Giving Women Credit Where Credit Is Due

Taylor Swift offered an inspiring “girl power” message in her acceptance speech for the Album of the Year Grammy Award:

Most of the coverage of the speech has framed it as her throwing shade at Kanye West for his disrespectful and self-aggrandizing lines in the song “Famous”: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/Why? I made that bitch famous.”*

While it would be understandable if Swift could no longer shake it off, reducing her speech to a fit of pique at Kanye ignores her more sweeping critique of systemic sexism in the music industry.

This is classic inoculation, which Roland Barthes defined in Mythologies:

One immunizes the contents of the collective imagination by means of a small inoculation of acknowledged evil [one individual’s disrespect]; one thus protects it against the risk of a generalized subversion [exposing industry-wide misogyny].” (p. 150)

I am not saying this was conscious on the part of those reducing her message to nothing but celebrity beef. In fact, it’s worse because the inoculation is unconscious, such an entrenched attitude that it is largely accepted without notice, much less protest.

Of course, this is nothing new. After several men received, or tried to claim, excessive credit for her breakthrough hit, “Ode to Billie Joe,” . . .

. . . Bobbie Gentry became hesitant to collaborate. As the recently deceased arranger Jimmie Haskell, who added the distinctive strings to the ode (but was always modest about his contribution), explained:

She felt quite confident that she knew everything about what she should do. She was a good enough musician that she could have done it. She told a friend of mine one time, ‘If I were to hire Jimmie Haskell again, and we co-arranged a song, my fans wouldn’t believe that I wrote the arrangement. They would see Jimmie’s name and say he arranged the entire song.'”

(The article containing that quote was titled, “Bobbie Gentry had the most gorgeous legs ever: On record with Jimmie Haskell,” continuing to marginalize her by highlighting her appearance over her musical accomplishments.)

According to Grimes this attitude continues as music business as usual:

She produces and writes all Grimes songs herself, and engineers them, too; she recently taught herself how to insure that a drum machine she likes will sound equally good coming through night-club speakers and earbuds. ‘I can’t use an outside engineer,’ she says. ‘Because, if I use an engineer, then people start being, like, “Oh! That guy just did it all.”’”

She went even further in a since deleted Tumblr post:

I’m tired of men who aren’t professional or even accomplished musicians continually offering to ‘help me out’ (without being asked), as if i did this by accident and i’m gonna flounder without them.  or as if the fact that I’m a woman makes me incapable of using technology.  I have never seen this kind of thing happen to any of my male peers

I’m tired of the weird insistence that i need a band or i need to work with outside producers (and I’m eternally grateful to the people who don’t do this) . . .

im tired of people i love betraying me so they can get credit or money . . .

I’m sad that my desire to be treated as an equal and as a human being is interpreted as hatred of men, rather than a request to be included and respected (I have four brothers and many male best friends and a dad and i promise i do not hate men at all, nor do i believe that all men are sexist or that all men behave in the ways described above)

im tired of being referred to as ‘cute,’ as a ‘waif’ etc., even when the author, fan, friend, family member etc. is being positive . . .

[full post, which is well worth reading in its entirety, is reprinted at Salon]

Which goes a long way in explaining the credits at the end of her recent “Flesh without Blood/Life in the Vivid Dream” video, “Written, Directed, Edited, Colored, + Art Directed by Grimes”:

Many probably think this exhibits a certain defensiveness on her part, but in a world where too many credit Taylor Swift’s pop conversion to Max Martin alone, Grimes’s seeming paranoia is all too understandable, even warranted.


* Wasn’t the winner of the VMA for Best Video of the Year already famous when West interrupted that acceptance speech? But even if his claim were true, couldn’t it equally be said that “bitch” made him famous, as his rude attempt to upstage Swift expanded his recognition beyond the hip hop world, gaining him widespread, mainstream attention? Granted, it was mostly negative attention, but if there is ever a celebrity that buys into Oscar Wilde’s dictum “There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about,” it is West.

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