Women’s Music Industry Horror Stories: Abuse, Sexism, and Erasure
On Monday, Pitchfork Senior Editor Jessica Hopper asked the Twitterverse: “Gals/other marginalized folks: what was your 1st brush (in music industry, journalism, scene) w/ idea that you didn’t ‘count’?” What followed were hundreds of responses, mostly detailing the tragic timeline of any chick who dares to like music, thus infringing on the safe spaces of country bros and alt-rock dudes. Hopper’s retweets tell a pretty predictable story: girl develops interest in a music scene, girl is endlessly scrutinized and told that her fandom is illegitimate/invalid, girl is mistaken for a groupie or a girlfriend, girl is harassed/groped/assaulted at shows.
Various tropes are repeated over and over again, like a riff you’ve heard too many times before: an aspiring bassist being told by a music teacher that bass is for boys, or a teenager being asked by her dubious male classmates to recite a band’s entire discography in order to prove her fan cred. The narrative gets even more disturbing and specific when you start charting the testimonials of women who pursued careers as musicians, sound engineers, executives, and journalists. The recurring message is that, for women, the music industry is a Banksy-designed Choose Your Own Adventure book, with each career path containing its own lady-specific land mines.
Rampant misogyny is the music industry’s worst kept secret. Recently, legendary rapper—and the richest musician on the planet—Dr. Dre finally apologized for a lifetime of physical and emotional abuse against women. The apology stemmed from outrage over Straight Outta Compton, the N.W.A biopic, which topped the box office without addressing Dre’s problematic past. In her essay “Here’s What's Missing From Straight Outta Compton: Me and the Other Women Dr. Dre Beat Up,” rapper and television personality Dee Barnes described the night in 1991 when Dre “straddled me and beat me mercilessly on the floor of the women’s restroom.” Dre later told Rolling Stone, “It ain’t no big thing—I just threw her through a door.” He pleaded no contest to Barnes’s assault charges and settled with her out of court for an undisclosed sum.
Dre’s history of violence against women was similarly uncontested. Everyone knew that Dr. Dre beat up women—they just didn’t really care. Michel’le, an R&B singer and Dr. Dre’s former girlfriend, explained, “I’ve been talking about my abuse for many, many years, but it has not gotten any ears until now,” before detailing how her relationship with one of hip-hop’s greats left her with “black eyes, a cracked rib and scars.” Singer Tairrie B is Dre’s third known music industry victim—the rapper punched her twice in the face at a Grammys after party in 1990. Straight Outta Compton director (and Barnes’s ex-cameraman) F. Gary Gray explained away the exclusion of these incidents by insisting that “we had to make sure we served the narrative… it wasn’t about side stories.”
After decades of having his assault history dismissed as extraneous, Dr. Dre’s short New York Times apology feels like an insultingly small price to pay for his barely blemished legacy. Dre is currently enjoying the success of his new album Compton; the sale of his unfortunately named music company, Beats by Dr. Dre, made him the self-proclaimed “first billionaire in hip-hop.” Meanwhile, Dee Barnes was “blacklisted” from the industry by hip-hop insiders who didn’t want to jeopardize their relationships with the all-powerful D-R-E.
Straight Outta Compton doesn’t just erase Dre’s female victims—it also denies the influence of his female contemporaries. Female artists like J.J. Fad, Jewell, The Lady of Rage, Michel’le, and Tairrie B are notably absent from the biopic. Apparently, any woman who isn’t a half-naked groupie or a video girl is chopping block fodder in F. Gary Gray’s interpretation of the hip-hop world. While the history of women in hip-hop runs parallel to the story that Straight Outta Compton tells, it’s effectively silenced. When N.W.A’s swagger is so amplified, and Dr. Dre’s apology so well-executed as to appear almost sincere, it’s easy to ignore the female artists and victims who have spent decades screaming to be heard. Imagine an industry where the presence of women is not only discouraged, but also flat-out denied—that’s the vision that earned F. Gary Gray a $24.2 million opening day.
In her essay, Barnes writes that, “Accurately articulating the frustrations of young black men being constantly harassed by the cops is at Straight Outta Compton’s activistic core. There is a direct connection between the oppression of black men and the violence perpetrated by black men against black women. It is a cycle of victimization and reenactment of violence that is rooted in racism and perpetuated by patriarchy.” That being said, labeling hip-hop culture (i.e. black men) as the main source of music industry misogyny is a gross misreading of the cycle that Barnes is describing. No, black men are not inherently more violent—no, movie theaters, you do not have to request increased security in preparation for black fans at Straight Outta Compton showings.
