Welcome to Word Vomit Wednesday! A series of blog posts about a specific topic from current events that I, and sometimes the rest of the Internet, ruminate obsessively about. All thoughts/opinions/experiences are my own (unless otherwise indicated); I don’t claim anything that I write to represent anyone other than myself.
If you're a human who exists and is somewhat aware of things happening around you, you've probably heard these two words a lot recently: me too. These words no longer hold the same meaning they once had. No longer are they bouncing with excitement when a common interest between new friends is revealed or jumping in to join brunch plans for the weekend. It turns out, those two tiny words in the English lexicon have been carrying an enormous weight and are now wielding their true power. Activist Tarana Burke started the #MeToo Movement nearly 10 years ago as a way to help victims and survivors of sexual assault and harassment feel supported and know they're not alone.
Fast forward to October 2017, both The New York Times and the New Yorker came out with harrowing stories from women who alleged harassment and assault, by now-disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Since then, stories highlighting everything from inappropriate and harmful behavior in the workplace to coercive and manipulative behaviors by men on casual dates have been starting long overdue conversations and taking powerful men down left and right, across all industries. All except one. The music industry. And because I am not an idiot and you are not an idiot, we know that it's not because the music industry is a beacon of light in the darkest corners of our culture, but one of it’s worst offenders. So, why is the music industry’s #MeToo moment so long overdue?
Art in itself aims to push the envelope and the boundaries of what is considered “decent” by whatever cultural standards are being upheld at the time. It’s also a way to underscore hypocrisies, build empathy, and look at our lives from different perspectives. Music, especially, is a gift in the ways it can get straight to the heart of feelings that cannot be expressed fully through verbal communication. In the mainstream, Rock ‘n’ Roll became the vehicle, the code of conduct and the badge of honor for, specifically, the men who became it’s stars. But the puritanical American environment it proclaimed to be railing against was just the flip side of the same coin. While it was claiming to subvert norms of the day, really what was it but another pulpit for white men to preach, set the narrative, and do whatever the fuck they wanted with almost zero consequence. Whether it was the men onstage or the men behind the scenes, exploitation (of women, black musicians, etc.) has always been the name of the game. In an industry that prides itself on being anti status-quo with the tagline of “Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll”, it sure does everything in its power to maintain it. The counter-culture as a facade of just our shitty culture. Since it really only applies to men, it also makes the sentiment less rebellious and expressive and much more insidious.
Everything that we hear and know about going on in these other industries is and has been going on in the music industry. So why is it that, when we know someone can sing or play their ass off or produce some great records, we turn a blind eye. And it’s not like women haven’t tried to fight back. When they fight or attempt to take control of their careers and lives the smear campaigns are brutal. She was on drugs, she’s a diva, she’s a liar, she’s just a groupie looking for a payout, she’s having a mental breakdown, look what she wears onstage, she didn’t write those songs, how many people did she have to blow to get that famous and successful, didn’t she know what kind of business she was getting into, and on and on and on.
One of the only stories we’ve heard anything about in the past couple of years is Kesha’s battle with producer Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald. Her case went public as she began to fight him in court in hopes of being released from her contract, in which her record label Sony would only allow her to release music if it was with him. Though her collaborations with him on hit songs like “Tik Tok” catapulted her into the mainstream, it was at a steep emotional, psychological, and economic cost to her. It came to light that Dr. Luke put her through a wringer of alleged emotional and verbal abuse, manipulation, drug use and rape. (For a timeline of the case, click here). Who the fuck would want or even be able to muster the energy to try and work collaboratively with a predatory piece of shit like that. But Sony stood by their man and a contract that she signed with him when she was just a teenager. They couldn’t have cared less about her career let alone her well-being as a human. Her recent performance of new music at the Grammy’s was from the first album she was legally allowed to release in five years. And her legal entanglements with Dr. Luke and this nightmare is still far from over for her. It’s still unclear whether she was only allowed to release the music because he gave her permission to do so. Which, if true, means that he is continuing to profit off her and her pain which he has personally caused. This is sickening.
Her story, though, is not unusual. This industry has a habit of preying upon very young girls and women, turning them into objects of sexual desire for men, and dismissing them when they no longer want to play by those rules. A friend of mine who was in a band that used to go on Warped Tour in the summers, recalled to me that at seventeen-years-old she would be ushered into clubs by music industry men and touched inappropriately and in ways she was not comfortable with. And because she was so young she had no idea what to do about it and probably no one to report to. It’s not like this industry has a functioning HR department. This experience is one of the more tame ones that I could write about here. It’s a predicament that is familiar to a majority of women and it’s the same no matter what part of the industry you’re occupying: executive, A&R, production and engineering, artist. If you’re a woman or female/femme-identifying person you’re facing an uphill battle in a fortress that’s foundation is entirely made out of the objectified bodies and subsequent victimization of women. This excellent article here, highlights just how the industry is set up to fail women.
