Thicke as thieves? Photo: David Buchan/Getty Images
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Tracey Thorn: Your songs are like your children – you have to wave them off into the world

Copyright law encourages artists to feel they're in control of what they've made. But in reality, a song is a different thing once it leaves its creator.

There’s been much talk these past couple of weeks about ownership of songs, sparked by the disputed ruling that has left Pharrell Williams liable to the tune of $7.3m over similarities between his “Blurred Lines” and Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up”. Many interesting and well-informed pieces have been written about this already and I’m not going to add to the conversation, except to say that I was as surprised as anyone else by the outcome. But it set me off thinking about the difference between the legal concept of ownership and a more nebulous, emotional feeling about whether or not songs belong to us.

Copyright law ensures that we writers earn money from our songs, and establishes our rights over the material we have composed. So don’t get me wrong – I benefit from it and am grateful for it. And yet, in some strange way, the idea of owning a song doesn’t always feel true.

Once you have written it and recorded it, and especially if it has then gone on to be a hit, a song slips out of your grasp. Played all day long on the radio – half-heard by people who are doing other things, or taken to heart by some who find that it tells the story of their life and speaks all the words they cannot say – a hit song “belongs” not to the writer, but to the listener. You wave your songs off into the world like children, hoping for the best for all of them. A hit is the child who becomes a star, soaring out of your orbit and control, swaggering about with a new identity all of its own. Sending cheques home.

This is how I feel about the Everything But the Girl song “Missing”, and it might explain why in some ways I’m less protective of it than its fans. It took the music a long time to reach its final, successful incarnation, a meandering journey in which it assumed various forms along the way, leaving me uncertain which version is the real one. And the lyrics were written at home in a scruffy notebook and tell a fictional story that never felt quite real to me, but did to so many who heard it.

I think it was Jerry Dammers who once said that you don’t ever really finish songs, you just abandon them to the public. “Missing” was found on the doorstep by millions of people who adopted and cared for it. One of those was a singer called Newtion Matthews, who sang the song on BBC1’s The Voice, weekend before last.

He spoke of how much it had meant to him, describing “a time when I was down and out and I had lost my way . . . a tough time – I was a young guy and I didn’t have anywhere to live”. And then he funked it up, in a brassy Mark Ronson-type style, taking the song somewhere new and different. Losing the melancholy, he replaced it with a kind of urgency and defiance, perhaps summoning up the feelings that had got him out of that dark place. To me, it all seemed entirely justifiable, and so I was puzzled by people who rushed to tell me on Twitter that he’d murdered it, or been disrespectful. But maybe that’s because – to come back to the point I made at the beginning – those fans feel like they own the song more than I do.

Anyway, poor Newtion got voted off and sent home, proving to me again (this is the third time I’ve seen the song in a contest – it popped up on the Italian X Factor, and before then in a previous series of The Voice) that “Missing” is not an obvious choice. It’s a hard song to sing. Not, I hasten to add, because of the vocal range (there is none to speak of) but the vocal tone, which may, after all, be essential to its success, however much you vary the arrangement.

In my favourite ever review (quoted in Bedsit Disco Queen) the journalist James Hunter described my singing of the song as being “full of her radical mid-range rationality”, but that quality is no use at all in a singing contest, where what is needed is an opportunity to impress, with high notes, ad libs, bells and whistles. “You made that song your own” is the great compliment from the judges. Funny how hard that is for a singer, when it’s what every listener does.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.