It's different for girls

Man = power, woman = pain: from opera to rock, men's control of music has allowed them to propagate this myth (and express their own pain by proxy). And despite today's so-called girl power, still only a handful of women musicians are making their real voices heard. By Ruth Padel
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"The death of a beautiful woman is the most poetic subject in the world," said Edgar Allen Poe. "I've always enjoyed writing songs about dead women," said the post-punk singer Nick Cave.

Woman-in-pain is a dandy universal. Opera got women to sing men's ideas of women's feelings, in particular sexual despair. Sometimes damaged men did it instead - castrati moved in and out of Italian opera according to papal directives on mutilating little boys - but from the first, real women were in there, too. Don't put anyone else on stage with Strauss's Ariadne, dumped by her lover on a desert island because, says the composer, "She symbolises human solitude." The human voice in Poulenc's opera La Voix Humaine is a woman phoning the lover who's dumped her; she ends by strangling herself with the phone wire.

Have men been getting women to sing of the loneliness and fear they didn't want to own up to? Yoko Ono, in town to publicise her show at the Oxford Museum of Modern Art, certainly thinks so. I interviewed her in the Knightsbridge hotel where she and John Lennon used to stay. "Men see a connection between pain and women. They feel that expresses human pain most. Men are more repressed. They find it hard to cry. Trying to express women's pain shows they have it too." Well, but Yoko, it must also give them quite a buzz, making women voice pain caused by creatures like themselves.

Tom Ades is writing his second opera for Covent Garden. His first success was Powder Her Face, whose central character is a woman in pain. "The male voice in opera is power," he says. "Much less flexible than a woman's power. Art is about heartbreak, but that can be anything. Religion, doubt, fear, not necessarily a love thing." Men and the love thing? Their love arias are mostly not about getting dumped. The "great arias", plums of an opera evening, are mostly, mostly, male ideas of female abandonment compressed in a gorgeous tune over pools of earth-shaking harmony.

This is a bit odd, for "harmony" means at least two of you, moving through notes in a system you agree to share. In Greek, harmonia was good carpentry, a "fitting together" as in a chairleg: a popular political and medical image. Different bodily fluids, fitting together, is health. Different people co-operating in a social code spells civilisation. Harmony means company. Your soprano belting out "I'm alone" on top C may sound as if she's leaping into the abyss, but she's got the orchestra's safety-net beneath her. Even when it oozes loneliness, harmony is really the opposite.

And men, who control political harmony (and disharmony, of course), control musical harmony, too. Men (mostly) direct and harmonise the heartbreak women pour into that man-made well of waiting shadow known as an opera house.

The same goes for pop music. Back in torch, and women's blues, the voices of Piaf and Holiday sang songs mostly written, music and words, by men. In the Sixties, male producers such as Phil Spector wrote the song (or picked the songwriter), chose the singers, kept their own hands on the controls in the recording session until they got the sound they wanted. In Motown, "sound of young America", Berry Gordy controlled singers with contracts of iron - they saw the audit books only every two years, the cost of making the records came out of their royalties - and an iron-clad musical agenda. For the Miracles' hit "Shop Around" (1961), he re-cut the first version, changed the backing to brushes instead of drums, used a lighter lead voice: all to sound young and yearning.

Aiming at specific emotional effects, Gordy used specific emotional means. "The Supremes did everything you told them. Don't do that any more, they don't do it any more. Do a little more of this, they do a little more of that," said Harvey Fuqua, Motown's artistic development director. From Diana Ross, Gordy wanted glamour plus that light voice, high with a lot of breath and closed larynx; sensuous but thin, like slightly worn, slimy satin.

Before they had a big hit, the Supremes resented songs that other Motown groups sang. Faced with "Where Did Our Love Go?", they did not recognise "Baby, baby, baby, don't you leave me, oh, please don't leave me" as the immortal work it was. "We didn't want to record it. We said, it sounds like a kid song," said one Supreme. But they had to; and it went to No. 1. Afterwards, Gordy showered Diana with criticism as well as praise. He'd rage, she'd cry; he'd pet her back to smiles. His control, legal, technical, musical, emotional, was impeccable.

