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Hey Boy, Hey Girl: gender, music, and the possible link between the two

By ; April 5, 2012 at 1:30 PM 

Upon reading Mark Richardson’s recent article about the link between gender and the music with which we identify, a thought process began in my head. I’ve always pondered the link between gender and music, but never really gave it too much serious thought, and Mark Richardson’s article seemed to ignite a fuse. I went to bed a few hours after reading the article, and even though I was up stupidly early the next morning, my mind was buzzing with questions and possible theories and answers.

I didn’t get much sleep that night, but I did write quite a lot, scribbling thoughts as they came to me, and making messy mind-maps that would be impossible for anyone else to read. The central question that seemed to keep cropping up was one that isn’t dissimilar to Richardson’s central theme: does our gender affect the music we listen to? Actually, that’s pretty much the same question altogether; I’ve merely reworded the part about identity. Still, I wanted to explore it from my own viewpoint, just to see if anything else interesting might crop up.

By saying that I sound like I’m trying to make myself out to be some sort of musical theory prophet, or even just a pompous music theory graduate – both of which I’m fairly certain I am not. But I’m not trying to put down a soapbox and shout about what I believe to be the truth; I just want to enter the room where the debate’s happening and put forth my view, like everyone else who wants to is entitled to. And this all links to, perhaps, one of the most important aspects of the debate – both about music and gender, and about any subjective topic: personal interpretation. One can read countless books on what the link between gender and music is, but it’s always important to keep in mind that it’s only one person’s understanding on the matter, much like any review you read here or anywhere else is just the opinion of that one person. Just because Mark Richardson identifies with Bill Callahan and has trouble creating the same kind of link with Grimes’ album doesn’t mean every man out there will do so.

Sure, I admire and really like Callahan’s work, but I haven’t listened to him long enough to form a personal bond with his music. My version of him would probably be someone like Andrew Bird, Thom Yorke, or maybe even Scott Walker. Every guy will have their own version of Callahan: for some it might be Kanye West, for others it might be Jon Bon Jovi. And for other guys it could be Grimes (Claire Boucher) or Madonna. There never will be one male or female who every single guy or girl will identify with; music – nay, art – is much too subjective to for that to happen. It’s like that scene from the 1998 animated film Antz: all the ants are supposed to dance to the same music in the same way, which they do (begrudgingly, I‘m guessing), but the film’s protagonist, Z, dislikes this, and rebels by dancing how he wants.

The simple point is that the music we identify with and end up listening to goes beyond our gender. Although they are discussing the topic of music interpretation, Dorothy Miell, Raymond Macdonald and David J. Hargreaves, bring up a point worthy of consideration in the book Musical Communication (no matter how subjective the argument is). They say that music goes beyond gender, and there are a whole host of other factors to be taken into account, such as age, personality, musical knowledge (training and/or literacy), and immediate short term preferences. And this list is potentially endless; you could consider class, location, or one’s social life. There is no one factor that will determine the music we listen to – not even gender.

So why am I still discussing this? I could end this article here, but I still think the topic of gender is worth exploring. There might be no immediate correlation between the two, but there are still interesting aspects to question and consider. I mean, gender might not be a single determining factor, but does it have any sort of influence over what we listen to at all?

I considered this point, and decided to do a little bit of low-key research to see if any sort of links appeared. My first idea was to send out a mass email to all the BPM writers and learn what music they really connected with. I asked them what their favourite album of all time was. The expected answer was that all the men (who are the majority in this small study) would pick albums by male artists, and that females would be the ones to pick female artists or bands. That sounds narrow-minded and stereotypical, but I merely wanted to see if this link (men listen to men, women listen to women) had any kind of truth to it. And it didn’t, which is not only is a great victory over narrow-mindedness and stereotyping, but is just plain old interesting. In actual fact, no female artists or bands came up in any of the answers I got.

