Music, sexism and the Miley debate

In recent weeks there has been an upsurge of debate about sexism in the music industry, from Sinead O’ Connor’s open letter to Miley Cyrus and Amanda Palmer’s response, to Britney Spears declaring that she feels pressure to be too overtly sexual in her videos, Annie Lennox calling for age restrictions on music videos with sexual content, Charlotte Church’s lecture on sexism in the music industry and Lauren Mayberry of Chvrches’ speaking out against sexist abuse online. I’ve been quietly watching this debate and the responses from feminists.

One major premise of these conversations – which is hard to disagree with – is that women in the music industry come under strong pressure to market themselves by submitting to and/or actively promoting their own sexual objectification. (I was going to say by marketing themselves on the basis of their sexuality, but it’s often not clear whether it is really their sexuality or someone else’s.) The focus of much discussion has been on female musicians and how they should respond to this pressure.

To crudely summarise the debate,  some – such as Sinead O’Connor – argue that women should resist this pressure, both for the sake of their own wellbeing but also because when high profile women participate in this objectification it sends a message to the world that it’s acceptable and even desirable. The argument goes that women in the public eye – especially those who are role models for young girls – have a responsibility not to perpetuate sexism. Commentators differ in the extent to which they blame (usually male) record company execs, video directors, agents, managers. etc. for feeding this narrative of women as sex objects or the women themselves. Meanwhile, others – such as Amanda Palmer – argue that women should be allowed to express their sexuality freely and make their own choices, and that these critiques amount to little more than slut-shaming. These different positions reflect a much wider, deeper debate within feminism about sex positivity and the commodification of sex which is beyond the scope of this blog post, though much of what I have to say applies to the wider issues beyond women in music.

My own view is that, while valid points have been made on both sides of this argument, the focus of the debate is all wrong. To argue over the behaviour of women in pop music and how they should or shouldn’t respond to a system which is oppressive and exploitative detracts attention away from the system itself, why it’s in place and what can be done about it.

Gloria Steinem made this point well, arguing that “…given the game as it exists, women make decisions… we need to change the culture, not blame the people that are playing the only game that exists.” That game is set up so that, however women choose to play it, they can never really win. If you show some cleavage you’re accused of betraying the sisterhood and demeaning yourself, but if you choose not to you’re prudish and unmarketable. Either way, you can’t win. Every time I go on stage or do a photo shoot I fret about what to wear – is this skirt too short or this neckline too low? Is this modest or just frumpy and unflattering? Occasionally I like to wear corsets, just because I like the way they can look – but others (rightly) point out that they have been a symbol of women’s oppression. Deciding what to wear should be a simple decision, but every choice is political. Let’s face it, it’s not just female musicians – in fact, this isn’t about music at all. All women face these dilemmas to a greater or lesser extent, although we differ greatly in how much thought we give to the politics of these decisions.

Men don’t have to worry about these things, and that’s the way it should be for everyone. And yet, by focusing on the choices women make when faced with a rock and a hard place we only increase that inequality. Male musicians are never expected to represent their entire gender, and yet for female musicians in the public eye it’s as though responsibility for the liberation of all women everywhere is placed on their shoulders. If I, as an obscure artist who is playing to small crowds, feel the pressure of these questions, then it is immeasurably worse for those playing to TV audiences of millions who also demand that they be a role model for girls all around the world whether they asked to be or not.

In an ideal world, women would be able to be sexual without being sexually objectified. Our patriarchal world makes that virtually impossible. Even when women choose not to portray themselves as sexual beings they are still objectified: that is, they are still judged and (de)valued based on how well they ‘succeed’ (or in this case ‘fail’) in achieving a normative standard of sexual attractiveness and availability. They just don’t benefit from their objectification in the way that women who use sexuality to promote themselves do. So even if we try not to play the game, our names are entered for us, and we’re almost bound to lose. So instead of giving women a hard time based on how they choose to lose, we should be asking why they have to play this fucked up game in the first place.

As people, as women, as feminists, we all sometimes compromise our principles for pragmatic reasons. We all have different ideas about what is a compromise – whether it’s wearing high heels, taking our husband’s surname, letting a sexist joke pass without comment or buying clothing made by women in sweatshops – none of us, however committed in our feminism, can claim we have never gone along with sexist ideas and practices. Many of those things – like wearing make-up or dancing in a sexually suggestive way – wouldn’t have us tied up in knots if it weren’t for the backdrop of entrenched inequality of which the objectification of women is a part. That context can’t be ignored, but why blame the players for the rules of the game? Instead of laying into each other for trying to live within a flawed system, let’s put our energy into changing it.

Pre-order Connections/Departures on CD!

Good news – CD copies of my album have arrived! They will go on sale on 18 November but you can pre-order your copy now on my Bandcamp page for just £7 (plus shipping) and it will be sent to you on the release date. When you pre-order the CD or the mp3 album you will immediately get a download of the track ‘Tigerstrikes’, which is exclusive to the album and is one of my favourite tracks on there. You can also now listen to a preview of the album (one minute from each track) on my Soundcloud page.


Because my releases are fully self-funded from my own pocket, I ordered all the parts separately and so assembled all 250 copies myself in front of the TV (watching Lilo & Stitch and Four Lions – two of my favourite films of all time).

Promotion of the album is still on-going, mostly involving long evenings in front of my laptop sending emails to people who receive too many emails about new music. Self-releasing music involves a lot of this sort of work – making spreadsheets, pricing things up, checking artwork proofs, stuffing envelopes. It can be quite isolating, but it’s also gratifying when people buy your music, listen to it online, turn up to gigs, or write nice reviews. That’s when all those hours staring at a computer screen really start to feel worthwhile.

