Over the course of performing my intersecting duties as “internet feminist” and “music/pop culture writer,” I’ve come across a curious dilemma. For the most part, it’s one I’ve been able to ignore in favor of more important battles, but lately it’s been on my mind. It was on my mind when I read Emily Nussbaum‘s super smart (but ultimately unconvincing) New Yorker article positing that people think Sex and the CityÂ was crappier than The SopranosÂ at least in part because of sexist bias against traditionally “feminine” topics. I thought about it when I read a piece saying people hate Taylor Swift because the teenage girl is inherently uncool in our society. I think about it whenever critics I respectÂ and look up toÂ reference the “disco sucks” movement as shorthand for all the people who prefer white dudes with guitars over booty-shaking pop stars for what are implied to be complex non-musical reasons. And I thought about it when I, myselfÂ defended Marie Calloway‘s writing on primarily political grounds.
Most of these folks have a point. There are lots of people who want to tear women down purely because they are women doing stereotypically feminine things, and girl stuff sucks. Why would you want to do frivolous girl stuff when girls are allowed to do cool guy stuff now? You see this from blatant sexists, sneaky sexists, and certain kinds of feminists. Once upon a time, in a post in which I may have over-stated my case, I even got mad at Kathleen HannaÂ for seeming to conflate her hatred of “bad Euro disco,” i.e. the way Lady Gaga‘s music sounds, with her perception of Lady Gaga’s political meaning. I still think it’s shitty to attack someone for expressing her gender in a normative-ish way, but I get it now that she dislikes both things about her, they just happen to dovetail.
But here’s the thing: it’s possible for me to think something sucks independently of any type of internalized sexism. For instance, with the exception of “I Knew You Were Trouble” (which is so fucking well-written it transcends all the things I dislike about it, good job TayTay), I do not enjoy the majority of Taylor Swift‘s output. Or Lady Gaga‘s, for that matter. This is not because it’s girly, or emotional, or “fake,” or any of that nonsense. I love emotions! I am the most emotional person around. I don’t dislike T-Swift’s music because I’m jealous of her for being skinny and popular, or because I want to seem cool and “not like your average girl” so that guys will like me. (I’ve also never boasted that “I have no female friends” because what the fuck is that?) I dislike it because it doesn’t sound the way I like music to sound. The way it’s produced. The timbre. The themes. I like sounds that are messier, dirtier, freakier, less candy-coated. (And for the record, I think you can do that on any kind of instrument.) That’s what I look for when I waste my days combing through blogs. And I may very well identify better with the emotions in a Taylor Swift song than say, Lou Reed going to buy a bag of junk, but I generally like my artists to be more fucked up than me. Maybe that’s not fair, but I do. At least the bar is low; I’m pretty boring.
Maybe these intense subjective biases make me a bad critic. I’m fully open to that possibility. (Although I try really hard to be evenhanded when I suspect my aversion to something is bordering on irrational. I’m making progress!) But the fact remains that there are plenty of men and women who prefer one kind of music to another for purely aesthetic, value-neutral reasons, and furthermore, some things made by women are genuinely crappy, in so far as anything is ever objectively crappy. (I go back and forth about this. Like, I don’t believe in some Platonic essence of music that exists somewhere out there, but I still want some kind of rubric in place to say why The Velvet Underground is better than Puddle Of Mudd.) I want it to be okay to say that. I also want a way to separate myself from all the people who do shit on things for dumb, sexist reasons. Or even better, I want people to stop doing this,Â because if I am forced to defend Lana Del Rey from the wrong kind of hater one more time, I am going to choke myself on a beehive wig, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.
How are we going to do this? Can there be a secret handshake we do when discussing these things in casual conversation? Should I link to a website containing my feminist credentials? Maybe we should all just be more honest about our motivations and nicer, too. And maybe there is no way to prove The Velvet Underground is better than Puddle of Mudd after all, and cultural judgments should cease as a profession? Of course, I don’t really have an answer, so I’m going to end with those questions.