Apologies + Reflection: Fake Boyfriend, Meghan Trainor

Mea Culpa!

Quick warning, if you are the kind of person who thinks prvilege doesn't exist and is not into the discussion of feminism or racism this probably isn't your article (or probably blog since I write about racism and sexism quite a bit).


So, last night there was a "Hashtag Game" about highlighting preferences. I used it to juxtapose some artists whose music I do like against artists whose music I don't like.

One of the comparisons I made was between the band Fake Boyfriend and the singer/songwriter Meghan Trainor. I moved on, made like ten other comparisons (including between many male artists but also I called out Ariana Grande and Selena Gomez too).

Didn't think much about it, many people responded, most with a chuckle. I certainly did not reflect much on it all myself (even at the time).

Fake Boyfriend Wake Up Call

This morning, I got a string of Tweets from the band Fake Boyfriend (not sure which member/s). I am going to include the entire discussion so everyone can see it all in context (apologies for the repetition, I was having some problems lining up the embeds since they were tied to different tweets in the chain):

So, like in most of these circumstances, my first instinct was to defend myself. I was talking about the music, not the people, I was talking about taste, not gender, And all of that is both true and not true because I am not the ultimate arbiter of what is bound up in my commentary.

The point is, anyone could read that and think exactly what Fake Boyfriend thought, just another guy pitting women against each other telling them what dance is best for his entertainment. Even if that isn't what I was saying, it is easily inferred and I didn't "not: say it either. I wasn't careful or considerate.

Writing can be hard because you want to try to be provocative, interesting, and fair. It is not always easy to find the right balance. Showing care can be hard because you are not always putting what you are thinking in the context of structures of privilege and dominant narratives even when you are bound up in them yourself. Privilege is almost always manifested through blindness (when someone in a commercial has a "nightmare" that the plane they are traveling on doesn't have showers or a bar- "all planes don't have showers?" GASP). 

So, apologies to Fake Boyfriend, Meghan Trainor, Selena Gomez, and Ariana Grande. And most of you have no idea who I am or could care less that I exist much less that I apologized, but seems the right thing to do either way. 

How Can I Be a Critic Without Being Critical?

On the one hand, I talk on this blog all the time about presenting the bands and artists that I like without really being too critical of the ones that I don't like. But there is a central argument I am trying to make within much of my writing that is critical.

I don't think anyone is wrong for liking any music. I don't think any artist is wrong for engaging in what they love doing. But, I do prefer music that takes risks (and yes, I understand making music at all is a dive off of a massive cliff). I do prefer music that has rough edges and soul and a bit of unintentional "ghost in the machine" feedback.

Is this because I am male? Is this because of privilege? I am sure at some level it is.

You might be shocked at me saying that, but Katy Perry is the perfect example of how this all operates. IMHO (and I don't know KP) she tried for a really long time to be a singer/songwriter in the classic mold and got shot down over and over again. I think she adopts much of the persona she adopts today because she is often both performer and activist calling out the expectations placed upon her. Thriving as she makes millions clowning the male gaze. She is throwing the sexism back in our faces in a very punk rock way.  I have heard interviews with her when she is not "in character," she is brutally smart and sarcastic.

This might just be my own version of the male fantasy of Katy Perry. I don't know her and never will. My point is just that trying to succeed in any field can force people into odd places, choices, and compromises. When I blame the people instead of the structures I can  be adding insult to injury.

I am not saying this to give her the male seal of approval. I am mentioning this because I am bound up in that same system that forces talented people to use the tools left to them to make art. A critic like me judging Meghan Trainor's music choices could be akin to the movie critic blasting Blackface era actors of color for taking racist parts. At some level, I am part of the problem and blaming the oppressed party from a position of privilege. 

Or maybe not, that assumes her music comes from a place of oppression, for the millions who love Meghan Trainor (including her most likely) her music is awesome and even empowering. What the hell do I know, why should I get to tell her what sucks. I have a point of view and a great deal of knowledge about music, but that doesn't change the fact that many people love her music. And she has every right to make whatever music brings her joy. 

It shouldn't be about me. Or men. It should be about creating art that fulfils you.

So, I guess that brings me back to what my project is.

My Project: For The Record

My problem with the music of today boils down to:

The Music Industry has consolidated support behind only a relatively few artists. They use every tool in their arsenal to convince the world that ONLY those artists are making music today. Much like people only hear Democrats and Republicans because news networks never cover alternative political discourse. People mostly think "music" is only these artists.

IMHO there is much better quality music being made outside of the system than inside the system. Being pushed independently instead of through official channels. 

Most of my "comparisons" are made in this spirit. I wish people would give Cloud Nothings a whirl instead of Maroon 5.

That is a comparison, one I can defend musically and feel sonically at a deep level. Is it fair?

I truly do not think many of the industry artists are very good singers. I think most music produced by the industry is created by rote and algorithm and matched to "singers" to maximize its mass appeal. 

I don't think much of it has very much soul.

I prefer music that comes from pain, that exposes personal struggles, that exorcises demons. Music that howls at the moon or screams at the devil.

I like real voices, even when flawed and people who perform live and with passion.

My purpose as a critic is to help people who share my musical sensibility use my choices to find new music that they will like.

I want to be an alternative voice that suggests alternatives to the dominant music distribution narratives.

But, I certainly recognize by fighting one kind of privilege (music industry) I am also possibly enabling my own different kind of privilege (white male music hipster privilege). I also frequently trail into "Rockism" (where I no longer let the music I hear just be fun because I am constantly "judging" it against hipster standards).

Part of my recent feature "Rockist or Right" is for my readers to challenge my bias.

So, my question to "Fake Boyfriend" is how can one be a critic without recreating and/or making privilege seem invisible or neutral.

How can I, as a male critic,  say "I don't think Female artist X" is a very good singer without also  performing my own privilege and sexism. Is there a way to say it without also performing the male gaze? Or replicating the damage that can do?

That is not a commentary on MT who I think has talent and can sing (just performs in a style of music I don't particularly like).

You will likely say "It is not my job to answer this question" - also true.

But I will certainly listen to any suggestions you might have in the same spirit I have to what you have said so far.

When I write about gender, like I have

HERE (click)

HERE (click)

HERE (click)

I usually try to write from the perspective of a man talking to men about sexism (so as not to be a man explaining sexism to women). But I am not sure that works for all music criticism.

Anyway, I am just thinking out loud at this point, I apologize for my poorly thought through "hashtag gamery" yesterday, and I will continue to push and support Fake Boyfriend's excellent new EP!

Do you have any thoughts about how to be an effective critic when we are all engaged in and the beneficiaries of different forms of privilege? Let me know what you think, leave a comment!