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Dinosaurs should change their tune Print-ready version

by Neil McCormick
The Telegraph
March 22, 2007

Neil McCormick attacks the sexism of Britain's music industry

This is a tale of three award ceremonies. At the Brits last month, Lily Allen, despite being the most nominated artist, went away empty-handed. It seemed insulting treatment for one of the prime movers in UK pop last year, a feisty, funny, highly original performer whose cultural impact resonated way beyond her (not inconsiderable) sales.

Her neglect might be considered an unfortunate aberration, particularly since another young singer-songwriter, Amy Winehouse, won Best Female Solo Artist, but it is notable that the only other female winner was Nelly Furtado, also in a gender-specific category (International Female Solo Artist).

At the NME awards earlier this month, Allen was deemed worthy of just one gong, the insulting Worst Dressed. Only one other female received any award at all, in a gender-specific category, and she wasn't even a musician: model Kate Moss being deemed Sexiest Woman.

In a year when bold characters such as Allen, Winehouse, Corinne Bailey Rae and Beth Ditto (proudly overweight lesbian frontwoman of the Gossip) have matched the boys in every department, Britain's leading music magazine effectively deemed an entire sex's contributions to have been worthless.

Apart, obviously, from the ability to wear clothes well (Moss) or badly (Allen). Yet this neglect went unremarked, probably because it happens every year.

The source of the problem became apparent at the Music Week awards last week, when the industry magazine employed an attractive, young, blonde woman to hand out gongs, naked but for a pair of skimpy knickers. That no one thought a topless throwback to a pre-feminist showbiz era might be offensive reveals all you need to know about the mindset of the music business.

It is an industry run by "pornographic pigs", according to a memorable phrase coined by legendary singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, returning to the fray after a five-year, self-imposed exile from music. As one of the greatest lyricists of our times and a boldly original, technically accomplished melodic and rhythmic stylist, Mitchell is unimpressed to have never got the respect or, indeed, the sales that her singular talent deserved.

"Joni definitely believes she is written off as a soppy housewife's favourite as opposed to a valid artistic voice," according to British singer-songwriter Amanda Ghost, who interviewed Mitchell for a revealing Radio 2 special this week.

"Women are rarely counted as equal with male artists. It is such a male-dominated industry, only a certain kind of 'sex bomb' female talent is ever really encouraged."

When she emerged as the precocious 21-year-old composer of such instant classics as Both Sides Now and Big Yellow Taxi, Mitchell was notoriously marketed by her record company as "90 per cent virgin". "That's what happens," Mitchell responded, "when you don't show your tits."

In 1971, Rolling Stone named her "Old Lady of the Year", complete with a diagram detailing all the male musicians she allegedly had relationships with (Mitchell refused to talk to the magazine for the rest of the decade). And, while she enjoyed a period of enormous critical acclaim, by 1979, when she recorded the complex Mingus, she felt the industry had given up on her.

"It was my time to die," she told Ghost. "The bosses were looking, thinking, 'Oh, she's getting old now, she's just about 27. They want to dispose of you and get a 14-year-old in there."

With a tribute album released by Nonesuch next month and her first collection of original material since 1998 scheduled to appear in the autumn, Mitchell's return is celebrated in the latest edition of The Word, the reliably maverick magazine. I was struck by the realisation that she was the first woman of her age (63) I had ever seen on a the cover of a popular-music magazine.

By way of a (sadly more typical) contrast, the current issue of leading music magazine Q features a shot of 19-year-old soul ingénue Joss Stone, with the cover headline "Never without her knickers", a reference to a flippant remark from a rude question about sartorial propriety. It is hard to imagine a male artist being treated with the same leering disrespect.

Inside, Q lists its assessment of the 100 greatest singers of all time. Typically, only 21 of them are women. Mitchell herself features at number 36, but I doubt she would be impressed. For Mitchell, "a good piece of art should be androgynous", but she is unequivocal about the part the critical media play in downgrading female talent.

Her riposte to being described as "the female Bob Dylan" is that "no one would say that Dylan is the 'male Joni Mitchell'. Being female creates a new category in some people's minds."

It is a thrill to have such an original, complex, bold and outspoken talent as Mitchell back doing what she does best. I just wish the music business were doing more to encourage her successors.

The second part of 'Come in From the Cold: The Return of Joni Mitchell' will be broadcast on Radio 2 on March 27. 'A Tribute to Joni Mitchell' is released by Nonesuch on April 23.

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Added to Library on March 21, 2007. (3083)


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