And why this is, I really don’t know. As always, I can only theorize. Is just the age of music we live in, which is still male-dominated? That seems too easy an answer, plus, I like to think my fellow writers go beyond whatever likely male-fronted act is thrust in their faces, and chose the albums they did because they have real merit (among many other things). People listen and connect with certain and particular types of music for a whole variety of reasons. It could be the way it marketed, or that it just captures the sound that runs through their head constantly, or that it questions life in the same way they do.

In a bid to delve into this a little further I asked my family – particularly my sister and my mother – about why they listen to what they listen to (as I said, low-key research). Admittedly, my mother’s music taste seems to go no further than major key balladry that’s probably stuck on a Love Songs compilation, so I didn’t feel like I was stepping into any kind of deep water. When I questioned why she liked this kind of music, she seemed to put a particular focus on image, and how the artist(s) they were portrayed. She had no fondness of Amy Winehouse, but enjoyed Whitney Houston (until her recent death shed light on her drug-fuelled lifestyle). If it was both innocuous in image and sound (you know, the kind of thing you could put on This Morning after a piece about breast cancer and before a review of bouncy castles), then my Mum would probably be fine with saying it’s, well, fine.

However, I then remembered a point a colleague of mine here at BPM brought up once, is that the reason that most popular music is successful and easy to market to women, is that it’s seen and heard as empowering, liberating and free from any outsider oppression (which is rather ironic as these balladering women are often backed by a whole friggin’ orchestra and a mixer board with twenty producers looming over it). But this argument only goes so far, especially when making the assumption that women will only listen to female artists who sing these sorts of songs. In fact, this argument is horribly flawed when you consider the success of bands like Take That or Westlife, who have made careers on this kind of music.

But, again, the image seems central here. Groups like Take That and Westlife (Americans, think Backstreet Boys or ‘N Sync if you’re unsure who I’m talking about) are portrayed as clean, fresh-cut, airbrushed men who will sweep you off your feet. My Mum would never really listen to anything Robbie Williams released on his own, as it’s often more rambunctious and focused on sex-drive rather than love, but put him back with Take That and you’ve got an appealing product. This relates to a point regarding one of my sister’s favourites groups – One Direction. Again, they’re seen as innocent, all perfect smiles and floppy hair. When it came out that one member – Harry Styles – was dating an older woman, millions of teenage girl fans lashed out, most likely because they didn’t want anything ruining Harry’s perfect and innocent image. And recently, when another member announced they were set to be a father (on April 1st, mind you) the fans almost immediately turned it into a joke, claiming that Harry was the father. Although it probably was a joke (I have no real desire to follow up on the story), I can’t help but interpret this reaction as a sort of diversion by the fans, a defence mechanism, if you will, replacing a fictitious silly explanation with the truth because they don’t want it to be true in the first place.

Anyway, I’m getting off point here. I asked my sister if gender came into the picture at all. Would she still love the music as much as she did, and devote herself to the band had all this music come from a group of females? As you probably don’t recall, One Direction came into the world from UK reality TV series the The X Factor. This has produced plenty of female equivalents of One Direction, yet they have nowhere near the kind of support and following that the boy band in question does (unless you go back to the days of Girls Aloud). My sister said she was unsure, saying further that she’d like to think that she’d like the music if it came from a different artist, but I could sense a certain doubt in her. She loves this band (especially Mr. Styles), and I don’t think anyone else could make her replicate this huge fondness she has (except maybe a certain Justin Bieber).

So where does this put us in the whole gender argument? Girls like boys, it would seem, but girls also have a fondness for music done by their own gender. Image, however, seems to play quite a pivotal role in it all. The recent revival of love for long-album-title-creating Fiona Apple seems to stem from how she portrays herself as a nonchalant, well-versed and perceptive individual. One can’t but wonder if the size of her success or her fanbase might be different had she been marketed as something else entirely by a money-hungry record company.