Obviously, hip-hop is a handy scapegoat for #AllLivesMatter advocates and their similarly addled forebears. Making America great again all too often seems to involve chastising rappers for violent videos, while ignoring the deeply dysfunctional music cultures flourishing just left of the dial. What Hopper’s Twitter disruption does so well is highlight how misogyny plagues the music industry at large. As any college-aged girl will tell you, a penchant for alternative scenes and liberal politics can often mask some abhorrently outdated ideas about gender. A Bikini Kill T-shirt does not a male feminist make. The initial betrayal comes when a female outsider leaves mainstream scenes on a quest for a more niche set of sounds and sites—only to find that even in the big wide alternative world, women are still ostracized as other and less than.
The injustices that women face in the music industry range from micro (“no, I’m not dating someone in the band, and no, I don’t want to date you”) to debilitating (assault and/or constant fear of violence). Apparently, the idea that a woman could hold a job in this industry is, in 2015, still shocking. Women on Twitter described being told to work for free next to their paid male co-workers, ordered to cover “the girl stuff” male reporters passed on, or asked who they slept with to get a press pass. At this very moment, some confused rocker is probably wandering around tonight’s venue in a daze, hitting on his female sound engineer, and ordering a female reporter out on a Starbucks run. As one tweeter pointed out, the sentiment “if we can’t fuck you, you’re not getting us coffee, what exactly are you doing here?” still reigns supreme.
From getting groped in mosh pits to being passed over for senior positions, no number of years in the industry or degree of fame exempts a woman from being dismissed like a girl by a man. A handful of notable incidents over the past few years include (but are not limited to!) Kesha filing against producer Dr. Luke for abuse and sexual assault and Lady Gaga coming forward with her story of being raped at 19 by an older record executive. And then there’s Chvrches’ Lauren Mayberry’s never-ending crusade against the misogynistic online trolls who have plagued the singer’s social media accounts with insults and rape threats. It’s hard to fathom the number of women with similar stories who can’t afford to risk their safety or livelihood by going public.
And let’s not forget the “other marginalized folks” in the music industry—because if it’s this hard to combat a culture of misogyny, just imagine existing even farther outside of the accepted norm. One tweet reads, “I got like 2 words into an explanation of nonbinary gender before a roadie/band buddy bellowed ‘YOU’RE A WOMAN. A WO-MAN’ at me.”
Another chronicles, “having people ask why I’m at a punk/hardcore/non-hip hop show because, you know, black people can’t like other genres.” Oh, and did you think that no one would have the balls to dismiss an established rocker lady? You thought wrong: “being a woman at 40+ is worse. if the dudes don’t want to fuck you then you are extra invisible.”
No one can sum up all these feels better than Jessica Hopper herself: “Most every woman working in music can match each other’s stories pound for pound, the ways our work and opinions don’t belong, don’t matter…To be working 60 or 70-hour weeks and still be the butt of your male peer’s blowjob joke—you think you’ve proven yrself, so you can just be…Imagine what music would be like if we didn’t make young women jump through such demeaning hoops to show they belong here.”
Talking about women in the music industry doesn’t just mean valuing female victims over record sales. There’s more to this story than physical violence—although violent stories, the stories of Dee Barnes, Michel’le, Tairrie B, and countless others, need to be told. This narrative (no, it is not a side story) is about the violence of silence and erasure. It’s about girls who are told to shut up, even at punk shows where every one else gets to scream. It’s about the pervasive, unrelenting message that women are not good enough, that their songs are not worth recording, their stories not worth reading, their talents not worth rewarding. It’s about so many women who were bullied and beaten into giving up, and so many more girls who were too discouraged to give it a go in the first place. It’s about all the amazing female voices we never got to hear, because being a woman in the music industry is just too damn hard. The Twitter deluge doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon—and neither does the growing sense that any girl entering the music industry is in for a world of hurt. But even if you work in a less blatantly misogynistic field, ladies, remember that you’ll still get paid 78 cents to a man’s dollar. Happy Women’s Equality Day, everyone!