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Davis, California

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Column: Instrumentalist Equality Now!

As I sift through the myriad of magazines lining the back wall of CVS, my hand catches the corner of an askew publication and knocks it to the ground. I pick it up nonchalantly and catch a glimpse of the contents within. To my genuine astonishment, the $6.99 collective of glossy pages is completely filled with One Direction glamour shots, complete with perforated edges for quick access to the numerous headshots of Harry Styles. I turn to my friend from down the aisle and reveal my finding. The unexpected response:

“I love that band! They’re so hot!”

Two weeks later, I’m wandering through the many drunken masses of the West Quad on Picnic Day, enjoying a young rock band flood the landscape with pleasurable tunes. As I muse on the expensive sonic equipment the up-and-coming act is packing, I overhear a sentence that catches my attention.

“I like this band, that guy is cute!”

A hypothesis forms in my mind. Casually, I turn to the girl and ask one final question — “Do you like Maroon 5?”

“Oh my God yes, Adam Levine is so damn sexy.”

It goes without saying our system of popular music production is inherently flawed. Instead of supporting artists of genuine talent, we promote easily digestible and gratuitously lame content that young adults can throw their money at. The music is bad, yes, but extremely marketable. What isn’t so apparent, however, is a hidden technique used to keep young customers salivating for boy bands and Biebers well into young adulthood: disenfranchising women as listeners and instrumentalists from an early age.

When magazines such as the one I found at CVS and beyond prime young women into idolizing the aesthetic appeal of a contemporary artist instead of their musical talent, the effect ripples out and hurts the popularity of credible bands struggling to find the same mainstream success. If Morrissey was just starting off today, it’s more than likely the Smiths would have the door slammed in their faces for not being sexy enough.

The attack on female listenership comes from two fronts. Not only are they spoon-fed male heartthrobs as idols, women artists are given few options when it comes to pop-world success. For the mind of a young girl, she is now made to believe what is good music, and that this good music is the province of men. They are encouraged to follow another route.

When females show interest in music at an early age, they are overwhelmingly expected to pursue “softer” instruments such as the piano, violin or cello. Unfortunately, these instruments aren’t featured as heavily as their “unladylike” counterparts in contemporary American music. As a result, you rarely see a guitar-wielding female superstar selling out the ARCO Arena.

Women have come to dominate in less lucrative genres such as jazz and classical, with Yuja Wang outplaying any respectable male pianist by a mile and Esperanza Spalding making Flea look like a beginner on the bass.

However, these genres are overwhelmingly underappreciated and their musicians are hardly ever lauded as role models for young, impressionable girls.

Females are, however, encouraged to sing. Unfairly, female singers are judged disproportionately to men, with listeners looking hyper-critically at their ability to belt and croon like superstars such as Whitney Houston. An “amazing” male singer would be considered mediocre by female standards, yet the iTunes marketplace is currently being flooded with perfectly mediocre “amazing” male singers playing in perfectly mediocre bands. Why?

Because they’re hunky. Thus, they’re accepted. Many young female audiences don’t know how else to judge pop artists because society hasn’t taught them to. I don’t blame teen girls for turning to Bieber. How could they appreciate Arcade Fire or Janelle Monáe if the education isn’t there in schools, on the radio or in the home?

Of the top 10 highest-paid female artists in 2012, only Lady Gaga made the list for singers who are also virtuoso instrumentalists. This naturally does not negate the artistic genius of powerhouses like Beyoncé and Adele, but merely supports the trend that females are expected to follow specific, approved paths if they want to pursue contemporary music as a career.

Conversely, nine of the top 10 grossing artists (in general) from 2013 are male or comprised of multiple males, with six known for displaying virtuosity with an instrument (U2, Bon Jovi, Elton John, Paul McCartney, the Eagles and Dave Matthews). Lady Gaga was both the only female artist to break this list and show she can play the living shit out of a piano. I never thought I’d say this in my lifetime, but go Lady Gaga.

Of course, there are notable exceptions to the trend. Norah Jones, Alicia Keys and Diana Krall have found fame with the piano as well as their vocals. Unbeknownst to most, Aretha Franklin was a wonderful pianist. Bonnie Raitt still holds the title of queen of the slide guitar.

But when it comes to chart-topping, pop performers of the age, the selection is sadly sparse. When Janis Joplin, Joan Jett and Meg White (who is not the greatest drummer but notable for successfully breaking into the punk/indie rock scene) are some of the only role models young female pop instrumentalists can turn to, the future looks grim. Instead, they are pushed to sing, to focus on the right “look” and are force-fed images of beautiful men posing with polished guitars.

This trend is toxic, effectively spraying newer and younger generations of listeners with poison and slowly cutting off interest in genuine talent at the roots. As time passes, a good majority of female listenership will be completely controlled by greedy music producers. Plastic boy bands will become the standard, and newer artists will struggle to find a foothold in annals of contemporary music history.

ADAM KHAN is an advocate of instrumentalist equality. Let him know if he’s actually just a sexist at features@theaggie.org.

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