On Björk, Sexism and Adventurousness in Music

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Why is Bjork wearing a flower mask, you ask? What don’t you get? What are you: some sort of sexist or something? (Photo Credit: Santiago Felipe/Getty Images)

To the feminist conscious of current events or other social critic, there’s a high likelihood she or he will find evidence of sexism, whether in an individual’s actions or comments or in some institutionalized form—even when it may not exist. Of course, most incidences of sexist references identified by these dissenters do tend to be accurate. Plus, when you have someone like Björk making allegations—someone who has been around the music industry as long as she has and who has, on top of her years of service, continued to make high-quality music—you tend to want to listen to what she has to say.

Recently, everyone’s favorite Icelandic-born female singer-songwriter did two sets as a DJ at Houston’s Day for Night Festival, which were met with mixed reviews by critics. Björk, for her part, seemed taken aback by the charge that she spent too much time behind “desks” or at turntable decks or what-have-you, and not enough on performing. Apparently, she was being criticized for, you know, being a DJ and doing the kind of DJ things that DJs do. As a result, Björk, who received this criticism mainly from male reviewers and did not find the same criticism leveled at her male counterparts, determined the reason must be sexism. She wrote about it in a rant-like Facebook post, an excerpt of which I have copied and transcribed in a more eminently readable version here. It went a little something like this:

I am aware that it is less than a year since I started DJ-ing publicly so this is something people are still getting used to, and my fans have been incredibly welcoming to me, sharing my musical journey and letting me be me. It’s been so fun, and the nerd in me editing together pieces of others people’s songs for weeks gets to share the different coordinates I feel between some of the most sublime music I know.

But some media could not get their head around that I was not “performing” and “hiding” behind desks, and my male counterparts, not. And I think this is sexism, which at the end of this tumultuous year is something I’m not going to let slide. Because we all deserve maximum changes in this revolutionary energy we are currently in the midst of. It’s gotta be worth it. Anyways.

Women in music are allowed to be singer-songwriters singing about their boyfriends. If they change the subject matter to atoms, galaxies, activism, nerdy math, beat editing, or anything else than being performers singing about their loved ones, they get criticized. Journalists feel there is just something missing—as if our only lingo is emo.

I made Volta and Biophilia, conscious of the fact that these were not subjects females usually write about. I felt I had earned it. On the activist Volta I sang about pregnant suicide bombers and for the independence of the Faroe Islands and Greenland. On the pedagogic Biophilia, I sang about galaxies and atoms. But it wasn’t until Vulnicura where I shared a heartbreak that I got full acceptance from the media. Men are allowed to go from subject to subject, do sci-fi, period pieces, be slapstick and humorous, be music nerds, and get lost in sculpting soundscapes—but not women. If we don’t cut our chest open and bleed about the men and children in our lives, we are cheating our audience.

Björk’s post goes on from there, but you’ve got the essentials, as far as I’m concerned. There’s a few things to consider, even with what we have here. At the crux of Björk’s argument for sexism is the notion that she received criticism for not performing when her male cohorts did not, and it’s possible some measure of prejudice accompanies the negative reviews. I personally have not read any critical responses at length. Then again, Björk does come from a bit of a different place than others in the EDM scene, beginning as a performer and transitioning into a role as a non-performer, and given her legacy of over two decades of creating innovative music buoyed by her soaring vocals, it’s somewhat natural to wonder why she wouldn’t sing, or at least wish for it. As I understand, too, she was even playing some of her own songs as part of her sets. If the criticisms were based solely on recognition of this idea, I tend to think that they could’ve been filed against Björk, or Beck, or even the remaining members of the Beastie Boys. For all the dynamism of the physical experience the concertgoers in Houston encountered, they as paying customers probably would have liked to see and hear Björk rock the mic as only she can. After all, why come to the show when you can stay home and listen to the MP3s for free?

The other major component of Björk’s argument is that, according to her, women are not allowed to sing about subjects other than relationships. To an extent, she might be right, at least with respect to there being a double standard for men and women as to how we characterize their contributions to popular music. I’m reminded of the criticism brought against Taylor Swift by some observers that she, perhaps, writes and sings too much about relationship issues. Now, I must specify that I am no great fan of Taylor Swift and her music, so I am not particularly psyched about the prospect of defending her, but I feel her push-back on this front has merit. Her Swiftness had this to say about her romantic-drama-laden verses and criticism thereof:

Frankly, I think that’s a very sexist angle to take. No one says that about Ed Sheeran. No one says that about Bruno Mars. They’re all writing songs about their exes, their current girlfriends, their love life and no one raises a red flag there.

This discussion is part of a bigger conversation, as I see it, on disparities between men and women concerning perceptions of their character based on their love and sex life. If a man is involved with several different women in a short period of time, he tends not to be questioned, or is even lauded for his prowess. Be fruitful and multiply. If a woman is involved with several different men in a short period, meanwhile, she’s a slut or a whore. Can’t keep her legs closed. All of this comes on top of the notion that Taylor Swift, within the context of her songs, is merely singing from the point of view of someone in these relationships. Thus, while we might guess Jake Gyllenhaal or John Mayer is the subject of a particular tune, we just as well might insist that this is immaterial. Taylor Swift as a poetic voice is not the same as Taylor Swift, dater of one or many men. There is a line between the artist and his or her art—or at least there should be. Let there be some myth in all the storytelling, I say.

