “pretty” and should “milk it”, that I need to provide video and photographs to go along with my artistic work, I cannot count. It seems that I cannot opt out of this behavior and still gain a following, or at least some discussion of my music. But until women do take a stand and provide truly groundbreaking artistic content (I’m not arrogantly saying I have achieved this, mind you), how can we be taken as seriously as our “genius” male counterparts? Until we stop objectifying and spectacle-izing ourselves, we won’t get anywhere.

"Lady Gaga and her shotgun companions should not be seen as barreling down the road of bad faith.  But neither are they living in a world in which their acts of self-expression or self-empowerment are distinguishable, even in theory, from acts of self-objectification."

If I must provide a public personality to go along with my work, I’d rather my brain and viewpoints be up for discussion. I’d rather sell nothing than sell to thousands of people using my body and public spectacle.

Cimarron: first notes on electronica

Patience, time, and thickskinnedness: these are the things I find myself needing when working towards completion of an electronic project.

What makes an electronic track different from an acoustic or through-composed one? When I write for acoustic instruments, I have an idea in mind of the exact notes that they will play, and I know what each instrument sounds like. I’m not going to have an audio-mental image of a violin part that sounds like a flute. In my conceptualization, the violin will sound like what it is, a violin. I can write that information down (done and done). But what about mental conception of electronic parts?

"The 80s are over." "Techno is dead, when will the hipsters get over it?"

These are comments I hear very often from respected musician friends regarding current artistic projects which utilize electronic sounds or techno drumbeats. I would agree that yes, the sound of a MIDI drum sequencer sometimes conjures up images of aerobic leggings and bouffant hairstyles. But as a “formally” trained musician, I was introduced to the first electronic pioneers of the early 20th century. Whether you recall the rhyme of the ancient theremin, with its Doctor Who humming, or the early synths-only-via-stockhausen, or just plain old clubbing music (thanks, Europe), one cannot escape having at least been exposed to nearly a century of mechanical wonders.

I would argue that nearly every modern musician (and music-enthusiast (and first world human)) has “digested” the sound of many, many different kinds of electronic music. Just look at Sufjan, who flip-flopped successfully from weirdo [electronics-only] to [songwriting] to [orchestral instrumentation] then back again to [wierdo-electronics + songwriting + orchestral instumentation]. Just listen to Newsom’s crazy overdubbed vocals on her (debut) album version of Peach, Plum, Pear (“And I was blue!”) (overdubbed vocals PLUS harpsichord, as is only possible in these modern times). Our brains hold a seemingly infinite number of timbres and textures after decade upon decade of computer enhanced music.

Musings aside, it is quite difficult to get non-existing technology to match what strange warblings and pumpings and textures as might be inside your brain. It’s almost like practicing piano (gasp!).

Here are some notes from sketches of one of my upcoming electronic-ish tracks:

"Where are my DAMN church bells?"


"Crescendi in droves".

Sometimes when I write I can’t decipher which acoustic instrument fits my idea. Or I’m hearing textures that I don’t think or know of in the acoustic realm (gimme a break I’m a new writer). But I’m hearing specific things, most likely what I’ve been exposed to (I will not shy from seeming influenced; we are all products of our influences in many ways). In these cases, I struggle for hours to make or recreate or tweak sounds which I am hearing internally.

I tried notating Cimarron. It ended up being a lameass chord chart with various lines and markings on it. As in “<” and “>” and whatnot. Secret, lovely mysteries of a score could not capture the subtleties of delay patches and reverbs and layered found sounds. Either the score could not contain them or I could not find a way to notate them beyond a weak graphic representation.

So instead, I turn to my ear. Electronic tracks (beyond simple sequencing to a grid/midi controlling) require careful, nearly mind numbing re-listening, over and over and over again until you find your brain contains nothing but whirrs and swooooshes. It reminds me of painting- starting with a sketch and filling in layers, highlights, clues about perspective. You have to really get into it, and you have to step back at the same time. In this way, my electronics become much more improvisatory. They deal with texture and color in an immediate way (which, I’m sure, many musicians have gone before me) that cannot be captured in the mind’s eye until completion.

Maybe the careful alignment of sounds and their implied intensities is just me trying to put everything in this world in a proper place, I worried. So for Cimarron, I decided to go “off the grid” and work against a very rubato piano recording.

(Rubato: expressive and rhythmic freedom by a slight speeding up and then slowing down of the tempo of a piece at the discretion of the soloist)

For me, there is nothing so eye-gougingly-frustrating or so sickly-sweet-satisfying as making progress on an electronic piece. I love acoustic instruments, I work with them, I play them, I study them, but the process of making textures out of thin air is very seductive. Most likely my upbringing and influences shine most brightly in these songs, but I am not afraid of reflecting the past via synthetic bell and bass drum.

