Serious Musicians

Florence Foster Jenkins, an American soprano who became famous for her complete lack of rhythm, pitch, tone, and overall singing ability.

When I was younger, (much younger) I remember my sister excitedly telling me about this great new “girl band” she had seen on TV. She went on and on about how cool and tough they looked. It turns out she was talking about the Spice Girls. Though I ended up liking the Spice Girls quite a bit, (hey, I was young) I distinctly remember the disappointment I felt at seeing that they weren’t quite the serious musicians I had pictured in my mind. I had pictured a band, with each member playing an instrument like the guitar, bass, drums, maybe a keyboard or something like that. I imagined at least one of them wrote music. You know, the sorts of things one imagines a ‘band’ to do, except this time they would all happen to be girls.

 

I had that same feeling of disappointment earlier this week when I followed a link to this list. To summarize, it is a list comparing musical heavyweights (so to speak) with musical lightweights- bemoaning the fact that the lightweights have achieved greater commercial success than the heavyweights. The thing that immediately struck me was that every last one of the heavyweights were male, while the majority of the lightweights were female (6) or mixed sex (2). Only 4 of the lightweights were male.

Now I’m not about to argue that Ke$ha is a better musician than the Beatles, nor am I going to quibble with any one of the comparisons. But I find it telling that when looking for an example of serious, deserving musicians the result is, without fail, male. And when looking for an example of cheap, shallow, undeserving, popular musicians the results are majority female- disproportionate to the percentage of female musicians that make the top 40.

The same way I felt disappointment to find that the Spice Girls weren’t really a band, I often find myself disappointed with the scarcity of Serious Female Musicians. In part it is simply a problem of advertising. There are lots of female musicians out there and they quite often find it hard to get the publicity needed to gain real notoriety. Too often their music isn’t judged on it’s own merits but is instead judged by the appearance of the musician. (Something many male musicians never have to face.)

Even in the world of classical music female musicians face many obstacles to being taken seriously and receiving the credit they deserve. For example:

Using data from the audition records, the researchers found that blind auditions [where the performer is not seen by the judges] increased the probability that a woman would advance from preliminary rounds by 50 percent.

At the same time, it doesn’t feel quite right to be telling female musicians that, if they want to be taken seriously and be respected then they need to write the same sort of music men do, and they need to perform it the same ways men do. In other words, we shouldn’t be telling women that if they want to be successful then they must act like men. Instead we should be expanding the definition of respectable, serious music to include the sorts of music women make and the sorts of music women like.

Earlier I said that I wasn’t going to quibble with any of the comparisons, but I changed my mind. #7 says that Shania Twain’s Come on Over sold more copies than any Queen, Nirvana or Bruce Springsteen record. While Queen and Nirvana aren’t really very apt comparisons, Twain and Springsteen aren’t all that different. Both are singer-songwriters, both play guitar and other instruments, both gained some popularity through sex appeal. Yet the only major difference is that Springsteen is a man, and wrote the sorts of music men tend to like, while Twain is a woman whose music appeals primarily to women. Yet, for some reason we’re meant to be disappointed that Springsteen didn’t sell as many copies as Twain.

So why do I care so much about this random list from the internet? I care about this list insofar as it is emblematic of the feelings of a wide segment of the population. No, this list isn’t the cause of the sexism in music, but it is a handy summary of the problem and serves as a good lightning rod for criticism.

Anyways, who are your favorite female musicians?

Starfoxy

Starfoxy is a fulltime caretaker for her two children.

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31 Responses

  1. Cynthia L. says:

    YES, I saw the same comparison chart and it bugged me for the same reasons. Thanks for the thorough take-down.

