Listening to Massive Attack’s Teardrop today at Number 22 in Triple J’s Hottest 100 of All Time, it struck me that there was something very different about that song from the others I had been hearing. The difference, it had female vocals. Thinking back over the countdown so far, I noted that it was way back at Number 93 – Unfinished Sympathy, another Massive Attack track, that female lead vocals had last been heard during the countdown. In the first 80 songs of the countdown, there has been not one female soloist, not one female lead band. Even the photo on the Triple J website of Massive Attack for Unfinished Sympathy features two men, and the bio notes that they don’t have a “frontman”, that they are anonymous and “cipher-like.”
Some time ago, in a different place, I noted that the 100 Greatest Movie Characters of all time list was sadly lacking in both female and black representation. In that list there were only 12 women and 4 black characters. So I have had a closer look at the Triple J list (to date – the top 20 songs are not revealed until Sunday).
(a) as noted above, there have only been 2 songs so far which have featured female lead vocals. Only eight tracks feature any female performer, but those are divided between five bands: Massive Attack, The Smashing Pumpkins, New Order, Pulp and The Pixies. Only four songs give a woman a writing credit – the two Massive Attack tracks, Blue Monday by New Order and Common People by Pulp.
(b) there are only 9 songs which feature black performers – and two of these Michael Jackson songs. Smashing Pumpkins, in addition to a female band member, also feature an Asian band member – James Iha – but despite this diversity still tend to be identified with their lead singer (white, male) Billy Corgan.
The results so far leave some very obvious gaps. There have been no black rap/hip hop songs: although there has been Rage Against the Machine and the Beastie Boys who (to paraphrase Eminem) have used black music to get themselves wealth. Well, to be honest they have embraced an approach to music and made it their own, but the absence to date of any NWA or Public Enemy or their contemporaries does seem to be a significant gap. Similarly, while we have had Michael Jackson, surely the better black performer and writer of the period, Prince (or whatever we have to call him nowadays) has been completely overlooked. Blondie have been absent – though to be honest, the only punk era song to make it to date (disappointingly) has been London Calling. And Kim Deal’s vocals in The Pixies have been ignored versus those of the blokes – and no look in for The Breeders either. And if The Beatles and The Beach Boys can be featured, why not the Dusty Springfields and the Aretha Franklins. Similarly, I am yet to be convinced that Goyte or The Killers are that far ahead of Lily Allen or Magic Dirt.
What it does reveal is the extent to which the alternative music industry is still dominated by white men. Looking at my own collection of CDs and my own nominations for the Hottest 100, I share the guilt (although NWA’s Express Yourself was one pick but my Pixies track was not a Kim vocal). If you compare the break up of women and non-white performers in the current Australian Top 50, there is a marked increase in the number of both black and female performers as a proportion. However, it seems highly unlikely that Miley Cyrus or Nikki Webster or Katy Perry are ever going to produce songs which would make it into a greatest song of all time list. Perhaps it is that women and blacks are pushed toward the commercially disposable and interchangeable, where image and marketing sell songs as much as their musical memorability does (in classic grumpy old Adorno interpretation) while white middle class boys can pursue the “truth” of their music. Or perhaps it is that we as consumers of culture are used to the idea of men in the role of the great singers and song writers, in the way that newsreaders were all once male to reassure their audience. As someone who spent many hours at concerts back in the day, the world of alternative music was always very boysy – I wasn’t the only woman at the shows, but I was usually outnumbered by my male friends.
Anyhow, whatever the reason, I hope to be somewhat corrected by the final 20. With any luck we will see at least one female performer, and a better representation of non-white singers and writers. In the meantime, what are your suggestions for entries in the Alternative Hottest 100 – No white, male vocalists allowed!
My early suggestions:
Heart of Glass – Blondie
Express Yourself and/or Fuck tha Police – NWA
Canonball – The Breeders
Pace It and/or Dirty Jeans – Magic Dirt
Smile – Lily Allen
Don’t Believe the Hype – Public Enemy
Cream – Prince
Kool Thing – Sonic Youth
The Message – Grandmaster Flash
Son of a Preacher Man – Dusty Springfield
Lovely Head – Goldfrapp