From judging to deconstructing

How to approach music as a feminist

Grace Birnstengel

Grace Birnstengel

No matter what type of music you listen to, at some point you have to come to terms with supporting the art of someone whose beliefs and values may clash with yours.

When looking at music through a feminist lens, it’s easy to sort things into categories of “good” or “bad,” based on the messages and stereotypes perpetuated in the artist’s persona and lyrics. For example, if an artist proudly flaunts her independence—we could say she’s a “good” feminist. Or, on the contrary, if an artist plays into over-sexualized, objectified female stereotypes—one could say she’s a “bad” feminist.

But this sort of judging is exactly how we shouldn’t approach music as feminists. Instead, we should use feminism to think critically about instead of judge music—to deconstruct the messages and power relationships in music.

Zenzele Isoke, assistant professor of gender, women, and sexuality studies at the University of Minnesota, challenges her students to look at different types of power relationships in music in terms of gender, sex, and race in her class on hip hop feminism.

“If you’re not looking at all of those, or at least being aware of how those play into what you’re consuming,” Isoke said, “then there’s a question about how you’re understanding and practicing your type of feminism.”

Instead, we should use feminism to think critically about instead of judge music—to deconstruct the messages and power relationships in music.

There is no cut-and-dried way to achieve a feminist persona. Most artists that make social statements, intentionally or not, give conflicting messages.

Take someone like Taylor Swift. Her lyrics make clear that she doesn’t let men push her around, but also, at times, have misogynistic undertones when she disses other women for sleeping around. Consider Azealia Banks. In some ways, Banks’ lyrics and performance are progressive as they disrupt normative ways of reading black women’s bodies, but she has also used homophobic language on her Twitter account. There is no perfect feminist, musician or otherwise, and part of feminism is accepting flaws and throwing away standards of perfection.

“Most artists are problematic. No one is perfect,” Isoke said. “Artists that have great critiques of capitalism can be inherently patriarchal in their thinking. You have to be critical about what you consume and be careful about it.”

Even if there were a “perfect” feminist artist, the bottom line is that feminism is not a lot more than right vs. wrong. This binary is exactly what feminism aims to deconstruct.

There is no cut-and-dried way to achieve a feminist persona. Most artists that make social statements, intentionally or not, give conflicting messages.

“I don’t like to think of feminism as a moral compass. Feminism itself is caught up in histories of racism and middle-class elitism,” Isoke said. “I would say feminists should deconstruct the binary of seeing something as good or bad, as opposed to using feminism to judge and evaluate.”

So, to all you feminists out there, when confronted with a problematic music video or line in a song, instead of judging and shunning the artist at hand—ask questions. What am I consuming? Why am I consuming it? Am I consuming racist, sexist art without knowing it, or am I thinking critically about the history of what I’m consuming, linking the sounds and words with a deeper cultural setting?

Instead of closing your ears to what might seem harsh and distasteful, open your mind to what can be a learning experience with broader social meaning.