Mixing and producing sound, plus image-control, became a new art form, doing to the voice and appearance of a singer what Adolf Appia did to theatre, 60 years before, with light. Staging Wagner's operas, Appia pioneered stage-lighting. He saw that light plays on feeling quicker than anything except music. Instead of floodlight, which you can't control, Appia developed mobile light, light you focus, colour, orchestrate. Forget dialogue: the "lighting plot" is what blocks out the audience's basic response. Appia manipulated light, he said, "as poets manipulate music".

This was exactly what Spector and Gordy did with sound and, increasingly, the female image. Spector used male and female singers, but his first big hit was the Crystals' "He's a Rebel" (1962). Their soft voices sum up the female role in pop: to be the man's admiring mirror. "See the way he walks down the street.../He's my guy./When he holds my hand I'm so proud/'Cause he's not just one of the crowd./He's a rebel and he'll never be any good./He's a rebel 'cause he never, ever does what he should." This pop performance crystallised (as it were) male rock's self-dream. Man writes script. Man directs woman to voice pride in man: "Rock's about powerful sexy men and girls on their knees sucking off the stage-hand for a glimpse of God," says a casual sentence on the Internet ( if you want to know). Another 1962 Crystals song was "He Hit Me And It Felt Like A Kiss". "He hit me and I knew he loved me./If he didn't care for me/I could never have made him mad./But he hit me and I was glad." In a song, girls respond to the man. In a studio they respond to the producer, controlling their voice and, increasingly, their image.

All this still goes. Janet Jackson's 1986 album Control was designer- feminism. She joined its male producers after they finished the music of the title song, into which they slotted lyrics about her. "Mixing" decides the balance of power between backing and voice, how a voice comes across, and is mostly a male preserve (as everywhere, the technicians tend to be male). The mix in "Control" subverts the words. The beat challenges rather than accompanies Jackson's voice; her line "I never knew what hit me" is punctuated with a car crash. Female control? The end makes the song a little locket of irony. This is female sound written, recorded and mixed to a male agenda. As if Appia took Judi Dench in a scene of power, and lit her vulnerable.

I interviewed Shirley Manson, singer and songwriter for Garbage (now working on their second album) in my kitchen. "I was asked recently if the music industry had changed," she said. "Because there's this huge fuss about women in rock. I said `No, I don't feel anything has changed. I think it's just the flavour of the month. The problem is the whole industry is run by men. Until that changes - well, how can you change an attitude, an atmosphere? It's nonsense.'"

In the Eighties, male image-makers had to start making women seem in charge (vide the Spice Girls). Feminism had got that far. But the appearance often fails to correspond to the reality. Male production values subvert the lyrics; male publicity manufactures illusory control. "Producers can alter the way you perceive a record," says Shirley Manson. "A lot of male producers want to make women sound seductive, and take them as far away as possible from having any male perspective." There are women producers; but ironically there were more successful ones before rock 'n' roll. One Eighties study listed 1,019 pop producers. Two were women.

Forget pop, though. It was rock that gave women like Shirley their chance. But before the Nineties, rock for many women was a poisoned chalice. Like opera, rock was man-made. Unlike pop, rock is instrumental, has to have guitars in it - that bitterly defended male ikon. (How many women work in your local guitar shop?) Rock is about showing off with your hands, your body. The electric guitar may be played with unparalleled musicianship but is also sexual power coded musical, swollen noise as sexual tool; rock is about male prowess.

And also male feeling, which is where it really broke with Western tradition. No more using women to sing pain. In 1956, the West heard for the first time a sound recognised (rightly or wrongly) as the voice of true male feeling, unmediated by social codes. No courtly love from troubadours or Elizabethan love song; none of the urbanity of Thirties and Forties songwriters. Rock was teenage: male feeling fresh from Adam's dawn, straight from heart and groin, furious with pain. Any mistakes were definitely due to the world. To millions, this felt like the voice of real male feeling, coming up from the roots of society and self.

