The Dudes In My Music Lists
Reader, I nearly fucked up a song list.
Actually, I very much fucked it up. I was given what should have been an easy task. Ten albums, ten days. Talk about my favorites; what inspired me, what shaped my life, what pushed preferences at a formative age.
By day seven, I stopped. It dawned on me.
The ten albums list — or any list, really, where we are asked to surface media as a representative for our personality — is our opportunity to craft our own narrative. To approximate taste and history.
My history, according to the first seven records I chose: largely white, mostly guitars, definitely no girls allowed. Being trapped in a 90s era of self-referential torment and out-of-tune singing I can live with, but seeing — right there on Facebook! — actual evidence that I still don’t listen to enough woman- and LGBTQ-voiced and produced music was … kind of a bummer.
So I stopped. And then I let it go. But the nagging feeling continued, especially as, over the next few weeks, my timeline was inundated with the same ten-album meme, and record stores started talking about their favorite records in advance of Record Store Day, and YES I definitely did the math: aside from the person who sent me on my way with the idea of the list in the first place, nearly 98% of the albums and bands selected by the friends, businesses, and acquaintances in my timeline were fully-composed or led by males.
The only women’s voices chosen were chosen by the very few women who took part in the meme. And that’s if I’m being generous and counting the Pixies as one of those woman-fronted bands.
Comfort vs. Insulation
The people and businesses I follow on Facebook and Twitter are not representative of the whole world, but they do fall into the stereotypes of who you might see at a late–90s garage show, myself included: a background in punk or metal, a progression toward folk and psych, or the sensibilities of a record store or college radio station.
I’ve been there, and so I know the progression: our cliques and preferences are echo-chambered over years and years, until we settle into what we like because it’s what we grew up with. It’s the music of our formative years, and we have a staunch loyalty to the ideals that brought those genres and scenes into play.
Being insulated within those genres, though, can shield us from the fact that certain genres lend themselves to being exclusionary. The genres that, over time, attempt to push the edges beyond pop music — punk, metal, rap — began, and at times persist, as genres dominated by men. The irony is not lost on me: fight the system, but not on behalf of everyone.
Probably, this is because men are more easily able to push these boundaries with fewer repercussions. Maybe it’s the nature of counter-culture as a whole: a strong idea championed by a largely homogenous group, eventually feeling threatened as that idea begins to evolve into something more inclusive.
More than likely, it’s just that we get comfortable hearing voices like our own, and we begin gatekeeping that comfort. After a certain point, our tastes start to turn within themselves — we rarely seek out new voices or genres, because the work in further parsing an overwhelming body of music can seem exhausting.
I don’t know if I like that excuse anymore. We need to hear more voices. More perspectives. Especially in our music. More than that, we need to listen to more voices.
Tomorrow is Record Store Day, which means tomorrow is another day when mostly white dudes with black hoodies and very serious opinions converge to buy one-day-only special editions. I will be there, because I am definitely one of them.
The clientele continues to be overbearingly male, but things are changing. As stores like Total Drag here in Sioux Falls shift the narrative away from the white dude rock of Captain Ed’s Records toward a more inclusive environment — where the Coathangers are championed over Black Sabbath, for once, and where providing an enjoyable, non-confrontational experience through acceptance are actual company values — we can see the world of music becoming more diverse. More varied.
But I am also hyper-aware of how sexism and racism still seep their way into every crack of my life — not because I spend time actively listening to racist songs or artists with histories of abuse, but something much more subtle: I struggle at times to stray away from what’s comfortable. I still gravitate to the same genres of music, dominated by white guys in guitars, composed entirely of the voices of those white guys, produced and marketed by white guys to white guys.
When I make playlists now, I do so deliberately. I make sure it’s not just white guys with guitars. I know there’s a bit of “Yeah, but not me!” in that practice – a “not all playlists” kind of defense. But doing so feels important. To me, at least.
That’s what I can do at a very small level. But while making diverse playlists of music might seem like surface-level reparations, in reality making diverse playlists of music is simply more interesting than those old mix tapes I used to throw into my car: old mix tapes with one genre and one tone; a soundtrack for someone not ready to test the edges.
I have no call to action in writing this, other than to check my own focus. For some, this is not an issue. For some — for most, let’s be honest — music lists are just that. They’re not meant to approximate the scope of their beliefs. They just really like rock music.
For me, though, it’s a chance to follow through in my beliefs. Not just in what I put on playlists, but to what I buy. To go out of my way to support voices that haven’t been heard enough. And not as a demonstrative feature, but within the rotation, melding in those voices to become part of a larger narrative. Where they belong, where they feel natural.
To make sure that our home is one in which more than just white dude rock bands are heard: where my history of genre-specific noodling can be supplemented with the voices we see around us. A diverse audio channel for a diverse world, preparing my kids for — and reminding myself of — the inevitability of change and the welcome rise of new voices.