How Not To Write About Female Musicians: A Handy Guide


Maybe it’s all that misguided Year of the Woman chatter that dominated year-end roundups, or the slow, agonizing creep of Fashion Week, or the coming apocalypse, but hoo boy has there been a lot of terrible writing about female musicians in the past few weeks. The latest offender is the New York Times style magazine T‘s cover-worthy profile of Lana Del Rey, which manages to be offensive from its first sentence and somehow gets worse from there. (There are even photos by the terminally icky Terry Richardson.) This piece inspired me to put forth four questions that writers, whether they’re male or female, whether they’re people with Tumblrs or those important enough to score offices at the New York Times building, should ask themselves before hitting “send” on their next piece about a woman making music.

1. Go through your piece and flip the gender of your descriptive phrases’ subjects. Are there any that sound ludicrous as a result?

Descriptions of musicians’ looks are just the tip of the iceberg here. Let’s play a game: Could you imagine the following phrase being written, never mind getting through an editor and being published in a major newspaper:

Without straying too far off the indie grid, he’s the perfect antidote to Bon Iver-Radiohead overload—dare we say, a skinnier Damian Abraham, a more stable Kurt Cobain?

No, of course not. Because a) it’s just a jumble of names, b) just how big is this “grid,” and c) mocking the “stability” of someone dead after a life marked by turbulence is outright gross. And yet T‘s Jacob Brown did exactly this—subbing in Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Adele, and Amy Winehouse, in that order—in the second sentence of his piece, after gushing over how “curvaceous and pretty” his subject was. Does this statement say anything about the music being made, and how it plays off Born To Die? No, it focuses on their public profile: overexposed, fat, crazy-slash-dead—and the result is a bunch of recycled cocktail-party chatter, turned into a doorman’s grudging nod to those people Cool Enough To Know What’s Good.

(I guess my example is a bit flawed, since of course rock would never be painted with such a broad brush, being as it is Important Music Made And Listened To By People Who Have Thoughts. Not like those silly pop artists who are so trifling and crazy/overexposed!)

Chuck Klosterman’s chin-scratching about tUnE-yArDs’ Pazz & Jop win contained a similarly hackle-raising line:

Garbus will end up with this bizarre 40-year-old life, where her singular claim to fame will be future people saying things like, “Hey, remember that one winter when we all thought tUnE-yArDs was supposed to be brilliant? That fucking puppeteer? Were we all high at the same time? What was wrong with us?”

Anyone want to get a male critical darling of yore on the phone to talk about his “bizarre 40-year-old life”? I’ll wait.

2. Are you essentially making shit up about the artist in order to sexualize her?

I’ll let Chris Randle at the Toronto Standard handle this one, because his response to National Magazine Award winner Tom Junod’s assertion in Esquire that Rihanna, Beyoncé, and Ke$ha operated under “porn names” (as opposed to Florence Welch) is delicious and correct:

…he specifies the devices that pop stars remind him of: sex toys. “Beyoncé and Gaga, Rihanna and Ke$ha: They share little but an ability to impart an awareness that whatever their music pretends to be about, it’s really about becoming Beyoncé, Gaga, Rihanna, and Ke$ha—about living up to their porn or (in Stephani Germanotta’s case) their drag names.”

Beyoncé inherited her Creole mother’s maiden name as a tribute. “Rihanna” dates back to both Old English and ancient Arabic; it’s her middle name, but then pop already had a Robyn. And aside from the vertical stroke, “Ke$ha” is what appears on that woman’s birth certificate. Sorry, Beyoncé! You may have erroneously thought that your music is “about” hard-won female independence, or the joys of creative fidelity, or making people dance, or, as Daphne Brooks once wrote, “what it means to lose, and to have, and to possess.” But you’re a silly girl with a trashy name. The real theme of those albums was demonstrating your fuckability for Tom Junod.

The “drag name” reference that Junod made, by the way, is a reference to that old rumor about Gaga having a penis. Because being a National Magazine Award winner means never having to visit Snopes.

3. Are you comparing the artist you’re writing about to other female artists only? If so, why?

The T profile of Lana Del Rey brings up the following artists, all of whom get, for varying reasons, thrown under the bus: Rihanna; Lady Gaga; Adele; Amy Winehouse; Ke$ha; Miley Cyrus; Nicki Minaj. Are there stylistic qualities that these singers share? Well, Brown tries to compare Del Rey’s huffy “National Anthem” to Cyrus’s sunny “Party In The USA”:

Both you could play alone dancing in your bedroom, sing along to in your convertible with the top down or (it might surprise Cyrus’s Disney producers) find yourself gyrating to at an illegal warehouse rave.

(Apparently Dr. Luke works for Disney now? Someone tell Sony!) This comparison, while at least attempting to place the art put forth by its two subjects side by side, elevates Del Rey because she’s an anti-pop star. The rest of the comparisons don’t even bother to discuss the music put forth by each artist, aside from Del Rey’s attempt to throw shade in the general direction of Ke$ha (!!!!); instead they just serve to hold Del Rey up as a woman who’s more serious and sensitive than all those other brash (and fat!) women in the pop sphere. This could serve as proof that for all its ineptness to residents of the indie bubble, Interscope’s hamfisted attempt to test-market her to the blog crowd sorta worked; the word “authentic” doesn’t appear once (whew), but it’s implied with every cocked eyebrow thrown in a pop star’s direction. Or it could just imply that because he was at a loss to actually describe Del Rey’s music, the writer had to reheat some assumptions that he made while stopping in a bodega where Z100 was blaring. Why not bring a male artist into the discussion? Surely David Guetta’s hyperpop represents an even starker contrast to Del Rey’s agonizing dirges; Emile Haynie had a hand in Kanye West’s just-as-damaged-as-LDR “Runaway”; even a single back-to-back spin of Bon Iver’s most recent album and Born To Die can reveal similarities as far as the overall vibe being given off. Not to mention Drake! I could go on.

On the bright side, Brown didn’t bring up Madonna, which was the old way that lousy writers would try and turn “music made by women” into a genre—we’ve come a long way, baby! Although his being impressed by Del Rey’s “conflat[ing] love with material success” might indicate a troubling unfamiliarity with “Material Girl.”

4. Are you writing about a moment where your subject flirts with you and you respond in kind?

I’m sure you’re a super-nice person, but surely you’re enough of a professional to be acutely aware that her being sweet on you is part of her job. Sorry.