©Francesca Nottola 2016
Manchester Jewish Museum, 10.03.2016
Despite my interest in Jewish culture and ‘synagigs’, I have never been to the Manchester Jewish Museum, so I am very excited to be here tonight, especially after seeing pictures of this wonderful grade II listed building, which is the oldest surviving synagogue in Manchester. I admire the architecture and I get in, unwisely spending my last £3 on a glass of kosher white wine. Genuinely wondering how wine can be kosher, I drink away my ignorance and read the panels on the walls illustrating Jewish rituals and, with great strength, I resist the poster invitation to try on some traditional garments. The venue is buzzing and, in the Exhibition Space, a zine-making workshop has been run by Manchester artist Cherry Styles, creator of The Cheapess zine.
My eyes are welcomed by the beautiful synagogue hall with wooden benches and an inlaid wood balcony. I fear walking into this marvel with a drink, but I am kindly authorised to do so, so I proceed. The wall underneath the majestic painted glass bearing a menorah motif has been decorated with some cream-coloured curtains and hundreds of cards and letters scattered all over the carpet. A young lady is sitting at a desk, writing. I soon discover that the lady is Bolton-born poet, playwright, performer and Hippocrates Prize for Young Poets judge Clare Pollard. With Joni Mitchell and Björk in the background, among others, Pollard introduces us to her contemporary translation and interpretation of Ovid’s Heroides (Epistulae Heroidum), an interesting series of letter poems from Greek mythological heroines to their partners far away. Among the most well-known: Sappho, Penelope, Medea and Ariadne. Not having read Ovid’s text, it’s impossible for me to understand how much modernity is already embedded in the original and how much is creatively sprinkled on by Pollard. What I do know, though, is that Pollard’s performance is engaging, erudite and desecrating, making these BCE Greek ladies talk like some proud, love-torn 2016 undergraduates. Being used to hearing about Greek and Latin literature in Italian, hearing their names in English is interesting and the thing that amuses me most – because in my head ‘fleece’ is only the polyester one – is the golden vellum referred to as ‘fleece’. All this fuss for a strip of polyester! Thanks to Clare Pollard for encouraging, with her translation and performance work, a discovery of this classic.
The next event tonight is the panel discussion about women in the music industry and their representation in media. BBC Radio 6 Music presenter Stuart Maconie facilitates the discussion with Vanessa Reed (Executive Director of PRS for Music Foundation, a charity that supports the creation and performance of music in the UK), Roxanne de Bastion, singer and songwriter, Chris Long of BBC Manchester Introducing and journalist Laura Snapes (The Guardian, Pitchfork, FT, Uncut, Wire and ex NME, the latter unanimously considered despicable by the entire planel. Snapes recalls the time she had to browse the NME archive to write a celebratory piece about Kate Bush and she was shocked to find nothing but ‘dismissive, sleazy’ materials. NME’s sexism is defined tonight as ‘endemic, systematic and just horrible’).
Maconie opens the discussion by going straight to the core of the problem of gendering the music world by admitting that, as a journalist, getting rid of the old school sexist lad-culture language apprehended at NME is not easy. A concept reinforced by Chris Long, who blames the reiteration of clichés also to tight deadlines and quick turnaround for journalistic pieces. Among the vocabulary on trial tonight, apparently only used to stereotype women, according to Roxanne de Bastion, ‘quirky’, ‘feisty’, ‘songstress’ (I’m sure I’ve read songster too) and ‘confessional’ (hated by Joni Mitchell). Which makes me think of the recent discussion about English dictionaries and how their represent sexist reality with examples like ‘rabid feminist’. It is indeed an interesting debate, with Maconie venturing into Wittgenstein’s theory of language as shaping reality. I appreciate that Joni Mitchell and Roxanne de Bastion reject the attribute as stereotyping and sexist, and I agree with Maconie that the term may have a dismissive connotation as something girly, straight outta a teenage diary, but I don’t think it’s sexist and I think it is appropriate to describe some of Mitchell’s work. In the end, is male music not out of their teenage diary? Do they not talk about heartbreak? What are Bonnie Prince Billy, Bill Callahan or Nick Cave if not ‘confessional’? Is it sexist to label some of their work so?
