When Björk spoke with Jessica Hopper for Pitchfork, one passage in particular circulated across my corner of the internet. The Icelandic auteur noted that while no one questions Kanye West‘s authorship of a work despite his many collaborators, reporters and critics have often wrongly credited her (male) contributors for music she herself created. “It really is strange,” she said. The result, I hope, was a lesson to a music journalism community that is still far more dominated by straight white men than we’d like to believe.
Madonna, though her critical currency might not currently be at the levels of the Vulnicura artist’s just this moment, might have just raised another point that — although you’d hope it would be obvious — we can all try to bear in mind when we talk about musicians. The Material Girl brushed aside the notion of any feud between her and Lady Gaga in the latest print issue of Rolling Stone, as Billboard reports. “We live in a world where people like to pit women against each other,” Madonna said. “And this is why I love the idea of embracing other females who are doing what I’m doing. It’s important for us to support each other.”
The pop icon’s remark carries a particular significance this week. Kim Gordon‘s memoir, Girl in a Band, is available today, and by all accounts it includes vivid reminiscences of Sonic Youth‘s ’80s birth and alternative rock’s ’90s commercial takeover as well as a dissection of her split from her husband and bandmate Thurston Moore. “Women aren’t really allowed to be kick-ass,” she writes, adding, “I refused to play the game.”
Still, a couple of the leading talking points ahead of the book’s publication have involved pitting Gordon against other women. She calls Courtney Love “manipulative, egomaniacal” and maybe “mentally ill.” In a reported pre-release galley of the book, she writes that Lana Del Rey “doesn’t even know what feminism is” and muses that given Del Rey’s aestheticization of self-destruction, “why doesn’t she just off herself?” (As Pitchfork has reported, the “off herself” comment is toned down in the final, published version of the book.)
Gordon and her publisher, HarperCollins, of course, bear their share of the responsibility for starting a discussion that comes down to one prominent woman in music taking shots at two others. And, regarding Del Rey in particular, some will agree with Gordon’s argument about feminism without necessarily condoning the practice of suggesting somebody else commit suicide. Nor can I really blame my peers in the music-news trenches — we all make editorial judgments every day, sure, but news is news.
Still, at the very least it’s worth recognizing that the memoir’s insults toward Love and Del Rey (who happen to be touring together) match the very world Madonna described. We need to be aware, as with Björk’s comment, that these stories could be playing into unconscious biases that don’t reflect our better selves. If nothing else, the controversy-related publicity for Girl in a Band is a reductive representation of Gordon’s work. As Jezebel culture editor Julianne Shepherd tweeted the other day, “Let’s find the snippiest part of a feminist’s memoir & publish that like there aren’t 100s of other pages about the author’s accomplishments.” Snippiness may (or may not) be newsworthy, but it’s no one’s proudest moment.
In the case of Madonna and Lady Gaga, too, the debate is more complicated than a simply media-contrived beef, granted. The former has long hinted at a similarity between the latter’s “Born This Way” and her own “Express Yourself,” even going so far as to combine both songs live. And Gaga, by swapping the outré trappings (and vomit stunts) surrounding 2013′s disappointing ARTPOP for more traditional Tony Bennett collaborations and Oscar Sound of Music medleys, has emphasized her strength in an area where Madonna is comparatively weak: As Billboard‘s Jason Lipshutz put it, Gaga “can really, really sing.”
If we have to live in a world of snippy online feuds, it might be a step forward to see Madonna trading barbs with, I don’t know, Justin Timberlake, or Gaga getting into it with, why not, Drake. (We did have Lorde dissing Diplo — it could be there’s just no winning with these gossipy spats.) The underrepresentation of female acts at music festivals, as WNYC’s Soundcheck reports, may make it look like women are a musical genre. But they’re not. There’s no inherent reason they should disproportionately be, in Madonna’s phrase, pitted against each other.
No, we probably can’t rid culture entirely of the “yey-eye ca-catfight” impulse once portrayed memorably on Seinfeld. But as with the risk of accidentally downgrading a woman’s agency over her own music, we can at least be aware of the tendency — and try to err toward a more constructive approach whenever possible. We know that Madonna, for one, is now “Living for Love.”