Wednesday, September 24, 2008

My Gendered America(na)

If 1992 was "The Year of the Woman" in politics, I think 2008 is "The Year of Women's Issues." With Hillary making a run for it, and now Sarah Palin on the Republican ticket, the country is thinking about women's roles and abilities more than it has in a long time. So it's no surprise that my feminist senses were heightened last week, while I was attending the Americana Music Association Conference and Festival in Nashville.

I don't have exact numbers, but I love to estimate, so I'm making a guess about these demographics. On the list of showcasing artists (a somewhat misleading term, since 100% of the acts I saw were full bands), I counted about 1/3 of them to include women. That doesn't sound too bad until you take into account that most of those bands have 1, or maybe 2 women in them, and 3-5 men. Which ends up meaning that women were only about 8% of the artists at the festival. Now I'm really wishing I did have more hard data. My impression is that most of these women were singers, songwriters, rhythm guitar players, fiddlers, and a couple of them played bass, lead guitar, or ukelele. I didn't see any women on drums.

At the Award Show, there were 24 nominations, 4 of them for acts that include women, (16.6%), and of the 14 awards given out that night (8 of which were Lifetime Achievement Awards), 4 went to women (28.5 %). Over the 7 year history of the Americana Awards, women have won 23% of the awards, and never has a woman won "Song of the Year," "Instrumentalist of the Year" or Lifetime Achievement Awards for Songwriter or Instrumentalist. I'm not trying to place blame on anyone in particular for this, the nominations and winners are voted on by the membership. I'm just noticing a trend. And after a while, it starts to look like a glass ceiling (or would it be a wooden ceiling?). I mean, don't Alison Krauss (as an instrumentalist), Cindy Cashdollar or Lucinda Williams seem like obvious choices?

So who is the membership? I checked out the latest list of members and went through assigning a sex to each person. I know this is unfair, and that people should be able to label themselves and I probably counted a few too many Chrises as women and Randys as men, but the membership is around 34% women. Each sector is different, but there are wide disparities in Production (22% women) and Radio/TV (21% women). Women outnumber men in 2 categories; Publicity (75%) and Booking (59%). The artists are 32% women, which doesn't really match with the showcasing numbers I mentioned earlier. This could be because either the showcasing artists are not drawn from the membership, or because every member of a band isn't necessarily a member of the AMA. I think it's a little of both.

There we some fashion trends for the ladies, too. In general they were very feminine, just hinting at country, with the curve-hugging lace dress being a popular choice. Pheobe Hunt from the Belleville Outfit, Jill Andrews of the Everybodyfields, and Allison Moorer were all stunning in theirs. In fact, after Allison came on stage with the balding and bearded Steve Earle to sing a duet (I love the guy, but we're talking fashion here), I started to feel uncomfortable about the way the chips were falling; very few women on the stage, and more and more of them looking like super-models. The award show even had a couple of model types in skimpy outfits handing the awards to the winners. Who were they? One friend commented that the statue girls looked more like the ones you see announcing the next round at a professional wrestling match than at an awards show. Is this the alternative to the mainstream commercial country industry? It seems like the double standard is actually worse in Americana, because at least in commercial country the men feel strong pressure to look good, too.

Once I started thinking about this, artists like Greta Gaines in her slightly ironic, peach 80's blouse and fedora, and Those Darlins and Blair with their intentionally messy hair and sloppy make-up were a breath of fresh air. The thing is, I do believe all these women - the polished and the punky - are sincerely presenting themselves. I like to dress up and look pretty for my shows, so I'm not judging that choice. I'm just starting to wonder if somewhere deep down or maybe even not so deep, I feel like I have to. Do I feel, however consciously, that what I do musically isn't good enough, so I have to make up for it visually? And how much of that is valid? (I could be a better singer and guitar player.) And how much of that is just the simple truth that the industry and lots of audiences value smoking guitar licks over engaging lyrics or a clear voice? And then, is that preference gendered? Or sexist? You see how a gal can spin herself into a cycle of doubt.

So does this issue need to be addressed? Should we change the gender demographics of the AMA and the music industry in general? And if so, how? It seems since the fade out of Lillith Fair, most women musicians have dealt with it on their own. We just try to be true to our own musical vision and personal style, find industry partners that respect us, and find fans that appreciate what we offer. We believe that good music will find an audience, no matter who makes it. But still lots of us try hard to avoid being labeled "women's music" or fear that gaining a large lesbian following will turn off other fans. Our music is called "soft" and we're introduced as "easy on the eyes" and called "sweetie" by men who can't play as well as we can. We take time off from our careers to raise kids, while musical dads keep on touring. We sometimes talk about these things together, but don't want to be overheard because we might be considered whiners by those men who control the media or venues we depend on for exposure.

