On August 18th, 2002 The New York Times Magazine ran an article written by David Hadju entitled,
“Queer As Folk.” This is my response to the article, with contributed comments from Emily Saliers, Dana Powell, Russell Carter, and Susan Faludi.
QUEER AND FUCKED
Women always have to ruin everything. Now we are strangling the life and diversity out of folk music. As if men are not allowed to participate. You would think lesbian folk musicians are sailing up the radio charts and selling millions of records, instead we’re fighting the same battles we’ve fought for years. In fact, the world of singer/songwriters is still dominated by men. Comparisons of record sales and radio play between male and female singers/songwriters clearly demonstrates this. Shawn Mullins, David Gray, or John Mayer-these guys had more radio play and more record sales in the last few years then any lesbian I know. Sure there is a queer folk scene out there and luckily, it’s thriving, but only in the most marginal way. It’s never really a good time in the mainstream music industry to be a queer girl with a guitar. I can look at the trajectory of my own career and see that the more political the Indigo Girls have become, the less radio play and press we have received. If anything is going to limit the folk music scene, it’s under-reported articles like the one written by David Hadju for the New York Times Magazine.
When approached by Hadju to do an interview, I was excited and flattered. We were told that he was writing about the importance of women in folk music. When he showed up for the interview, he presented his profound discovery that folk music is the voice of the lesbian community and he wanted us to tell him why. Hadju’s musings were so flawed that we spent most of the interview refuting all of his theories and trying to steer him towards a more intelligent, politicized, and nuanced perspective. Most of the women that Hadju brought up during the interview were not actually gay, which seems to be par for the course in a society that assumes that any strong woman must be a lesbian. Still, he seems to think that what it means to identify as a gay woman is a singular and homogenous experience. He claims, “folk music carries deep-rooted associations with what it means to be gay.” In fact, the whole article rests on this ridiculous assumption. Why not interview lesbian punk, jazz, hip-hop, rock, or bluegrass musicians? There are plenty of them. As I pointed out to Hadju during our interview, I know more gay women punkers then folkies. The Riot Girrl punk movement did more to change and propel the women’s music scene then anything in recent history; it inspired a whole host of young artists in every tradition. Young lesbians know The Butchies, not Cris Williamson.
Hadju completely missed the opportunity to situate the discussion of women’s music in a larger social context which would recognize the oppression of lesbian/gay/bi/trans sexuality. Being a woman, being a gay woman is socially very different from being a straight man. There has been a need for people of second or third class social statuses to create separate spaces for community and expression. Hence women’s music festivals, the Riot Girrl movement, and now nationwide Ladyfest events. The failure to point out the social context of why some women would be drawn to others with similar experiences or to explore why such a so-called genre of “women’s music” exists in the first place, is a failure to illustrate the bigger picture.
According to Hadju’s article, in addition to lesbians limiting the growth of folk music, they are also damning it with mediocrity. What if a few mediocre, straight, male rock bands were used to epitomize a whole scene? Would we blame Pearl Jam for creating a limited genre and encouraging bad musicianship in others? All one has to do is flip through commercial radio channels to see that mediocrity in every form but gay is being sliced, diced, and marketed to us all in the name of advertising dollars. This rampant mediocrity is a symptom of a corporate music empire that encourages segregation of audiences for reasons of profit rather than community. Corporate radio with its big advertising dollars selling Nickleback and Budweiser to the boys, and Britney Spears and Clearasil to the girls. We all have to fit nicely into a demographic and it better be one that sells something besides music. Profit driven segregation is not the same as a marginalized woman’s music scene discovering that it has to come up with its own infrastructure because there is not one already available. All gay women do not choose to have a separate space, many of us are driven to it.
But just as all lesbians don’t like folk music, all straight, white males don’t listen to metal. Sure you can go to a Korn show and see lots of boys- because what we listen to and who we feel comfortable going to see live can be two different things. Boys may feel more comfortable than girls at a Korn show; everything in the way the band is marketed screams maleness. I recall going to one of the last performances of Rage Against the Machine and spending most of the time fighting off punches in the mosh pit. I know many lesbians that count Rage as a major influence in their lives, but I didn’t see them at the show. This alienation is another result of the demographically driven marketing of music. But while gay and straight bands can be marketed in equally alienating ways and niche creating ways, there is a vast difference between the two. The marketing dollars for a band like Korn are spent by major labels with the bands blessing in a positive, aggressive way at mainstream radio and rock press, and this equals record sales and huge audiences. And while Korn may suffer in some ways from becoming more about their image than their music, gay musicians suffer more, because as far as the mainstream rock media is concerned, our image is our handicap. Gay musicians aren’t marketed to the mainstream as, “Hurray! Here’s a new lesbian band, aren’t they cool?” Instead, we are the subject of painstaking scrutiny and strategizing to figure out how to overcome our image. Being gay is not considered an asset at most record labels, indie or major. When the record label finally takes advantage of the gay press, its because the mainstream press won’t touch the band. Gay press coverage is the last resort for most publicist. In the Indigo Girls’ case, when we were ready to confront and support our sexuality in the press, it took Epic Records years to catch up. Epic simply preferred not to respect or cater to the gay press, but when the mainstream media stopped paying attention to us, Epic started returning the gay media’s phone calls. And while we may appreciate it and see it as an accomplishment to be on the cover of Out magazine, the label doesn’t; it would never rate the same as a feature in Jane.
When studied and written about by Hadju, the “lesbian market” becomes anthropology. We become a selection of quotes taken out of context to fit nicely into a theory, as if we aren’t present or vocal enough to write about ourselves. Hadju treats the audience for music by women just like advertisers do: suddenly it becomes a “market” with no heed to the diversity among women and the men who participate. While the gay demographic may be shamelessly exploited as a new market by some corporations, it’s not fair to imply that we are exploiting each other. When gay musician’s garner a gay audience or are mentioned by the gay media, we are not gloating in the dressing room about what a bunch of suckers gay people are; we appreciate their presence and attention and we realize that they are there, not just because they feel comfortable in an otherwise homophobic and sexist world, but also because the music is valid.
A little success goes a long way towards a backlash. Hadju and the mainstream media’s response to the growing women’s folk scene is reflective of society’s anxiety that women-who-don’t-need men are taking over and leaving men behind. I am tired of reading articles about the new gay and female infusion into pop culture and how good we have it. As if corporate sponsors didn’t pull their dollars from the “Ellen Show” or as if almost every morning radio show doesn’t use gays and women as the subjects of their stupid jokes. Maybe the movement for acceptance is making some progress on the street level, but it’s not being reflected by the media. We are still distilled down to the demographic of our audience and the particulars of our sex lives. Our music is not written about positively or for the inherent worth of the music, our progress as songwriters is never noted, and we just aren’t taken seriously as artists.