Where were all the sisters?

Posted Monday July 13, 2009 by John Gunders in |

Last week was the long-anticipated count-down of Triple J’s most recent Hottest 100 of all time poll, the first since 1998. One of the most interesting things about the poll, aside from the question of why “#hottest100” didn’t appear in Twitter’s trending topics list (over-zealous spam filter is my guess), is the almost total absence of female artists in the 100 songs. Sure, the two Massive Attack songs that made it (“Unfinished Sympathy” #93 and “Teardrop” #22) both had female vocalists, and there were other bands that had female members—The Dandy Warhols, Smashing Pumpkins, New Order, and The White Stripes—but there were no female solo artists or female-fronted bands. This created quite a bit of consternation on the Twitter feed and on the Triple J forums, and I would like to offer my explanation.

First, we must consider the relative absence of any artists from earlier than the 1980s. Only 18% of the 100 songs came from the 1960s and 1970s, and comprised mostly the usual suspects: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and so on. Similarly, genre music was completely absent: two hop-hop tracks (Beastie Boys, “Sabotage” #48, and Hilltop Hoods, “The Nosebleed Section” #17), and three electronic acts (Daft Punk, “Around the World” #58, and “One More Time” #96; Gotye, “Hearts a Mess” #77; and The Prodigy “Breathe” #70). There was a little bit of metal (Tool, Nine Inch Nails, System of a Down) but these don’t code particularly strongly as being outside the dominant rock myth.

What this means is that we are not going to see artists as central to the history of rock music as Aretha Franklin, Billie Holliday, or even Janis Joplin. This might be problematic, but it’s not a gender skewing: we didn’t get Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, or even Robert Johnson without whom, as I’ve argued before, rock music wouldn’t exist.

But the absence of women from recent, mainstream rock music is troubling. I want to argue that there are two, interconnected reasons: the first has to do the masculinist nature of the “rock myth”, and the second is the increasing commercialisation of what we used to call “alternative music”.

The classic rock persona is inherently coded as masculine and craftsman-like, as opposed to pop or techno, which is feminised (see Den Tandt 142-43). The only female rock persona I can remember from the hyper-masculine 1970s was Suzi Quattro, and all that leather and the low-slung bass couldn’t have been an accident. And this isn’t only a Triple J thing: Rolling Stone‘s 2008 list of Fifty Greatest Artists of all time contained only nine females women, and most of those were R&B or blues, not rock (Aretha, The Supremes, Etta James, Martha Reeves). The underlying discourses, without being deterministic, tend to channel female performers into genres or styles that code as pop or “soft rock” or whatever the terms are now, and these are styles that are generally not played on Triple J. Obvious exceptions would be artists such as Missy Higgins, Sarah Blasko, or Lily Allen, but the question then becomes whether any of those artists are deserving of a place in an “all time” greatest list.

My second point is about the increasing commercialisation of “alternative music”. I’ve talked about this before (and to answer the rhetorical question at the end that post: “Dammit (Growing Up)” #68). Many commentors and tweeters mentioned the dominance of 1990s rock in the countdown (39%) and much of this was from those bands that formed the core programming of Triple J: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Foo Fighters. But in recent years Triple J’s demographic—and therefore its programming—has drifted more to the commercial end. I suspect that recent converts voting in the poll have never heard of bands like The Breeders, Sonic Youth, or Portishead or artists like Tori Amos or PJ Harvey.

All this looks like some sort of massive patriarchal conspiracy to keep the sisters out of the countdown, but I would read it as an unfortunate coincidence of rock discourses. And there is some classic music that got passed over because of this: OK, I’m not missing Kylie, but whatever you think of her, how can a Hottest of All Time not contain a single Madonna song? Or “All is Full of Love” by Bjork? Or “I Touch Myself” by the Divinyls. The Pretenders?

On the other hand, I’ve just rechecked my own voting list, and guess what? No chicks…

Add your own omissions and observations in the comments.

Reference: Den Tandt, Christophe. “From Craft to Corporate Interfacing: Rock Musicianship in the Age of Music Television and Computer-Programmed Music.” Popular Music and Society 27. 2 (2004): 139-60.

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