Maconie, to prove the double standards used when writing about male and female musicians, reads some paragraphs from the hilarious piece written by Louise Bruton in the style used in the press to talk about female musicians. It’s brilliant and to the point. However, does this mean that we can deny the relevance of ‘sexiness’ in selling music? Shall we pretend that sexiness does not matter in bringing us close to other people, including musicians? I’m afraid this would be a massive lie. Have you ever been in the pit when Morrissey gets on stage and witnessed the utter madness he arouses in 50-year-old men? I have. My ribcage was almost crushed by this horde of crazy men running towards the stage last minute flattening anything separating them from their god. ‘Homoerotic’ does not even cover half of that madness. If no music journalist had recorded David Bowie’s boots, Morrissey’s shirts, Siouxie Soux’s or Robert Smith’s hair or Amanda Palmer’s body paint and only talked exclusively about the music, the history of music reporting would have represented a reality that does not exist.
Another thing is, obviously, to talk only about those details. To me, the perfect example of how not to do journalism is the famous Daily Mail report about Amanda Palmer’s breast escaping her bra at Glastonbury while totally ignoring her performance, which generated the best possible response by this fantastic musician. When I write a review, everything counts, not only the music: lights on stage, the audience, how much a performer speaks, what they say, what they choose to wear, how the stage is decorated, how they interact with other band members, eye contact, engagement, detachment, etc. It can’t only be the music. Musicians are humans with a body and a personality who make aesthetic choices that involve also make-up and clothing, which do reveal things about them that are linked to their music. I’m not a member of the ‘close reading’ school of critics. I like to take everything into account, and if a musician is sexy I’ll write it, regardless of gender. What do I mean by ‘sexiness’? It’s not about being sexually suggestive or flirting with the audience. It’s about charisma and casting a spell over an audience. It’s about the ability of being desirable, through appearance, words, body movement, looks, smiles, voice. Think of David Bowie. Obviously his music, ideas, concepts and lyrics are fantastic works of art, but what would have David Bowie been without make-up, differently-coloured eyes, costumes, physicality on stage, charming smiles, his looks straight into a TV camera, kisses to Lou Reed and licking Mick Ronson’s guitar? He did receive his good dose of journalistic homophobic abuse. Did he care? I doubt it. I can imagine him laughing amused at the embarrassed prudes reporting about his extraordinary performances.
Vanessa Reed highlights how sexism is abundant not only in rock and, surprisingly, in indie too, but also, or perhaps even more so, in opera, and mentions the outrage caused by Rupert Christiansen’s unqualifiable review of mezzo soprano Tara Erraught. Despite the outrage, though, the infamous reviewer has proudly stuck to his ‘guns’ and is still writing for The Telegraph. Stuart Maconie also mentions the research about blind auditions and gender bias in hiring orchestra performers and how the discussion is hopefully bringing change into classical music. (By the way, have you noticed how many non-white musicians are there in orchestras or in the audience? That’s for another panel). Shall we talk about jazz? How many female jazz musicians do you know who are not vocalists? I have never met such a sexist, dismissive, condescending sleazy man as my former jazz guitar teacher. And that’s a genre traditionally considered the exclusive realm of the intellectuals (= white middle class men). God bless popular music, every day.
Roxanne de Bastion also draws attention to the viciousness of gender-specific questions (maternity, work-life balance, appearance, etc), irrelevant comparisons (to other random female musicians, rather than genre-specific musicians of both genders) and of what I also think is one of the main issues: the ‘female’ musician label, that casts female musicians as a species of their own existing only in ghetto festivals and International Women’s Day events, like women artists and female directors. To de Bastion’s mention of the offensively recurrent question only asked to female musicians: Do you write your own music?, Vanessa Reed responds that women too are responsible for perpetuating such assumptions, as in the case of Imogen Heap thinking that Taylor Swift did not write her own music. In defence of Imogen Heap though, I think it’s not irrational nor sexist to wonder whether a pop artist does everything on his/her own, although Taylor Swift has shown authentic talent. I think, in this case, it’s a matter of genre, rather than gender. Do Justin Bieber, One Direction or Robbie Williams write and produce their own music? I would tend to think they don’t, but I’d have to check that. It’s the way pop is served in the media plate that makes a journalist doubt about a performer’s actual music and songwriting skills, given that, usually, the bigger the scale of advertising, the more inversely proportional the talent of the artist. I acknowledge though that a female pop artist would get asked the question more often than a male musician. As to music production, also discussed tonight, I don’t expect any lead songwriter/performer of any gender to be also a producer, and I am always surprised when they are, since they already have so much to do with music, promotion/press and live performances. It requires technical skills that not every musician (regardless of gender) has. So yes, clearly there are fewer female producers, clearly there is sexism and gender bias, but I think that sometimes people charge with sexism (or racism) questions that are legitimate.
