As an admittedly somewhat infrequent reader of The Wire (the magazine, rather than the cult Baltimore-based TV show) I could empathise with much in this article by writer Anwyn Crawford about why she won’t be subscribing to the music magazine again.
In her opening paragraph, Anwyn tells us
I haven’t been shy about my growing discontent with The Wire over the past few years: with its bloodless writing, dull obsequiousness to a small gallery of icons (perhaps the magazine’s sub-masthead should be A Lee Renaldo Bulletin Board), and above all, its alarming gender imbalance. I had already made up my mind not to re-subscribe, and December’s new issue is an unfortunate justification of my reasons why.
I’ll leave you to read the entire piece yourself – it is fantastically written, with a great dose of humour scattered throughout the scathing critique of what Anwyn perceives as The Wire‘s imbalanced approach to women artists and writers – but for me it echoed so many of the reasons why I am an ‘infrequent’ reader of The Wire.
Unlike other music magazines (or websites), I feel I have to be very deliberate when reading The Wire. It’s not a mag that you can just flick through while drinking a cup of tea on a Friday evening. No. For me, it requires time, space and focus. It brings me back to the UCC library and poring over academic texts in an attempt to formulate an answer for an essay due the next day; the feeling that out of the dry sentences I have to pull something tangible that makes sense to me.
I do love the fact that The Wire is not an advertiser-driven, chart-focused magazine; that I can pick up an issue and only have heard of a small handful (if any) of the artists mentioned within its clinically laid-out pages. It is an education for me, and learning about music is something that I relish. But reading certain articles is like reading a menu in Dutch when you know nothing more than the word for waffle. You won’t get far and you probably won’t learn much in the process.
Music, for me, is about emotions, feelings, the stirrings inside you when you detect a change in beat or when two voices swell in harmony; it’s about the hairs on your arms lifting when a particular lyric strikes you where it hurts. It’s not a dry element. It doesn’t always have to be about chord changes, soundscapes, or middle eighths. Yes, writing about music is like dancing about architecture but there can – and should – be emotion invested in both. Reading The Wire, sometimes it feels as though all the emotion created within and by the music has been sucked out, leaving an arid landscape strewn with rusting, unfamiliar, instruments.
The now defunct music magazine Plan B (you can download the PDFs of all the issues at that link) generally struck a great balance between po-faced deconstruction of musical texts and expressing exhuberant joy at the discovery of fresh, new music. Like The Wire, I learned a huge amount from reading it but never felt I wasn’t intelligent/knowledgeable/prone-to-beard-stroking enough to really ‘get it’.
Unlike The Wire, Plan B (which was created by Everett True of Careless Talk Costs Lives and edited, and later published, by Frances Morgan) clearly attempted to have a gender-balanced approach. I subscribed to it for a year and each time I saw another woman pictured on the cover my heart leapt. There were lots of female and self-described feminist writers of both sexes and so female and male musicians were treated as they should be: equals.
Sure, Plan B wasn’t perfect (some articles could be a bit too self-congratulatory) but it was a sad, sad day when it folded.
Of The Wire, Anwyn says:
Since 2006 The Wire has put seven female artists on the cover, and that’s if you count Trish Keenan, one half of Broadcast, who shared the cover with her collaborator James Cargill in October 2009 – the only woman to appear on a Wire cover that year. 2006 was a seeming high point in gender parity: three female cover stars, and only one for each year since. Seven out of forty-eight covers really isn’t fucking good enough.
This under-representation of female musicians on the covers of music magazines is nothing new – next time you’re in a bookshop, take a look at the music magazines (usually housed beneath the ‘men’s mags’ such as Zoo or FHM) and see if you can spot a woman on the cover. (On that point, when I first started buying music magazines and realised they were housed in the ‘men’s lifestyle’ section in Eason I knew that embarking on my dream career of music journalist would be an ‘interesting’ journey for a feminist.)
