In 2013, One Direction released their documentary-concert film “This Is Us”. Now, as a devoted fan (or directioner), I have seen that film over a dozen times (and I’m not exaggerating). However, there’s a specific scene in the film that just stands out for me every single time I watch the film. The scene opens with Simon Cowell charting the growing popularity of One Direction, from the X-Factor days up to the release of their first single. Cowell remarks, “These girls are crazy about One Direction. And I have no idea why.” The scene cuts to a neuroscientist (a real one), who takes over and explains how what happens to the fans when they see One Direction on stage, is not hysteria but a feeling of excessive joy and excitement resulting from the release of a brain chemical called dopamine.
I always found the entire scene a bit overdone. Do people really need a neuroscientist to explain an obvious fact to them? This was until I realized that women’s experience of music is not so easily understood by everyone. To need a scientific explanation of how women feel when they listen to the music they like, is to indirectly say that their behavior is a peculiarity that needs to be examined.
Women screaming the lyrics of Little Things at the top of their lungs is peculiar because a) sane women do not scream b) these women got to be crazy to burn their vocal cords over a cheesy love song. However, men blasting Kanye’s misogyny anthem Famous at full volume in their cars is never considered peculiar, nor are men screaming at the top of their lungs at every football game.
Fangirls are routinely dismissed as hysterical women and teenage girls, driven by heedless infatuation as opposed to a sophisticated understanding of what constitutes good music.
In a 2015 piece, Jonathan Heaf, a journalist for GQ, while talking about female fans of One Direction, wrote,
“These women don't care about the Rolling Stones. They don't care about the meta-modernist cycle of cultural repetition. They don't care about history. All these female fans care about is their immediate vociferous reverence: the beatification of St Harry, St Zayn, St Niall, St Louis and St Liam.”
However, this discrediting of pop music and its consumers does not stem from the so-called authenticity that popular music is said to lack, as music critics argue. On the contrary, the authenticity of a popular music record, is vetted against a gendered understanding of the consumer base. This can be best explained through the phenomenon of gender contamination.
Gender contamination is more common in the case of consumer goods not necessarily related to the consumption of media. It refers to the threat or alarm created by the incursion of a female consumer base into a brand of consumer product stereotypically associated with males and vice versa. According to brand management expert and scholar Jill Avery, men are more likely to be averse to products associated with women than women are to products associated with men.
Consider the case of diet coke. For a long time the zero-calorie cola with its quintessential white packaging had been a favourite among women. It was not until the company came up with a ‘Coke Zero’ with a striking black packaging and a marketing policy solely directed towards men that the brand caused some stir among its male consumers.
Thus, there exists a clear dividing line between consumer products, based on a gendered understanding of the buyers.
Now, apply this to the music and entertainment media industry.
Fandoms can be understood as consumer pockets or networks consuming a particular “brand” of music. This brand, while being governed by specific genres, is loaded with gender stereotypes much like diet coke, cars, colours, and other things. This does not imply that certain genres can be designated as men’s music and the others as women’s. Gender, as Judith Butler argues, is performative. Therefore, the site of gendering in music is the performance.
In a paper called ‘Young People’s Musical Taste: Relationship With Gender and Gender-Related Traits’, Ann Colley highlights that women’s approach to music is “instrumental” and “social” as opposed to the more “central” and “personal” approach of men. Another research in the United Kingdom, found that secondary schoolboys like heavy metal and rock more than girls, while girls prefer pop, reggae, jazz, classical, folk, and opera.
The aim of this data is not to draw a gender binary in consumption, but to highlight how music embodies aspects of stereotypical femininity or masculinity, the conformity to which is governed by the degree of socialization of individuals into specific gender roles. For instance, the social and emotional aspects of pop music are stereotypically understood to cater more to young women. At the same time, heavy metal and heavy rock music embody the tendency for hypermasculine aggression, dominance, and rebellion traditionally expected from young men.
Given these regressive binary gender roles, individuals feel more socially accepted and vindicated by listening to the music that best exemplifies the gender roles expected from them. Exceptions to this norm are numerous. For starters, according to my #spotifywrapped, I discovered 64 new genres in 2021. While that’s five times the number of music genres I can count on my finger-tips, Spotify’s algorithm vouches that I listen to more than just pop music.
While transgressions do exist, with women finding comfort in music traditionally associated with men or vice versa, these are mostly met with sexist retorts. Men continually distance themselves from women’s tastes in an attempt to conform to a hegemonic masculine ideal. Thus, a dividing line surfaces between fan-spaces dominated by women and those dominated by men.