(yeah I know this is a pretentious post but you gotta take your work seriously yo)

"Go With Yourself" - Apple is Back

I was pleasantly surprised to hear that the controversial lady of self-expression, Fiona Apple, has booked a 2012 tour.

"Fiona Apple announces 2012 tourdates. She’s the one who plays the harp, right?
'It’s been a while since we’ve seen or heard from Fiona Apple. Of course, this is most likely because of the multiple legal battles with Sir Paul McCartney, the ghost of René Magritte, and that apple-eating pirate from Pirates of the Caribbean, in which she’s been embroiled for the past seven years concerning her rights to, variously, eat apples, take press photos with apples, and have Apple as a last name.”

As a tween, I spent hours learning every single song from Tidal by ear and playing/performing them with my young angsty girlfriends. As a senior in high school, I arranged “Never is a Promise" for piano and three violas for a school coffeehouse performance. However, in the now seven years since Apple’s last studio releases, she seems to have faded into a strange sort of well-known obscurity, as well as migrated outside of my developing (snobbish) musical tastes. I was probably unduly influenced by the eye-rolling that seemed to accompany any mention of her name:

Drama queen.

We all remember this moment, right?

(Why can’t the girl just shut up and be happy?)

It has become impossible not to associate Apple’s musical achievements with her aggressive Grammy speech. Somehow, as a developing classical musician, being an avid fan of hers became something a bit less than OK (if it ever was OK)-Apple’s music was for whiny girly teenagers, of course, and any love or discussion of the woman was relegated to close friendships and closet “music I don’t think I should like” revelations.

However, news of her possible return (as well as news of a possible 4th album) has had me thinking about my mental attitude towards Apple during the past few years. Re: my post “sad sack or sexappeal” about recent female artists in the public eye, I have been wanting to shout “Adele has nothing on Fiona!” for the past month. Here is a woman who is in charge of her own material, who speaks her mind, and who, somehow, became a chart-topper. Why shouldn’t I embrace her as a personal hero?

Something very interesting happened to women in commercial music at just about the same time as Apple was releasing her debut and second albums. If you all will join me in thinking back to the glorious 90s, which women in pop music are you most likely to recall? Probably Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera. Here, alongside Apple’s self-written sad music, were the catchy tunes “sung” by women (asking us to please hit them one more time) who didn’t have anything to do creatively except perhaps choose a hue of platinum blonde with which to color their locks. Among my musician friends, there is heavy lamentation of the decline of the music industry after the mid-90s, for both male and female artists.

And here, I posit, is what went wrong: Nobody at the top of the ladder in music business wanted to admit that someone who made their career by saying “Something is terribly wrong with this world” could make them money (Nirvana also springs to mind). In fact, I think this scared a lot of powerful people (remember when Extraordinary Machine was held back from release by Sony (and, apparently, by Fiona herself)). So instead they brought us an onslaught of skin-showing singing-only divas which continues bombarding us to this day (think Katy Perry or Lady Gaga).

'I wanted to write a happy song. I didn't know how.'
-Fiona Apple

Yeah, it’s scary. That people support a woman who is so vocal about how terrible the industry and the masochistic culture are. That people connect with an artist’s inner lamentations on such a deep level, and that that artist happens to be a woman. After giving it much thought, I do not believe we can or should separate Apple from her cultural persona - as internal and as soul-searching as her music is, as a public figure she asks all of us to soul-search about the state of the external world. And to be ourselves.

"If I respect myself and believe in what I’m doing, no one can touch me."

There you have it, artists, musicians, writers, and lay peoples. We are being encouraged to respect and believe in ourselves. No wonder Apple has been relegated to such a quiet state - self respect doesn’t sell lipstick.

(this post is dedicated to my sister, Grace)

The sadsack or the sexappeal?

My goodness, it’s certainly been a big month for female musicians in the public eye! I’m admittedly a bit behind the times (haste makes waste) with all theze crazy newzez, but criminy, what a load of subliminal stuff to digest. Two, not just one, but two female singers have been making headlines lately. One of them for dying and one of them for being good even though she’s a woman and not anorexic (don’t crucify me for these fightin’ words). 

Let’s start with Whitney, God bless her:

"Women in pop culture are particularly framed with this “poor little prima donna who destroyed her talent” garbage. When great male musicians die, it’s unusual to have their substance issues splayed forth in the obit headline… why was Billie Holliday’s love affair with heroin so tragic, but Miles Davis and John Coltrane … not so much? Why is Sinead O’Conner a nutcase but Van Halen is just a darling bunch of naughty rockers? Why is Madonna’s mental state on the front page every day, but not Justin Beiber’s?" (

I could perhaps dismiss these outspoken comments by holding up someone like Michael Jackson as a counter-example, I know, but she’s onto something. Susie has some interesting things to say, but perhaps short little newsblurbs sum it up the best:

"Whitney Houston, who reigned as pop music‘s queen until her majestic voice and regal image were ravaged by drug use, erratic behavior and a tumultuous marriage […] has died."

