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American music journalist Jessica Hopper previews her Women's Work keynote with thoughts on where inequality in the industry remains most rampant
Have you ever seen a woman doing the sound at a gig? Probably not, after all, that is the soundman’s job. Are we to believe, therefore, that women don’t understand sound or that they are incapable of - or disinterested in - such an occupation? Of course not, so why are women so under-represented and so discriminated against in the music world?
For music critic, editor and journalist Jessica Hopper – keynote speaker at the Women’s Work festival - the answer is simple: 'By and large men are still very much holding the reins of power, money and access within the music industry.'
It’s a power that often unleashes misogynistic attitudes, manipulative excesses and, in the worst cases, the sexual harassment and abuse of women. Whilst the high profile cases of R. Kelly and Heathcliff Berru have raised public awareness of the serious issues facing women in the music industry in the USA, the problem is clearly a universal one.
The crux of the matter is one of women’s rights. 'We can distill it down,' says Hopper. 'It’s about women’s right to be there and their right to exist there safely.'
Women in the music industry – fans and professionals alike - repeatedly come up against a wall of prejudice. 'We still have this very old idea that women are somehow interlopers,' says Hopper, 'particularly in rock ‘n’ roll, rap and hip-hop, and the world of studios. We have very prescribed notions of what is acceptable for women in terms of their images, in terms of the messages they present.'
Hopper, from first-hand experience, is all too aware of the ignorance and prejudices that women face in the music industry: 'People assume I don’t know anything about music, even though I might be speaking to their class, even though I might be addressing their entire university, even after I’m introduced as the editorial director for music at MTV, or Senior Editor at Pitchfork. I’m like, huh? Do you think I just lucked into this job?'
In fact, Hopper has been making her way in the music business since the age of fifteen. Now approaching forty, the insights gained during a quarter of a century absorbing popular music and highlighting the inherent gender inequalities are captured in her critically acclaimed book The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic (Featherproof Books, 2015).
In the summer of 2015 Hopper posted a tweet that invited women to share their experiences of the music business. The response was massive, global and often shocking. Thousands of women around the world described suffering verbal and physical abuse, degrading attitudes and condescension at the hands of men.
Another tweet asked what achievement women in the music industry were most proud of. The very fact of surviving in an often hostile and predominantly male environment cropped up again and again as the source of most pride.
Of course, it’s not just women who are discriminated against. 'It’s also queer and transgender, a-gender, non-binary people who are also having these struggles to have their art considered legitimate and worthwhile, to be able to exist freely and create freely,' Hopper expands.
In an interview she conducted with Björk for Pitchfork magazine in 2015, the Icelandic singer urged bravery and solidarity from those women on the receiving end of male prejudice and harrassment: 'You’re a coward if you don’t stand up,' said Björk. 'Not for yourself, but for women. Say something.'
Björk’s words should also resonate with men, for they share the responsibility to stand up against inappropriate behaviour towards women, wherever and whenever it happens.
Has Hopper found significant male allies in the struggle for equality?
'Rather than some guy popping out of the woodwork saying "let me help you fix this", there are a lot of men who very earnestly want to talk about this stuff and say "I’ve seen some of this stuff happen and I feel really powerless to do anything about it."
Powerless or cowardly? Whatever the reason, Hopper also sees men as prisoners of misguided cultural notions. 'I think the line of bullsh*t that men are fed culturally is as potent and as destructive as what women are fed in terms of expectations,' she says. 'If you’re a guy then you’re supposed to be loyal to other guys before anything else, you know?'
Evidently, gender inequality is a global problem, one that is culturally embedded and systematically enforced in many countries.
'It is the root of a lot of problems. A lot of studies have shown, in the developed world and in the developing world, that when you empower women, when you give them meaningful work, when you give them a way to support themselves, or a way to realize their ambitions beyond just raising children, when you give women equity in the world you see really far-reaching effects. And the music business is a tiny microcosm.'
Whilst there is still a long way to go Hopper is in no doubt that the feminist struggle is in a better place than it was when she started out on her career twenty five years ago.
'Oh gosh yes, absolutely. Even in our wildest dreams at the height of riot grrrl in 1992, I don’t think any of us thought that we could ever have an ongoing public conversation about sexual assault. There is inclusion and diversity,' she adds. 'It’s a world of difference from even ten years ago.'
Yet that said, a gig can still be an intimidating environment for young women, with groping and aggressive moshing examples of the sort of male behaviours that alienate and threaten.
Shortly after her Belfast appearance Hopper will address the topic of inclusivity in music to an audience at the South by South West Festival, in Austin, Texas. 'Punk, rock or rock ‘n’ roll and all these spaces can be inclusive,' she says, 'and I really think that is the route to change.'
She also talks animatedly about the legitimacy of teenage girl pop fans – economically, the most important segment of the music-consuming public. 'We’ve done a lot of the things to take care of ourselves and nurture our own community, and to show young women that there is value in who and how they are and what they want to express in music.'
Where exactly Hopper’s talk will lead the Belfast audience – or vice-versa – only time will tell, but it’s a safe bet that her words will strike a chord with many, male and female alike.
'The only thing I ever really aim for is that people hear a truth that either challenges them or that they can relate to. All I can really speak about is my understanding of the world and I think oftentimes my perspective is not an uncommon one for women who are making music.'
Culture NI spoke with Jessica ahead of her keynote at the Women's Work festival on Sunday, March 6 at the Oh Yeah Music Centre, Belfast, and as part of #CreativityMonth 2016 - a celebration of creativity and the creative industries in Northern Ireland. To view the full programme of events running throughout March visit www.creativityni.org/events. Find out more about Women's Work and register for tickets at www.womensworkni.com.