MUSINGS ON WOMEN’S SINGERS: BETWEEN POP AND ROCK

NOTE: This post was originally written on 6 December 2021, but it’s published now, months later because of the cyberattack that UAB suffered then and that caused the temporary suspension of this blog

This semester I am teaching, as I have been narrating, a course on Cultural Studies based on analysing a selection of 60 songs by currently active women singers. Each student works on two singers, and I myself chose to work on Kylie Minogue and, after some hesitation between other options, Shirley Manson from Garbage. I offered my first presentation on Minogue’s “Spinning Around” without any glitch, except, as I could see, that students were a bit dismayed that I had chosen a bubbly pop song and a music video focused on Ms. Minogue’s display of her fabulous derriere in her iconic golden hot pants. The reception of my presentation of Garbage’s much more aggressively feminist “The Men Who Rule the World”, with lyrics by Manson and part of their most recent album, No Gods No Masters (2021), was, however, far more tepid, not to say cold.

I am sure that I used the same enthusiasm as for Minogue, and that the song and the video are no worse than many others we have enjoyed in class. It seems, though that I made a mistake in using a quotation to describe Manson’s reputation. Here it is (this comes from an article by Dayna Evans published in 2017, so please add four years to the ages mentioned); see https://www.thecut.com/2017/06/shirley-manson-garbage-returns-with-blondie.html. Manson states that

“[Debbie Harry and I] are some of the few women left who do what we do in the way that we do it. We’re getting rarer and rarer. I think people understand that this breed is dying.” She pauses, and adds, “Literally dying”. Harry and Manson belong to a generation of women musicians who, as she puts it, “write their own music and aren’t chasing pop success,” but Manson worries that the bloodline is thinning. Patti Smith is 70. Chrissie Hynde, 65. Courtney Love, 52”. (…)
For Manson, many of the music industry’s current megastars fail to pass her rock litmus test. “Rihanna is the closest thing we have in the pop world to a rockstar”, she muses, adding that she’s a huge fan of pop music. “If Rihanna wanted to make rock music, I’m sure she could. But unless you’re playing rock music, you’re not a rockstar”.

This elicited some comments in class about Manson’s patronizing attitude towards pop stars, triggered, I assume, by the perception that the much younger Rihanna (33 to Manson’s 55) is a much bigger figure than Manson herself. My students are around 20-22, so it is not surprising that they had never heard of Garbage, formed in 1993 and most popular between 1995 and 2007, when they disbanded (they reunited in 2010). Perhaps I didn’t help matters very much by stressing that Manson is my own age and that I admire her for a cool I will never acquire (but, then, the same goes for Minogue, aged 53). The question is that, clearly, if asked to choose between Manson and Rihanna, my students would opt for Rihanna. To my chagrin, they did not even like that much Chilean artist Javiera Garcia-Huidobro’s video for “The Men Who Rule the World”, with its clever cut-out artwork and its merger of the images of Manson and Metropolis’ Maria. A student found its anti-patriarchal imagery too overtly phallic. I’m miffed, most of all with myself for not being able to transmit Manson’s appeal.

The Shirley Manson fiasco started a conversation in class about why pop is more appealing than rock for women. I grant that I introduced the wrong bias in the course by focusing on solo singers, which has limited the presence of frontwomen in rock bands (I was more worried about excluding girl bands, which I am not really interested in). This means that we are more focused on pop than I originally conceived, though at the same time this has made the course (and the future e-book we are writing) more coherent.