Why not count how many women you can see on the covers of Q magazine this year (two solo covers: Cheryl Cole and Lady Gaga – and two group shots: Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen together in a group shot; and Lady Gaga again in a group shot). The reason I mention Q is that the response to ‘there aren’t enough women on the covers of music magazines’ is often ‘but that’s because it reflects the amount of women working in music‘.
This is not true – particularly in the case of Q, which covers mainstream rock, indie and pop music. In fact, the female musicians it covers are usually from the pop arena. And you cannot argue that the pop realm is oestrogen-free.
Our own Hotpress is actually one of the better magazines for featuring female cover stars but there is still not an equal balance.
Then there are the magazines aimed at bassists, guitarists and other musicians. You could learn how to play the entire Led Zeppelin back catalogue on guitar in the time that passes between the appearances of women on the cover of Total Guitar or Bass Guitar Magazine, for example.
The first woman to appear on the cover of Total Guitar was Brody Dalle, then of The Distillers, in the February 2004 issue. On the cover was written: “The 50 Guitarists You Need to Hear this Year (and yeah, she’s one of them…)”.
The strangely apologetic editorial read:
“Yeah, that’s a woman on the cover. And it’s the first time TG’s had a female guitarist as its cover star (we suspect it may well be the first time any guitar mag has had a female as its cover star). She’s not on there ‘cos we’re doing a feature on ‘Women in Rock’, or because she’s got her tits out. She’s there for the same reason all our other cover stars are – because she rocks…And if it makes you feel better, next month we’re back to hairy blokes who play really fast.”
Phew! She wasn’t there because she was getting her tits out – but if you’re offended, there are plenty of men to focus on instead. Brody was one of two women in the ‘Top 50 Guitarists’ list. The other woman was Ani Di Franco. What did the writers have to say about her? “The words ‘bisexual’, ‘feminist’, ‘acoustic’ and ‘protest-singer’ might strike fear in the hearts of many, but not us (in fact, they give us a hard-on.)”
There may not be a great ‘conspiracy’ to keep women off the covers of music magazines and give them minimal coverage on the inside pages. But there is an acceptance in most quarters that is just ‘how it is’; that putting a woman on the cover of Q or Uncut or Mojo or The Wire or Rolling Stone or the NME a few times a year, or for the ‘women in rock’ issue is good enough.
That showing Lily Allen in her knickers and Muse in their suits is somehow unproblematic and should not raise questions about how female and male cover stars are portrayed in overtly sexual/non-sexual ways.
Sure, there have been magazines solely dedicated to female musicians but the ideal would be male and female musicians on an equal footing. If women are seen as the ‘minority’ or the ‘outsider’ in music magazines then does that encourage women to create music? If women are relegated to the minority in writing for and editing these magazines (notably, Krissi Murison is the first female editor of the NME, while Louise Brown is the first female editor of Terrorizer) then does that encourage young women to write for these magazines?
One thing this lack of women – or invisibility of women – in music magazines has done is ensure women will try to fill the gaps in the music world by writing zines or starting websites themselves (like Pink Noises, dedicated to women and electronic music). So, no, women don’t sit back with a resigned sigh and accept things as they are – they rail and revolt, they enthuse, write, rant and blog. They write about Riot Grrrl and female singers and feminism in music, all things that are rarely, if ever (with the exception of Plan B and The Guardian‘s music section) covered in the music press. They create their own space and give previously mute women an unwavering voice.
Yet, still, equality is not there in the mainstream press.
After reading Anwyn’s piece, I am not going to stop reading The Wire. But I hope that the editors of the magazine read her incredibly thorough and impassioned article and analyse their approach to gender (im)balance in their publication. They owe that to their readers.
For all music publications – both online and off – alienating female readers is not a smart move. We are readers, we are writers, we are musicians, we are creators. We deserve an equal space in the music world and we deserve representation in all arenas.
Why? Because we rock too.