The whole package yelled masculinity and carried masculinity's traditional baggage: misogyny, supremacism. The supremacy of male feeling as well as male everything else. A young male voice yelling into the void became the voice of feeling. "The rock sound is so loud," Yoko Ono told me, kneeling on the floor tea-ceremony-wise, pouring hot chocolate from a silver pot, "because you want to annoy your parents. But also to communicate with them: `Can you hear me, I'm shouting so loud can you hear me?' A desperate attempt to communicate with parents. That's the strength of rock, the energy of a baby, almost, trying to communicate. I think that's it's deep power, really."

Along with supremacism (think Jagger, think "Under My Thumb") came a basic teenage self-contradiction: being against what you depend on. Against grown-up culture - which you need to distribute your songs. Against women (Prodigy's "Smack My Bitch Up" has an implacable pedigree), whom you need, inside and outside your songs. You need women as target of feeling, plus squirmingly delighted audience.

This contradiction is summed up in harmony. Rock comes swaddled in traditional harmony. Despite its challenge of attitude and volume, rock's as conservative an art form as the English detective story. "Rock harmonies are fascinatingly bankrupt," says Tom Ades. "Heavy metal most of all. Every now and then someone tries a twist of the kind the early 18th century experimented with. But it never gets anywhere."

Where does all this leave women singing rock? Rock let women off the hook of singing men's feeling, but since the Sixties, women have found it tough, unpacking the negative baggage this art form carries. You can be "one of the boys" like heroic, tragic Janis Joplin. Or throw rage back at men, like Lydia Lunch, Courtney Love, Kat Bjelland (of Babes in Toyland), the Riot Grrl movement. Or like Jane, in PJ Harvey's song "Me Jane", who yells at Tarzan, "Stop your fucking screaming".

More painfully, songs of self-loathing, self-cutting, anorexia, bulimia (Kat Bjelland's "Vomit Heart" and "Fork Down Throat", Kristin Hersh's "Delicate Cutters") and inner ugliness, show how deeply women internalise rock's misogyny. The back cover of Hole's album Pretty on the Inside (1991) has a woman looking in a mirror, seeing no beauty inside or out. These songs make women's bodies a battleground - in a war exacerbated by rock's images of women.

Some female musicians now are totally in control of musical technology and their own image. "That needs more vibrato," Bjork tells the strings in a recent South Bank Show on her work. "Let's lay this track down and come back in the morning to see what needs fixing." They respect her, she respects them; that's where the sound comes from. But it's rare. The Brit award-winning, all-girl group All Saints (beloved by 10-year-olds who despise Spice-age "girl power" as a male fabrication), help in writing their own songs, but their producers and mixers are men. Plus many men dismiss creative musicians such as Bjork or PJ Harvey as "musos", writing off lyrics from Tori Amos or Liz Phair as "vagina rock". As if the only serious self-image rock can exude is a cock.

That the difficulties women encounter in rock also feed their work is obvious; and of course they reflect the way women everywhere have to consider men's self-images in a way men don't consider women's. Male singers don't work with women's stereotypes of men. They've got their own, thanks, anchored and mirrored in their genre. But male stereotypes of women stalk the world like triffids, and dominate women's imaginations too. "On the one hand," says Yoko Ono, "they accuse us of being phoney. On the other, that's what they demand of us. It's a very unfair situation." Traditionally, men's self-images are crucial to women. ("He's a rebel...") but men are affected, not by women's ideas of themselves, but by men's stereotypes of women. The same ones bugging women themselves.

No one's fault. Bags of complex historical causes. If men take advantage of it, who can blame them? (Who can help blaming them?) For many women musicians, these stereotypes are now the starting point.

It wasn't like that in the Sixties, when Marianne Faithfull's career took off. I interviewed her in a cottage in the Wicklow Hills, as she crouched before a fire with rain falling outside. "It never bothered me that songs were written from a man's point of view," she said. "I wrote `Sister Morphine' with Mick Jagger. Just that one song. I don't believe gender is important in a song." But for singers of the Eighties or Nineties, gender is everything. "You know," said Shirley Manson finally, "I think maybe there is only one topic. Which is really your sexuality. I think it colours your view of everything. Even if you want to talk about war, the war is coloured by you being the way you are sexually. It's inherent in everything you do."

Yoko Ono's show, "Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?", is at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, until 15 March, 01865 722733.

This article is based on Ruth Padel's forthcoming book for Faber, "Just Like A Woman".