Connections/Departures iTunes pre-order available today

From today you can pre-order Connections/Departures on iTunes, for it to be delivered to your hard drive on 18 November. You can also add it to your wishlist on Amazon, although they aren’t doing pre-orders.

If (like me) you enjoy buying obsolete formats and you’d prefer a CD copy then hold your horses! The CDs are being manufactured this week and will be available through Bandcamp from 18 November.

In the meantime, I’ve posted some photos up on the live photos page of my gig last weekend at Pussy Whipped in Edinburgh. It was an awesome night and the crowd were lovely. Special thanks to these lovely folks who, after I commented that they looked like a panel of judges at the side of the stage, rose to the challenge!

Pussy Whipped audience members, September 2013

Ladykillers limited edition CD single

A limited number of CD copies of the Ladykillers single are now available via my Bandcamp site. Only 50 copies have been made of this digipack vinyl CD with artwork by Thread Creative so get your copy quick!

Connections/Departures album to be released 18.11.2013

After a decade in the making, I can finally announce that my debut album, Connections/Departures, will be released on 18 November 2013 through Gaptooth Music.

It will be available as a digital download and a limited edition CD. Of course, it features the singles ‘Ladykillers’ and ‘Enduring Freedom’ plus a number of the songs I’ve been playing live over the years and some new ones too.

The album was recorded largely at Dreamtrak Studio in Hackney and co-produced by A Scholar and a Physician and myself.

The track listing is as follows:

1. Ladykillers
2. Enduring Freedom
3. Baggage
4. Whole Crazy Thing
5. Tigerstrikes
6. These Machines
7. Plans and Friends and Records
8. No Man is an Island
9. Same Ghost Every Night
10. Some Kind of Badly Planned Recovery
11. Take it Down

If you are a journalist or blogger who would like to write about the album, or a DJ who would like to play it, please email for a digital or physical press pack.

‘Enduring Freedom’ on BBC 6 Music

The excellent Tom Robinson played ‘Enduring Freedom’ on his Introducing Mixtape Show on BBC 6 Music last night. You can download the show for free right here. It includes some other great tunes too.

Thanks Tom!

BBC Introducing with Tom Robinson on 6 music

Enduring Freedom single out now!

My second single, ‘Enduring Freedom’, is out today on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify and all the usual places.

It was described by Popjustice as having the “new ‘bloody hell’ opening line of the year”.

Feel free to, you know, buy it. Please. Thanks!

Very soon I’ll also be announcing the release date and title of my album, along with sneak previews of some of the tracks. Watch this space…

Pre-order ‘Enduring Freedom’ on iTunes

From today you can pre-order the ‘Enduring Freedom’ single from iTunes. Which apparently means you won’t be charged until it is actually released, a week today, on Monday 29 July, when it will automatically download. So if you’re really enthusiastic, you can place your orders now in anticipation. You know, in case you forget later. Huzzah!

In other news, I spent yesterday over at Thread Creative HQ working on the artwork for the album, which is looking all kinds of awesome. More album news very soon!

Enduring Freedom single out 29 July

I’m excited to announce that my second single, Enduring Freedom, will be released on 29 July!

The title ‘Enduring Freedom’ came from the name of the joint US/UK military operation in Afghanistan, although the song has absolutely nothing to do with that. In fact it’s the only song I’ve written that could really be called a love song.

The track is a duet with Oli Horton, lead singer of synth pop band Trademark. I met the band when I was working for Truck Records, and helped with the release of their 2004 debut album Want More. After the awesome Raise the Stakes (2007), which is one of my all time favourite albums, they’re now working on their third studio album.

The single features a remix by Trademark and a synth pop cover version of the 1969 Mama Cass hit Make Your Own Kind of Music, which I came to know as Desmond Hume‘s theme song in Lost. You can listen to all three tracks below.

Life gets in the way

Apologies for the lack of updates for the last few weeks – there have been some delays in getting the Enduring Freedom single ready for release. This is largely due to having too many other things going on, including moving house and travelling overseas as part of my day job. The great thing about self-releasing my own music is that I get to work to my own timescales, but the downside is that there’s no one else around to do the work when I’m not able to.

That said, things are moving along – the artwork is being designed and the remix is being mixed. I will post more updates as soon as I have them. I’m also working on getting the tracks for the album ready for release later this year.

To make up for the lack of posts, here are a few interesting links I’ve come across over the last few weeks relating to riot grrrl and feminism in music:

The Girl Germs Guide to Starting a Feminist DIY Club Night
Bad Reputation, 23 January
Lydia and Laura trying to convince everyone that running a feminist DIY club night is great fun and not too much work. Having run one in Oxford for a couple of years I wholeheartedly agree. Girls Germs have also created a calendar of UK feminist / queer / DIY club nights.

Is feminism a dirty word for popstars?
The Telegraph, 31 January
After Ella Henderson’s PR tells her not to answer a question on whether she’s a feminist or not, Emma Barnett asks whether it’s taboo for pop stars to talk about feminism.

Majority World Riot Grrrl
Bad Reputation, 8 March
Sarah Jackson seeks riot grrrl bands from outside the ‘developed’ world and finds a whole bunch of them.

Riot grrrl: searching for music’s young female revolutionaries
The Guardian, 18 March
Twenty years after Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear toured the UK, Karren Ablaze looks at riot grrrl’s continuing influence on UK music.

The Knife: ‘Music history is written by privileged white men’
The Guardian, 23 March
Sam Richards interviews The Knife about their new album and feminist theory.