Read: Erratic behavior? Don’t act crazy, it will kill you, woman! Or if you do act erratic, be regal and majestic too, somehow! And this from a feminist website!

But take heart, my fellow songbirds. There is a woman out there you can look up to, one who’s not so crazy or old:

"…I was heartened by the appearance of Adele, the young blue-eyed soul singer from East London who won Best New Artist at the Grammys earlier this year. I love her. She seems young and brash and fun and mouthy and unapologetic about her body (I love that the article mentions that she went to an In-and-Out Burger after the Grammys and wanted to get two milkshakes, one for each award she received)…Also, she should be in Vogue. The girl is gorgeous. Not gorgeous for a big girl. Gorgeous. Period. She’s got some face and she’s got some figure."

See, she can do anything men can do! She can have her milkshakes and drink them too! (Note the use of the word “young” twice in nearly adjacent paragraphs as a means of laudation).

The feminist(?)musicgeek encourages her readers to support and applaud female artists in the mainstream: “My mom might have acquired a taste for Joanna Newsom when I played ‘Sawdust and Diamonds' for her, but what’s not to love about these ladies?” then goes on to write an epic FOUR paragraphs about Adele's weight. Yes, it is true that she is a beautiful woman, but what male artists are being sticked-up-for-via-discussion in regards to their appearance?

These (appearance and weight) are topics which dwell outside of the auditory experience and which of a modern feminist should steer clear. We can knowingly and sarcastically blog about the “sad white boy” phenomena (don’t get upset, I’m only quoting former said blog (see link)) as long as we, at the same time, say “it’s good to support this mainstream artist because she’s a woman (we are so heartened to see you getting famous!) and we need to support her” and “hey let’s remind everyone that women are still beautiful even if they are at a healthy weight’ or in other cases “look at this looney bird in a swan dress”. Until we (women, ourselves!) stop even continuing this discussion, how can ladies in music even hope to move forward?
I guarantee you that not nearly as many “male” or “mostly-male” bands/artists have had article after article written about these silly things. Why don’t we write, instead, about the music itself? In this way perhaps we can come closer to a more complete auditory/intellectual/emotional evaluation of ALL music.

Shortly after Adele was so graced at the Grammys, I heard a somehow exasperating piece on NPR about why her music was so “emotionally intensive”: the “power of appoggiatura” ( translation of that funny italian word: a grace note performed before a note of the melody and falling on the beat). Apparently during the chorus of one of her most beloved songs, Adele deftly dips her voice down a half step for about a millisecond (not, in this case, before the melodic note but in the middle of it, ahem). It is in this interval, according to science, that her superhuman strength lies.  I must confess the explicatory audio clip didn’t really do it for me. And here is my problem. Yes, Adele has an effing fantastic voice. It’s lovely. She deserves to be recognized. But there she is on top of the world - without doing the writing all on her own.

It’s very, very common for female singers to have “help” in writing their chart-topping hits, if they even have anything to do with the compositional process. Especially the top sellers. But which male artists who win awards and are lauded for their sad-music “breakthroughs” (think Bon Iver or Radiohead) get there without writing their own darn music? As a highly trained classical pianist (I work at a university and have a degree from a top conservatory) I know that most anyone with physical/mental predisposition and loads and loads of hours of effort can cultivate their performance ability on instrument or voice. But what about self expression and creativity? Oh no, ladies. These are the ways of men. Why don’t you let them write heartbreaking songs that you can then lend your sexy voice to afterwards?

"Most female songwriters I know tend to be ‘top-liners’, writing the melody and lyrics to a song, while men still dominate the track and production (as is the case with Lily Allen and her collaborator Greg Kurstin)."

"Even though around 20% of the UK’s contemporary classical composers are female, this is not reflected at the Proms or at any other major concert series or festival. Of all the works performed by the LSO between 1997 and 2002, 1.3% were written by women. Of those that were written in the last 50 years, 6.5% were by women."

I am not saying that women who are gifted with voices like Adele’s or Whitney’s should step down from the spotlight or stop treating the world to their crooning skills. That would be akin to saying composers should stop writing operas or symphonies because they can’t perform the material themselves. Not very feasible or practical or desirable. But maybe we should start differentiating between Performers and Creators, not between men and women. Instead of focusing on the fact that musicians are of a certain sex (and all the extra-curricular discussion this entails), why don’t we focus on the creative efforts that go into their work? Maybe we’ll encourage more women to follow a musical career path. Maybe the LSO would program some more estrogen-y stuff, if it was being judged solely by virtue of its musical quality.

For now, I won’t even go into the implied issues (regarding expression and self-censorship and social roles and psychology) that the low number of women in creative music represents. That’s kind of what this whole blogging thing is all about.