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Tracey Thorn: With music, we often only hear the side of the story told by men

When it comes to music such as northern soul, there is a tendency to regard men as the experts, relegating women’s stories of what it felt like to be there to the status of anecdote.

"Rock Me a Little While" by Kim Weston, a northern soul classic. Photo: Michael Sveikutis/Flickr
"Rock Me a Little While" by Kim Weston, a northern soul classic. Photo: Michael Sveikutis/Flickr

I settled down the other night to watch a TV documentary on northern soul. It was interesting in many ways, if a little predictable in its format, which mostly consisted of a series of talking heads. But as it went by I couldn’t help noticing that all the talking heads were men. I looked at my watch. Twenty minutes had passed and not a single woman had spoken.

Meanwhile, in the photos and footage of the era that rolled by on the screen, I spied lots of them. There they were, throughout the Sixties and Seventies, dressed up to the nines, heading out for the night or on some dance floor, living for the weekend. And on the soundtrack there they were again, singing at me, the voices to much of the music. The story unfolded, the girls danced and sang, and they looked and sounded glorious. And still the guys did all the talking.

Eventually three women were interviewed in the hour-long programme, for about five minutes in total. I took to Twitter and complained – not furiously, more wearily – and met with a barrage of agreement, a lot of it from women confirming that they, or their older sister, their mum or their aunt, had loved going out dancing at the Twisted Wheel and Wigan Casino, had been part of the northern soul scene while it was happening.

All those girls in the photos and the films, they were real, and I wished that someone had taken the trouble to find them. I wanted to know why they went, what they wore, which records they loved, but no one had thought to ask them.

Admittedly, there’s a lot about the northern soul phenomenon that embodies what we regard as a “male” way of perceiving and interpreting culture. As a music scene, it is as much about rareties, and collecting, and obsessiveness, and the acquiring of esoteric knowledge, as it is about dancing. It seems to represent a particular mindset: that unless you own all the correct records and have them arranged in alphabetical order, your opinion doesn’t count. And as it is often men who catalogue the history of musical genres in such painstaking detail, there is a tendency to regard them as the experts, relegating women’s stories of what it felt like to be there, what it meant, to the status of anecdote. Men have expertise, while women have experiences.

It’s easy to feel intimidated by that. When I was writing my book, Bedsit Disco Queen, I had moments of worrying that I wasn’t sufficiently well informed; that I might get a fact wrong, muddle up a release date or a B-side of some obscure single I claimed to have bought. I feared that my own direct, lived experience of the period and music I was documenting might not be enough.

When most of the voices you hear talking about music are those of men, you can start to doubt your own authority. I had to keep reminding myself that I was trying to write the kind of book that I wanted to read, and that if I was going to complain about there not being enough female versions of pop history, then I couldn’t very well shy away from writing one myself. Too often, women get the message that they are not the experts on any of these things, and that’s a pain.

So it matters, partly because balance and representation always matter, but also because it means that as things stand we often hear only half the story, and miss a wealth of detail, of difference, of variety. If Elaine Constantine, who has just directed a feature film called Northern Soul, had been given more screen time than, say, Peter Stringfellow, or if Kiki Dee had been asked what it felt like to hear your vocals become the soundtrack to a generation’s experience of clubland, the programme would have been enriched.

Most of all, if we had seen Levanna Mclean, whom you may know as the northern soul girl dancer whose videos have gone viral in the past year or so, we would have got an insight into the enduring power of a genre of music and its style. Check her out now on YouTube, as over a million people have done, dancing down the street to a mash-up of Pharrell Williams’s “Happy” and Velvet Hammer’s obscure late-Seventies song, also titled “Happy”, and feel the joy – and you’ll know what I mean about what is so often missing.