But what about boys? Where do us guy fit into gender question? We may be different to women in countless other ways, but we’re just as difficult to assess in the topic of gender. All I can really do is assess the situation from my own experience, which is what I’ll do. Earlier I mentioned the artists that I connect with, and they were all men. Let’s take Andrew Bird as example. He’s dryly witty, insightful, and nearly always appealing in some form or another. I connect with his music because it reaches out of its comfort zone at a comfortable pace, and his lyrics because they ask they kind of questions I like to ponder over (“Do you wonder where the self resides? / Is it in your head or between your sides? / And who will be the one who will decide / its true location?”) and because they investigate the realms of language and what one can do with it. But then consider someone like Laura Marling. She’s also witty, insightful (if not a tad more cynical) and has (so far) released three greatly appealing and rewarding albums. Yet I never feel like I’m completely understanding her music. There’s just something I’m not latching onto, and when I think about it I feel bad for not being able to overcome this boundary.

This never happens with Andrew Bird, though. While his rambling might go over my head at times, I never feel any kind of alienation from his work. Is it simply that being a man holds me back from fully understanding and appreciating a female artist’s work? I don’t know – I hope not. There are women in the music world who I feel I can connect fully with. Beth Gibbons of Portishead comes to mind. Even when she’s singing one of her most famous lines – “I just wanna be a woman” – I feel completely there (which is full of all kinds of interpretation that can be saved for a meeting with my therapist or a post on Songmeanings.net). I shouldn’t really bother to try defend myself; I’m no special case. I’ll welcome any kind of music to my ears whether it’s done by guys, girls or a bunch of people in between those two states.

Still, my answer to my own question about my favourite album is dominated by male artists – Radiohead and Andrew Bird (unsurprisingly). But there’s also Icelandic band múm, and their album Yesterday Was Dramatic, Today is Ok. And one of the many reasons I love this album is because it reminds me of, and captures, something about my own childhood. That was a time when I had no conception of gender politics, or much else for that matter. Childhood is something we’ve all experienced in some form or another, and something we can all look back on (happily, I hope). Thus, it comes as little surprise to learn that the band that made this evocative album is a group of men and women. Childhood isn’t gender specific – we’ve all been through it, as I said – so we can all relate to it in some form or another.

Of course, the innocence of youth only lasts so long, and before you know it you’re suddenly adhering to the whim or hormones and peer pressure. Growing up, my music tastes were often dictated by what my older sibling listened to, and in a bid to be “cool” and act older than I was, I would often jump on any bandwagon that came my way. I like to think that sometimes I just liked the music because it was appealing to myself at the time – Backstreet Boys come to mind – or because it was just good pop music. Like many others in the era of their arrival, I too fell for the undeniably catchy music of The Spice Girls, but at the time I was also wrestling with the fact these five girl were women, (most of) whom were appealing beyond the music.

And I imagine the situation was similar for all those girls who stuck huge door sized posters of the guys they loved on their bedroom walls. Part of you likes the instantly appealing product they’re selling, but you also like the instantly appealing person that’s selling them.

But this doesn’t really take us much further into the discussion of what role gender plays in determining the music we listen to. But maybe that’s just it. Maybe gender plays no singular role in it, and, rather, the music we listen is simply determined by the likes of age, musical prowess, where we live and gender. I imagine it would be impossible to find a correlation between a truly representative gender group and the type of music they listen to. There’s always going to be other factors that need to be regarded and equal, if not more weight. There’s always going to instances (for me, at least) where men don’t quite understand or interpret an album, or a piece of music, or a work of art the same way a women does, nor will women get what men find appealing about other things. It’s always going to be perplexing, no matter what side of the spectrum you’re on.

That’s what makes it interesting, though. That’s what makes it so appealing to spend near enough three thousand words aimlessly questioning. That’s what keeps music and the way we hear it alive. That’s what keeps us from ending up like a colony of ants, dancing and listening to the same music. Our differences keep it different. I can’t really explain it further than that, and no one – not me, nor Mark Richardson – ever will. All I know for certain is that we love the music we love; a sentiment that I hope will transcend gender.

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