Why Don’t We Ever Talk About Women Sharing Music With Each Other?

In the annals of Screwed Up Things People Have Said On Twitter, this one seemed pretty banal: Spotify’s Matthew Ogle tweeted a flip comment about his company’s “Discovery” feature having “disrupted boyfriends,” based on a few women’s (also possibly flip) tweets on the topic. Still, many of us who are femme-of-center on the gender spectrum saw the tweet, sighed, and thought, “Oh, god, this again?”

Daily “papercut” interactions like Ogle’s tweet are the most common (if also the most innocuous) instances of discrimination against women and non-binary gendered people in music, reinforcing the frustratingly persistent idea that we don’t belong – in the industry, in fandom, even digging in the crates. The widespread nature of such interactions was reinforced by the hundreds of responses Pitchfork Review Editor-in-Chief Jessica Hopper received when, in August, she asked Twitter: “Gals/other marginalized folks, what was your 1st brush (in music industry, journalism, scene) with the idea that you didn’t count?” Several themes emerged in those responses, one of which was the way people minimize women’s contributions by connecting them to (often imaginary) men – for instance, the assumption that a woman carrying a guitar into a club during load-in is bringing it in for her boyfriend, not because she is the guitarist. (I’ve encountered this so many times that I’ve considered making a T-shirt that says, “I AM IN THE BAND, YOU ASSHOLE” to wear under a hoodie and reveal if necessary.)

As Hopper and many others have noted, this kind of crud would be just a regular annoyance and not a serious issue if it wasn’t such a real barrier to participation, if it wasn’t the tip of the iceberg of more serious issues, and if so many real people didn’t get so exhausted by it that they chose to leave the industry and/or music fandom. Even those of us who have been in this game a long time and are used to dealing with ordinary, low-level sexism feel ground down regularly, always in search of a place where we don’t have to constantly defend our right to be in the room.

At the core of these prejudices are the assumption that women just aren’t interested in music (Flavorwire’s Judy Berman commented on this phenomenon in her piece on the gender politics of the short-lived viral sensation My Husband’s Stupid Record Collection), that they aren’t discerning in their taste, that they’re more interested in how the performers look than how they sound. This sort of ignorance about the way women interact with music is still deeply entrenched in the conversation about music discovery that swirls around streaming services like Apple Music, Spotify, and Pandora. Part of the appeal of these services is their various recommendation algorithms, like Apple Music’s “For You” feature, which has been advertised as an “instant boyfriend mixtape service” – even though the ad with this tagline, directed by Ava DuVernay and featuring Taraji P. Henson, Mary J. Blige, and Kerry Washington, is actually about women sharing music with one another, women who are independently interested in music rather than relying on a boyfriend to spark their exploration. It seems to me like that invisible boyfriend was pretty useless to begin with.

This is not to say that women don’t sometimes learn about music from their boyfriends, if they happen to be in heterosexual relationships, because partners share their interests with one another. “Many of my male friends and my boyfriend are really aware of how male-dominated music is,” says DJ Bianca Giulione, who performs (and manages artists) as DJBOYZCLUB, “and they often know about female [and] non-binary producers I’ve never heard of, which is really cool.” If you polled the straight men I know, nearly all of whom are musicians and/or music journalists and every one of whom are obsessed with music, I suspect you’d discover that they learn a good deal about music from the women in their lives, too. But women and non-binary people also learn about music from one another, just like Taraji and Mary and Kerry – and that kind of music discovery is rarely talked about or valued.

Critic Sandra Song, who wrote about the value of young women’s obsession with music in her Pitchfork piece “In Defense of Fangirls,” tells me that she first started learning about music from her mother, who she recalls would “curate a selection of opera CDs for me in the living room and then leave me for a few hours every Sunday to figure out which ones really resonated with me, which was when I’d give her back the ones I wasn’t so keen on and then spend the rest of the week listening to Puccini on loop.” Song has taken this method to heart in her independent, adult musical discovery process. She’s made a list of her favorite women in the music industry, who she checks on via social media, “taking note of every artist/mix they recommend, spinning their Rinse shows at the office, checking out what parties they’re throwing in my area.” She’s discovered some of her favorite artists this way, and she feels a sense of kinship and non-judgmental mutual understanding through her interactions with these women. “There is never any assumption with them that I have no idea what I’m talking about, and I’m always treated as a fucking equal,” she says.

Portland experimental musician Zahreen Zahra Zeero agrees that, in her experience, sharing music with women and non-binary friends lacks the kind of socially punitive judgment that a lot of her music-sharing interactions with men have had. In high school, she and a female friend would exchange mix CD-Rs. “Each of us had tastes that overlapped in some areas and differed in others, however, these tastes could be safely shared between us,” she says. “There wasn’t a sense that disclosing an interest in the ‘wrong’ music might cost us – in fact, I would say that any sense that there might be such a thing as ‘wrong’ music was greatly diminished compared to interactions with men.”

Salt Lake City garage musician and promoter Madison Donnelly also likes to exchange mixes with her other femme-of-center friends. “I’ve been trying to get into metal,” she says, “so for my birthday this year, a female friend who is a huge metalhead made me a 60-song mixtape that is amazing.” She argues that setting up (open, inclusive) shows for touring bands she loves is a way to share the music she cares about with the people in her immediate community.

Zeero hints at the genuine brokenness of discussions between men and women, about music and beyond, that reflect conventional gender roles: “My experiences with men’s attitudes towards music knowledge have tended towards the building of authority and enforcement of norms,” she says. “In these contexts, learning [was] not offered, but passed down… with the expectation that the knowledge [would] be accepted.” For Giulione, the one-sidedness of these conversations took a slightly different form. “In the past,” she recalls, “men who would share music knowledge [with me] talked with a lot of finality, as if their taste was the only reasonable option.”

Though I have reciprocal, judgment-free relationships with the men who are close to me these days, it hasn’t always been so, and I still occasionally encounter condescension and pedantry from industry peers who I’ve learned to keep my distance from whenever possible. I have had men dismiss records I recommended to them, only to later embrace those records when another man in their life made the same recommendation. A few years ago, a male journalist peer harangued me about my lack of interest in Pavement, telling me that I couldn’t write about indie rock if I didn’t love them – but it wasn’t that I didn’t understand Pavement, they’re just not a band that has ever particularly resonated with me. Meanwhile, as part of the same conversation, another man revealed his lack of interest in Sonic Youth and no one badgered him about it. I have been writing about, booking, and performing various genres of harsh music for over two decades, and though these men know this because that is how they met me, they still assumed that I didn’t know very rudimentary things about music that are basically prerequisites for participating in that community at all.

For women and non-binary people, sharing music with one another outside the boundaries of heterosexual relationships is a survival skill, a necessary if small chipping away at the idea that we don’t belong, a mutual validation. “I have learned about so many of my favorite bands from my female friends,” says Pitchfork Associate Editor Jenn Pelly. She offers a guess as to why this might be: “Maybe we are more emotionally attuned [to] one another, or just searching for music that says something more directly to us.” These sorts of connections, these unrecognized types of music sharing, are valuable and worthy of recognition. They are real, and they are big, and they are full of mutual respect, rather than the one-upmanship that can characterize so much of the public discussion around music discovery. More of this, please. More of this in the sunlight.