Not Your Guilty Pleasure

How music media uses taste to shut out teen girls

Words: Cecilia Johnson // Photos: Emmet Kowler

As I walked out of a recent Melanie Martinez concert, shuffling behind a swarm of fans, I didn’t want to leave. Martinez had played every song from her album Cry Baby, but I wanted more music; still bouncing inside, I drew from a store of energy that only pop songs can tap.

That night, Martinez had voiced the insecurities and battle cries of hundreds of mostly teenaged girls and guys. While it lasted, the music was catchy with a punch — “Everyone thinks that we’re perfect/Please don’t let them look through the curtains,” go the tongue-in-cheek lyrics of her single “Dollhouse.”

The overwhelmingly female audience had come decked out in hairbows, chunky jewelry, and thick eyeliner, handily matching the singer on stage. All around, girls chatted together: “This is your first concert, too?” After the show, the merch line stretched on for a half hour.

Coincidentally, I left the venue alongside another adult woman, and a security guard snickered at us. “How’d you two get roped into this?” he asked. I stopped walking. “Melanie is great,” I said, avoiding his question, and the guard had to agree. He said he’d liked the show — it had outdone his expectations for “little girly music.”

We chatted about the concert, and the small talk went on, but that comment stuck with me. He liked the show because it was better than the audience’s demographics had suggested to him. But why associate young women with bad taste to begin with? Why was “little girly music” a bad thing?

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“For many people, the fact that teenage girls like something — whether that something is Taylor Swift or One Direction or Twilight — is a reason to write it off completely,” Kerry Winfrey says in Laura Moss’ “Why Must We Hate the Things Teen Girls Love?”

Teenagers are responsible for huge music sales, especially in the genre of pop. Spending about a quarter of their money on entertainment, according to The Atlantic, they have plenty of disposable income and enjoy buying music they like. For teen girls and gay guys — due to factors such as marketing, word of mouth, and ability to relate to the lyrics — that tends to mean pop music.

Even so, girls’ commercial impact doesn’t draw industry critics’ attention. As noted by Slate’s Forrest Wickman, Swift is so beloved by the teen girl mainstream that Pitchfork chose not to review 1989 until Ryan Adams covered it. Few music media bother with teen-geared coverage at all, especially if relevant musicians are women (Lady Gaga; Katy Perry; Taylor Swift) — and especially if those women insist on control of their music (Martinez; Kehlani; Marina and the Diamonds).

I’m headed straight for the castle
They’ve got the kingdom locked up
— Halsey, "Castle"

When pop music does earn attention from critics, they position it as something to be ashamed of. Fifty critics and musicians “confess” to their “guilty pleasures” in a 2011 NME slideshow, sending the message that no industry player's taste should overlap with teenage girls’. In the article, writer Tom Edwards “admits” to loving Kesha's “TiK ToK.” Editor Krissi Murison asks, “Is it wrong that of all the albums released in 2004, the one I actually still listen to the most is Love Angel Music Baby by Gwen Stefani?” Slash sexualizes Rihanna and other stars: “One of my guilty pleasures is probably really attractive young pop singer females that can sing. I really think that’s sort of a turn on.”

On top of that, there’s a subset of teen-adored pop artists that the media especially overlooks: women who insist on a starring role. “Mainstream movies are generally stories of men’s lives,” says Dr. Caroline Heldman in the 2011 documentary Miss Representation. “And then we have this subgenre called ‘chick flicks,’ which are stories of women’s lives which [...] generally revolve around men’s lives, too.” In a world of chick-flick stories, such as "Taylor Swift Reveals 1989 Tracklist (and We Guess Who Each Song Is About)," it upsets the status quo when a woman claims autonomy.

 

So what happens when someone like Halsey, the Tumblr-beloved pop artist now setting the web on fire, declares (without question) that she “don’t belong to no man” (“Hurricane”)? Halsey brands herself as an "inconvenient woman" — a biracial, bisexual millennial who follows her own agenda. She released her debut album, Badlands, on Aug. 28, 2015. But if you’ve never heard of her, that’s no surprise; neither have many music journalists.

Ashley Frangipane is a pop artist whose music touches on youth, self-confidence, and relationships. Instead of discovering her in Rolling Stone or Pitchfork, Halsey’s fans likely found her work on Tumblr, where users tend to be young, female, and finding themselves. While Beats 1 and Apple Music have provided weighty marketing pushes, most of Halsey’s momentum has come from fanmade videos, fanmixed playlists, and countless reblogs.

