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Reversal of the Muse: ‘An exploration of femininity in creativity’

Laura Marling wisely sang “A woman alone is not a woman undone”. Indeed, her music has been laced with explorations of feminism since she broke into the industry at the tender age of 16. Thoughtful and learned beyond her years, Marling exudes a quiet feminine power rivalling that of her most important inspiration, the great Joni Mitchell. Marling on stage is enchanting – endearingly introverted, focused, unmistakably modest. She is exceptional with or without backing, her image a fully-formed, self-made, self-sufficient musician. Yet behind this image of empowerment is an industry dominated by men where women have traditionally been excluded or portrayed as passive – as Marling puts it, “muse[es]”.

Now, Laura Marling contemplates the reasons why this has been a women’s role, how this role will progress, and how the music industry as well as her own career would be different if women were more present. In a statement, Marling recalls the realisation that even after five records and over 10 years in the industry, she “had only come across two female engineers working in studios”. Out of this was born an experiment of sorts, a “reversal of the muse”.

One of the most striking things about the conversations is the sense of disburdening. Marling has been greatly successful in creating a safe space for discussion of issues which affect the everyday lives of women working in music, and yet seem to be a somewhat taboo topic. Nu-folk artist Marika Hackman described the isolation she felt on her first tour with Benjamin Francis Leftwich, which she describes as “a baptism of fire”. She felt pressure to adapt to become “one of the guys” and that as a woman she would “kill their vibe”. Ideas about the masking of traditional notions of femininity appear to be a recurrence, along with, perhaps similarly, a fear of making mistakes. Singer Shura goes so far as saying she prefers to “work alone” after being made to feel “like a fraud” when she has made a mistake in a studio environment. Many of the guests convey a surprising lack of confidence in their own musical abilities, despite being professional musicians, feeling ‘silly’ when making a mistake on the guitar. Yet this lack of faith is hardly surprising having heard their stories, which include being asked in a guitar shop if they are looking for something for their boyfriend.

In some cases, it seemed the inequality was so commonplace that the women had never thought to speak or even think about it. Never was this more apparent than in conversation with country legends Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. Despite the fact that the two were largely dismissive of Marling’s questions and theories about women in the music industry, the conversation was perhaps the most revealing of the whole series. They are women who found worldwide success in music, yet they had little or no concerns about the industry’s representation of women – they agreed that it is male-dominated but seemed unfazed by being outnumbered, saying “it never bothered me”. This may be a generational viewpoint, but may also suggest the inequality is simply so ingrained that it has become normalised, as is true in many areas of society. In this case, there is even more argument for projects like Reversal of the Muse to challenge these norms and the motivations behind them.

The position of women in the music industry may be low on the list of the priorities of feminism. And indeed, with issues like sex trafficking and early marriage, when more than a third of women at universities suffer unwanted sexual advances, it is hard to justify focusing on the everyday, often comparatively mild inequalities suffered by women in music. Yet to claim these issues to be unimportant would be to suggest that the arts, and creativity, are not of great value. To stifle women’s creativity, whether in the musicianship or in the studio, is to limit the artistry that will be produced. The gender imbalance in the music industry may be merely symptomatic of a larger trend of sexism, but arguably, addressing this issue may do a lot for the wider feminist movement.

In one highly poignant discussion, Nashville guitar shop owner Pamela Cole described her technique for inspiring girls: have them pick up an electric guitar and play a power chord. It is through this empowerment that we can support females to pursue music, whether performance or production. It would be a tragedy if we were missing an aspect of creativity, and allowed the male-dominated field to prevent us from capturing what is distinctly female. Episodes are available at reversalofthemuse.com.

Photo: NME

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