The Real Problem with “Blurred Lines” and Female Musicians
“Blurred Lines” is a song that’s causing some problems.
Let’s get the video out of the way first (warning, there are some missing clothes):
My friend wrote to me last week, asking if I had seen it. “It makes me uncomfortable,” he said. “It takes a lot for that to happen.”
I’m uncomfortable too. Not because there are boobies. Whatever. I’m uncomfortable for other reasons though: 1.It’s a stupid song. I’m annoyed that songs like this get released, and in all the fuss over the visual content of the video, people forget to talk about the fact that the song is a piece of crap. Boring, repetitive, condescending, apparently a parody, but not actually smart enough to come off as one.
2. The message that girls, as always, fall into one of two categories: dirty or good. What!? Why are we holding onto a ridiculous method of categorizing women, their actions, their looks, their abilities, and their personalities? Sometimes we are dirty. Sometimes we are good (whatever that means). Sometimes we are dirty and good at the same time, not to mention, um, everything else. This sort of categorization might be called Elvis Syndrome: marry a good, virginal sweetheart, and have a cache of dirty girls on the side that only serve one purpose. Do not allow the wife to perform the duties of the dirty girls and vice versa. Ergh.
I’ll leave that one there, because the discussion it can open up is too big for a post like this.
3. The worse message that the role played by women in the video is still the only place for girls in the music industry. To be fair, it seems Robin Thicke dropped himself into a girl party (yes, okay, a naked/flesh-coloured underwear one), because they seem rather annoyed by him. They’re not interested in impressing him or his gang of fully-dressed dudes. They’re barely even engaging.
It would be nice, though, if the girls had the role of bass player, or drummer, or even backup singer. I say that because when my friend’s email came in, another one came announcing the line-up for last week’s Big Valley Jamboree in Camrose, Alberta. I had a look and immediately thought, where are all the women? Female performers amounted to less than 20% of the weekend’s line-up, and country is not currently a genre where men outnumber the women.
Then it turns out that this year’s Lollapalooza is being venerated for its effort to offer 20% of the slots to women. I can’t believe we’re in a place where such achievements are remarkable. Is it just a fluke that festivals like BVJ aren’t featuring an equal number of female and male performers?
I had thought that roots music was one genre where women were quite present, not just as pretty faces or sensitive songwriters, but also sometimes as kick-ass players. Even though the coverage of such women can be limited, they do exist. But when I get to a place like Calgary and I ask all of my interviewees to name some female musicians in the roots scene that I can interview (there aren’t many here), I get a lot of blank stares and long silences.
Take music stores. Any kind, really. I once bought a few punk CDs, Sex Pistols, The Clash, etc. The cashier asked in surprise if they were for my boyfriend. Go to a guitar store and try to get out of there with a) what you want and b) not feeling stupid. Good luck. For a long time, I’ve thought that I should open a girl-friendly gear store, where you can go in, and it’s run by women, and you can say, “I love the sound of the guitar on this song, can you tell me what pedal to buy?” and you won’t feel like you’ve interrupted some secret boys’ club meeting that requires an encyclopaedic knowledge of gear. That you could talk about tube amps without acting like a jerk poser; do it out of genuine interest with people who are like you.
In some situations, I’m used to the fight to gain music cred. I have to face classrooms full of young men with crossed arms and baseball caps challenging me to deliver what I know about Metallica or Jimi Hendrix. I have no problem with that. It doesn’t help, though, when your colleagues come in to evaluate you and focus on your appearance rather than the content of your lectures. I once spent ages creating a solid lecture on rap, and then got my review: “have you considered using a prettier font on your powerpoint slides? Perhaps a nice border to complement the font? I’m wondering about wearing brighter colours, or maybe putting your hair back? Students would probably like that.” Not one word about the content of my lecture.
So now when I prep, my checklist looks like this:
1. Convert all slides to Bookman Old Style.
2. Find flower border.
3. Place pretty headband in hair.
4. Insert this video into powerpoint presentation.
When Amanda Palmer fought back on the nipple-focused review that came from her recent Glastonbury performance, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of sympathy. Good on her for this response (I suspect I won’t be incorporating it into lectures anytime soon):
Are all of these examples indicative of a much deeper problem that nobody really knows how to address?
Feminism is fractured; young women are so reluctant to label themselves as feminists, claiming the fight is over and things are good enough as they are. Not true. I’m not the best feminist. I don’t proclaim it very loudly, I should do more to ensure that we’ve got equal access to jobs and higher incomes, that domestic abuse declines, that we aren’t trapped at parties at the mercy of some “mansplainer”. But I don’t do any of those things. Whenever I’m in a relationship, I make my partner change my guitar and mandolin strings. I do it partly because I have a totally irrational fear that the strings will snap in the process and hit me in the face, and partly because I know that as women become increasingly independent, yet expect their men to be “manly”, that we need to give our men, well, manly tasks to perform. I approach killing centipedes and taking out the garbage the same way. When I don’t have a man around, my guitar strings practically disintegrate.
Still, I don’t think it would be such a bad thing for there to be more, and more, and more solid female role models for girls coming up in the industry. We don’t have to bare our nipples, but if we do, it should not be for a background spot in a Robin Thicke video, nor for an outraged response against a poorly focused review. I can’t think of a compelling reason to bare nipples right now, but I suppose there is one. In any case, it should be secondary to the kick-ass solo we’re playing.