Am I a racist sexist scumbag (when it comes to being a music fan)?

Following debate on the ILM thread, I’ve been thinking about the gender and race make-up of my Pitchfork People’s List.

I’ve been conscious that I don’t listen to much music ‘involving women’ (for want of a better phrase) since I was about 15, and it’s something which bugs me. When I was 15 there were literally no female vocalists in my collection at all. There’s probably only 10% now, and that’s even after Emma and I amalgamated our record collections. Emma didn’t like music with female vocals until her late teens / early twenties either, which is something we’ve talked about many times.

Depending how you count, there are between 12 and 20ish albums with female musicians / voices (ranging from Electrelane at one end of the scale to Massive Attack / Patrick Wolf with guest female vocalists at the other, and possibly including things like Four Tet which have samples of female vocalists somewhere on the continuum) on my ballot.

There are also somewhere between 12 and 20ish albums that are either completely instrumental or which feature barely any vocals at all (which includes the last Four Tet album, which, obviously, could also be counted as having female vocals as described above, and also includes things like Venice by Fennesz, which has one song with vocals and none anywhere else).

There are probably only six albums which could really be described as being hip hop / rap / r’n’b, and perhaps only a dozen which feature black musicians.

Without checking sleeve credits, I think there’s only one record produced by a female producer – Kate Bush.

So it’d be pretty easy to read my list as being racist and sexist (which I hope it isn’t, on any conscious level), as being the product of straight white male privilege (which it undoubtedly is, because I’m a straight white male).

There are some 25+ albums which I’d count as ‘duplicates’, i.e. which are by artists who have multiple albums selected: so 3 Caribou records, 4 Four Tet, 4 SFA, 2 PJ Harvey, 2 Electrelane, 2 St Vincent, 3 Spoon. This skews ratios slightly – just those artists skew from 4:3 to 7:3 from multiples. Not that, if I’d gone for one-per-artist, that the rest of my choices would all have been female-counting records, but it definitely changes the ratio from male-artist:female-artist to male-album:female-album.

Had I had more time, and been able to consult my actual record collection (currently in boxes waiting for us to move house next week) and check dates and so on, then I’d almost certainly have included Time (The Revelator) by Gillian Welch, Is This Desire by PJ Harvey, Begin to Hope by Regina Spektor, but probably also a load of other albums by men, too. So who knows what more time would have done.

This huge gender / racial / genre bias/weighting does concern me to some extent and if I think about it and ask ‘why’ on an ontological, socio-cultural level, I don’t really know the answer, beyond “I’m a white male 30-something and I mostly listen to music made by people like me”; when couched in that terminology, it doesn’t seem outrageous at all. But if I were to say “I only think one album by a black women is worth including in the top 100 of the last 16 years”, however, it sounds pretty awful. In my ‘defence’, my list isn’t about ‘best’ or objectivity in any way; it’s about the stuff I like the most, and I had to be honest about that.

This is something we’ve discussed at Devon Record Club, too, where choices are massively, massively weighted in favour of white male musicians, to the extent that we’ve had themed evenings where one had to bring a record by a woman (again, there’s the problematic issue of defining ‘by a woman’) and where we’ve asked our wives to choose the records instead of us (which resulted in a 3:1 ratio of women-to-men choices that evening) in a pathetic attempt to try and redress this imbalance, if only for one or two evenings. I asked Emma to replace Tom at our last meeting because he was on holiday, and she politely declined, despite the fact that she knows as much about music, and loves music, at least as much as any of us, and I can’t help but think that the boys-club atmosphere (and fear of being judged upon your choice) probably made her say no. We are boys, and we do compete, even when we’re not competing.

I don’t know how one can ‘solve’ this, or if it’s solvable at all, or even if it needs solving. ‘Solution’ is probably the wrong word. Does it need addressing? Do our music tastes reflect who we are and the attitudes we hold (consciously or subconsciously), or do they just reflect what we like? Does what we like reflect who we are and the attitudes we hold (consciously or subconsciously)? I recall a philosophy seminar from a dozen or more years ago, where we were asked to consider how one ties one’s shoelaces, and if tying shoelaces was a form of self-expression; I was the only person to say ‘yes’ (using Run DMC as an example, if I recall), and from there to conclude that everything you do is an act of self-expression, because it is you doing it. So yeah, I probably am a racist, sexist scumbag. I’m trying not to be. Are you?

