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Gender in the Music Industry : Rock, Discourse and Girl Power


Marion Leonard


Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007

£16.99. 246 pp. ISBN-978-0-7546-3862-9.


Reviewed by Georges-Claude Guilbert

Université François Rabelais – Tours



The title of Marion Leonard’s Gender in the Music Industry: Rock, Discourse and Girl Power is somewhat misleading, inasmuch as it deals mostly with female “indie” rock music musicians, as opposed to gender in general in the music industry in general. Its subtitle is welcome, specifying as it does that the book will not discuss classical music or, say, reggae. Besides, it provides the two phrases which to this reviewer point to the actual concerns of Leonard’s book: “Discourse and Girl Power”. As she writes, “the focus of this book is female-centred bands performing ‘indie rock’ ” [23].


One expects before even glancing at the blurb a chapter on the “riot grrrl” movement (three Rs rather than two) and one is not disappointed when looking at the table of contents: two out of seven chapters deal with the phenomenon. In her Introduction, Leonard, who teaches at the University of Liverpool, usefully defines her corpus and details her methodology. Most notably she has interviewed great numbers of people as well as read books and press articles.


Chapter One, “Rock and Masculinity”, explores territories which to some of us, versed in Gender Studies  and Cultural Studies, are extremely well-known, but which had to be chartered in such a book before moving on to female musicians. Rock, rock reviewing and rock criticism are deeply immersed in masculinist traditions. The enormous predominance of men in the trade has faltered but little, and creates “problems of access and opportunity for women wishing to work in the music business” [24]. Quoting most essential Cultural Studies writers who have examined the subject, Leonard looks at machismo and male essentialism in all its forms in rock circles, evoking percentages and mentioning genres like “cock rock”. As she observes, the “phrase ‘women in rock’, which features in a great number of articles focusing on female musicians, is itself problematic” [32]. Naturally, as long as the media continue to thus “peculiarise” the presence of women in any artistic field the situation will not improve significantly. In the UK in particular, “rock has been naturalised by the weekly press as a male form, practice and ideology” [33]. This chapter helps us ponder questions such as, why are there no female guitar heroes? It also helps us realise that every form of sexism to be found in most professional spheres in the Western world exists within the popular music industry. In rock as elsewhere, even in the twenty-first century, male / heterosexual is the norm and any deviance from that norm has a hard time struggling to exist.


Chapter Two, “Gender and Indie Rock Music”, focuses on one central question, basically: is it easier for female musicians to express themselves and be heard within “independent rock music” than in more mainstream genres? This chapter touches upon fascinating concepts such as the possibility for females to be “geeks” and / or “nerds” (for a hilarious treatment of such interrogations I recommend the TV series The Big Bang Theory), discussing, for instance, “indie nerds”. One should specify, incidentally, that some rock bands, seen as mainstream in the UK are considered “indie” in the US. Leonard has interviewed female musicians who have extremely interesting things to say on their practice, having examined that women have to face the chauvinism of even instrument sellers, recording studio sound engineers and roadies. Is behaving like / becoming a tomboy the solution? Some seem to think so.


Chapter Three, “Meaning Making in the Press,” can be easily applied to all forms of popular music and their reflection in the media from the sixties onwards. Very careful in her method of investigation and her sources, Leonard leaves few stones unturned. Her case study, that of Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain (within and without the contexts of the bands Hole and Nirvana), is particularly relevant. It’s “the madwoman in the attic” all over again: what passes for the coolness of a “tortured romantic artist” in a male musician is seen as dangerous madness in a female one—or at best hysterical anger. Leonard quotes Helen Davies: “An angry image, with the hint of self-destructive tendencies that this implies, is seen as heroic and exciting in a man, but women with such an image are pathologised” [74]. Follows an appropriate exploration of the bad girl trope and appropriate mentions of Janis Joplin, Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, etc. I did not expect Björk to be then discussed but was almost entirely convinced by the development.


Chapter Four, “Strategies of Performance,” examines the different loci of women musicians’ performance strategies, such as concerts, videos or photographs. I totally disagree with Leonard when she contends: “focusing on live music events as the site of performance, critics have ignored the variety of ways in which musicians construct their public images” [89]. Which critics? Academic or non-academic? Certainly not people like me, who have built entire careers on “the variety of ways in which musicians construct their public images”. All the names one expects to find here crop up: Judith Butler, Annie Lennox, Siouxsie Sioux, Madonna, of course, but Leonard fails to entirely acknowledge the huge amount of work that has already been published in this domain. I also tend to question her questioning of the degree of subversion of this or that act. In a feminist perspective, one should never neglect empowering cultural products, even if they are not “read as ‘resistant’ or ‘ironic’ by every member of [the] audience” [95]


Chapters Five, Six and Seven deal with the riot grrrl network and its prolongations today. They are extremely well documented and compelling. No need to sum up Leonard’s arguments here; and for those of our readers who are not familiar with riot grrrls, I recommend, precisely, they read this book. Most subcultural theories are taken into account, as well as different types of feminism and strategies / spaces of resistance. My only regret, albeit small, is that Leonard does situate 1990s riot grrrls in a post-punk context, but does not develop just how exactly they would never have seen the light of day if 1970s punk had not changed popular music forever. Even the Situationist practices of riot grrrls’ zines are more indebted to Jamie Reid and Malcolm McLaren (RIP) than to Guy Debord. As it happens, Leonard’s study of the said zines (as opposed to fanzines) is very welcome.


To conclude, Gender in the Music Industry: Rock, Discourse and Girl Power is as relevant today in 2010 as it was when it came out in 2007, and should be included in every Cultural Studies university library, as well as music departments. Since it refrains from indulging in too much jargon, it will also provide an excellent read for anyone interested in the subject outside academe.



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