Plays like a girl

To become a respected female musician, do you have to become one of the boys?

Published August 24, 2009 12:25PM (EDT)

Annie Clark -- the singer-songwriter who performs as St. Vincent -- is tired of being told that she plays well for a girl. In a recent interview, she railed against the idea that her gender should have anything to do with what she plays or why she plays it.

"I wasn't reactionary, like, 'I'm gonna play guitar to spite you. Girl Power!' I just love playing guitar," Clark says. "Some people expect I wouldn't be able to play guitar very well... but that's other people's deal."

Clark sneered at the way Lady Gaga is “rewarded” for writing her own material, dismissed Lilith Fair as “marginalizing,” overly earnest acoustic strumming, and complained about being compared with other female musicians, since “musically, I have more things in common” with male peers.

I can't argue with Clark on Lilith Fair (which returns in 2010: get your dolphin ankle tattoo now!) But, on the Girl Power tip, it's not unfair to note that Clark may have felt comfortable picking up the guitar because she's young enough to have benefited from decades of work by women who fought to be accepted as musicians, and for whom plugging in a guitar was a defiant, often explicitly feminist statement.

Still, it's easy to sympathize with her frustration. Clark may be uncomfortable with comparing herself to women because women are so often compared to each other, and not to men. She's been likened to Kate Bush, just like a zillion other female artists with sweeping arrangements and pretty melodies. Bjork comes up for anyone who seems vaguely quirky. And a woman can't touch an acoustic guitar within 100 yards of a music journalist without being compared to Joni Mitchell.

Joni Mitchell, on the other hand, has been compared to a man -- one man, for decades. He is Bob Dylan, and she is sick of it. “No one would say that Dylan is the 'male Joni Mitchell,'” she has said. She's right. Men are allowed to be “great” with no qualifiers; women are often only “great” in relation to other female artists.

Being lumped in with women, or being seen as a “female musician” rather than a rock star, is frustrating. Still, so thoroughly distancing oneself from other women is troubling. In the effort to avoid becoming just another girl, there must be a better way to go than becoming one of the boys.

By Sady Doyle

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