Because of her fanbase’s demographics, Halsey doesn’t garner thorough critical attention. Large publications like Billboard, Vice, and Fuse (Maria Sherman, everyone!) have published some content about her; Rolling Stone gave Badlands a scant 103-word review. But while her fall 2015 U.S. tour sold out in a matter of hours, journalists rarely cover the shows. The few reviews on the web are usually by young bloggers who paid their own way into the concert.

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Before I started critiquing music professionally before I knew what Pitchfork was or where to buy Billboard — I loved Marina and the Diamonds. I was fifteen in 2010, just starting to find out who I was. When I heard Marina affirm herself (“I know exactly what I want and who I want to be,” she sings in “Oh No!”), I found myself awed. A strong, young woman writing pop songs with substance? Marina Diamandis, the star behind the music, seemed powerful and authentic. “Girls” and “I Am Not A Robot” grew roots in my life.

When I went to Marina’s Electra Heart show, I looked forward to reading reviews the next day. I’d liked comparing notes with local critics on shows I’d been to before: MGMT, Maroon 5, etc. I read local music coverage whenever I could. But after some research, I could only find one review: the Star Tribune's "Few Thoughts on Marina & the Diamonds & the Skyway as Music Venue." Of the points the paper made, the first six described the venue. The last four made valid, well-written critiques that I completely disagreed with. (From first-hand experience, I know reviews are subjective, so I wasn’t owed the praise I wanted the critic to have penned about Marina. However, the critic’s lukewarm tone did nothing to reflect the joy I felt being there.)

When I did find professional Marina and the Diamonds criticism — usually in the form of album reviews — most of it contained generalizations and recycled comparisons. A lot of media relied on Kate Bush/Tori Amos connections and didn’t bring any male artists into the conversation, effectively segregating women vocalists from men. The comments sections teemed with image-driven comments (one AV Club user noted, "Yum"). And some articles went beyond microaggressions; an overbearing PopMatters album review began, “Marina has very ambitious goals for herself, which I can’t imagine the majority of her audience really sharing on her behalf.”

Obviously, that assumption is completely unfair — young women can, should, and do dream enormous dreams. Also, the goals of Marina’s audience are irrelevant to the quality of her album.

But something more than that scares me. I remember reading the review four years ago, but I don’t remember disagreeing with that statement. I don’t think I was offended by the author’s sit-down-and-shut-up message to Marina: "Another in-your-face record will be one too many.” I must have accepted, “The overconfidence she exudes can be slightly offputting,” as truth.

 

Like publishers and critics of all sorts, music journalists sanction a canon, a corpus of music that is declared classic, important, and valid. Author Simon Reynolds exemplifies criticism’s dominant narrative in his book Bring the Noise: 20 Years of Writing About Hip Rock and Hip-Hop. The book, which runs over 400 pages long, includes writing on bands such as Nirvana, Oasis, and Arctic Monkeys — plus a 20-page Morrissey interview. But out of more than 75 artists named in the “Contents” section, only three women show up (PJ Harvey, Missy Elliott, and M.I.A). Inside the book, Reynolds mocks “supastars like Janet Jackson and Jennifer Lopez,” asking, “May I just digress for a moment, and ask whatthafuck’s up with Janet’s teeth.”

As the Reynolds quote suggests, women pop artists often come under fire for features other than their artistry. Double standards for men and women make those criticisms seem valid. Leah Finnegan published a piece called "The Fragile Ears of Men," which asks, “Why are male critics so bothered by Joanna Newsom?” In the article, she quotes critics complaining about Newsom’s “squeaky” voice. However, she notes, the same critics idolize “many well-loved and extremely successful musicians past and present, including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Waits, Freddie Mercury, James Brown, Axl Rose, Robert Plant, Isaac Brock, Eddie Vedder, and Geddy Lee” — for their own distinctive pipes.

According to women in pop, journalists often toss them less substantive questions than their alternative or rock counterparts might get. “‘When I started doing interviews after ‘Primadonna,’” Marina said, “I thought, ‘God, I really feel sorry for real pop stars, because this is the type of stuff they get every day.’” When pop artists get soft interview questions, the resulting article doesn’t live up to its potential. No one benefits from a less engaging, more superficial piece.

