Thursday, March 18, 2010


Guys and gals, let's try and do better, shall we? Exclaim! recently put up this review on its website:

All-female indie popsters Vivian Girls make no bones about what they do: low-fidelity garage rock steeped in amateurish pop. Key word? Amateurish. If these band members had penises, people would say they suck. However, they're empowered femmes who hold their instruments in that painfully awkward way only novices can, and are adored for it kind of like when the Donnas were first starting out, without the cool tunes, mind you. Their simplistic songs relayed in a pseudo-enthusiastic, trashy, loose way were amusing even if they lacked any true substance, but who needs something as unnecessary as meaning when you're that cute, right? Naturally, the crowd was raving even though this trio were clearly the least talented act on the evening's bill.

It then received a letter to the editor saying that the review was "half-assesd music 'journalism'" that was "offensive and sloppy," "chauvinistic," etc. The letter was not, I don't think, particularly on point, but there is an important point to be made here. And that point has nothing to do with personal musical taste, hype, the merits of the band in question, their adeptness with their instruments, or anything else like that. It has to do with the words Keith Carman used in his review, and how they betray his sexist attitude toward the band. But I don't mean to harp on Keith alone. I suspect few people would be able to point out where he went wrong.

Why are the words "trashy" and "loose" in this review? Both are generally gendered female---as in, they are words that are almost always used to refer to female beings and objects we think of as female. By using those words, he's very nearly called the members of the Vivian Girls sluts and whores, in addition to "amateurish," "painfully awkward," "pseudo-enthusiastic" novices with simplistic songs that lack substance.

One may certainly take issue with his non-gendered characterizations, but though they may be insulting and possibly uncalled for---I am not in a position to comment on them because I wasn't at the show---it's the gendered language that really offends. And there should be no place for this language in a review. Or anywhere.

No one's perfect, and I've surely been guilty of sexist language myself. My point is that we need to learn to recognize it when we see it, take note, a deep breath, and try not to do it the next time. But judging from the Facebook comments, people don't even see what I see. This is a real shame.


Justin Beach said...

I understand what you're saying and I agree - feel free to also post to NxEW - if you feel the urge.


AO said...

Whoah there! I think you're taking the descriptives "trashy, loose" way out of context! You can't selectively ignore the first adjective in that same list: what Carman writes is that they played in a "pseudo-enthusiastic, trashy, loose way", which could describe just about any garage band.

You also can't selectively ignore that Carman calls this a band of "empowered femmes". Surely, his acknowledgment of their empoweredness undercuts what you call a sexist attitude?

The real issue -and this is an oldie! - is whether women who don't have chops should be allowed to "get away with it", musically speaking, if they are clearly trying to win an audience with looks/sexuality/cuteness. Another question is whether women should be judged by a different standard of "chops" than men. Carman seems to be suggesting that the only standard of "good" is the one with penises, and yes indeedy, that's sexist.

Putting the ladies aside, we all like different kinds of music and we say that it's "good" for different reasons. Sometimes it's musical chops, sometimes it's attitude or personality, sometimes it's songwriting and other times it's just that the band is damn good looking. I'm sure plenty of punk bands that Carman totally digs are fairly crappy musicians... but he forgives them because there's something else about the band that he finds a saving grace. Hopefully it's not simply that HIS favourite crappy bands have dicks. But alas that's pretty much what he implies when he says any band with penises couldn't get away with what the Vivian Girls do.

Personally, I can't stand all-women acts who can't play. I also can't stand all-male bands who are all widdly-wanky. I really can't stand the assumption that the one true standard for what's "good" is anything with a penis. And what I can't stand the most is suggesting that women in bands who openly flaunt good looks and sexuality are less deserving of our praise and attention than hordes of guys with varying degrees of talent who have made a career out of it. (Elvis, Mick Jagger, George Michael, Shaun Cassidy, any boy band....)


historyjen said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Justin and Allison.

Allison: Your selectively ignore is my focus. And taking words out of context is what one does in a gender analysis. It's how we get at underlying assumptions and beliefs, expose them, and hopefully learn from them.

I wonder whether the author would have used the particular words "trashy, loose" in a review of an all-male band. (I've been told "yes" but some other commenters, but I am not convinced.) I suspect the reality is that because Vivian Girls are women, and because he has such a hate-on for them that stems from them being women punk rockers, that the word choice is telling.

There's a lot of other words he could have used. And should have, if he wished to avoid accusations of sexism. No doubt he would be shocked by my reading of his words, but that's the point: he should acknowledge the poor word choices and next time think more about which words to use.

As for your point about "empowered femmes," I don't understand what you mean. His use of it is snarky and uncalled for. Is that what you mean?

There are lots of other issues here, but I don't know enough about this band and their marketing strategy to comment.

I'm glad we're having a discussion about this! Thanks!

Mechanical Forest Sound said...

Hm. Had I just read that without any warning, I would have been annoyed by the review, but I don't think I would have taken strong notice of trashy and loose.

As to "whether the author would have used the particular words 'trashy, loose' in a review of an all-male band", I can't look into that dude's heart, but I can say I wouldn't've thought of the terms as being strongly gendered.