So maybe this year, while we're all thinking about women juggling kids and the Vice-Presidency and pantsuits, we should have a conversation about the state of women in the music industry. Is there more we should be doing together to make it more representative of the creativity that's out there? I'm off to practice guitar, volunteer for Girls Rock Camp and and I'm looking forward to your comments and thoughts on this topic.

By the way, I actually had a great time a the conference, was superbly entertained and inspired, and mets tons of friendly and generous people. I just never stop thinking. :)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Try this at home

I had such a great time playing with the band last night at my official Austin CD release party. So many friendly faces, new and familiar. Such great sound and service from the Cactus Cafe. And the "Song-Inspired Cocktails" were a big hit. If you couldn't be there, mix up "The Easy Way" or one of my other concoctions, put on the CD and pretend...

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Art vs. Entertainment vs. Politics

If you read my previous post, you know I was pretty high last week about Obama's nomination. Aside from the political aspect, it was a huge cultural event, even bigger than Ferraro, I'd say, because millions of people voted for him. So, in the spirit of the evening, at my performance, I decided to introduce my song "Sorry" this way.

"It's been an exciting election year and I'm really hoping Barack Obama doesn't break my heart. (A few cheers) Here's a song I wrote for all the politicians who have broken my heart." And played my song.

When I was counting up my tips at the end of the night, I found this in the jar.

If you can't read the small print, it says. "Keep your polotics out of your act. It cost you Tonight."

At first I felt shocked and kind of vulnerable. Someone didn't like what I did, and didn't pay me because of it. I got Dixie Chicked! But then I really started to think about what they were trying to say, what they saw, and what I'm trying to do with my "act." Did it really cost me all that much?

I think this gets to the heart of the old Art vs. Entertainment argument. If it's a certain musical performance, what's the main reason for it to exist? I think that Entertainment is primarily focused on making money. To do that, you try to make people happy and give them what they want. Of course, there can be amazing artistry in entertainment. Entertainers can take risks and push boundaries and have precise technical skill. But If people stop buying tickets, the act changes.

Pure Art, at the other end of the spectrum, doesn't care what the audience thinks. An artist has something to say that must be said whether it is popular or not. An artist doesn't create or perform for the money, but because she just has to express her vision. Maybe it's fun or popular, but if it stops attracting an audience, it keeps being made, maybe in obscurity.

I think most musicians find themselves somewhere in the middle of the two. We write songs, but join a cover band to pay the bills, or take gigs in restaurants, like I did that night. I want to express my own truth, but I also want to be liked, and to fit in, so I'm always picking which songs seem suited to each crowd and situation. And sometimes my whole mission with a song or a show is to make people feel good and have fun, just because.

But maybe I was trying too hard to please. Because Mr. Dollar Bill thought I was an entertainer. He thought that his withholding the other $4 he would have tipped me was enough to make me change my "act." Maybe he was just giving some friendly advice or maybe he wanted to assert some power, but either way, it didn't work. I'm so willing to pay that $4 or $19 or however much being myself has cost me over the years. I want to decide where I fall on the spectrum between art and entertainment. And no audience member, no threat, no amount of money is worth giving up my power to choose how I want to express myself.

And one more thing on politics and music. They go together, whether you know it or like it or not. But what I have loved about Nashville, is that while it can be a passionate and divided political landscape (read Chris Willman's Rednecks and Bluenecks), a good song trumps all political differences. When a song has the potential to touch people and make a lot of money, nobody cares which candidate the writer voted for, which is probably different from the one the artist voted for. That song has to get out. And so many of those songs are about universal feelings and situations. Which is probably why Brooks and Dunn performed at the 2004 Republican Convention, while their song "Only In America" played after Obama's acceptance speech. It's an idea bigger than either party.

I want to keep making art and entertaining people and I know that some of my songs will be more successful than others. I also want to keep listening to music by all sorts of people and finding truth in it. I think that's where I find common ground with people who are different from me. Mr. Dollar Bill, did you really not want to know me at all? Did you really just want to eat dinner and hear music that didn't open your world in any way? Did I really have nothing to offer? I hope you were just having a bad night.