On Björk, Sexism and Adventurousness in Music

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.

White People, Stop Saying We’re “All The Same”

2016 BET Awards - Show
Jesse Williams gave a powerful speech at the most recent BET Awards, but as usual, a lot of white people seem to have missed the point. (Photo Credit: Kevin Winter/BET/Getty Images)

In discussions about the Black Lives Matter movement, I’m relatively sure you’ve heard at one point or another this line of thinking: “It should be All Lives Matter.” I’m also relatively sure that when you heard it, a white person said it. As a white person—an exceedingly white person, at that—I would like to speak directly to those other white persons who have espoused such a belief.

Cracker, please.

As well-intentioned as you may be in insisting that we are all one people under the same sky, supplanting the black in the phrase “black lives matter” is missing the point. Either you are missing the implicit argument that black lives matter too, and therefore falsely regard the movement as a bastion of black pride at the expense of all other makes and models of human existence (or worse, a terrorist organization), or you acknowledge that black lives matter, but by downplaying that sentiment in favor of some post-racial love for humanity, you are complicit in the preservation of systems of power that marginalize African-Americans and other minorities. To that effect, I don’t know which is worse.

I was reminded of the “Black Lives Matter”/”All Lives Matter” logical trap earlier this week following activist and actor Jesse Williams’ acceptance speech at the BET Awards for the Humanitarian Award. Williams had this to say in closing regarding the topic of race in America:

Now, freedom is always coming in the hereafter, but you know what, though—the hereafter is a hustle. We want it now.

And let’s get a couple things straight, just a little side note—the burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander.That’s not our job, all right—stop with all that. If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression. If you have no interest, if you have no interest in equal rights for black people then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down.

We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, yo, and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil—black gold, ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit. The thing is, though—the thing is that just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.

Powerful words. As is often the case, though, influential white people soon started rendering their opinions, and that ruined that pretty quickly. The inevitable hubbub/backlash started when Justin Timberlake took to Twitter to react to Williams’ impassioned speech:


Which led to this:


And all this:


OK, so there’s a number of things going on here, so let’s break down the component events/issues:

1. Justin Timberlake was #Inspired. Good for him. I don’t have any particular grievance with this Tweet other than the notion #Inspired, as far as hashtags go, isn’t particular inspired. At least he didn’t use his remaining characters to fill the space with more unnecessary hashtags. #ThankYouJT #WhitePeopleWatchTheBETAwardsToo

2. Ernest Owens (and a slew of others) took umbrage at Justin’s alleged history of habitual cultural appropriation. This is where the issue of race and culture gets decidedly thorny. More and more, white entertainers and famous individuals who lack real talent but are a subject of interest nonetheless (e.g. Kylie Jenner, and as some would argue, Iggy Azalea) are criticized for their use of African-American cultural elements without standing with blacks on social issues like discrimination and institutionalized racism. And God help them if they’re wearing cornrows or dreadlocks.

On the subject of Janet Jackson, meanwhile? Sheesh. Guess neither Justin nor Janet are ever going to live that one down. #WardrobeMalfunction #SuperBowlProblems #OneTittyOut

3. Justin Timberlake took patronizing umbrage at Ernest Owens’ umbrage. “Oh, you sweet soul?” Who are you, the Dalai f**king Lama? Rather than just leave that comment alone, Timberlake committed the cardinal sin of feeding Internet trolls, something which he does acknowledge in his follow-up Tweet. By this point, however, the damage was done, and JT had exposed himself (much in the same way he exposed Janet Jackson’s naked breast at the Super Bowl) as someone who, maybe just maybe, didn’t truly get why people were upset at him in the first place.

4. Justin Timberlake only proceeds in digging himself a bigger hole. On some level, yes, Justin, we are all one race under the sun. Physiologically speaking, distinct racial markers are relatively recent developments in human development. That said, you’re never going to win that argument, and on the subject of perceptions of race in America and around the world, and how that has been instrumental in the perpetuation of graphic inequalities economically, politically and socially for people of different skin colors, um, no, we’re not the same. Not even close.

