TEARING DOWN THE WALLS, THE WALLS, THE WALLS, THE WALLS…
There’s a school of thought that says you’re supposed to hate it when something you really like starts gaining mainstream popularity.
Personally, I don’t really get that mentality. It seems counterintuitive to me, especially when it comes to music: I like sharing things I love with others.
And that urge was what initially made me want to write about this record this week. It’s all been a bit dark and heavy around these parts recently, so I just wanted to shine a light on a record I love and which may have gone under a lot of people’s radars.
But in the course of researching and planning this post (yes, unbelievable as it seems, I do actually plan these inane rambles out…) I came across a review that really rubbed me the wrong way.
It’s a bit of an outlier in terms of the overall critical reception of the album. While the majority of the reviews ranged from enthusiastic to lukewarmly positive, Leonie Cooper’s 2-star review in The Guardian was the only out-and-out negative appraisal I could find.
Is it normal to be annoyed by a single paragraph, largely anomalous negative review from 12 years ago about a record that you had absolutely no part in creating?
But there’s something in it that just feels so dismissive. So gendered.
To put it bluntly, I’m not sure the review would’ve been the same had the members of Electrelane been men.
There seems to be a different standard for women artists on the fringes of the alternative scene. The review is critical of lead singer Sussman’s vocals on the record, calling them “discordant.” Putting subjective taste to one side, for a moment, this isn’t the sort of critique commonly aimed at men singing on experimental, post-rock, kraut-tinged records. They might be ‘distinctive’, or ‘unconventional’, but the expectation that they sing with a harmonious, choral quality simply isn’t there.
The review ends by drawing a comparison to “a legion of post-punk girl groups” of the 80s. I just can’t hear any basis for this in the music itself. Sonically, Electrelane share far more DNA with CAN and NEU! than they do with, say, the Slits or X-Ray Spex. You can hear the influence of Stereolab, but that’s more in the use of organs, unconventional instruments and prog-esque instrumental grooves than in any specific feminine quality.
What really rubs me the wrong way about this, I think, is the sense that there are certain genres and musical styles which are ‘allowed’ for women, and more experimental, ‘serious’ genres are off limits.
A few weeks ago on the (wonderful) BBC 6 Music Breakfast Show, host Lauren Laverne mentioned off-hand that she had felt intimidated about listening to CAN because their fanbase portrayed them as so serious. When she finally listened to them, she confided, she was struck by just how fun their music was.
And that’s Lauren Laverne. A woman who has been in the UK alternative music scene for decades, and a veritable national treasure.
Not to mention the hordes of online criticism angled at St Vincent’s Annie Clark, disguised as critique of her guitar technique. It’s not hard to draw a link between that hornet’s nest and her designing an electric guitar shaped to be more comfortable for women guitarists.
These couple of examples are just the tip of the iceberg. An iceberg that has for a long time been trying to freeze women out of the alternative music scene.
Electrelane never really hit the big time. No Shouts No Calls was their final studio record and the group disbanded shortly after. For a talented band at the height of their powers, coming into their own and defining their sound, this just feels like a shame to me.
I won’t pretend to know why they decided to call it a day, but if there’s even a chance that pigeon-holing of what a ‘girl group’ was allowed to be in the music industry was part of the decision, then we’ve potentially lost out on some incredible music.
Alternative and experimental music should be open to everyone. It should be obvious, but women don’t have to sing sweetly and make pop or R&B records. Tear down the walls of the alt-rock boys club. We’ll end up with better music for it.
Not ‘girl bands’. Just great bands.