Another more well-known abuser that literally nothing has been done about is R. Kelly. Not only does he currently have multiple women trapped in various homes, completely cut off from their families and basically being used as sex slaves, HE’S. A. PEDOPHILE. Y’ALL. Remember when he married a then fifteen-year-old Aaliyah (RIP) when he was almost thirty? Yeeeeeaaaaahhh. But because of a combo of him having “talent,” being a punchline on a very memorable episode of South Park, and seeming to only abuse black women people just turn their heads the other way. You best believe though, if he had fucked a fifteen-year-old Taylor Swift when she was starting out there would be no more after parties in hotel lobbies and all of the women trapped in his closet could be set free because he’d finally be trapped behind bars. This industry, literally, let’s men get away with pretty much everything. Women could not matter any less.
Women don’t have time for this type of fuckery, so we’ve been making our own spaces to create music, polish our engineering and producing chops and pass on our knowledge to female, transgender, and gender non-conforming youth. AND YET. Without a beat there will be a yearly article wondering aloud where all the women producers and engineers are. It is BEYOND fucking frustrating. It is the laziest piece of journalism, if you can even call it that, ever written. There are groups and labels all over the world that exist to support and connect female music professionals. I can name six off the top of my head: Female Frequency, Soundgirls, Women in Music, Women’s Audio Mission, Beatz by Girls, Gender Amplified, Inc. I’ve worked with Female Frequency for the past three years and for about a year I’ve been in charge of their #tbt posts in which I highlight a woman and/or queer artist/producer/dj/engineer etc. and I find them with just a simple Google search if I’m not already thinking of someone specific. I swear to goddess I will strangle the author of the next “Where Are All the Female Blah-Dee Blahh Blahs” if they don’t start talking to actual female professionals in the industry and critically thinking about how the music industry has and continues to shut views out that don’t fit in a nice white cishet patriarchal narrative. Here's one of the only articles I have ever seen to not pull this bullshit.
A sliver of this ignorance was showcased recently in an interview that NARAS (the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) president, Neil Portnow gave to Variety in which he said, in so many words, that if women wanted to be successful in this industry they needed to “step up.” Just so I don’t go through my intense feelings of anger as I write about this again, I’m going to leave a snippet of a piece I wrote that was one part response to his comments after the most recent Grammys and another part Female Frequency #tbt featuring the incredible Amanda Palmer and her response to his completely out of touch statement:
“...when an ignorant and brutally out of touch Neil Portnow got on that Grammy stage this past weekend and told women in the industry in the condescending patriarchal way that so many of us are accustomed to that they need to “step up” to be successful, I took a deep breath. He just spoke in front of an audience that included Beyonce, Kelly Clarkson, Janelle Monae, Pink, Lady Gaga and so many other of the most successful, innovative, and vocal women in our industry and told them that they are not doing enough. He stood on that stage that Kesha had just poured her pain and heart out in a song about her healing from sexual assault to an arena filled with people who were complicit in the system that allowed her to be assaulted and abused and even prohibited her from doing her job for four years and implied that those roadblocks were her fault. This kind of vile proclamation is not new to many of us. Palmer released a statement this week in response, “... I stepped up, dear industry dudes, I am making a really healthy salary every year and paying an entire team and hundreds of other musicians and artists and producers to collaborate with me in getting art out into the world. I am doing this all without the Grammys, without the major labels, without the completely corrupt radio stations, without the news media, without television, and without acknowledgement from any of the industry awards or contests, ever. So suck it, Neil Portnow. No woman in the industry needs to be told to ‘step up.’” She goes on to request the following action, “Women have been stepping the fuck up, and you have every opportunity - more than you ever did - to support them, now. When they step up, be the stairs” (you can find her full statement with this link). Be the stairs and lift up marginalized voices. That is the only way parity is going to happen and this is why Female Frequency exists. And Soundgirls and Beats by Girls and Women Beatmakers and WIM and WAM and the list goes on and on. We have stepped up and continue to step up in an industry that has made it clear that our points of view and experiences are not welcome, so we’ve made the space for them to have a voice. We are mastering our crafts and we are excellent at what we do. The #MeToo movement has yet to have the impact on the music industry that it desperately needs to, but I’m not worried about that. In the event of the reckoning about to hit, and it will most definitely hit, I have a suggestion for Portnow and his like-minded ilk: if you don’t want to get steamrolled I suggest, sirs, that it’s time for you to step aside.”
The backlash was swift and soon reports began coming out about the emergence of a “female advancement” music industry task force at NARAS with a statement from Portnow, “I understand the hurt that my poor choice of words following last Sunday’s GRAMMY telecast has caused… I also now realize that it’s about more than just my words. Because those words, while not reflective of my beliefs, echo the real experience of too many women. I’d like to help make that right.” First of all, a half-assed non-apology is not a great a start. We’re not doing that anymore. Because so many of these statements have a history of being empty and as excuses to save face in the court of public opinion, the idea of a task force whose goal is to “do more to overcome the explicit barriers and unconscious biases that impede female advancement in the music community” sounds like a whole lotta unspecific bullshit. Because this is the thing, if The Academy specifically, and the industry at large wanted to change they’d have to tear the whole thing down and start anew for that to happen, and that’s not going to happen unless it’s forced to. This industry is predicated on the objectification of women as a vehicle for cishet white male rage and desire. Until that view is obliterated, nothing of real value will change.