  2. Heidi says:

    The list is too heavily weighted towards Serious Male Musicians, but it is also incredibly lazy — the Beatles are mentioned three times (like the rest of the world, I really like the Beatles, but come on — do they have to be THE pop music litmus test forever and ever?) In addition to the lazy and the sexism (women’s looks and sexual availability are so taken for granted as a selling point that they wouldn’t have even seen that in the list), they weren’t comparing apples to apples, the only one that comes close is Michael Jackson and Katy Perry — two pop musicians. But even that doesn’t take into account the way music is sold and marketed now and how that inflates the numbers.

    That said, favorite female musicians:
    Patti Smith
    Liz Phair
    Nina Simone
    Billie Holiday
    Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth)
    Kim Deal (Pixies, Breeders)
    Cat Power
    Santogold
    Janelle Monae
    Jill Scott
    Madonna
    Neko Case
    Nico
    Marianne Faithfull
    Karen Carpenter (That voice! Like shimmering gold)
    Kathleen Hanna
    Ladyhawke
    Laura Marling (English, not well-known yet, but really great)
    Florence Welch
    Amy Ray and Emily Saliers (Indigo Girls)
    Ani DiFranco
    Tori Amos
    Debbie Harry

    I know I’m forgetting some! The point is that all of the cheesier, popular bands that were selected have sold more than these ladies, but most of these ladies are just as well-respected and critically well-reviewed as many of their male counterparts and could have just as easily been substituted for some of the all-male serious musicians that were put into the list to represent Serious Music.

  3. Lala says:

    Regina Spektor
    Joni Mitchell
    Fiona Apple
    Natalie Merchant
    Elisa (The songs “Rock Your Soul” and “A Little Over Zero” especially…)
    Charlotte Martin (“Redeemed” and “The Dance”…amazing…)
    Ingrid Michaelson
    Jann Arden
    Sarah Mclachlan
    Missy Higgins
    Imogen Heap
    Ella Fitzgerald
    Sara Gazarek (jazz)
    Melody Gardot (jazz)

    Joan Szymco (choral composer…incredible)
    Libby Larsen (choral composer)
    Amy Beach (Modern Classical Composer…whom I never studied in college because my BYU music history professor cut all women and minorities out of the syllabus)
    Clara Schumann (Robert Schumann’s wife)
    Hildegard of Bingen (Renaissance…okay, I don’t actually listen to her music but I think she’s awesome…maybe I’ll start now)
    Nadia Boulanger (Composition teacher who taught many early 20th century composers)

  4. Diane says:

    What the heck,

    NOT ONE MENTION: Janis Joplin, sorry about that, I’m breathing in an out. Deep cleansing breath in, Deep cleansing breath out

    • Diane says:

      Let’s not forget Joan Osborne and least we forget R-E-S-P-E-C-T find out what it means to me: Miss Aretha Franklin, Miss Patty Labelle, Natalie Cole, Norah Jones, Gladys Knight Diana Krall, Bonnie Raitt, Barbara Mandrell, Reba MacIntyer. Pat Benetar

      • CatherineWO says:

        Diane,
        You and I must be of the same generation. These are many of the same names that came to my mind too.

  5. Jessawhy says:

    I really liked Jewel and Natalie Merchant when I was younger. I’m not a big follower of true music (I’m a follower of the top charts music, I even like Tik Tok- sorry).

    Excellent post, Starfoxy.

  6. Alisa says:

    I love Vashti Bunyan, a folk musician.

    And while I am not personally a fan, I don’t see Barbara Streisand as a lightweight at all as she is pictured in the list. She’s had an amazing career that I believe is based off of her talent and not her superficial characteristics.

    • alex w. says:

      I agree, I was confused at the lightweight-ing of Barbara Streisand. I always thought she came across as a serious musician, even though I’ve never been a fan.

  7. Kristine says:

    uh, Clara Schumann, Amy Beach

    (which is to say, I’m a total nerd, but classical music has all the same problems)

  8. Mommie Dearest says:

    Don’t forget to put Cyndi Lauper on your lists.

  9. Miri says:

    Does it remind anyone else of women’s basketball? (Other sports too, but there’s a THING about basketball for some reason, at least as far as I know. I’m not remotely interested in sports so it’s possible there’s a THING about all the others too and I just don’t know it.)

