While at AmericanaFest in mid September, I made it a priority to attend an event put together by an organization called Change The Conversation founded by CMT senior VP music strategy Leslie Fram, artist manager and Rounder Records VP Tracy Gershon, and Middle Tennessee State University recording industry department chair and occasional columnist for The Tennessean Beverly Keel. Change The Conversation was formed in the aftermath of the whole TomatoGate controversy in 2015 when radio consultant Keith Hill famously said, “If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out.” The organization looks to give support to up-and-coming female performers, and the event at the famous Bluebird Cafe during AmericanaFest featured performances by Arielle, Ella Mae Bowen, Kree Harrison, and rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson was the keynote speaker.
One of many reasons I wanted to attend the event was to ask a simple question as a journalist not just specializing in covering up-and-coming artists, but as a journalist that is trying to be at the forefront of solving the systemic bias against females in country music. That doesn’t mean I’m for pushing females over males if the music is of similar quality in my estimation. But there’s a clear institutionalization of the idea that females just don’t sell compared to males, even though the numbers don’t always back that up.
The question I wanted to pose was, “Can I even refer to artists to artists as ‘female’ or ‘women,’ or is this sexist in itself?
Covering female country artists has all of a sudden become a perilous enterprise. Even when you’re putting out efforts to highlight female artists, simply referring to them by their gender can be a no no, along with a host of other seemingly spanking new, and frankly unintuitive rules that will put you in the doghouse with a host of socially-conscious media members, artists, and country music celebrity Stans, and all of a sudden your good intentions for the feminine cause are turned into accusations of misogynistic idiocy on your part. And these rules aren’t explained to you with any sort of sense of gaining understanding, they’re spit at you from afar via social media that looks to smear not just your efforts, but your name.
The issue if we can even refer to artists by their gender is a big hot button topic for journalists that nobody seems to have a good answer to. Neko Case in 2014 famously slammed Playboy Magazine—who for those who may not be aware, actually is very involved in many women’s issues—when they tweeted out, “Artist Neko Case is breaking the mold of what women in the music industry should be.”
Neko Case responded to what was characterized as their “sexist” tweet with, “Am I? I AM NOT A FUCKING WOMAN IN MUSIC,” IM A FUCKING MUSICIAN IN MUSIC!”
Okay so we’re not supposed to refer to female artists by their gender. Got it. That seems like a pretty simple rule to understand and adhere to, and though it seems a little nit picky, I can understand the rationale behind it. Are male artists regularly prefaced by their gender? Not as much as women, so I can understand how that could be seen as downgrading, even if that was not your intention. After seeing another missive from a female artist named Brennen Leigh that explained the situation a little bit more rationally than Neko Case did, Saving Country Music started to try and not refer to artists as “female” or “women,” unless it was essential to the subject being broached, like in this article for example.
But this is the problem: There are a lot of organizations and individuals that are working to push women forward in music that happen to have “women” or other female sygnifyers in their titles or mission statements, and the sensitivity on this issue is causing even these organizations and individuals to find themselves in the crosshairs of sexism accusations.
On December 5th, rising country artist Margo Price lashed out via Twitter saying “If people really want to support ‘women in music,’ they should stop making silly hashtags like #WomeninMusic that classify us by our gender.”
Price was referring specifically to Billboard’s Women in Music campaign that looks to highlight female artists in the music space. Each year in December, they hold an annual awards gala, and yes, the hashtag #WomeninMusic is used to coincide with functions and press for the movement. This is what Margo Price was referring to specifically. Billboard’s Women in Music is for women, by women, in an effort to deconstruct the inherent biases present in the music industry that systematically put women at a disadvantage. CMT has a similar program called Next Women of Country, and regularly will use a hashtag referring to female gender as part of their campaigns. Are we really going to accuse these organizations and their efforts as sexist simply because they use gender identifiers?
And if Margo Price has an issue with referring to artists as “women,” why did she participate in the late July Billboard feature called “Women in Country Music” that highlighted Price, Cam, Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris, Aubrie Sellers, and Mickey Guyton in roundtable form with well-known freelance reporter Jewly Hight? There were articles, and videos, and a photo shoot that coincided with this feature-length spread on country’s insurgent women highlighted prominently in Billboard’s annual Nashville issue.
At the time, I found the Billboard effort to be incredibly sexist myself, especially in the way they dolled up these artists and made them pose in a pretty sexual manner, and put their music in the background and made it more about their image and attitudes. I even wrote a specific article about it at the time called “No I said, What Kind of Bird Are YOU?” that looked to make the point that lumping female artists together in one setting only helps to reinforce the idea that none of them can draw enough of a crowd individually.
