Women, Music, and Modernity
“You’re into girls.”
That was the startling but not inaccurate remark my wife made last Saturday when she walked by as I was browsing YouTube for Patty Griffin songs. Since 90% of my music listening is done when I’m alone in my car going to and from work, and she is constitutionally pretty indifferent to pop music anyway, I was a little surprised that she would notice any sort of trend. I guess it had come to her attention a few Saturdays earlier when I was repeatedly playing that Nightwish video featuring Tarja Turunen that I posted recently.
Anyway, she’s right. I do listen to a lot more music by women, from very American singer-songwriters like Griffin to Nordic metal sirens, than I did fifteen or twenty years ago. For most of the many years, going back to the mid-‘60s, that I’ve been seriously interested in music, my favorite singers have been male. I didn’t give this any thought for a long time, but at some point I became aware that it was a definite preference. Male singers, especially those with really distinctive and unconventional voices, like Van Morrison, were the ones who moved me. Theirs were the voices capable of conveying the emotions I felt. Most women’s voices seemed, in comparison, almost insipid: pastels, where I preferred strong and vivid colors.
I’m not sure exactly when this began to change; it may have been around 1990 or so, when I discovered the Cocteau Twins: I liked Elisabeth Fraser’s voice precisely as a female voice. And I remember thinking something along those lines when listening to Portishead’s Dummy. At any rate, the shift in taste continued steadily. I don’t know that one can expect to have an explanation for a change of this sort, but I can say this much about it: where I once preferred the male voice because it’s more capable of expressing what I feel, I now value (I won’t say “prefer”) the female voice in part because it expresses something else, something that seems mysterious and other. It is, in fact, a bit similar to the sight of a beautiful woman, but sexual only in the very broadest sense: a consciousness of the other sex as a rich and alluring mystery.
The music world has changed, too: there are a lot more women making a lot more good music in a lot more different styles than there were thirty or forty years ago. Back in the ‘60s women were generally present only as singers. In the folk-singing world, there were Joan Baez and Judy Collins and others like them who sang the traditional repertoire and, as time went on, more and more songs written by the emerging mostly male singer-songwriters of the time. In rock, the girl, or girls, in the band worked generally in the “canary” model of the jazz era—they added something different and distinctive to the sound, and of course to the visual presence, but they usually didn’t compose or arrange or play; the musical vision as a whole was at most only partly theirs. I suppose Joni Mitchell was the first, certainly one of the first, women to put the whole singer-writer-instrumentalist package together. More followed, until the present flood. Women like Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin and Karen Peris (of The Innocence Mission) have recently produced, or had a key role in producing (a role beyond singing, that is) some of the music I love best and think most likely to stand the test of time.
This isn’t surprising, considering the general and steady increase in freedom and opportunity for women that’s happened over the past hundred-plus years, developments made possible by the combination of technical and social changes that we call modernity. As a Catholic with a deep love of the traditional Christian culture of the West, I’m very much aware of the dark side of these changes: the damage to family life, for instance, and all the other things that I don’t need to belabor here. Yet the world is a richer place for the work of these artists, and unfortunately we don’t get a chance to pick which aspects of our culture we would like to preserve and which to change or discard.
I was thinking of this last week after reading a news story about a woman in Saudi Arabia who was sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in jail after being gang-raped. It was carefully explained that she wasn’t actually being punished for being raped, but for her behavior leading up to the rape: being present in a car with a male who was not her father, brother, or husband. A few days earlier I had read an account of the practice of stoning in Iran; it’s a legal punishment for adultery. I cannot conceive of the mind of a man who could bury a woman up to her neck and then throw stones at her until she is dead, which must involve battering her head beyond recognition. (The stones can’t be too small, or they won’t do enough damage, but they can’t be too big, or the victim will not suffer enough.) I don’t understand how a man could do such a thing to a woman and still respect himself as a man. Even less do I understand what is probably the case, that these men would not respect themselves if they did not do it.
I don’t agree with those who say that we, as a civilization, are faced with a stark choice between embracing the worst of our own culture and submitting to radical Islam; I don’t see why we can’t try to reform ourselves even as we resist them. But if I am ever somehow forced to choose between modernity and the violent reaction against it, I’ll unhesitatingly take the problems of emancipation over those of oppression.