How Women in the Music Industry Are Using Social Media to Confront Sexism and Misogyny
Dec 28, 2016
Photography by Trevor Neilson Issue #58 - The Protest Issue
A Conversation with Best Coast's Bethany Cosentino, CHVRCHES' Lauren Mayberry, Lower Dens' Jana Hunter, Lush's Miki Berenyi, Beth Martinez, Amanda Palmer, Natalie Prass, Perfect Pussy's Meredith Graves, Tegan and Sara's Sara Quin, and Chelsea Wolfe.
It's easy for all of them to think of examples.
Natalie Prass remembers how her longtime friend and fellow artist Matthew E. White once asked her to drop by his Richmond, VA studio and record some backing vocals for a band whose album he was producing. Initially enjoying herself, talking with the band and brainstorming what kind of harmonies could be applied to the vocals she'd be singing alongside, Prass says once she got in the recording booth to lay down her parts the band members incessantly interrupted her, telling her how and what to sing. What made things worse for Prass—someone who prides herself on creative vocal harmonies—was the fact that what the band wanted wasn't good. "I was like, 'Fine, I'll just do it. If that's what you're hearing and that's what you want on your record—some bad vocal parts-sure.' I was like, 'Okay, I'll do that, but I'll also do my version after that.' It was kind of funny because if I had just done what I do, it would have taken me maybe 30 to 40 minutes to lay down all three of these songs I was to do. But because everyone was chiming in and telling me what to do, I was there for two and half hours. Matt called me immediately after I left the studio and he was like, 'Dude, those guys haven't said a word this whole session. And you walk in and everyone wants to tell you what to do.' And I was just like, 'Well, you just saw firsthand what a lot of girls have to deal with and what we go through. It's pretty common for people not to trust our judgment.'"
Chelsea Wolfe remembers how she was once accused by another band of not writing her own material—how she was just a product put together by men in the music industry. "I've been writing my own songs and creating my own visuals since I was nine years old," says Wolfe. "Working with other people along the way [I'm] always crediting them, but often not crediting myself enough, because I figured it was a given and I didn't need to say it since this is my project. I've seen how that can backfire in this world."
Tegan and Sara's Sara Quin remembers how one day while she and her sister Tegan were on tour, this guy who had worked with them for about a year said, "'Hey, on a day off, if you ever want me to come over to your hotel and show you how to use [professional studio recording software] Logic, you guys could totally be recording on the road!' And this was supporting [our seventh album] Heartthrob. Like, I've been in the industry 17 years. I've been recording my own songs, co-producing records, producing my own demos, I have a recording studio at home, and I just thought to myself, 'Oh my God!' If I was a male artist would he have just assumed I was a total ding-dong and didn't know how to record myself? I feel like I've taught my friends' five-year-olds to record. Is it that hard at this point?"
When women in the music business—whether they're artists or other industry professionals—talk about the ways in which simply being a woman has made them the target of belittling, discrimination, and even violation, the content of their stories is never as alarming or unsettling as the casualness with which they tell them.
For all its allusions of progressiveness, the music industry is still a place where women face forms of sexism and misogyny on a regular basis. Both sexism and misogyny are hardly exclusive to the milieu of the music industry. What is worth noting, however, is the manner in which women in music have chosen to confront the issue and bring it into the public consciousness. In the early '90s, for example, the Riot Grrrl movement, lead by artists such as Kathleen Hanna and her band Bikini Kill, created its own DIY music scene to spread a message of female empowerment through a grassroots approach of punk politics and zines. Today, this same kind of empowerment and sense of community is fostered not just by this kind of devoted subculture but also by social media's broad outreach and its ability to fuel conversation. "I remember reading a Kathleen Hanna quote where she was talking about zine culture as it had been so important to Riot Grrrl, but then said, 'I wonder what we could have done if we had the Internet,'" says CHVRCHES' Lauren Mayberry. "I think it's been amazing to see how that creates a community in certain ways. It does allow people to have really open discussions and makes feminism not an abstract concept that lives in an academic tone."
