Pitchfork has a report on recent comments from Bjork about the music press’s frequent failures to give women artists full credit for their work. She talks about how men involved with the technical end of her record Vespertine have often mistakenly been given credit for more substantial creative work like production and arranging, and also about how the music press has similarly inflated the importance of Diplo’s work with M.I.A. The undercurrent here is that the press often assumes lesser creative roles for women who in truth do a great deal of their own production and arranging work. Women are understood to be singers, and little more; for everything else, the press figures there’s bound to be a man tending to things somewhere in the background.
Pitchfork’s news story is half-apologetic, half-defensive—but I’d say that even quite apart from this particular situation, they often fall very far short in terms of their treatment of women artists. For example: take a look at the lineups for the Pitchfork Music Festival these past four years, and you’ll see very few female artists and female-led bands. This year, for example, they might easily have booked any number of female artists who are presently doing substantial and interesting work in the indie rock mode—why not St. Vincent, or Nina Nastasia, or Marnie Stern? Pitchfork also very rarely gives women artists a heavily favorable lead review, or does much to promote them into band-of-the-moment status. St. Vincent did get that kind of momentary buzz-band boost, but then come the end of 2007, her very fine record Marry Me didn’t even make the cut for their annual Top 50 list. Or, take the way that women artists are often taken to task in reviews for failing to meet preconceived ideas about what a female performer ought to be doing:
Case’s lungs-for-days Dollywood boom may be as direct an emotional instrument as there is in contemporary music, but her increasingly prominent songwriting skills tend to eschew visceral connections for intellectual intrigue and poetic mystery– and Flood features Case’s most cryptic lyrics to date. The odd disconnect here between singer and songwriter is absorbing: Though shaded by finely-tuned, country-noir twang, the rapturous belter’s high-minded lyrical aspirations often undermine her throat’s unhindered veracity….As a refined version of Blacklisted, Flood provides alluring riddles and obsessive desolation, Case subverting her easy-access vocals with difficult abstractions and heady projections. Yet, after fishing through Flood’s 12 intricate tracks, a plainspoken love song delivered in that voice would not be unwelcome.
That’s from the Pitchfork review of Neko Case’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, in which critic Ryan Dombal expresses a wish that Case would just quit it with all this complex poetic songwriting business and get back to singing “plainspoken love song[s]” like a good, simple woman singer should. What really gets me here is that Dombal even seems to think that Case’s “difficult abstractions and heady projections” do make for good songs—but he would seem to prefer it if she’d stick to a more conventionally-accepted role for a female performer, that of the big-voiced country chanteuse.
In any case: kudos to Pitchfork for at least mentioning the issue. If Bjork’s comments lead to any more self-examination around their offices, it’s bound to be a good thing. But meanwhile I’m not holding my breath for more substantial coverage of women artists in the music press.