The real depressing issue is touched upon by Vanessa Reed: only 16% of British musicians are women, she informs us. I sincerely had not realised it, since these days I read so much about Du Blonde, Laura Marling, PINS, Savages, Ellie Rowsell of Wolf Alice for example, that I did not think the figures were so grim. Reed blames the figure particularly to the more restricted availability or role models for younger women. True. How many of us have professional or even non professional female musicians in their family? I don’t. I do have a professional male musician in the family who passed on his old guitars, and family members who love music and regularly attend music events, but no professional performers. Would having a professional female performer in the family have helped in making me a professional musician? Obviously yes. You just need to read a few biographies of the most important artists and achievers in any field, and behind their success there will most likely be a parent working in the same industry or being committed to do anything possible to make their children succeed, for the best or worst. It’s not always the case, but the importance of role models and support is key to success.
Reed, who assesses applications to fund emerging musicians, also reports an interesting episode in which a male member of the committee said about a participant that, since ‘she was not a Florence nor an Adele’, she was doomed. It is immensely depressing that in a board assessing applications a so-inclined brain has the power to make decisions, but we need to admit that, nowadays, young women do have female role models in most music genres, with some of them headlining festivals and selling out shows everywhere in the world. Not as many as men, but we have to give them visibility. Undoubtedly, many of them have had to go through a lot of abuse and mockery, but they are now the history, present and future of music, and many male musicians would quote Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith, Siouxie Sioux, Kate Bush, Kim Gordon, Elizabeth Fraser or Nina Simone as their inspiration. As de Bastion adds, in other less institutionalised genres like punk, women have always done their thing, regardless. They are the fierce heroines we look up to, our Wonder Women. Reed also mentions the work of composer Anna Meredith, who ditched her classical career to join indie label Moshi Moshi and has just released her debut album Varmints.
Going back to Taylor Swift, Stuart Maconie argues that he was surprised to see that Kanye West was not crucified to the extent he expected for his lyrics about making that Taylor Swift bitch famous and that Liam Gallagher would have got a much stronger response had he said that. I wouldn’t bet on this and, thank god, Kanye West and Liam Gallagher both get the online storms they deserve, although the former’s success remains untouched. Not being a fan of either, their stupid narcissistic rants pass me by. De Bastion and Snape also introduce the topic of money, how music managers hand the hard-earned cash to the male members of a band or how male writers get paid or get paid earlier or how female writers are not even considered to be members of staff when music magazine directors are asked about their contributors.
Other hot topic of the conversation is the notorious interview by Rachel Brodsky for SPIN to The Last Shadow Puppets, Miles Kane and Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys, a piece that really is emblematic of the plummeting decline of masculine civilisation, particularly if contrasted to the passion, hard work and success in every field achieved by women worldwide so far. It’s not good to generalise, but it’s impossible not to spot a losing-the-plot trend in that interview. It shouldn’t be a woman’s problem that a lot of men have lost the plot, but it does affect women when that lost purpose becomes frustration and, potentially, aggressiveness, hatred, abuse or violence, as demonstrated by the cases of publicist Heathcliff Berru and producer Dr Luke Gottwald. Look at this picture again, please. A notable, extremely relevant absentee in the conversation tonight is Mark Kozelek, aka Sun Kil Moon. I did not go and bow to Laura Snapes for the perfect way she responded to that disgusting situation, but I wish I did. The co-writer on my website, Stefania Ianne, was at that gig in London when Kozelek called Snapes a ‘bitch’, and she reviewed that gig. Ianne says she wouldn’t go so far to define him sexist or a misogynist, while I’d put his picture under both dictionary items. I lost all interest in his music after the War On Drugs episode, another ‘masculine decline’ story, and I part ways from people who dissociate art from life and support musicians like him. An artist is a human being with a behaviour and moral stances. I’m not going to give money and applaud any sexist, homophobic, racist hateful turds. Yes, turds.