Quin agrees. "I think right now I'm feeling a real surge of connectedness to a lot of the women in our social circle," she says. "Whether they're visible public figures in bands or actors or just my friends from home, I think there's a real willingness and excitement and a sort of anger of, 'No, we are going to talk about this. Yes we are going to support each other. And yes we are going to retweet and comfort each other and say, "I've got your back on this."' People who jump in my head are Bethany [Cosentino] from Best Coast, Hayley [Williams] from Paramore, Lauren from CHVRCHES, Claire [Boucher] from Grimes. I see a lot of outspoken, really cool—and I don't want to leave anyone out—but there's dozens and dozens of really smart, powerful women saying, 'This is just not okay, and here are the things I'm feeling upset about right now,' and calling people out for things that they say. I feel really excited about that kind of stuff. I get excited about all these people. I'm seeing a lot of women stepping forward and talking with their fanbases and the people that follow them and really demanding that they either change their opinions, or be empathetic, or fuck off. And I really appreciate that. That's one of the real positive things that I like about social media. There's plenty to hate about it, but there is more happening in the community—that I sort of feel a part of—that that makes me think there's a lot of support out there."
Two very specific instances just this year demonstrated the solidarity and strength of this digital support system. One was the highly publicized court case involving Billboard chart-topper Kesha and her producer Dr. Luke. In 2014, Kesha sued Dr. Luke, seeking to void all their contracts because, according to the suit, Dr. Luke "sexually, physically, verbally, and emotionally abused [her] to the point where [she] nearly lost her life." In February 2016, a New York state judge denied Kesha a court injunction that would have permitted her to record new music without the supervision or oversight of Dr. Luke or her record label, Sony Music, while the civil suit trudged through the court system. When the ruling came down, numerous artistic peers including Grimes, Janelle Monáe, Lorde, Fiona Apple, Lady Gaga, Lily Allen, and Garbage expressed their dismay at the decision and their support of Kesha.
Social media channeled more than just sentiment when just weeks earlier, Dirty Projectors' Amber Coffman released a series of tweets revealing that Heathcliff Berru, founder and CEO of Life or Death PR & Management, engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior against her-groping her during an encounter together in 2013. Her comments prompted an unexpected response. Artists like Cosentino and Wolfe as well as industry publicists such as Judy Miller Silverman and Beth Martinez corroborated Coffman's allegations and/or revealed their own run-ins with Berru's sexual misconduct. Martinez in particular detailed in a string of tweets how in 2009, Berru repeatedly attempted to shove his hand down her shirt while giving her a ride home from a Chicago bar, with Martinez telling him to stop each time he did so. When Berru dropped her off to her apartment Martinez says, "I went upstairs and felt terrible and ashamed. I kind of just thought it was my fault for being in that situation."
In the days that followed, a number of Life or Death PR's artists cut ties with the firm, Berru himself stepped down from his position and entered a rehab facility (in an issued statement he cited drug and alcohol abuse as the reason for his behavior), and Berru's former coworkers ultimately shuttered Life or Death for good to start a new company. "These conversations shouldn't be ignored," says Cosentino. "You shouldn't be afraid to say something about somebody being a creep when we all work in this industry together."
"I'm angry at the situation," adds Martinez. "I'm not particularly angry at Heathcliff for being a horrible human, but obviously it's important to raise the level of conversation about this issue and make it less, 'This guy sucks,' and more, 'Look, this guy did this, but it's allowed to happen because of the bigger issue in the music industry.'"
