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The “Female” Problem

Whenever music comes up as a subject, I inevitably end up mentioning that I mostly listen to female singers (as if I just listen to all females who sing indiscriminately), which is often met with something like: “Oh, really? Well then, you should check out [woman folky-pop singer that is actually nothing like the music I listen to]!” It’s always a bizarre conversation, because you’d never hear this: “I mostly listen to male vocalists.” “Oh, really? Well then, you should check out this band called U2. They have a great male singer.” This is indicative of a problem with how women in music are discussed: bands with men are just bands, but bands with women are defined by their gender.

As someone who listens to predominantly women, I’ve been thinking a lot about the “female as genre” issue and how to reconcile it with my listening habits and preferences. It’s really obvious that “female” isn’t a genre: women perform all kinds of music –some good and some bad — just the same as men do, and even though my collection is mostly women singers, there’s a ton of variety in there. I get really annoyed when two bands with women singers get compared when they have absolutely nothing in common except a non-dude singer.

At the same time, the fact that I enjoy women singers so much more than men (on average) says something, and sometimes I wonder if it makes me complicit in the “female as genre” thing. I think a lot of my earlier posts on this topic did feed into that, because I couldn’t explain why I liked women singers so much and ended up thinking more about the lyrics and rooting it in some trendy misandry, like “men are boring, “who cares about what dudes have to say,” etc. That all may be true, but it didn’t really get into the heart of the matter, which is the music.

The explanation I didn’t consider is possibly the most obvious one: I like the way women sound more than men. Instead of being about politics or some weird psychological complex, maybe women are simply more suited to the kind of music I like listening to. The song that caused this light bulb to go on was “Loomer.”

“Loomer” is my favorite song on Loveless, and is probably the closest of any song to achieving what I would consider the perfect sound. Its defining characteristic is the low, heavy, almost metallic guitars which contrast with singer Bilinda Butcher’s higher pitched, dreamy vocal, creating an effect where it feels like Butcher is floating above the music, just avoiding getting crushed by the guitars. A lot of the music I like falls into the “loud guitars and higher-pitched vocals” zone typified by “Loomer,” and I think it has to do with that contrast. Something about it just appeals to me for reasons I can’t fully explain, much like most matters of preference/taste in music.

Given that what I love about “Loomer” is the contrast between the guitars and Butcher’s vocals, a sensible (yet maybe controversial) conclusion can be reached: if a man with a typical lower male voice sang this song, it wouldn’t be as “good,” or at least would feel different enough that it would no longer fit my “perfect sound” mold. Depending on your taste, the opposite could be true. Another song on Loveless is “Sometimes,” which has similar guitars and Kevin Shields providing vocals instead of Butcher. On “Sometimes,” Shields’ lower voice blends in more with the guitars, making for a more monochromatic song, which couldn’t have been achieved with Butcher’s vocals. Even though I like “Loomer” more because I prefer the voice/guitar contrast, I wouldn’t change anything about “Sometimes” and recognize that the right singer was picked for each song given what the band was trying to do.

What I realized about looking at the music this way is that what makes me prefer Butcher’s vocals isn’t necessarily that she’s a woman, but that she has a higher voice, which sounds different and evokes different emotions than a lower voice would. It’s possible that I don’t really love “female vocalists” as much as I prefer various characteristics that are naturally more common in women singers than men. In this sense, gender isn’t really a factor in the music itself, because the human voice is just an instrument, like any other. Butcher doesn’t sing on “Loomer” because she’s a woman: she sings because her voice was the right instrument for that song.

This isn’t to say that gender can or should be ignored entirely — men and women have different experiences that likely inform their art in some way, and some music has undeniably feminine or masculine themes that should be a part of the conversation around it. I just think I tended to overrate how big of an impact gender had on music I liked — that just because the common denominator of so much music I loved was “woman singer,” that didn’t mean I liked all of it because they were women. And when I praised those artists on here or elsewhere, my focus should have been on the music, not on the fact that it was women making it.

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