The seeds of the modern music industry were planted in the 1800s with the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Edison in 1877. Since then, white men have not only found ways to shape and dominate the music industry but also immediately began to create narratives of women's place in it.
In 1890, a journalist and music critic from Chicago named George P. Upton wrote a book titled Woman in Music, in which he insisted, “It does not seem that woman will ever originate music in its fullest and grandest harmonic forms. She will always be the recipient and interpreter, but there is little hope she will be the creator.” Thus was the glass ceiling created, with a stubborn tone of belittlement and disbelief in women's ability to be as creative as their male peers.
In the modern era, these attitudes persist. Women are expected to “look sexy” to hide their presumed lack of original and creative talent from male musicians and industry professionals. I am a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, co-producer and arranger, but I was often told early in my career not to mention that I was classically trained. I never signed a deal because I felt I wasn’t going to get the creative freedom I deserved. I made this assumption based on the way women were portrayed in music and also by the way men presented themselves to me in industry circles. (In independent music realms I was treated as capable, and was able to build my own brand, tour and sign small deals with DIY and indie labels and music investors who believed in me.)
So why haven't men’s attitudes in the music industry evolved since the days of George P. Upton? I think it's important to note that many music moguls begin their careers as very young men. When a 25-year-old man is paid a million dollars to write songs, or thousands of dollars an hour to arrange or produce music, you’re going to have the voice of an immature cis male in the music, and you're going to give the man behind that voice power and control over the lives of those he works with. Young men and boys with excessive amounts of money and power and limited amounts of life experience will begin to chase women in ways that are unevolved. Young, inexperienced men can grow and learn how to treat others, including women, over time, if they are nurtured in healthy environments. In a warped environment such as the music industry, they are not taught healthy attitudes or interpersonal skills but attitudes of sexism and skills of bullying, intimidation and manipulation.
Such attitudes are often codified in the music these young men create. Dion DiMucci, the ’60s doo-wop star of Dion and the Belmonts, looked back on his prickly, paternalistic 1963 track "This Little Girl" in the book Under My Thumb: Songs That Hate Women and the Women That Love Them, and noted, “When I listen to it now, it sounds like I had a lot of resentment toward women. I guess I did. When you’re young and frustrated trying to understand yourself and the opposite sex, this is how it comes out.”
I am not attempting to demean young men, or claiming that I "know how men think," or that all men are beyond redemption. Men can and do evolve. Jay Z’s 4:44 is a perfect example of a man explaining his youthful faults. 2 Chainz, who has two daughters, sparked a small revolution by enabling women to congregate in a curated “Pink Trap House” in Atlanta, which was an art gallery, party house and nail salon designed to promote his album, Pretty Girls Like Trap Music, but also doubled as a space for hosting art classes and HIV awareness workshops.
Obviously, male immaturity is not the only root of the patriarchal, systemic sexism that pervades the music industry. It’s deeper than that. The music industry is part of a larger culture that continues to treat women as something that can be owned, sold, passed around, capitalized on, raped, lied to and paid less. It's an industry that covers up the bad behavior of men and creates a culture of fear for women.
In an article in Ms. magazine, I referenced Weinsteinian behavior that runs rampant in the entertainment industry as a whole, including the music business: “Weinstein targeted young, inexperienced and relatively unconnected women. He was able to leverage his powerful professional presence to make them feel vulnerable, threatening to destroy their careers right after they’d signed for their first film or had a successful audition. He waited until women got in the door — of a casting call or of a role in a film — so that he could have something to take away from them.” This is how the entertainment industry's culture of fear works. It's built upon the belief, still held by many men in positions of power, that women will compromise their bodies in order to work.
A woman musician just wants to make music, make a living, pay her bills and maybe or maybe not have a family in the future. We want a job that will support our financial needs, a job in the field that we studied or are naturally talented at. We want a job that will allow us to tour and share our music with people all over the world. These are our professional and artistic desires, and they have nothing to do with having sex.
I went through the emotional trauma of coming out about my own sexual assault story, which was loosely tied to the recent resurgence of allegations against R&B singer R. Kelly, who for some (systemic) reason has never been brought to justice. I wrote that I was very aware of Kelly’s reputation as a teenager, but that awareness couldn't protect me when, years later, I was sexually assaulted by a manager. I, like a lot of women when they first enter the industry, was too young to have solid tactics for protecting myself from powerful predators.
Since I wrote that essay, we have arrived at a watershed moment. Men — mostly older white men — in all facets of music, entertainment and politics are being publicly accused of sexual misconduct toward less powerful female- and male-identified human beings. This is a long-overdue beginning of work that needs to be done to protect the safety and human rights of artists.
I believe all female and female-identified musicians should be able to explore our sexuality as art and music, whether it be through conceptual or literal songwriting or through performance. I’m not saying we have to be "sexy," but we should be able to have fun; we should be free. But when men rape us, corner us, grab us, lie to us, underpay us, blackball us — we have no freedom at all.
There needs to be a new code of conduct in the music industry. There should not be a hope in a man’s mind that he can sleep with a woman with whom he has any kind of professional relationship. Not before the deal, not after. There should not be hints of attraction in meetings, flirting or comments about our bodies. If you want to ask a woman out, call and ask once on your own time, not in a boardroom or during the negotiations of a deal. And if the woman declines, that’s it — she's not interested. You're not going to change her mind with gifts, money or badgering. If you pursue a woman through those means, it's very clear to us you don’t “like” us — you “want” us. Our needs, our wants, our no’s don’t matter. That’s not a relationship and it’s not sexy. Women are not turned on by power; we’re turned on by men who give us time, choice, space, freedom and friendship.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
I’m asking men in the music industry to stop living an illusion — that we like the way you treat us and that we need you. Please stop thinking it’s OK to force us into sex, dates or intimate encounters. Please stop believing that we don't find such behavior frightening — or, if you know we're frightened and that turns you on, see a psychologist. Wanting women who are afraid of you is messed up. Power is a drug, and we don’t want to be on the receiving end of male executives' addiction to it any longer.
This is my plea: Cis male music executives, please stop abusing us. This is not a game or a battle; this is about art. We’re not a prize or an enemy. We’re your colleagues and we are creative professionals. It doesn’t matter how we choose to dress or whether you find us attractive. This is about our right to pursue our careers in safe spaces, supported by the companies we lend our talents to. This is not a game. This is life, and you’re ruining ours. You can do infinitely better.
Jordannah Elizabeth is a musician, author, journalist, feminist and lecturer. She's the founder of the literary organization Publik/Private and the author of Don't Lose Track Vol. 1: 40 Articles, Essays and Q&As and The Warmest Low.