Monday, November 05, 2007

How Do Women Fare in Toby Keith's Universe?

This weekend it was just me and Adam - Sami was in Nashville from Thursday through Sunday for a professional conference. While she was gone the boy and I had grand fun eating pizza and chocolate, and watching football and movies. Doing "guy-stuff." The sorts of things Momma wouldn't approve of if she were around. There was much merriment and roughhousing, and very little cleaning.

When she got back Sami presented me with a few gifts to commemorate her time away and celebrate the miracle that no one died while she was gone. Among the stranger gifts, I though at first, was a copy of yesterday's edition of Nashville's newspaper, The Tennessean. I may be a bit of a news junkie, but what does that have to do with me?

As I glanced through that paper this morning, I noticed (with mild disdain) that the Country Music Association (CMA) is gearing up for its annual awards. This must be a heady time for Nashville's canned music factories. I try to like all forms of music, and do in fact have some love for country music. Artists like Lyle Lovett, Allison Krauss, Johnny Cash, Lucinda Williams, and Patsy Cline are well represented in both my analogue and digital music collections. But, of course, if you search the CMA charts you won't find any of those names on them. You won't, in fact, find much country music on them - just cartoonish southern rock retreads in skin-tight leather, with hats, boots, and over-sized belt buckles.

Then I saw, on the front page of the paper, in bold letters (how did I miss them before?) these words:

Country's women toil in a 'man's club'

This article followed that loaded headline, and I read it with great interest. Among the indictments against country music's marketing machine are these:

There are 105 men to only 14 women in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

There are 158 men to only 10 women in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Women also have decidedly unequal access to country music's radio waves, representing, according to this article, only 20% of the songs played on country stations. And of course, that last time a female act won the CMA's Entertainer of the Year Award was 2000, when the Dixie Chicks - who often fly in the face of what is expected of a popular country group - won, before their famous diatribe against President Bush got them effective banned from many country music media outlets.

This article also notes that women are rarely involved in production at major labels, which coupled with the lack of female music executives, could go a long way toward explaining the problem. As the article - written by Beverly Keel - notes:

No women produce acts on the rosters of Warner Bros. or Universal Music Group, while Capitol and Sony BMG each have only one artist produced by a woman (excluding female artists who produce themselves).

In an industry where men are the primary decision makers, it is no great surprise that women are under-represented. What was interesting to me, however, were the defenses offered by male "industry insiders" in another article written by Beverly Keel (which I could not find in the online edition of the newspaper). Most were variations on "blame the victim":

Mike Dungan, president and CEO of Capital Records Nashville, offered Keel this explanation:

The songs that are written for women often sound like you've heard them before... By and large, the music cranked out by female artists over the last three or four years hasn't been as strong as it needs to be.

Overlooking that everything that comes out of Nashville "sound[s] like you've heard it before" and that this corporate executive just used the phrase "cranked out" to describe works of art, showing little appreciation for the creative process, there are two parts of this quote that really steam me. First, it overlooks the fact that the problem of unequal treatment of women in the country music industry is decidedly not a three or four year old problem. And, it overlooks the extent to which quality judgments made by a male-dominated industry are made exclusively by men, who may not be the best judges of the artistic merits of female creations. The game, in other words, is rigged. Men sitting in judgment on women in an industry that has long viewed women as inferior have a vested interest in seeing artistic works by women as by nature inferior to artistic works by men.

In yet another article by Beverly Keel (also unavailable online) she notes that not only are women artists not represented on radio, they also by and large aren't well represented on television. CMT (Country Music Television) participates in the moving of most female artists to the margins of the industry, while simultaneously offering such monuments to women's liberation as Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders: Making the Team and The Ultimate Coyote Ugly Search. These shows (like so much else on television) represent women as primarily the objects of male sexual fantasies. The standards by which a woman is judged are limited to her waist, her bust, and the way she shakes her hips. In response to this situation, Keel quotes songwriter Matraca Berg as saying:

CMT is getting dangerously close to being the Hooters channel, with testosterone, boobs and booze.

What was overlooked in each of Keel's articles, however, is the political climate of popular country music. That, as much as anything else, may explain country's tendency to marginalize all but the most commercially successful female artists - who, of course, are marketed principally through their sex appeal. Any industry that fetishizes a particular reading of 1950s America - one that overlooks the rampant racism and sexism of the day to create an idealized world in which everyone knew their place - is likely, especially when coupled with almost entirely male decision makers, to subordinate women.

But most telling of the state of women in popular country music may be the fate of female artists who have the audacity to transcend the bounds placed on them. When Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks insulted President George W. Bush from on stage in 2003, it set of a firestorm that included not only CD smashings, burnings, and boycotts, but even burning effigies of the band. While much of this had to do with the way that many country music fans idolized (and this time I mean that literally!) President Bush, I suspect much of the angry outcry also had to do with women who had been marketed by the country music industry as vacant, cutesy sex objects having the audacity to voice their own political views. View that, by the way, while initially phrased somewhat crudely, evidenced a great deal of critical thought.

As noted at the time, Maines' statement stemmed from this 1918 quote from Theodore Roosevelt:

The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else.

That Maines and the Dixie Chicks were treated like they lacked the intellectual gravitas to comment on such grave political matters - shouldn't they stick to songs about Earl? - shows the extent to which they and other thoughtful female artists are reduced to caricatures by the country music industry, when it bothers to represent them at all.


Anonymous said...

Using Toby Keith in your headline catches the eye...but you misrepresent him as a some sort of misogynist by putting him in your title...Did you know that he was the first major country star to use a woman as the producer of his cd? ...Lari White.

As for the Dixie Chicks...should I have to support them BECAUSE they were "brave" and spoke their minds or do I have freedom of choice here to and can choose to NOT support them because of the way they handled the entire me they came across as exactly what I do not want my daughter to be...whiny and spoiled...thinking tht Country music and its fans "owed" them something when they continue to dismiss the genre and its fans in their tirades...not ready to make nice? well...that's one cares anymore.

Tom said...


Here's your sign.