Why did Margo Price participate in Billboard’s gender-based coverage in July, and then slam it in December? Perhaps it’s because the first effort helped to promote her, and the second didn’t include her. Or perhaps participating in Billboard’s “Women in Country” is where Price realized the implicit biases that type of coverage helps to reinforce.
But even as I criticized Billboard’s “Women in Country” feature in pretty elaborate detail, I also made sure to state, “Any effort to help promote female artists in the current environment, or to raise the issues facing them is a worthy one.” Because it is. I didn’t slam their coverage, I attempted to help assuage it in a different direction in the future perhaps by sharing my opinion in a respectful manner.
Right now women aren’t just facing an uphill battle in music due to systematical sexism, they’re also facing an internal struggle of how to solve that problem. If female artists continue to attack and accuse the very organizations and institutions the media has constructed to help them overcome gender biases, then nothing is ever going to get accomplished.
Last week, Saving Country Music posted a small list of songs and albums that it thought were the best in the mainstream in 2016. On the list of albums, Miranda Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings came in at #3, and Brandy Clark’s Big Day in a Small Town came in at #1. Though gender didn’t weigh whatsoever into the decision to put these efforts by female artists at the top, that was the net result. But even though this was a moment where Saving Country Music was attempting to highlight how country music women right now are leading the pack in regards to quality in the mainstream, it resulted in accusations of sexism by an artist, by multiple media members, and by fans.
In the summation for Miranda Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings taken from the original Saving Country Music album review for the record, I said, “And as is true with all of Miranda Lambert’s records, there will be a greater resonance with female listeners because that’s who Miranda Lambert is most attempting to speak to, and that’s okay.”
This quote was then taken out of context by a freelance country journalist named Marissa R. Moss to attempt to illustrate the sexism of Saving Country Music—an accusation Moss has leveled at Saving Country Music before. At one point Moss said it was sexist to even refer to female artists by their first names, showing the incredible sensitivity journalists apparently must take with the subject.
Marissa R. Moss might be in the minority though, but when she tweeted out her displeasure with my remark, now Warner Music-signed recording artist Aubrie Sellers chimed in. Aubrie Sellers also participated in Billboard’s “Women of Country” spread in July. Along with Marissa, they basically accused Saving Country Music of saying that women only write for other women, when that’s not even close to what was attempting to be conveyed.
Other journalists also joined in the fray, including Matt Hendrickson who works for Garden & Gun, and Lorie Liebig who writes for Wide Open Country.
So it turned into a big smear fest against Saving Country Music, with a quote pulled completely out of context, from an article that named females as having the #1 and #3 best albums in the mainstream in 2016—something that would be a strange assertion from someone that is inherently sexist, or thinks that music from women only appeals to women. It’s also interesting that just a few days later, Aubrie Sellers was blowing kisses at Whiskey Riff for including her in their “Women of Country Wednesdays Song of the Week” feature. In fairness, Aubrie is not on record saying she has a specific problem with female artists being labeled by their gender (at least not one I could find). But it does once again illustrate the complexities and mixed messages the media is facing when it comes to the gender issue, and how a lot of this has to do with media/artist back scratching as opposed to principled stances on social issues.
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Not to get too in-depth into the back story of why that controversial quote about Miranda Lambert was included in Saving Country Music’s Miranda Lambert album review, but a commenter hit the nail on the head.
It’s funny, I remember when Trigger reviewed Miranda Lambert’s ‘Platinum’ album, he gave it a decent to middling review, and he was attacked in the comment section for npt heaping praise on it by certain people who claimed that he was missing the point on the album because it somehow speaks to the female experience, and that he couldn’t understand because he’s a man. Actually, I think something like that might have happened with some other reviews too. So, reading the review for the new Miranda album, when I got to the line about how the music might speak more to women in certain ways, it made perfect sense to me because I’ve literally heard / read women say things like that previously. And now THAT statement is itself being turned around, taken completely out of context on social media, and construed as evidence of Trigger’s sexism, LOL.
One of the differences in Saving Country Music and other media outlets is the robust comment culture. Some people think SCM’s comment culture is tasteless, or irrelevant. Others are jealous at the level of engagement and discourse that regularly occur in the comments. This is something Saving Country Music has fostered from the very beginning to underscore that everyone’s opinions on music matter, to give a forum for conversation, and to make sure Saving Country Music is not just an autocracy.