    Anyway, women’s sports. Also movies that mainly star women, even if they’re not remotely romantic. Also books written by women. Also General Conference talks given by women.

    Seriously, how anyone can argue that we’re not a sexist culture is beyond me. Becoming slightly less sexist does not mean you’re not still sexist.

  10. Jacob M says:

    That’s just an awful list on many levels, besides what you are pointing out here. Like the music they bemoan, their list was vapid and meaningless.

    My add on to your awesome females list : PJ Harvey. Superb artist! She can be a little out there at times, but she’s really great, particularly when she decides to rock.

  11. Mindi says:

    Sheryl Crow
    Adele (don’t know if she plays an instrument – she sings & writes songs)
    Sarah McLachlan
    KT Tunstall
    Pink (again, don’t know if she plays an instrument but she sings & writes songs)

  12. alex w. says:

    Oh man, that list. It is irritating.
    I have a serious beef with the whole “these people are REAL musicians and these other people are just stupid, and if you listen to them, you have terrible taste in music” thing that lists like this show/perpetuate.

    Annnyway. I really like Ingrid Michaelson, Kate Nash, Regina Spektor, Tegan and Sara, Adele and Florence + the Machine. And probably some others that I will remember later. And to a lesser extent, I’m pretty cool with Katy Perry, but it’s not like I’d want to listen to her all day (unlike the above artists). That should be a “guilty pleasure,” but I think she’s worked plenty hard and I like some of her songs.

  13. Diane says:

    Catharine WO

    I am 47 years old and I have earned every single one of those years. Are you brave enough to announce your age?

  14. spunky says:

    This is excellent! Um.. couple of my favs…

    Carol King (ironic that she wrote some of James Talyor’s most popular hits- I wonder about that- female writers for male performers?)

    Sinéad O’Connor

  15. amneris says:

    I agree with feeling strange about adulating the Beatles. As a child I could not listen to most of their recordings because they are so out of tune, as are a lot of the Rolling Stones’.

    Ok, so some more women composers:
    Sofia Gubaidulina (surely today’s most important composer besides György Kurtág)
    Kaja Saariaho
    Olga Neuwirth
    Patrizia Jünger
    Adriana Hölszky
    Galina Ustwolskaja
    Keiko Abe
    Johanna Doderer
    Mayako Kubo
    Isabel Mundry
    Pauline Oliveros
    Younghi Pagh-Pan
    Germaine Tailleferre

    I know that I should add some moderate modern composers like Ruth Zechlin and Grete von Zieritz, too, but they are not as interesting as the avantgarde heavyweights just mentioned.

    Renaissance composer Giulia Caccini and baroque composer Barbara Strozzi were excellent musicians mentored by their fathers. Alma Schindler (married to Gustav Mahler, then Walter Gropius, then Franz Werfel) as well as Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Wieck also got a solid musical education but were not able to fully develop their talent because of their duties as wife’n’mother. So unfortunately they remained talented lightweight.

    When it comes to Jazz, there are a lot of great female artists, who are not singers:
    big band leaders Carla Bley and Toshiko Akiyoshi
    bass legend Carol Kaye
    drums legend Cindy Blackman
    free jazz legend Irène Schweizer
    and a whole generation of younger artists.

    Last not least remember all those great cuban, brazlian, cabo verdian, spanish, portuguese, gypsy etc. divas, among them
    Celia Cruz
    Yolanda Duke
    Maria Bethânia
    Astrud Gilberto
    Elis Regina
    Marisa Monte
    Amália Rodrigues
    Lucília do Carmo
    Vera Bila
    Ida Kelarová
    Esma Redzepova
    Carmen Linares
    Bernarda and Fernanda de Utrera
    Mercedes Sosa
    Cesária Evora

    ALL of them are heavyweight!!

