I was thirteen the first time it happened. It was after a music competition, where on stage, I had cited The Smiths and Amy MacDonald as two of my biggest influences. “The Smiths are a great band to look up to. Forget about Amy MacDonald, though,” one of the jurors told me after I was told to come back in a few years. “Amy MacDonald has a great voice,” I said, not understanding. “Yeah, but her lyrics… Just stick with The Smiths.” I didn’t understand what had happened there until years after, when I had heard versions of the same many different times.
Just a couple weeks ago, I was talking to a guitarist friend. “Joni Mitchell is amazing. All her tunings, the way she holds a guitar – it’s so original!” I raved. “Joni Mitchell can’t play the guitar,” my friend retorted. “It’s embarrassing even to watch the videos of her live performances. If you’re looking for a singer-songwriter to look up to, look up Nick Drake.” I already knew Nick Drake, just like any folk musician anywhere would. And I still believed that Joni Mitchell was a good guitarist.
Every time I mentioned situations like these to my friends, they laughed them off and said it was subjective, nothing to do with sexism and everything with music taste. But then I don’t go around saying Nick Drake is a bad guitarist, I just say that I don’t like his stuff. What is it about women that inspires some men to say that we don’t know what we’re doing?
If I think back to my gigs, there is always that one man who wants to show me how to put away my guitar properly, how to put on a capo or advise me on how to sing into a mic. Or my favourite: “You know, I am also a musician. Like, I don’t really perform and stuff, but yeah I write songs, too. You should work on your strumming.” I appreciate feedback, I do. Just not from the man who can only play ‘Wonderwall’.
I’ve learnt to block the feeling of righteous anger because it has never led to anything good. And I can only imagine how much worse it must be for some other women. Women who aren’t white or who don’t come from families where they have been supported in the way that I have. Women who don’t believe they can accomplish anything because women often aren’t raised to expect they will.
If we look at statistics, there’s no reason to believe otherwise – in 2019, “the top 10 female songwriters generated 67% less revenue from royalties than the top 10 men” reported The Guardian. I can count the female instrumentalists I know on one hand, just like the number of gigs I’d been to that had a diverse lineup (and I’m not just talking about gender balance here, which is a whole new issue).
Whenever my ex-boyfriend came along to gigs, he was assumed to be my manager. Whenever a girl friend comes along, she’s always just a friend. I rarely headline gigs because I’m still a young girl with a guitar after eight years of playing shows. I have shared the stage with headliners who had been at it for two years but were men. Some of them were good musicians and deserved it. Some of them were not.
I was talking to my dad about all this not that long ago. He laughed it off, said that I was exaggerating and the men I was talking about were probably just trying to help. That same night, when he was ordering a beer next to me after my set, a man walked up to me and said: “You’ve got an okay voice, but you should watch your diction, you’ll be better then. I am a singer, too.” The man looked like a perverted uncle you try to escape at a family reunion. I walked away before he could continue. My dad took me more seriously then.
One of the things my ex-boyfriend said when I’d complained about this was: “They’re probably just trying to hit on you.” Maybe. Maybe he was right. But is it necessary to try to show that you’re better than me or know better than me to ask me out? Can’t you hit on me by saying something like: “I like your music. I’m a musician, too, though I don’t perform like you do.” Or, shocker, you can also just not hit on me at my gigs. I’m not there to collect phone numbers. Apart from when I am. In which case, you’ll know.
It’s not about not wanting constructive criticism or not wanting to listen to others’ opinions. It’s about being taken seriously and being seen as a professional musician after years of hard work. It’s about asking yourself, before you walk up to a woman with unsolicited advice, whether you’d say the same to a man. It’s about women having to work twice as hard and twice as long before we can shake off the label of “a young girl with a guitar”. I’m still not taken seriously by a lot of men. I’m not taken seriously by a lot of women, either. But the least I can do is to take myself seriously. Because if I don’t do it, I just might start believing all the men that explain things to me.