Being the quick-to-feel-guilty sort, I checked my own back pages, because I could easily see myself using language like that. When we talk about music all the time, we fall into all kinds of shorthand and while I've never called anyone trashy (which I generally probably wouldn't, because, although it's generally used in an aesthetic sense similar to "kitsch", I think there's a pejorative element to it that has as much to do with class as gender) I certainly treat "loose" as the other end of a musical continuum that runs to "tight" — neither of which has a higher ethical standing, as I've praised people for being both.

Which is to say on the narrow point, I'd defend the author. As to the tone of the whole thing, yeah, I have some problems.

rungloriarun said...

I'm not too familiar with that band, so I can't judge the actual suckiness of this band, but it's guaranteed that girl bands that suck probably couldn't have made it big if guy bands that suck didn't already exist and make that sound popular. What I'm trying to say is that male musicians can suck just as bad as girl musicians and also be popular. It's just that when girl bands suck, people like this writer tend to notice not only that they suck but also that they're girls. Nobody ever thinks, "oh, this guy totally sucks AND he's a dude!"

I'm confident that this attitude will eventually change though, as more gals get into rock music. Girls that rock out and kick ass are still woefully a minority in the music scene, but once there are enough of us, nobody will be able to ignore it any longer!

I also feel that way about racial minorities.

Anonymous said...

he could have just said the show was horrible instead of making assumptions like the band relies on their looks to get by. the review is clearly sexist. he says the band was amateurish, well, the writing of this review seems to follow suite by stooping to such lows. also, assuming music listeners are idiotic enough to judge the worth of a band based soley on their gender (If these band members had penises, people would say they suck), suggests that keith Carmen does not really understand what it means to be a music fan at all.

historyjen said...

Thank you everyone for your comments. I really appreciate you taking the time to comment, and it's helped clarify what I mean and where I'm coming from. I'm thinking about writing up something longer for My intention is not to disparage---and sorry, Keith Carman, for picking on you---but this particular review is a great example of what can be so wrong about music writing (and just life in general).

historyjen said...

Anonymous said...

You are correct, I feel, in stating that 'trashy' and 'loose' are probably not terms that would be used to describe a male band, no matter poorly they play.

Negative review aside, language such as this is may not immediately stand out as 'sexist', but once someone points it out, you realize that word choice does matter. I didn't think of 'loose' and 'trashy' on my first read as sexist words, but we say, write and read things like this everyday, not realizing the sometimes unconscious meaning they carry with them. A thought-provoking view of music writing and reviewing. Well done, interesting discussion.

Marsha said...

Hi Jen, I do feel there is an underlying double standard when it comes to girl bands - if they are not technically proficient, they are riding on their 'cuteness'. Well, the Sex Pistols and every other punk or garage band in history were not technically 'good', but they had an energy, an attitude, or some image fans could relate to. When a girl band has that energy (at this show they brought the packed crowd to dance/mosh/and sing along), all the sudden that stage presence is not legit? That said,

1. I was at the VG show, and then at a metal show the next day where I saw Keith, the writer. I asked him what he though of viv girls. He gave me the "i'm thinking if they were dudes no one would like them" right away. I laughed it off, which i tend to do, adding "well I did see many druling fanboys up front", adding to his argument. Now I feel bad. So, I thank you for bringing up this on your blog because I bet I laugh off a lot of sexist comments everyday without thinking about it. That reminds me, we were at a metal show, and I'm not sure if you guys follow Keith's writing but he mainly writes about metal and punk. In heavy metal (a classical-based, not blues based music), there is an unspoken rule that if a band is not technically tight, they are shit, nothing else matters. Not that that excuses his comment, but I think he puts a lot of weight on instrumental techniques and the performer's comfort with their instrument.

2. I think interpretation of adjectives can be conveniently self-serving to anyone's point. I've never used 'trashy' in my writing, so not sure if that was sexual, but 'loose' is generally excepted in music writing as the opposite of 'tight', in fact I just read a blogger describe the (all-guy) band the Effens in this way: "I might say they sounded kind of like The Strokes except maybe a little looser, noisier." Off course one exception does not prove a point. We'd have to do a scientific study on the use of this language in music writing.

3. I think one of the comments on here assuming the writer hates women in his personal life is unfounded and uncalled-for. I don't know him that well but I know he had his loving wife with him at both shows and he is one of the most approachable guys you'll ever meet at a metal show - he's not machismo whatsoever. I'm thinking of trying to get him in on this discussion.

Thanks for bringing up such an important issue!

Megan Hamilton said...

Here's what I'm saying: why are we even using the term "all-female" bands anymore? THAT drives me crazy. As though it's some kind of valid descriptor. If we keep thinking in these terms - "female-fronted", "all-female" (I won't even get into "all-girl"), we keep propagating the idea that women holding guitars are "novel", "different". I think making any comparison between the current state of the band vs. "if this band were men..." is a stupid choice on the part of the author, and I'm surprised to see it in Exclaim!. Surprised and frustrated.

Anonymous said...

I think Jen made a very valuable point here. It is not about feminism or gender analysis, it is about how sexist our gaze can be in the everyday life, and that it is not fair - and that we should have the balls to reflect about it and try better. The society does apply double standards, and while we can explain why this is so, it is simply wrong. There is a strong current of patronizing towards weaker women performers/artists/historians/whatever, and the thing is that there are mediocre people - always will be - but why treat mediocre women like laughable trash, while we'd still see chances in a guy?