Bury the Muse: Let's Stop Denying Women Full Credit For Their Music
If I had to pick one story in all the history of music to illustrate everything I love and hate about pop, I would choose the one about Veronica Bennett and her one-time partner, Phil Spector.
Phil Spector and Veronica Bennett
What's great about Bennett and Spector is the music they made together: "Walking in the Rain," "Why Don't They Let Us Fall in Love?," "(The Best Part of) Breaking Up" -- essentially, every minute of the Ronettes' discography, after the group left its first label and signed to Spector's Philles Records in 1962.
What's awful about Bennett and Spector is everything else: His possessiveness toward her; his threats of violence; his will to dominate her very identity, to an extent where, soon after the Ronettes jumped labels, Bennett took the name "Ronnie Spector," which she is known as today -- almost 40 years after their divorce, and 50 years after their first record together, "Be My Baby."
But from a music journalist's perspective, the worst thing about the Spectors is how the ex-husband's Pygmalion complex has been rewarded by writers. To this day, their creative partnership is commonly characterized as one of artist and muse. Even though, on a Ronettes record, it's her voice and all the emotional intelligence resounding within it that hits us most squarely.
Like the pop myth it is, Spectors' story reverberates daily in the music press. It's not the first time in rock 'n' roll history this story was told. But it remains one of the more extreme tellings. Last week, its echo was especially loud when two musicians, Claire Boucher (known to fans of her spooky pop as Grimes) and Solange Knowles aired their grievances as women artists in a business that still struggles to accept feminine sources of ingenuity.
Boucher, among other complaints, took to her Tumblr to write about the many forms of patronization she's faced at the hands of male musicians.
"I'm tired of men who aren't professional or even accomplished musicians continually offering to 'help me out' (without being asked), as if i did this by accident and i'm gonna flounder without them," Boucher wrote. "[Or] as if the fact that I'm a woman makes me incapable of using technology. I have never seen this kind of thing happen to any of my male peers."
A little more than a day later (and apparently unaware of Boucher's post), Knowles signed on to Twitter to address journalists who are in the habit of downgrading her role within her own records.
"I find it very disappointing when I am presented as the 'face' of my music, or a 'vocal muse' when I write or co-write every fucking song," Knowles wrote.
Though Boucher and Knowles targeted distinct frustrations, they shared a clear overlap. The problem runs deep into the way we've been told the story of how art works and the way music is made. Too often and with sleight-of-tongue, women artists are talked about as if they're merely the instruments of male creativity, rather than the ends of their own imagination. This is true whether women are the writers or performers or, as is most common, some combination of both.
In pop, the patriarchal slippage happens two ways. First, there's the problem of how records are made. Studio work tends to be a very fluid process where roles merge into one another. One artist's producer is another artist's engineer is another artist's co-writer, and so on. And very rarely are these roles consistent even within one production team in a single session, or on one album.
But the role-confusion cuts in two unequal ways, and those paths are often marked by gender.
In truth, very few records anybody hears are the product of one mind commanding a single bundle of skills. What would Elvis Presley's "That's All Right" be without Sam Phillips' reverb, or Arthur Crudup's song, for that matter? What would Justin Timberlake's "Mirrors" be without Timbaland? What would U2's "With or Without You" be without Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois? Yet, none of the male artists whose faces grace the cover of these records are ever talked about as merely the instrument for the virile genius of some executor hovering above them.
So why is it natural for writers to speak of female artists as subservient partners, while hyping their male collaborators' visions, skills, and experience?
The answer lies in the second way women's musical contributions are often disregarded in the music industry. And it runs to the very core of how we are taught to think about art, if not femininity itself.
In art, there's the long-standing notion that says a woman's natural role is muse, not artist. Of course, for a long time, most artists were men and many of these artists painted subjects they were in love with. The results haven't always caricatured the sitter's virtue. Caravaggio rendered his favorite model Cecco in all his rough-hewn boyishness; Edward and Josephine Hopper's oeuvre, viewed as a whole, is a meditative essay on the distance that remains between soulmates, even as they grow old together. But in those rare cases, the muse transcends musedom and emerges to us as something more like a human being, whose complexities are refracted through art.
This is the exception. More commonly, between artist and muse, we see a hierarchy that debases, rather than redeems, what it means to be human. In this context, we can only imagine Knowles' frustration when she reads her press, only to find she's been demoted to the "face" or "muse" of her own creations.
To change this collective habit of mind requires a radical rethink. The trap we've set for female artists is not a matter of nuance, but of getting it wrong, plain and simple. Getting it right means redrafting the story of art and the history of pop music. Our revisions hinge on grasping the outsized figure of the muse and coming clean about what it means to our egalitarian dreams: Muse is an epithet that presumes its subject has no imagination of her own. Muse diminishes her actual value and forestalls her capabilities. Muse treats her as the "real" artist's means and robs her of the ability to define her own role.
Worse. To call a woman a muse mystifies her, makes her unknowable, and justifies the masculine will to idealize her, to project his fantasy on to her. In 1996, the New Yorker published an essay by Arlene Croce called "Is the Muse Dead?" in which the writer identified the two qualities a muse must possess: "beauty and mystery, and of the two, mystery is the greater."
I would put it differently. I would say, throughout history, the muse's real beauty has been wrapped within her mystery. Art's mystique has concealed her truth, softening its shape. We've enjoyed the beauty and the mystery as one and the same feeling. But we haven't thought much about an art that works, in part, by giving us an appetite for idealized people.
Something happens when you refuse to accept art's mystique, when you begin to bury the muse. Something changes in Ronnie Spector's voice the moment you imagine it resounding, not from the marble of a statue, but through the teeth above the hands that cut the stone. When you begin to see her as the artist, the Spectors fade from view and she becomes Veronica Bennett again. And her story grows bigger than theirs'.