One individual who regularly participated in Saving Country Music’s comments was Windmills Country, who arguably did more for women in country music than all other journalists and outlets combined, and who passed away recently. She was not just a Saving Country Music commenter, she was an SCM contributor and behind-the-scenes confidant, but that didn’t mean we always agreed. In the comments sections, it was common for us to engage in spirited discourse, and specifically on gender issues.
The comment that Marissa R. Moss took out-of-context, and Aubrie Sellers mischaracterized was put in there specifically attempting to resolve the issues of gender perspective in regards to Miranda Lambert’s music. In other words, it was put in there at the behest of people fighting for equality of females in country feeling that strong feminine voices in country are vital to breaking down the inherent prejudices. Now maybe it was a mistake to include it in that context, or maybe it could have been worded better. But in no way was it saying that female artists only appeal to females.
Beyond that, you can’t listen to a song like Miranda Lambert’s “Pink Sunglasses,” and realistically state it doesn’t appeal more to women than men, even though in my review, I said I really enjoyed the song. At some point, just basic common sense also has to enter into the conversation, and balance out these incredibly restrictive sensitivities on the gender issue.
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This attacking of media and other entities who are attempting to equalize the playing field for country music’s women is not progressive journalism, and it’s not even activism. It’s McCarthyism. It’s attempting to smear individuals and organizations with elitist, down-looking accusations that are hurtful, irresponsible, sometimes downright incorrect, and destructive. Saying that someone is sexist or misogynist is a very strong accusation that can affect people’s personal careers, and even their personal lives. And it should be reserved for only the most obvious and universally-recognized moments when clear sexism is present, or you run the risk of desensitizing the accusation itself. It especially shouldn’t be used against the very organizations that are trying to fight the sexism in music, just because they happen to have a gender identifier in their name.
As I started off by saying, in September I went to an event for an organization called Change the Conversation. Unfortunately, my question on the right and wrong times to refer to an artist’s gender never got answered. Change The Conversation was too busy doing their job of supporting artists. Change The Conversation doesn’t have “women” in their name, and they don’t use “women” in their hashtags. But they do use the term “conversation,” which is what Saving Country Music attempted to start when it questioned Billboard’s “Women in Country” feature that included Aubrie Sellers and Margo Price, not with pointed accusations hurled like grenades from social media, but in-depth and thoughtful analysis and opinions presented in long form. “Conversation” is what occurred when Windmills Country would come to Saving Country Music and leave 10 to 12-paragraph comments, one after the other on the issue. That effort was seen as fruitful because we were attempting to breed understanding with each other, and work through the complexities of this issue.
Conversation is what is needed if women are going to truly bust through the institutional biases that exist in music to finally achieve the equality they seek. Lashing out on Twitter is more synonymous with the Trump administration as opposed to true social activism.
But equality doesn’t just mean equal time. It also means the right to face equal scrutiny. It is a sign of respect to criticize the music and efforts of women on an equal playing field as the men in music, of which Margo Price and Aubrie Sellers have seen from Saving Country Music specifically, and is the real reason for the acrimony. If all the efforts for women in country do is push women forward solely on gender—like much of the media is doing, including many of the media members that regularly love to accuse Saving Country Music of gender bias—they will never win the true equality they seek.
Instead, country music should put its best foot forward regardless of gender. It just happens to be that in the present era, especially in the mainstream, women represent that best foot. That is why Saving Country Music put Miranda Lambert, and Brandy Clark at the top of the heap in mainstream music in 2016. And attempting to tarnish that opinion with accusations of sexism does no good for anybody.
You will not find one instance where I have said Saving Country Music is perfect, or that I’ve never made mistakes in my efforts here, including mistakes that probably be labeled as sexist. And as the issues of sexism in country music have risen to the forefront, I’ve put out effort to understand the issue more from the female perspective, and will continue those efforts. I may be an asshole, and it’s my job to not care about the public perception of my opinion. But one thing I am not is a misogynist. And neither are the dozens of other men and women in the media and elsewhere looking to push women forward, who happen to refer to them for convenience and reference by their gender.
And if you happen to disagree, then talk to them. Have a conversation. Because throwing accusations out on social media isn’t only combative, it is counter-productive to the effort. Get on board. Get in line. Speak, don’t shout. Engage instead of accuse. And perhaps through unity of effort, women in country music can finally achieve the equal playing field they deserve.