Yesterday in class, during a discussion on how we deploy personal listening devices to individualize our experience of public spaces, I asked if any of my students just walked around with earphones in, but no music on.
Several answered yes. That way, they said, they don’t have to engage with people they don’t want to.
“Why on earth would you do that, if you have music to choose from? How could you ever not have music on?” wondered a male student at the back.
“I want to know where I am, who’s coming up behind me,” a girl fired back.
“Yeah, it’s a safety issue,” another said.
“My phone has a button that if you press five times calls 911,” said the first girl. “I walk everywhere with my finger over it.”
“Hold on,” I said, “How many of you women have a strategy in place like that when you walk alone?”
All the girls in the class put up their hands.
“How about you guys?” I asked.
The moment passed quickly, but was perhaps one of the most profound illustrations of what we’d addressed all semester. In a course where the girls square off in discussion as easily as boys, and boys are writing papers on the limiting constraints placed on feminist messaging in pop music, I’m know I’m still leaving lots of ladies unsatisfied.
They’d come up to me after class with recommendations: “Just so you don’t have all dudes in the punk unit.” “Why don’t we really talk about what happened to Cherie Currie?” On and on it went. Finally, I said to them, look, if I de-creep the pop music canon, we’ll probably be left with only lady musicians. Their eyes shine at the prospect.
So do mine, honestly.
I have a picture in my powerpoint slides of rock producer Phil Spector on trial for murdering his girlfriend, Lana Clarkson. His hair floats like a collection of wiry snakes waiting to attack. With a drawn, terse face, he’s the classic eccentric genius whose eccentricity finally morphed into mania.
Beside Spector is a picture of Beethoven, his hair similarly dancing around a face bereft of empathy. I joke to students: as soon as Beethoven eschewed the wig, the romantic artistic monster was born. This is a man – almost always a man – whose creativity is such a force, so virile, it emanates from him in the most extreme ways.
The question I need to be asking myself, though, is why am I teaching the works of these men? By all accounts, Beethoven was a controlling, domineering jerk, abusing his sister-in-law and nephew through the latter part of his life, and spewing hatred at even the most benign passersby. Meanwhile, Spector’s trial was hardly the first evidence of his controlling behaviour; dating back to his early work on girl group records of the 60s, he was known for what contemporaries called an “uncompromising” stance, “dominating” the artist (mostly female singers) at every possible turn.
What if we started erasing these men from the music canon?
As a rock critic and musicologist, I’m no stranger to the misogyny, harassment, and abuse that comes with the territory. If you’re a woman with an opinion in the music industry, look out. Men will shut you down as quickly as you speak up, particularly on the subjects of hard music (punk, metal, hip hop) or gear.
Lately the masses have taken to wondering if we’ve gone “too far” in accusing, and subsequently firing, the men whose abuses of power have rendered women silent. Aren’t you the lucky one if you haven’t had to reckon with some form of abuse in your life. If we chastise on the smallest of infractions, will we all have to tiptoe around each other? Will workplaces be no fun anymore? Will great careers sail toward the trash bin? After all, we’ve been talking about this for like six weeks now, and it’s plugging up the news cycle. Shut up already, women. Back to your places.
The great fear is that we’ll lose the great men. All the essays lately that have mused on the loss of canonic art once a dude’s deplorable – and often illegal – actions are revealed grapple with the ethical question of admiring someone’s creative output when they are some form of monster. Funnily enough, you never hear someone talking about Charles Manson’s amazing rock songs, so the line isn’t absent, it’s just quite far from where it should be.
De-creeping the canon doesn’t have to be about erasing great art, or men, in favour of non-abusive types, AKA women. It’s not that simple. However, it could be a chance to reconceive of a canon that makes room for people who aren’t monsters. Give Spector two lines of acknowledgement, then talk about the sound of Ronnie’s voice for a while. Pay some attention to The Slits and Girlschool, and Nicky Minaj, instead of listening to another misogynistic Eminem song. Just make room.
While this moment can be characterized as collective catharsis taken too far, let’s backtrack on that notion for a second and take the example of me, since I’m the only one who has the authority to tell you this:
At the most mundane level, I’ve been ignored, dismissed, and mocked as an instrumentalist and music authority, by instrument and record store employees, dudes at parties, fellow critics, and sometimes musicians and students (though rarely).
I’ve been stalked. I’m being stalked right now, actually, by someone in the industry.
At worse levels, I’ve been cornered, groped, forced into unsafe scenarios, and harassed.
At still worse levels, I’ve been in much worse conditions imposed on me by intimate partners and have had to later face them in situations where I was the authority, but felt unable to exert it fully, still in fear of them. That’s all I’ll ever say on these topics, because for me, they were private and will remain so.
One story, though, is worth telling: I went out with a mentor to dinner when he was in town visiting. We’d had a long correspondence over the course of a year, mostly on email, and this correspondence was at times detailed and personal, but not romantic. He was in a position of power in the industry and had connections to publishers, musicians, and writers that would have benefitted me. At dinner, he got drunk in short order, then detailed the things we could do in his hotel room, so long as we didn’t tell his girlfriend (who kept texting that she loved him through dinner), things that stemmed naturally from my insistence on “staring at his crotch”. I repeatedly turned him down, expressing my disgust for his willingness to cheat. The night ended with me running away from him on the street as he tried to force me back to his room.
I’m not on a bandwagon here. I’m not hysterical. I’m also not victimizing myself. Instead, I’m recognizing that I – like the music I listen to – have been shaped by these moments, and they inform every decision I make. My boyfriend found out recently, during a conversation on the topic of what we find attractive, that the first filter for women is “Am I afraid of this man?”, before we can consider attractiveness.
This same boyfriend could be a model for what we consider canon eligibility. Perhaps his tenure in the Canadian jazz scene and Juno Award were once enough, but now we could consider his conscientious support of women musicians, through collaboration and community support, as an additional qualifier. Much like Prince (whose own marginalization from dominant frameworks of masculinity, race, and heterosexuality likely engendered a sympathetic – and sexy! – connection with his lady collaborators), upon whom my own man models himself, he sees himself and his work as part of a vast network of musicians not defined by their gender or power, but by their goodwill and talent.
All I can do is work within my own constraints, but in this case, I’ve got the extra freedom that teaching university courses bestows, and it’s my – and all of your – chance to start de-creeping the canon of pop music. Start by watching this.