At the same time, the music industry is dominated by men in terms of producers, singers, song-writers, record label managers, etc. Patricia Leavy and Adrienne Trier-Bieniek in their edited volume Gender and Pop Culture: A Text Reader argue that the media culture as well, is overwhelmingly produced by men, with 80% of key media positions being held by men. Therefore, in an industry constantly churning out content majorly created, vetted, and circulated by men, who are also consumers of gendered music in their own right, the preferences of the female consumer base, despite their overwhelming presence, is sidelined for male norm and preference.
A peculiar phenomenon associated with gender contamination in the music industry is ‘mentrification’. To understand what mentrification is all about, it is necessary to look at the rise of your quintessential pop band: the Beatles.
The rise of the Beatles coincided with a decade that was making and breaking social norms. The 1960s witnessed a clamour against racial segregation, the onset of the Red Scare coupled with public agitation against the Vietnam War and the beginning of the second wave of Feminism, among others. Before women took to the streets as a part of the Women’s liberation movement during the second wave, the “Beatlemania” embodied the first major mass outburst featuring women.
Beatles concerts and fandom spaces at their outset were dominated by women and provided young girls and women safe spaces for expression. These spaces were free from the all-pervasive puritanical ideals of goodness and purity of women. Women could scream the lyrics at the top of their lungs, hoard, share, and wear merchandise that gave them a sense of conformity and connect with other women with similar experiences. Christine Feldman-Barrett, in her book A Women’s History of the Beatles, argues that the craze for the Beatles was passed on to us through the efforts of three generations of women who not only themselves listened to their music but also passed it on to their family members, friends, and acquaintances.
However, the press coverage of the Beatles in this period tells a different story. Not only were these women dismissed as ‘hysterical’ and ‘dangerous’, the Beatles themselves were considered upstarts and likened to an epidemic. Noted New Statesman journalist Paul Johnson in his 1964 article “Menace of Beatlism” claimed that,
“Those who flock round the Beatles, who scream themselves into hysteria, are the least fortunate of their generation, the dull, the idle, the failures.”
This perception underwent a change in the 90s and the early 00s when Beatlemania was largely appropriated by men and transformed from a “mania” into a “cultural phenomenon.” This is evident from the fact that the historiography, publications, and expert discussions on the Beatles are now dominated by men. The same New Statesman, 56 years later, in 2020, published an article titled ‘How the Beatles changed the world in seven years’.
At a more micro-level, I conducted a short survey among fifty people from my college, to double-check if men really ended up “appropriating” the Beatles. As per the survey, a majority of cishet men (50%) enjoyed listening to the Beatles over more recent pop bands like One Direction and BTS (16.6%). At the same time, in the non-cishet male category, the percentage of those who enjoy listening to the Beatles was 26.65% and those who enjoy the music of 1D and BTS was a massive 73.3%. Moreover, the majority concurred that more cishet males in their circle enjoy listening to the Beatles than the non-cishet male individuals.
The gap between the time when the Beatles were heavily criticised as upstarts and the time when they came to be considered a cultural phenomenon was filled by a process that feminist critic Van Badham calls ‘mentrification’. A modification of the word “gentrification,” which means “improvement in the condition of an area, usually inhabited by lower or middle class people by the movement of upper class people,” the term refers to the male appropriation of female tastes and interests. Any cultural phenomenon, as long as it is enjoyed predominantly by women, is considered inferior. It is only when the said phenomenon is appropriated by men and the fandom becomes predominantly male that it is seen in a positive light. Thus, the phenomenon of gender contamination is not only governed by gender roles but also the understanding of sophistication and authenticity as qualities embodied by historic phenomena and appreciated primarily by men.
Gender contamination in the music industry affects women and queer individuals the most, who are both ostracised from the communal experience of the music not in line with their expected gender roles as well as made to doubt the quality of the music in line with their gender roles, owing to rampant media prejudice. Quality labels on music genres based on their gendered appeal also end up marginalising artists associated with these genres. At the same time, a lot of music scenes like country, hip-hop, and rock, are dominated by male artists catering to a largely male audience. In such a scenario, female artists are routinely marginalised with biases operating not only in tabloids but also on the radio and streaming platforms like Spotify, Deezer, Apple Music, etc.
The sole means of countering gender contamination is by, quite simply, allowing channels for contamination. Dismantling of gendered tastes associated with music can serve as groundwork for the reconstruction of individual identities and elimination of regressive notions of femininity or masculinity. Music, like other elements of culture, plays a significant role in determining one’s self-perception by the virtue of its capability of generating emotive responses to an array of ideas and possibilities tuned to a melody.
Editors: Leah Canonizado, Megan Lin, Sophie Guo, and Joyce Paek