Don’t Drink the Pickle Juice: A Call Out of Sexism in the Music Industry

The following is the first article in an on-going series about women in the music industry. This all-inclusive series will touch on sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and more as we explore how identity, gender, and privilege all play into the power dynamics of working in a field that is so influential to pop culture and ingrained day-to-day routines. Ultimately, we hope to show the highs and lows of what it means to be a female-identified person working in music, and interrogate how we as fans, consumers, and humans play a role in both the oppression and support of women in the industry.  

Content warning: Rape, abuse, misogyny, transmisogyny

“You have to be a beast-that’s the only way they respect you…Is it wrong? For wanting more for myself and wanting people to treat me with respect?…When I am assertive, I’m a b*tch. When a man is assertive, he’s a boss. He “bossed up”. No negative connotation behind being bossed up. But lots of negative connotation behind being a b*tch.” This quote is taken directly from a video of Nicki Minaj putting her makeup on in a hotel room, while simultaneously calling out the blatant sexism she faces working in the music industry as a woman. Her reaction in the video was in response to her walking out on a photo-shoot that had a $50 budget for clothes and a “spread” of sliced pickles. While some saw it as a diva move, in the clip Minaj explains how she doesn’t settle for low-quality treatment- she works hard to be where she is, and isn’t afraid to voice her unhappiness with low-quality treatment. Though a seemingly innocuous incident, she sheds light on the outright sexism and double standards most women face working in music.

She’s right-every industry in America is basically a boy’s club. Hell, the whole world is practically a sausage fest made up of fragile masculinity with a hint of insecurity and a generous helping of oppression. The music industry is no exception. The three largest record labels in the world (Warner Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, and Universal Music Group) are all run by male CEOs and majority male boards. But the pervasive sexism that has infiltrated every corner of the industry doesn’t just stem from male ownership and control over the means of musical production; sexism is steeped into lyrics, exposed in journalistic coverage of female singers and musicians, and flagrant in the treatment of women in the industry (by fans, male musicians, and executives alike).

The complete integration of casual and overt misogyny has been embroiled into the very fabric of the industry over the course of decades, to the point where as fans and listeners, we fail to see, let alone question, these normalized double standards.

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Let’s analyze a pretty basic double standard: The fact that all-female groups and solo performers like Fifth Harmony, Little Mix, Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez (and so many more) all need to market themselves as more than just singers- entertainers, dancers, etc- is a rather subtle and easily glossed-over example of the larger gender discrepancy women face. These women’s concerts are full of dynamic, hyper-choreographed routines, multiple costume changes, and a slew of back-up dancers; conversely, all the One Direction boys have to do is walk out onstage in an old t-shirt and unwashed hair and play pranks on one another while singing, and still sell-out stadiums (don’t get me wrong I am a ride or die One D fan, but at a certain point it’s pretty blatantly obvious how much less work they need to put in their image to maintain a level of credibility and legitimacy).

The sad truth is that women don’t start their musical careers out at square one, but square negative ten, and have to put twice as much effort, time, and dedication into what they do to prove they deserve to occupy the space they take up in the industry; for men, that space is an inheritance- a right. Ironically, even when women put the extra work in, they don’t receive credit for it.

Grimes is an outspoken advocate for women in the music industry, and has talked candidly on multiple occasions about the sexism she’s faced in her trade. In an interview with The New Yorker, she describes how she feels that she has no choice but to engineer her own sounds, because any help from a man, no matter how miniscule, would automatically discredit the rest of her original sound creations. “I can’t use an outside engineer,” she says. “Because, if I use an engineer, then people start being, like, ‘Oh! That guy just did it all.’ ” This sort of paternalistic be-careful-don’t-hurt-yourself mentality that surrounds women’s accomplishments in the industry is stifling and it discourages women from experimenting with their own sounds, which means the people who often get the credit for mixing, producing, and engineering an album (all the “legitimate” and “meaningful” jobs in music-making process) are men.

There is something to be said for creating, from start to finish, a collection of songs that reflect the story and emotion captured in lyrics and vocals; there’s a special bit of heart and soul in an album that a female artist produces-a bit of heart and soul we miss out on as listeners.

