OnlineRock: Empowering Musicians  

Beauty and the Beast

When you are out there slogging it out with all the other bands, trying to get a leg up and stand out from the pack, what factors help you differentiate your group from everyone else? Does being physically attractive get you more attention than you would get from just the music itself? What does it say about an artist who would construct a band around the ideal of physical beauty instead of letting the music stand on it’s own?

My interest in these questions was piqued recently as I was perusing the OnlineRock Sounding Board. I noticed an item in the musician wanted category with a lot of posts on it simply titled "Band Needs Girl Singer". I wondered why there were so many posts there and clicked over to find, much to my surprise, a quite lively debate between two individuals regarding one gentleman’s search for a "Girl Singer" and the validity of the specific requirements for the singer he seeks. Interesting and valid points were made on both sides of the debate and eventually others chimed in with their two cents as well. The issues raised completely transcended the original topic to become much more and I thought to myself, "Damn, this is great!"

This is exactly what OnlineRock is supposed to be about, besides being an alternative to the corporate rock machine and an end to the hegemony of the major labels. It’s all about the interaction between musicians that can only be achieved via the Internet. In this case the main correspondents are from Wisconsin, USA and Glasgow, Scotland. Later in the discussion another one enters the fray hailing from San Francisco. You can’t get this from hanging out at your local music store or rehearsal facility!

The main topic of discussion between the two OnlineRock members centers around the requirements the seeker needs the "Girl Singer" to fulfill in order to be eligible for his band. He is answered by a female member who takes exception to his requirements and engages him with some scathing rhetoric regarding what she considers his sexist views. She also admonishes him for not challenging the prevailing industry standards and exhorts him to re-think his notion of what constitutes beauty, in people and in art.

Reading this really got my juices flowing! These are some important issues and they are often completely disregarded and ignored by most musicians. I thought it would be useful to propel these concerns into the spotlight. Also, I have formed some thoughts myself and would like to express my opinions regarding these issues.

This discussion would not be taking place at all were it not for some very progressive groundwork that was laid back in the 1960’s. The feminist movement of the Sixties is greatly responsible for our female members’ views on sexism and her personal need, as a musician and a woman, to confront sexism in life, and in particular, the music industry. Also, the evolution of rock music from strictly commercial popular music to a valid and world recognized art form frames their debate as well. Prior to these developments, the sexual exploitation of women in entertainment was standard operating procedure and not questioned by anyone. Women were expected to be beautiful and if they were talented, that was icing on the cake. For example, Marilyn Monroe, to this day, still is not remembered for her talent as an actress.

Before Bob Dylan and the Beatles, as well as subsequent groups such as the Grateful Dead and the Who, greatly expanded on the premise of "Rock and Roll" and turned it into a grander form we now call "Rock", it was just another flavor of popular ear candy. It was not taken seriously as an art form. These cultural and socio-political advances took place as a result of people who actively challenged the "prevailing standards" of society and the music industry and as the result of the courageous actions of a few, many did benefit.

But is it necessary to be courageous in order to make great music? Is it valid to pre-suppose that musicians meet certain criteria in order for their work to be considered meaningful, or is it just moral posturing? Also, what is the role of beauty in art? These were the questions that nagged at me after reading the debate between the parties regarding "Girl Singer".

To address the first question, I think in Rock courage is a definite element in the greatest music of the genre, and I think it is in particular the courage to take risks. For artists as diverse as Elvis, Little Richard, Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, The Sex Pistols, Prince, Sinead O’Connor, Kurt Cobain, Tracy Chapman and Ani DiFranco; it is the courage to be yourself.

One of the strongest messages I have gotten from listening to the great Rock musicians over the years is: Be yourself; Don’t conform; Don’t sell out your values and your principals; Let it all hang out! Think about it, that is the biggest risk we can take as human beings, putting your heart on the line. If you let it all hang out and really expose yourself by un-apologetically being yourself, and your music (and by extension -you!) is rejected, that can be devastating! It’s a huge risk and takes tremendous courage. It is also a hallmark of the greatest Rock music ever written.

There is also the courage to take risks with the medium itself and expand the music into new territory. The best example of this was the Beatles. They could have stayed on top just by milking their formula for success, but they chose a riskier course instead. They experimented with the form and it resulted in some of the greatest music ever made. Other great examples of Rock artists who refused to stand pat and took Rock to new realms are Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Allman Brothers, Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, King Crimson and Sting, among others.

Anytime you experiment with form you run the risk of failure. It takes courage to expand the boundaries of any genre of music, but in Rock it could mean (and has for some) career suicide! U2, for example, has not been successful in their quest to re-invent themselves and their popularity has been in decline as a result. They had a lot of empty seats on their "Pop Mart" tour. I would offer that courage is essential to create "great" Rock, but it is certainly no guarantee of success.

Question number two is; Is it valid to demand that music conform to a specific agenda in order to be deemed artistically credible? My opinion is, absolutely not! To criticize some one else’s music because it doesn’t meet some arbitrary and personal criteria or conform to a specific social agenda is dead wrong. Music should be created only as a result of the specific drive and motivation of the person creating it. After all, going back to what I said about being courageous, it’s all about self expression. Tailoring your music to fit the desires and whims of others or to be accepted by as many people as possible is antithetical to the notion of rock as a medium of self expression. It goes against the very nature of what Rock music is or is supposed to be.

The last question that the dialog in "Girl Singer" brings up is a somewhat knottier problem. Even though our intrepid seeker seems not to take into consideration all the advances of our post-modern/post-feminist society; if he wants an attractive "Girl Singer" in his band he has every right to ask for one and who are we to judge? It may actually be construed as an act of courage to come right out and ask for that in this day and age! But given that it’s his right to ask for that and should be perfectly OK to do so, why is he doing it? Maybe he thinks that having a visually appealing line-up is a short cut to success? Well, there are no short cuts and the music still has to be good. More likely he considers it just one more reason to like the band, in addition to the music. Kind of trying to stack the deck towards success by employing any and all means at his disposal in a super competitive, dog eat dog industry. We all know how tough it is out there. But I think it’s been pretty well proven that in Rock, looks don’t matter.

However, what of the greater role of beauty in art? It’s truly in the eye of the beholder! What constitutes beautiful art to me, whether it is in a musical or visual medium, might be ugly and offensive to someone else. A perfect example is; the simple fact that our gentleman is seeking a visually appealing "Girl Singer" is patently offensive to the woman who responded to his post and she makes no bones about it! Did our intrepid seeker ever think that by adding a physically attractive woman to his line-up he could actually be alienating a sizeable segment of his potential audience? I’m sure he did not. I’m certain, however, that if the music is powerful and genuine enough people will be able to see past the veneer of physical beauty and into the hearts of the people who are writing and performing it.

Now I heartily invite anyone and everyone to wade in on these questions. Post your thoughts on the matter on the Sounding Board and let everyone know that you think. Let’s keep the dialog and the lines of communication open.

Stay Tuned,

The Virtual Musician

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