The debate then moves to the role of social media, and Stuart Maconie asks if social media are making things better. Panellists all agree that they are, by democratising access to media and by enabling the people who have historically been misrepresented and oppressed voice their experience and opinions. The internet, in general, has enabled a drastic redesign of centres and peripheries, an upheaval of hierarchy and of ranking of voices and a display of international talent that happily bypasses music managers. Laura Snapes and Vanessa Reed, in this respect, mention how interesting, refreshing and enjoyable it has been to read music history as told by Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth and Carry Brownstein of Sleater-Kenney in their memoirs.
It seems a fantastic moment to be a woman in the arts right now. It’s true that a shameful lot needs to be done still to readdress the balance in favour of women (and queer, non-white, older, impaired, poorer artists), but the internet has helped immensely in working on such imbalance. There are no excuses and there is no room for victimism any more. We have agency and the power of words. There will still be many insecure, anxious, sexist people in the music industry, but as long as we ignore them and ally with those who also want to see change happen, we have our chance now, as ‘female’ journalists and artists. There are a lot of acclaimed men in the arts who use their fame to promote the work of less privileged artists, and these are the people we need to work with. We need to go and create our reality. There is crowdfunding, there is government and charity funding for independent music, let’s use those resources. Reality has to change and can be changed.
The panel discussion ends soon after 9pm, with no room for questions from the audience unfortunately, but leaving us to what will be a thrilling performance by Serafina Steer and Natalie Sharp. Steer, London-based singer/songwriter, harpist, composer recently turned bassist in Bas Jan, has already released three albums, one of which produced by ‘quirky’ Jarvis Cocker, and will be performing at Islington Mill on 27th March. Natalie Sharp, aka Lone Taxidermist, is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, performer, costume designer, videomaker, make-up artist, ‘cosmic synth diva and London bus chronicler’. Tonight the two are presenting the ‘world premiere’ of Medea, ‘live soap opera, noise poem, mini (high) drama’ based on Clare Pollard’s translation of Ovid’s Heroides and commissioned by Brighter Sound specifically for the event. As their inspiration for the opera, they quote Diamanda Galás and Marc Almond.
What follows is a powerful interpretation of the Greek myth of sorceress Medea and her involvement with Jason and the above mentioned golden fleece, source of so much ado. If I said that I undertood the text sung by Sharp, I’d lie. In the end it’s opera, so that’s normal as we did not get the libretto. So I can only comment, really, on the extraordinary, fascinating physicality of her dancing performance through which she brings Medea to life and the incredibly varied spectrum of vocal delivery with which she matches Steer’s disquieting, experimental music. Steer is at the dock station, managing the musical background from her laptop and she briefly intervenes, wearing a mask, and occasionally disappears under the desk. They are both wearing beautifully crafted tunics and elaborate theatrical make-up. A particularly intense moment occurs when Sharp, while performing, approaches Clare Pollard in the audience, who seems to be admiring ecstatic the way in which these two superb artists have interpreted her interpretation of Ovid’s interpretation of the classical Greek myth of Medea, also revisited by Pier Paolo Pasolini and the divine Maria Callas in this 1969 film you may want to watch. The performance ends at 21.30 with a warm satisfied hug between Steer and Sharp. Kate Lowes of Brighter Sound thanks us for attending, and I would like to thank Brighter Sound for their fantastic work promoting music, in general and, specifically, for the interesting meaningful non ritualistic events to celebrate the work of women and International Women’s Day this week in collaboration with Creative Tourist, the Manchester Jewish Museum and Band On The Wall.
I leave with a sense of fulfilment. I have learnt a lot, about new artists, different points of view and initiatives to support emerging talent. I am also terrified of writing about a female musician now because the sexist, objectifying non gendered-biased remarks I normally use for both genders might be misinterpreted as targeting only women. Not true. May Devendra Banhart always exhibit his beach body through his flattering skin tight t-shirts. We’ll always be there to appreciate. His truly fantastic, quirky, genius, confessional music, of course.