To be clear, though, this is not exactly what Björk is saying. To reiterate, the Icelandic singer-songwriter is venting about the idea that men can write about whatever subject they please without catching flak for it or even being praised for their adventurousness as an artist, but as soon as a woman strays from the milieu of family and relationships, she gets marginalized—not just that there is gender-based perception bias when people sing about love and relationships. I have not studied these phenomena extensively, so I’m not sure to what extent this is true and whether or not female performers get ostracized to a greater degree than male performers when they create outside the box.

From what I’ve observed, however, irrespective of sex, those who are more “out there”—whether in terms of their image, the themes about which they write, or both—are generally less apt to meet with widespread appeal or approval. Andrew Bird and The Decemberists, to name two artists/groups, are critically acclaimed for their musical contributions, which are well-suited to the bookish listener in particular, but unless you are a fan of alternative or indie music, it is doubtful you know either or both of them. In terms of female singer-songwriters, meanwhile, I could say the same about, say, a Joanna Newsom or Regina Spektor. Some of the best and most adventurous current music is of the sort you would be hard-pressed to find on your average Top 40 pop radio station, and this is not entirely surprising. For one, society in general tends to frown upon those who choose not to conform to normative trends. This is not altogether a criticism, mind you, just a function of our social psychological makeup.

In addition, with physical media on the decline for some time now and consumers less willing to pay directly for music (as opposed to, for instance, streaming services which utilize advertisements or employ a “freemium”-type model), it’s harder to generate interest on the merits of music alone. As such, especially if catering to a younger audience, someone like Sufjan Stevens or even St. Vincent is fighting an uphill battle for recognition against the likes of Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber or Fifth Harmony (wait, now that Camila has left, shouldn’t they be called Fourth Harmony?) There’s a good chance these “fringier” artists don’t mind so much anyway, but it’s worth noting that anyone who writes about atoms, terrorists or something other than how their love is like whoa is already bound to be less sought-after by a wider audience.

Which brings us back to Björk, who, in terms of her music and music videos, has been about as adventurous and “out there” as they come. Her peak popularity in the 90’s came at a time when music and other forms of entertainment generally seemed more unusual. You had movies come out like The Big LebowskiFargo and Pulp Fiction. You had popular television shows air such as Twin Peaks and The X-Files. Shit, you had bands with names like Butthole Surfers, Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Squirrel Nut Zippers, and Toad the Wet Sprocket. The 1990s were a different time, man, and having grown up in this decade, I suppose it’s only natural that I should reckon myself quite the different individual. So Björk and her eccentricities arguably made more sense back then. Nowadays, the 51-year-old musician, perhaps known only to some younger reviewers in the context of being a DJ, is branching out, and has not met with the same success or acclaim as perhaps she’s used to. Though this shouldn’t denigrate her past achievements, it also shouldn’t free her from criticism on the merits of her DJ skills or her artistic vision related to her new role. Assuming that’s all the criticism is about.

I’ve already had enough of presidential politics for one calendar year, despite my seeming uncontrollable urge to write about the subject, but let me make a final comment (or one of my final comments, at least) regarding allegations of sexism and, in doing so, try to bring this discussion to a close as well. In an election cycle when candidates traded barbs even throughout the primary season and with the help of Twitter—you know who I’m invoking when I say that last bit—candidates and their supporters were quick to fire back at the opposing side. You know, whomever that opposing side was presumed to be. Right or wrong, for better or for worse, Hillary Clinton’s supporters often viewed layers of sexism in criticisms of their chosen candidate in the lead-up to the election. Even a casual Google search turns up articles penned during the campaign season like this gem from a Rebecca Bohanan, originally posted on the website xoJane, and re-posted on Huffington Post. It, um, very plainly states its agenda and beliefs in the title: “The Bernie vs. Hillary Battle All Boils Down to Sexism.”

Bohanan’s evidence of this supposed truth was her anecdotally-based explanation that she knows lots of young women who planned to vote for Bernie Sanders and vocally supported him, but knew of not one straight white man who would do the same for Clinton. Aha! Scientific proof! It couldn’t be that any of these heterosexual Caucasian males disagreed with Hillary on the basis of her stances on the issues. Not at all. Ms. Bohanan, in her indignation, also references comments made by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright and renowned feminist Gloria Steinem that were criticized for their apparent bias, as if to say that because of either their gender or their stature, they should be above reproach. With no disrespect to their intelligence and knowledge, however, I find their comments to be in poor taste. Albright suggested “there’s a special place in Hell for women who don’t help other women.” If meant to be serious, it’s an egregious conflation of Christian ideology with political environment. If an ironic jest, it nonetheless undermines the decision-making capability of young women and persists with laying a guilt trip on them.

As for Steinem, who intimated that young females only were going to Bernie Sanders rallies to chase after boys, there’s a similar vibe of lack of trust in the 30-and-under crowd to make a cogent decision. Not to mention it’s pretty darn insulting to infer that they would rather get laid than act for the sake of the country. Again, no one’s questioning Gloria Steinem’s feminist credentials, but much as it’s very possible for a black person to be racist, Madeline Albright and Steinem are not immune from sexism in their own right. Legends as they are, they’re allowed to be wrong.

So, yes, Björk. Her DJ sets down in H-Town got mixed reviews, but not necessarily because of some patriarchal refusal of the boys’ club of electronic dance music to let her in. It may be as simple as reviewers not knowing what to make of the spectacle, or legitimately being confused as to why a gifted vocalist wouldn’t be singing. Or it just may be that times have changed, and while Björk is by no means washed-up, perhaps the zeitgeist of the present is just not as conducive to showering her with praise. In other words, while we should be sensitive to gender bias in our lives and in the media, and while virulent sexism is still alive and well in our world today (you’ve heard Donald Trump talk, right?), it doesn’t always exist to the extent we may think it does. I’m all for political correctness, but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

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