I don’t know which part of this photo is most offensive to me: the dreadlocks, the New York Rangers sweater, or that Justin Bieber is being awarded for something. (Photo Credit: FilmMagic)

In saying people of different races are not the same, I am indeed speaking of their treatment within complex systems, and not as a referendum on supposed mental or physical attributes. On the first count, this is 2016. Sorry, #BeckyWithTheBadGrades. Sorry, Angry Ghost of Antonin Scalia. The vast (and sensible) majority of people are not trying to argue the point that affirmative action produces weaker candidates to earn degrees and jobs, nor is it wildly unfair to poor, hard-working Caucasians. On the second count, what are we talking about, exactly? Sports? Dick size? Either way, the stereotypes get blown out of proportion, not to mention after a certain point, er, depth, a gigantic member can only do so much good.

Concerning why I say that the topic of cultural appropriation is so thorny, what makes it so complicated is not only that the appropriator may not see much of a problem with his or her appropriating, but the aggrieved arbiter of matters of appropriation, seeing himself or herself as defender of cultural values, is usually self-appointed and therefore somewhat questionable as an authority figure. As far as Kylie Jenner’s (cornrows) and Justin Bieber’s (ugly blonde dreadlocks) limited self-consciousness was concerned, they were just, well, styling their hair. In the eyes of one Amandla Stenberg, however, it’s more than that. In a video entitled “Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows,” Stenberg waxes theoretical on cultural appropriation, saying:

Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high-fashion, cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves.

In making the connection to larger issues about race in America and the disenfranchisement of blacks as part of a society designed to suppress them, Stenberg also makes a connection between one’s follicles and hip-hop music, which, more and more, white people seem intent on co-opting for their own purpose, too:

Hip-hop stems from a black struggle, it stems from jazz and blues, styles of music African-Americans created to retain humanity in the face of adversity. On a smaller scale but in a similar vein, braids and cornrows are not merely stylistic. They’re necessary to keep black hair neat.

Assuming they’ve seen the video, Mr. Bieber and Ms. Jenner probably are defensively resisting any implication they are prejudiced or racist in any way. They also are probably wondering why the heck the young girl from District 11 of The Hunger Games is giving them a dissertation on black culture. Perhaps, though, the source is not so important as much as the message itself. Even when you tend to be kind of a dick.

More than just resisting the urge to look like Coolio, however, it would seem more worthwhile for white people to acknowledge that racism—both explicit and implicit—exists in today’s America. Taking it a step further, it’s time for more people of the Caucasian persuasion to recognize that white privilege is, in fact, a thing. A number of months ago, Saturday Night Live‘s Sasheer Zamata penned an essay and made a short video about privilege as an ambassador for the American Civil Liberties Union. It is primarily concerned with the intersection of gender and privilege, but race is also touched upon (as is the intersection of all three, and spoiler alert—it doesn’t tend to work out great for African-American women!).

Zamata says outright in the essay, “The fight to protect and advance the rights of women and girls is far from over.” Again, the focus is mainly on the role sexism plays in the power of privilege, and deservedly so, but the same may be said about other forms of prejudice. Your evidence? Look no further than the Comments section for Sasheer Zamata’s post. You would’ve hoped for more respectful input from a page on the ACLU website, but apparently, a Comments section is a Comments section, and trolls lurk in all corners of the Interwebs. Courageously hiding behind the designation of Anonymous. Your fearlessness inspires us all, Anonymous Trolls!

Were Justin Timberlake’s ill-fated comments the worst reaction we’ve seen to insinuations about appropriation, privilege and racism? No. Just look and listen at Tomi Lahren’s repugnant rant following these same BET Awards. You’ll have to fight the urge to stab your own eyes out with a sharpened Blake Shelton CD and cut off your own ears with—OK, what else is sufficiently white?—a kitchen knife covered in mayonnaise. Still, could we learn a thing or two from JT’s folly? I submit yes.

So, in summary, white folks: 1) It’s Black Lives Matter—take it or leave it, 2) if you love and appreciate black culture, love the things that empower black people (and consider forgoing that fresh Jheri curl hairstyle you’ve been thinking about), and 3) just accept your white privilege. Even when you think you’re not privileged, you probably are. That is all. You may now return to your regularly scheduled programming. Which is, like, what? Watching re-runs of Mad Men? What do white people watch these days anyway?