Last year, Dallas Observer music editor Jeff Gage found himself called out by the singer of an all-female punk rock band he wrote about. That band—the sardonically-named Perfect Pussy—had stopped a show at the Dallas club Three Links after twenty minutes in protest over the flyers for the event at the club, which featured drawings of nude women in bondage. Writing about the show, Gage noted what he apparently took as irony or an inconsistency between singer Meredith Graves’s appearance and her indignation about the way her band’s performance was promoted by the venue:
And so Graves is left to sing over it all—or more accurately, fail to—which is where the real spectacle comes in. The thrill of seeing Perfect Pussy is just that: seeing it happen. Here’s Graves, her eyes rolled back in her head, sweating and turning bright red, hunching over towards the floor with her loose arm twisting behind her back. Moments later she’s smiling (sometimes while she’s still screaming), swaying and shimmying as though the racket behind her is somehow soothing.
The apparent disconnect is that Graves is, well, normal-looking. She has short, bleached blonde hair and last night was dressed in a not-at-all-punk-looking shorts and striped shirt that was tied off at the bottom. To some there may be no outward reason for her to be an angry person, a dissonance she no doubt plays off of. But that fact may also add to lingering questions around the band’s authenticity, as though the salacious name and pent-up posturing are mere ploys.
It was, to be clear, a dumb point to make: inauthentic, pent-up posturers can buy spiked leather outfits and pierce their foreheads too (indeed, they may be more inclined to do so), and it is no real reflection on the quality of Graves’s performance or indignation. It is the sort of criticism that tells us much more about the critic than the subject.
“So at the end of our show, we stopped our set and I said, ‘Hi! I don’t usually stop after sets, but this is really problematic. Women aren’t really taken seriously in punk.’ And the Dallas Observer let a guy write an article where he said, “You know, the singer of this band is a very strong feminist and she said all of these stuff; but it’s very, very hard to take her seriously because of her appearance.
She was wearing a stripey t-shirt, she has blonde hair, she was wearing ‘very un-punk shorts’ . . . I have no idea where this guy got off thinking it was acceptable to devote one paragraph to my politics and three to my appearance, but according to him, it became a question of my authenticity. He said that, because of how I looked, the name of our band, my violent stage performance, and my feminism seemed inauthentic. And it was totally a dude, of course. It was some Jeff person.”
All of this resurfaced on Wednesday, when Gawker published a piece with the subject line, “Dallas Observer Editor Still Confused by Women Who Play Music.” In that piece, writer Dayna Evans takes Gage to task again for the way that he wrote about a performance by Dallas’s St. Vincent on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
Gage’s post on St. Vincent’s Fallon performance is short—just four quick paragraphs—and seems mostly like a callback to a post the Observer published last May, in which writer Hillary Hughes compiled some confused reactions to St. Vincent’s appearance on Saturday Night Live. Still, Gage certainly did spend half of his post on how the singer’s appearance was likely to be “confusing” for viewers.
When St. Vincent appeared on Saturday Night Live last summer, it was a bit of a traumatizing experience for some viewers. Who was this freak with the crazy hair and the weird choreographed moves? . . . [Annie] Clark was performing “Teenage Talk,” a non-album track featured on the TV show Girls, on Monday night. Being the increasingly confident chameleon that she is, the Dallas-reared singer appeared with yet another new look, this one looking like something out of a Tim Burton fever dream, her platinum-blonde hair now black to match her black dress and black makeup.
A fellow Dallas Observer editor, Drew Blackburn, disputed Gawker’s characterization of Gage’s work, calling it “quite frankly garbage” and noting that Gage has worked to include more female voices at the Observer.
Which is probably where the real issue here lies. Gage’s writing on Perfect Pussy was certainly off-base and poorly considered, and if he’d read more closely the compilation of Tweets he published in May, he’d probably have noticed that the reaction to St. Vincent on Saturday Night Live was about the way her music sounded, not the way she looked. But he’s hardly the only example of a music writer who struggles to find effective language when writing about female musicians.
Look at the mastheads of any alt-weekly in Texas, and you’re not going to find a woman working as music editor—not at the Austin Chronicle, the Houston Press, the San Antonio Current, or the Dallas Observer. Daily papers occasionally employ women in freelance and full-time positions—you’ll see women getting music bylines at the Austin American-Statesman and the Dallas Morning News—but the business is overwhelmingly male-dominated. (Texas Monthly doesn’t employ a music editor, but much—though certainly not all—of the music-related content is written by men here too.) And it extends well beyond the borders of Texas, obviously, to music writing generally.
In that sense, making Gage the enemy of equality in music writing is probably overblown. His work may, at times, be symptomatic of the fact that women in music too often have to contend with sexist judgments, but it’s a problem that’s system-wide. If you’re talking about music writing, by default you’re very often talking about music writing by men, and that can lead to poor decisions or a misguided focus. (Audra Schroeder, Gage’s predecessor at the Dallas Observer, wrote a smart post urging male writers to do better in 2012, and former Village Voice music editor Maura Johnston published a handy guide that same year.) Ultimately, while there are certainly problems with Gage’s posts, the best—and most obvious—solution is probably for outlets to work hard to recruit more women to write about music in the first place.
(Jessica Alexander/Geisler-Fotopr/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)