Dominant-narrative canon, which tends to either shun women or enforce double standards, impedes young girls in two ways. First, artists girls love and identify with (like Halsey) get sparse or subpar press, so they don’t find music websites as they grow up. And if they don’t grow up reading music journalism, they tend not to pursue careers reporting it. They can’t aspire to a job they don’t know about.

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If girls do transcend the engagement gap and end up pursuing music writing, they must learn the field’s male-driven culture. Since starting to write a couple of years ago, I've started reading Pigeons & Planes, researching the history of punk, and listening to the Beatles. If I choose not to, I look silly in peer conversations, and I lose credibility as a writer.

A qualified music journalist is observant, articulate, and dependable. She must treasure the music in her life, feeling so much for it that she has to respond through words. Her heart stutters when she hears a song she loves.

What that song is, though, is entirely up to her. Her taste could be unfashionable; it wouldn’t make her any less observant, articulate, or dependable. Hopefully, she’s open to all sorts of music, but “into Radiohead” was never one of the job descriptors.

In music culture, “taste” has long served as a test for women and other marginalized groups to pass. They automatically start at a deficit, having to prove their opinions valid before they’re treated as equals. Worse, they often have to change their opinions, reordering their own preferences to fit culture’s subjective rules. It’s a classic assimilation model; people "new to the community" have to yield to dominant culture or leave.

You think you’re smarter than me
With all your bad poetry
— Melanie Martinez, "Alphabet Boy"
 

As vivid as my teen memories seem, I’m now in my early 20s. To get an actual tween’s perspective in the here and now, I interviewed my 12-year-old cousin about her favorite musical artists.

My cousin, known here as Marie, is growing up online. Right now, her favorite artists include Halsey and Melanie Martinez. After following 5 Seconds of Summer Tumblrs, she said, “I went online, and an edit of 5SOS had [Halsey’s song] ‘Empty Gold.’ And I was like, ‘Who is this?’” She bought Halsey’s album. Similar story with Martinez: my cousin watched the “Dollhouse” music video after seeing it “floating around on YouTube.”

While talking about Martinez, I brought up the curse words the singer routinely drops. Was Marie bothered? “I really don’t care about swear words,” she told me with a firm stare. I appreciated her honesty; my favorite teachers didn’t curb obscenities, either. “If you swear around someone,” I started. She finished my thought —“you trust them.”

While heading out the door, I told Marie about the article I envisioned. “The problem’s that teen girls can’t see themselves on music criticism sites,” I started saying, but she stopped me there, turning around. She stood in the doorframe and said, “Wait, there are sites just for music criticism? Where?”

During our talk, Marie’s savvy struck me. She debated top Halsey tracks like a pro, brought Lana del Rey into the conversation (relevant Jessica Hopper piece here), and quoted lyrics from several artists. Like many sharp interviewees, she turned several questions back my way. When she showed me her vibrant, carefully curated Tumblr, even I discovered a new layer to my cousin’s talents and thinking. I realized I’d underestimated her — because of her youth and girlhood.

 

Considering sales, the relative quality of many pop albums, and the amount of criticism written for teenage boys, journalists’ pop-star disregard confused me — until I saw the bigger picture. For the patriarchy to stay in power, marginalized voices (women, people of color, non-heterosexual people, and/or non-cisgender people) need to stay out of meaningful conversations. After all, if they can’t speak, they can’t upset the power imbalance.

In the case of music media, exclusivity is the patriarchy’s key weapon; by denying marginalized people legitimacy as music consumers, the system closes them out of music criticism. And so the cycle of irresponsible pop coverage continues.

 

Journalists like Maria Sherman have done wonders for pop fans, treating teenagers’ interests seriously and opening their inboxes to writing questions. Sherman has pushed past the walls that (usually male) editors put up, writing a 5 Seconds of Summer essay and tweeting, “i gained 400 followers today can i use this as a defense whenever an editor doesn’t believe in what i wanna do or.”

But all around the world, more critics struggle against those walls. Before Melanie Martinez came to my town, I pitched an interview/concert review combination to a high-traffic local news outlet, for which I’ve written several pieces before. My editor didn’t respond to the pitch (or the one about Jess Glynne, or the one about Tove Lo. . .). I bought a Martinez ticket for myself, and no local media published coverage of her show.

Media ignorance is unfair and infuriating, but it’s just a reflection of culture in general. In pursuing equality, gatekeepers need to validate sidelined voices, including those of girl and/or LGBT music fans. Pop, especially the kind that stars powerful women, has to be more than a guilty pleasure.