Why Are All The ‘Cool’ Musicians Dudes?

Why are we so busy thinking about boys? Incidentally, this music video is great.

Music takes up most of my life. I am constantly plugged in to headphones, listening to and searching for new music, and I even make a part time hobby of writing about music, so I like to consider myself someone with a fairly wide musical diet. There’s this specific area of music that I listen to lots of music from, the intersection of a Venn diagram with fairly high amounts of commercial success one on side and a lot of critical acclaim on the other. Think Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Anderson Paak, Chance The Rapper, the kind of music that doesn’t always live in the Top 40, but is close, and is very popular and respected by “music people”, and gets 7s or more out of 10 from Anthony Fantano reviews. You might notice something about that list. Yeah, they’re all African-Americans, but that’s mainly a function of the fact that music at the moment is driven by Hip-Hop and R&B, and black people make the best music in those genres.

The big thing is: they’re all dudes.

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not going to come out and say that there aren’t any women in that zone. Rihanna, both Knowles sisters, and Lorde probably all fit the same bill in terms of critical and commercial success in music, but men seem to be extremely over-represented in that specific musical and critical space. At time of writing, you have to scroll down through 9 of Noisey’s last tweets, about 10 of The Fader’s, and 6 tweets from Pitchfork to get to one about a female artist. Those are two of the main places I go to get new music, and they’re just churning out dude content. Similarly, if you go to Pitchfork’s Best New Music section, most of the music is made by guys. I think it goes without saying, but I’m gonna say it anyway: that’s a problem.

Women are allowed into music, but seem to be allowed to sit in certain places of the public consciousness. They’re pure pop stars, like Katy Perry, or they live in the small communities of music lovers locally. The Top 5 for the Silver Scrolls in New Zealand, our nation’s premier song writing award, are all women, but the majority of people in the country probably hasn’t heard of 4 of them (the other is Lorde). Women are around the music scene, but they don’t fit as well into this certain level of discourse.

Part of the problem is definitely that the blogs I talked about earlier focus on guys, but it seems likely that the issue goes a little further than that. It’s all down to people’s expectations of women, when compared to men. All of this applies to labels, to listeners, and the gatekeepers in the middle. As a society, we expect different things from men and women, particularly when it comes to musicians. Where male musicians are mainly judged based on their music skills (or just their marketing abilities), women are expected to market well, to look conventionally attractive, to stay young. It’s this insane number of expectations that very few male musicians would stand up to if they were put under that sort of pressure. Men can be recluses, or make crazy weird music like Bon Iver, and have success without it coming “despite” anything. So, when labels discover a female artist, their decisions are made less based on talent, and more on external factors that would affect their success. That leads to a whole lot more conventional female pop artists, which means that female musicians have fewer role models for a more artistic brand of music. It becomes a cycle where we get heaps and heaps of men who sit in the studio and make cool stuff without compromise, and a more women that buy into conventional avenues of success. When we get fewer cool female artists, writers have fewer to write about and then people like me end up with a less balanced gender split on their playlists than they should.

The internet has created a whole new music economy, and yet I still have a daily rotation playlist that is dominated by male artists. That’s a problem, so I’m going to try to start being part of the solution. Send me cool female artists to listen to on Twitter, and I’m going to make a conscious effort to do more signal boosting for cool women who make cool music. Some I like that you might not be listening to yet are SZA, Tei and Noname. Let’s all do better on this.