As much as social media enables today's female musical artists to confront sexism and misogyny alongside their professional peers, thanks to the thousands of followers that can be accumulated on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and other platforms, it can also be done alongside their fans. This outreach can be as simple as sharing a piece of media, such as when Cosentino posted a video interview with the female-focused music and arts collective GirlSchool about how the Internet has changed the conversation of women in music, or when Mayberry once linked to a New York Magazine article titled, "Pop Feminism Doesn't Mean the End of the Movement," a piece arguing that feminism's aggressive activist spirit for justice and equality could still survive and even thrive through the less stringent methodology of today's mass market adoption of feminist ideals. And this sharing goes both ways, such as when a fan tweeted to Perfect Pussy's Meredith Graves asking if she'd read about an open letter posted on Huffington Post about what actions music festivals organizers could potentially take to end sexual assault and harassment at their events. While some could argue these micro-exchanges aren't going to suddenly change the worldview of someone who has long regarded women as inferior or as simple, sexual objects, they can make the reality of facing sexism and misogyny in any context much less isolating. "It's nice to be able to get a kind of cross-section of what people are interested in and what they're about, and if people are posting things which align with your social views," says Mayberry. "It's nice to see because then it's not just you thinking these things, banging your head against a wall constantly." Dresden Dolls' member and solo artist Amanda Palmer says she wouldn't be on the Internet at all without this kind of exchange with her fans. "One of the things I love so much about my corner of the Internet and my fanbase is that it is an incredible safe harbor compared to the emotional Wild West of the rest of the Internet," she says. "It's incredibly thoughtful and funny and considerate and compassionate."
For all the positive opportunities they afford, social media platforms undoubtedly have an ugly side. To say otherwise would be to gloss over the fact that the Internet and its pseudo-anonymous discourse is often impulsive, emotional, and unfiltered. For women, this often makes them the target of all manner of misogynistic trolls and vulgarity. In 2013, Mayberry decisively addressed and challenged this female-focused cyberbullying and its abhorrent practitioners with a lengthy op-ed in the British national newspaper The Guardian. Mayberry herself highlighted a number of comments posted on the band's Facebook page: "This isn't rape culture. You'll know rape culture when I'm raping you, bitch," and "I have your address and I will come round to your house and give u anal and you will love it you twat lol."
"I found it distressing and upsetting to read the more violent ones, and was generally like, 'What is this? This is like a weird social experiment,'" Mayberry told Under the Radar last year. "But everyone was like, 'Oh, well. It's just a thing that happens.' My favorite comment was from a woman on the Internet who said to me, 'Well, if you don't have thicker skin, you shouldn't be a woman in the music industry.' And I remember thinking, 'Man, I think there's something fucked up about that.'" The details and experiences Mayberry shared in her essay were incredibly personal, but they could just as easily be transferred to any number of female artists. "I try to remember that those people are sitting in some dark room somewhere, drowning in their own anger and judgment and sadness, and you're out there creating things and working hard and enjoying your life," says Wolfe in regard to her own online harassment. "Often, with social media, people just see an image. They don't think about the person behind that image, the complexity, life, and knowledge the person inside that image holds."
Even against the din of such noxious comment threads, the fact remains that women in music are taking full advantage of the online medium in a way that would have seemed inconceivable 20, even 10 years ago. "[There was never] this congregation of women in bands that got together and felt they could discuss such things," says Miki Berenyi, whose own band Lush was first active in the late '80s and early to mid '90s, a time when the Internet was in its dial-up infancy. "In a lot of ways, it was even seen as a bit of weakness. It would almost sound like you were whining."
Though social media as a tool is not a magical axe able to cleave off the heads off misogyny in all its multi-faceted forms, ultimately, by speaking out, and doing so in public forums that allow them to be interconnected with their followers and fanbases, musicians are setting an example that can hopefully go, as Mayberry says, "further into people's lives" and be adopted outside the confines of our smartphones, tablets, and computers.
"It's about facilitating conversations [about sexism and misogyny] on a one-on-one basis," adds Lower Dens' Jana Hunter. "People have to find time and security to have these little conversations with people that they care about to understand that misogyny isn't something we've figured out yet. It's still plaguing us."
Little by little, these conversations are taking place. However gradual, a paradigm is shifting. "It would be such a shame if, given the technology to progress, we become more and more isolated from each other and more and more insulated and ultimately smaller as human beings and as human hearts," says Palmer. "If you can find it in yourself to radically empathize with another human being, huge gates will open up to you in terms of the richness of your life experience."
"There's never been a better time to stand up and say, 'Here I am,'" says Graves. "'These are my experiences, and if you have the same experiences, I want to make room for you to share them as well-so maybe something can change.'"
If you are in the U.S. and have experienced sexual assault, there are organizations that can help, including RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). You can reach them at the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE(4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org.
[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's August/September/October 2016 Issue. This is its debut online.]
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