Along with co-editor Eli Davies, Rhian E Jones has compiled essays written by women about their experiences of engaging with misogynistic music for a new book. Here, Jones explains the inspiration behind the book, and what she’s learnt while compiling it.
When stories are told about bands, artists and gigs, women are frequently either absent entirely or featured only in relation to men – as muses, fangirls or groupies – with our own ideas and arguments about the music we love marginalised. This imbalance is, to some extent, a function of the fact that music writing and journalism in general is a less hospitable place for women.
As a teenager for whom music meant the whole world, my gender was less important, to me at least, than the solidarity and escapism I found as a listener and fan. But my gender was certainly important to those critics and journalists who dismissed bands whose fanbase consisted of “screaming teenage girls” or “frustrated housewives”. There’s always been a whole spectrum of ways for women to engage with music, but you wouldn’t know this to look at many mainstream retrospective discussions.
Accounts dealing with 90s music, for instance, tend to lionise the laddish later stages of Britpop while ignoring the contributions of female musicians and fans. In 2015, sociologist Emma Jackson (formerly a member of the band Kenickie) wrote an article published on “retrospective sexism” when looking back on 90s pop culture. Partly inspired by Jackson’s piece, Eli Davies wrote about her own experience as a music fan in this period, from a viewpoint she felt had been similarly ignored. The response to this article on social media and elsewhere, from other women who also felt that their stories were not being told, is part of the reason why myself and Davies have put a book together, entitled Under My Thumb: Songs That Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them.
We wanted the book to both assert some balance in music writing and to explore the messy, complex and confusing – and also thrilling, fulfilling and life-changing – relationships that women can have with music.
A number of writers discuss the ways – not always conscious or deliberate – in which it’s possible to accept or ignore troubling representations of women or exclusionary male music cultures by thinking of yourself as somehow “not like the other girls”. In her essay on the early noughties indie scene, Abi Millar reflects on the concept of the “Cool Girl”. This was a scene in which rebellion was for the boys, and girlfriends were the resented figures who held these rebels back. Positioning herself as the Cool Girl – the girl who’s happy to have fun and party like the boys, yet never make any demands of them – allowed her to create a niche that was fun up to a point, but still relied on young women fitting themselves around a male narrative.
Another common theme is how many of us, needing an outlet for a deeply-felt but unarticulated anger at the social roles imposed on us, found affinity and solidarity with the resistance and rage expressed by flawed male artists from Bob Dylan to Kanye West. Zahra Dalilah’s essay reflects on how her admiration for 2Pac’s politics and lyrics led to growing awareness of the “intricately problematic” nature of songs like Wonda Why They Call U Bitch. Conversely, K. E. Carver writes about finding identification and in some of Eminem’s unlikeliest material, as does Rachel Trezise with Guns N’ Roses’ It’s So Easy.
Several writers explore how loving this music as women interacts with other aspects of their identity such as race and class. Amanda Barokh writes about Jay Z’s Big Pimpin’, a song she loved initially for how its sound referenced and embraced the Middle Eastern culture of her upbringing. Revisiting it as an older listener, however, she became aware of having to square her appreciation of this with the song’s “fuck ‘em, love ‘em, leave ‘em” attitude to women. The result is an analysis of power – of the “double bind” of capitalism and patriarchy – and an acknowledgement of the origin and allure of male bravado. These complications and complexities form a fundamental part of the book, but never overshadow the sheer joy, empowerment and inspiration to be gained from music.
There is, of course, no single definitive female identity or one way to be a music fan. Under My Thumb is a starting point, not an exhaustive account. Most of all, the project is an assertion of the agency of women music fans. Moving beyond stereotypes and assumptions – either that we are unaware of the problematic aspects of the art we consume, or that we are complicit in our own oppression by consuming it – we are exploring how women find their own ways of discovering and loving music, regardless of how that music may feel about them.
Under My Thumb: Songs That Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them is out on 19 October via Repeater Books