    @ Lala: Hildegard’s music is not very interesting

  16. amneris says:

    I agree with feeling strange about adulating the Beatles. As a child I could not listen to most of their recordings because they are so out of tune, as are a lot of the Rolling Stones’.

    Ok, so some more women composers:
    Sofia Gubaidulina (surely today’s most important composer besides György Kurtág)
    Kaja Saariaho
    Olga Neuwirth
    Patrizia Jünger
    Adriana Hölszky
    Galina Ustwolskaja
    Keiko Abe
    Johanna Doderer
    Mayako Kubo
    Isabel Mundry
    Pauline Oliveros
    Younghi Pagh-Pan
    Germaine Tailleferre

    I know that I should add some moderate modern composers like Ruth Zechlin and Grete von Zieritz, too, but they are not as interesting as the avantgarde heavyweights just mentioned.

    Renaissance composer Giulia Caccini and baroque composer Barbara Strozzi were excellent musicians mentored by their fathers. Alma Schindler (married to Gustav Mahler, then Walter Gropius, then Franz Werfel) as well as Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Wieck also got a solid musical education but were not able to fully develop their talent because of their duties as wife’n’mother. So unfortunately they remained talented lightweight.

    When it comes to Jazz, there are a lot of great female artists, who are not singers:
    big band leaders Carla Bley and Toshiko Akiyoshi
    bass legend Carol Kaye
    drums legend Cindy Blackman
    free jazz legend Irène Schweizer
    and a whole generation of younger artists.

    Last not least remember all those great cuban, brazlian, cabo verdian, spanish, portuguese, gypsy etc. divas, among them
    Celia Cruz
    Yolanda Duke
    Maria Bethânia
    Astrud Gilberto
    Elis Regina
    Marisa Monte
    Amália Rodrigues
    Lucília do Carmo
    Vera Bila
    Ida Kelarová
    Esma Redzepova
    Carmen Linares
    Bernarda and Fernanda de Utrera
    Mercedes Sosa
    Cesária Evora

    ALL of them are heavyweight!!

    @ Lala: Hildegard’s music is just some boring hymns for one voice. Not really worth listening. Minnesongs and early polyphony of that time are far more interesting.

  17. amneris says:

    Sorry for posting twice. All I wanted was to edit my first post….

  18. James says:

    Didn’t see Eryka Badu or Bjork above. Also run do not walk to look up Janelle Monae. She almost lit the stage on fire when she performed on Letterman awhile back.

    Dianne Reeves is one of the most gifted and versatile jazz singers around. She is also incredibly generous of personality…if you ever want to come away feeling better about life, go see her in concert.

    Anne Sofie von Otter is one of my favorite classical singers…stunning mezzo.

  19. Gisela says:

    I have teens so I have to add Avril Lavigne and Taylor Swift. They both play the guitar, sing, and write a lot of their own music.

  20. Diane says:

    I completely forgot about Martha Reeves-Dancing in the Streets(motown)

  21. Naismith says:

    Mary Chapin Carpenter (her “Passionate Kisses” is one of the greatest sense-of-entitlement songs ever; great to listen to before asking for a raise)

    Dixie Chicks

    Kathy Mattea

    Alison Krauss

  22. Jen says:

    Joni Mitchell, Sleater Kinney, Stevie Nicks, Neko Case, Jenny Lewis, Brandi Carlile, Nico, Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Krall, Dum Dum Girls, Dessa, Norah Jones, Gossip (Beth Ditto), & Peaches. Just to name a few 🙂

    There are many, many more.

  23. Jen says:

    Oh yeah! Bjork!!! Saw that glancing back up at the comments above mine. She is the best. In my opinion, better than most of those “hardhitters” on the list.

  24. Sandra says:

    Ditto to everything so far. And I would add Aimee Mann, Sara Barielles, Kori Gardner of Mates of State (I love their wife/husband duo) and Jenny Lewis (fronted Rilo Kiley and now in Jenny and Johnny).

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