In the notes I sent my students after class, I referred to some passages in the article by Joanca of November 2021 for Spinditty, “Why Did Rock Music Decline, and Can It Make a Comeback?” (https://spinditty.com/genres/rock-music-comeback). Joanca writes that “Girls and women 40 and under mainly purchase pop music. Despite the success of some later female rockers like 10,000 Maniacs and Alanis Morissette, modern rock still seems to have a problem attracting female buyers”. Joanca grants they doesn’t know why women and girls are much less interested in rock music, “but perhaps the feminist movement is one reason. The overt sexism and masculine nature of rock may have been a turn-off to girls raised with ideas of female empowerment. The rise of strong women in pop music, like Madonna, may have made it more appealing to girls and women as both listeners and artists.” I find that this is a good point, and in fact I ended up arguing in class that Madonna’s legacy is right now much bigger than Mick Jagger’s, whose most obvious male successors I fail to spot.

This other article, of March 2021 by Dorian Lynski, “Why Bands Are Disappearing: ‘Young People Aren’t Excited by Them’” (https://www.theguardian.com/music/2021/mar/18/why-bands-are-disappearing-young-people-arent-excited-by-them, considers the gradual fall of rock from another perspective, less focused on gender. The article was sparked by a comment from Maroon 5’s lead singer Adam Levine in the sense that there are no rock bands left –to which Shirley Manson angrily replied “What are we? CATS!?” What Levine meant is that there are no new rock bands making it to the charts; he was in fact issuing the same complaint Manson had voiced in the quotation about the ageing generation of women in rock. Several arguments are considered regarding the problem of the dwindling number of bands, most boiling down to the impact of the digital technologies: equipping a band to play live and funding their records is expensive in comparison to working with a laptop alone in your bedroom; social media seem better geared towards solo pop stardom. I believe that the popularity of Korean and Japanese boy bands contradicts the impression that watching guys together on the stage has lost its appeal, as another argument goes, but I do believe that what has gone is the sexual appeal of the rock music instruments, above all the electric guitar. Somehow, heterosexual women no longer fall for that (is there anything more pathetic than a rock groupie today?), whereas they never mastered the art of appropriating the electric guitar for themselves. I don’t mean by this that women can’t play rock, what I mean is that they have not generated an appealing iconography –or one as appealing as that of pop stars. Women rock singers may have fared better (I still believe that cool Manson is a case in point) but with very few exceptions like the ones she names, and others like Sharleen Spiteri of Texas, female rockstars are not rocking. Could it be, allow me to be flippant, that electric guitars don’t go well with dresses?

This does not mean that there is an insurmountable divide between rock and pop, or that each genre is gendered, with rock being male territory and pop, female. What it means is that none knows very well what the white guys that used to be the most visible fans of rock music are consuming. Possibly, Spotify has the key to the mystery. My students claim that the women pop singers we are studying have an audience composed of other women and of LGTBIQ+ persons, with, perhaps, a tiny minority of cis-hetero men. They say that, most likely, white men are listening to non-white men in the rap and reggaeton territories, unless music’s best-kept secret is that they are indeed following mostly women pop singers. I don’t think the audience for rock is lost for good, but I don’t think either that young men are pouring their energies into playing rock music. Maybe here is the key: rock needs a certain type of energy that you don’t see young white guys possessing today, and that young women are applying to pop (rap included). Perhaps what we are seeing is an extension of the listlessness that has young men do worse than young women in school and university to the world of music, but that’s just speculation. After all, black men seem to be doing fine as rap musicians, having never been truly interested in rock.

Manson might be right, then, to worry that popstars are not rockstars, being a rockstar herself in her mid-fifties, with no obvious female disciples. Perhaps they are to be found in the indie labels, and the problem is that it takes too much effort for rock lovers to find them given the dominion of the charts and of the Spotify pop lists (though I assume that Spotify might have a list of women indie rockstars). Manson is wrong, though, in assuming that there is a hierarchy in which rockstars are placed above popstars, which is what annoyed my students. I could imagine Rihanna patronizingly say that “If Manson wanted to make pop music, I’m sure she could. But unless you’re playing pop music, you’re not a popstar”. I hope Manson has not fallen in the classic patriarchal trap of pitting talented women against each other so that we fail to build the solidarity and sorority that should help all women singer march forward.

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