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Misogyny isn’t enforced solely by producers; there are plenty of male singers who perpetuate sexist ideologies against their female counterparts. In a Sirius XM conversation between Grimes, Sleigh Bells’ Alexis Krause, and Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek, Caroline describes her experience on tour with Ariel Pink and his band. Ariel (who, for the record is a pretty horrible, entitled human being) made fun of for her vocal warm-ups before every show, to the point where she had to leave each venue and find an alley to do her exercises in. That’s right an alley, because Ariel and his bandmates made her so uncomfortable being near them she couldn’t warm up in the venue. Yes, this is only one example with one exceptionally crappy man (I realize not all male singers act like pigs), but the point is that a lot of men feel like they have the right to make women feel uncomfortable and give their unwanted opinions on everything from women’s appearance, sound, performances, and technical know-how.

But look! Another, even more offensive example of white men asserting their privilege (because there are certainly no lack of examples of that!). The queer, radical, trans-fronted feminist punk band G.L.O.S.S (which stand for Girls Living Outside Society’s Sh*t, naturally) found itself the target of a tirade of transphobic tweets lobbied by the mediocre pseudo-shoegaze band Whirr. The unprovoked attack started with offensive tweets about the band, and ended with even more offensive tweets about trans people and suicide (you can read about it here if you have a high tolerance for ignorance and transmisogyny).

Luckily, Sadie Switchblade is a woman who can hold her own and dish it with a vengeance, but the point is that a culture exists that allows all-male bands to feel like their opinions are the end all be all, and that they don’t have to face the consequences of their words. The fact that Sadie identifies as a trans woman, and was the subject of this attack is important to keep in mind when discussing gender and power dynamics in the industry. Trans women, especially trans women of color, are one of the most at risk demographics for homicide and suicide in America, and violence against them, even in the form of words, can lead to and normalize violence against them in the real world. Thankfully, Whirr had to eat their words after immediately being dropped from their record label, but their hurtful words can’t be erased and sadly other bands might not learn from this cautionary tale.

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Sometimes, though, the threat of violence against women in the industry, cis or trans, moves beyond just tweets and threats. In the widely publicized case last year, pop-singer Kesha was in a fierce legal battle with Sony after publically labelling producer Dr. Luke as a rapist and abuser. Forced to work under contract exclusively with Dr. Luke, Kesha was exposed to verbal, emotional, sexual, and physical abuse that caused her to develop an eating disorder which nearly killed her. The Kesha case represented far more than one man’s abuse of power; it showed that corporations in the music industry refuse to treat the singers signed to them as people, but rather commodities that can be squeezed for money past the brink of their humanity.

Though Sony said it was supportive of Kesha’s attempt to break the contracts she was under with Dr. Luke’s company, they were unwilling to help her unless she recanted her rape allegations against him. Dr. Luke is one of the most successful producers in the industry, and Sony was afraid of losing and tarnishing a valuable asset with the stench of a rape allegation. Under capitalism, corporations have no room for empathy for trauma survivors, only room for profit, and Kesha going public with her trauma wasn’t a good source of profit. Not only are women belittled, made fun of, and underrated as singers performers, and producers, their mental health and safety are literally threatened by sadistic individuals and the corporations protecting rapist, abusers, and pigs.

Thankfully, there are people in the industry who refuse to sit by while this happens, like Jack Antonoff and Zedd, who were quick to offer support in the form of song producing amidst Kesha’s legal battle (you can buy it here). Of course not every man in the industry is a creepy misogynistic pig, but the actions of a respectful few shouldn’t cancel out or hide the unequal gender dynamic that persists.

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On this comprehensive tour of the music industry, we’ve seen everything from immature boys making fun of female musicians to rapists hiding behind their reputations and greedy corporations. Acknowledging the problems women face in the music making field is the first step, but to really make a change, we need to actively work against the forces harming women. This means not supporting companies who protect rapists or musicians/producers who are rapists/really crappy humans, purchasing and supporting music made by women, and supporting the women and young girls in your life who want to make music and carve out a space for themselves in the industry.

It can be pretty depressing and discouraging reading about the non-stop hardships women face when trying to create and push musical boundaries, but ultimately we as fans and consumers have a responsibility to act on our values and have zero tolerance for racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia in the industry. If the industry won’t change from the inside out, let’s work from the outside in to bring about a positive change.

 

 

 

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