Postscript
Saying “So yeah, I probably am a racist, sexist scumbag” at the end wasn’t really helpful to this discourse. Not liking “enough” music by female or black musicians doesn’t make you sexist or racist. But it does raise interesting questions about subconscious taste biases and social privileges, which point towards all sorts of contributory factors, which we might not fully understand the interactions and origins of. Only a crazy person would say that someone’s music taste indicated they were racist (unless they liked Skrewdriver etc). Refusing to listen to or engage with Chris Brown’s music because he hit Rihanna, whilst happily listening to John Lennon (or any of a number of other women-hitting white rock stars through time) might suggest conflicting and hypocritical attitudes, though, and the question of where they come from seems to have some of the same underlying biases as answers.

I caught an interesting moment on BBC 5live this morning where Nick Hancock was talking with guests about the different perceptions of Olympic athletes and professional football players, and who you’d rather have over for dinner, or something (I only caught some of it), and the subject of class bias was raised as a motivator for how people responded (the insinuation being that you’d rather have an Olympian over, presumably because they’d be more polite, better company, more engaging conversationalists, whereas a professional football player would be a classless, self-centred, drunken idiot). This got me thinking about whether the make-up of my Pitchfork People’s List is subconsciously influenced by class issues as much as race / gender ones, and even whether this broad sphere we call ‘pop music’ can be coded on a class basis at all – it’s harder to determine if someone’s music is “middle class” or “upper class” or “working class” than it is to determine if a musician is white or male. Which is to say that it’s complicated, and incredibly difficult to unravel, and, possibly, not all that important.

When I put this list together, like any list, I picked first-to-mind favourites initially, and then perused old lists to jog my memory of other things that may not have been at the front of my mind (and to remind myself of what fell within the chronological barriers); there was no conscious rule to not pick music by any given demographic, or to privilege any other demographic. My motivation was “these are records that I like”. The nuance comes in wondering why most of the music I like seems be the product of similar demographics, even if it’s superficially aesthetically quite different. Of course there’s also the idea that if we like one thing, we may well like other, similar things, and that these other, similar things will quite possibly be the product of similar types of people. It wasn’t until after I’d finished the list and seen other people talking about the gender composition of some lists that I thought to look at how mine counted out.

Of course there’s the genre music which is most explicitly the product of white male privilege of them all, and which I have almost absolutely no time for: metal.

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3 responses to “Am I a racist sexist scumbag (when it comes to being a music fan)?

  1. If you want to try some interesting female singers, I can recommend “Indigo Girls” to you. Excellent vocals. I found your conjecture about if you are a racist or not to be interesting. Why think that about yourself? If you are white and male does society automatically feel there is something wrong with you and you MUST feel guilt about the race and gender to which you were born? Is that not also racism? Perhaps it is time that we all feel equally good about ourselves. Dr. King said it best: let the measure of a man’s character be how we judge, not the color of his skin.

  2. Let’s see. I’m mexican and I could say there are no latinos in your list. But I am almost sure that the latino bands you heard of from 1996 to 2011 were few, and most of them were awful. Why should they be on your list? The ones with a worldwide audience were Nortec and Cansei de Ser Sexy, and they are fine, but I would not include them in my personal list. As for the sexist part, the most sexist acts are those bands of guys with a pretty woman singing (remember the “sleeperblokes”?). The women you choose were few (and yeah, you should do something about that), but they (Karin Dreijer, Björk, PJ Harvey, Kate Bush) own their act.

  3. I wrote something similar last week — not about the Pitchfork poll, per se, but just the general lack of parity in music fandom, I submitted my ballot rather late, with a scant forty albums. Half of them were women or female-fronted bands. Like you I only included a handful of hip-hop or R&B albums. I think had I not been limited to the past fifteen years, that number would have been higher, because in those two genres I tend to go for older music. But yeah, looking at most of these lists it’s pretty obvious whose music is art and whose is commerce.

    i don’t think you can just “add diversity” and shake well. Recognizing that it is part of a larger culture that assigns value to this and not that is a huge step.

    I can’t help but think that the boys-club atmosphere (and fear of being judged upon your choice) probably made her say no. We are boys, and we do compete, even when we’re not competing.

    I’ve never been part of an “official” record club, but I’ve been around (mostly) male rock fans for the last two decades of my life, and while I’m not insecure (I know my shit), it can be frustrating knowing you have to consistently prove you belong there.

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