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19 May 2021

Men tend to think they’re the authority on music – but I have learned to fight my corner

I’ve been banging the feminist drum for 40 years, but when I reflect on my early song lyrics I realise that I banged it far too subtly.

By Tracey Thorn

I did a book event a few years ago, and just before it started the organiser looked out at the crowd and said to me, “Ooh it’s nice to see so many men here!” I was taken aback, but then it was explained to me that literary events are often very woman-heavy, as we buy more books. Because of my past, and the type of books I write, what I bring is some of the music crowd, which is dominated by men.

Writing about music from a woman’s perspective though, or telling stories, as I do, that put women at the centre, can be risky. Men tend to think they own the stories around music, and can be aggressive in their assertion of that ownership. My current book is very feminist, and I expected a bit of pushback.

Sometimes men get defensive when other men are criticised, which is telling in itself. And sometimes they are blind to the subtleties of an argument, feeling that unless they can see straight-up, overt misogyny there is nothing going on. When I’m talking about women in music, I often have to explain unconscious bias, or men’s blind spots about the way they slip into patterns of stereotypical behaviour, or the way they assume authority, and how all these things have an effect on the women who work with them.

[See also: Browsing my children’s shelves, I understand how the books we read make us who we are]

So I was braced for criticism when my new book came out, and have tried not to get dragged down by comments that don’t amount to much more than “Your accusations of sexism are grossly exaggerated, you silly woman”. I think that, having been writing about music for ten years now, largely from an insider’s point of view, I have begun to toughen up.

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When I started writing, I really felt the fear, and was intimidated by men’s assumptions of authority about music, by their claims of expertise. I worried that someone would call me out for getting a factlet wrong, such as the B-side of a single, or the date of a particular gig.

I’m generalising here, but some male critics act like all the meaning and fun of music is to be found in these tiny slivers of knowledge – the gathering of them, the sharing of them. I’m not anti-fact, but my focus is always more on the people involved and the bigger picture.

I’m more confident now in my belief that this is a valid way to discuss music. That, in turn, has enabled me to write more confidently, and make my points more clearly. In certain ways I feel like I’ve been banging the same feminist drum for nearly 40 years, but when I look back at some of my early song lyrics, I realise that I banged it far too subtly.

One of the first Everything but the Girl songs, “Each and Every One”, was heard by most listeners as a disappointed-in-love track, when it is in fact my first furious description of male criticism. “If you ever feel the time to drop me a loving line/Maybe you should just think twice/I don’t wait around on your advice,” I sneeringly wrote, referring to the reviewers who had patronised my band, the Marine Girls.

[See also: As I enter my empty office building, I feel a strange mix of elation, anticipation and anxiety]

I was already weary of how, despite decades of supposed women’s liberation, the roles I was offered seemed to be the same soppy, girly ones – “Being kind is just a way to keep me under your thumb/And I can cry because that’s something we’ve always done/You tell me I’m free of the past now and all those lies/Then offer me the same thing in a different guise.”

See, it’s too subtle, isn’t it? It sounds like a song about romance. I never wanted to write polemically, always preferring to root my arguments in the recognisable world of people and relationships, but it meant that some of my points were missed.

So now I spell them out more plainly, and because of that I have to be prepared to fight my corner when there is opposition from those who don’t like what I’ve written. Although, having said that, so far I have had fewer objections to my book than I was expecting. And that’s a great feeling. I can argue fiercely if it’s necessary, but having the same argument gets boring.

When men listen, and are receptive instead of being defensive, that’s when we really feel them to be allies, and can begin to imagine progress. 

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This article appears in the 19 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, In defence of meritocracy