The ARIA Music Awards – a night celebrating Australian music and musicians – came into town last week. You might have heard about Tina Arena’s feminist speech shining light on the sexism and ageism that is rife in the music industry or Comedian Matt Okine’s speech on how the music awards was a ‘sausage fest’, highlighting how there had been no women comedians nominated in the ‘Best Comedy Release’ category in five years. You might also be aware that musician Courtney Barnett had been nominated for many categories and that she had won Best Female, Breakthrough Artist and Best Independent Release for her album Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit.
Despite her success, she has suffered significant criticism on social media for her musical style and her appearance. As I looked through Triple J’s Facebook page, I saw many harsh and personal comments that vilified Barnett. These ranged from pure dislike of her music, such as ‘Barnett should not be encouraged too [sic] continue making music, please stop giving her awards’, ‘Courtney definitely [sic] does not. Soooooooooo boring music. She has the same winy [sic] voice in every song’ and ‘I don’t think talking in an awful tone is pleasant … how she’s so famous and successful (really don’t get it)’. Other comments were much more unforgiving and gendered – ‘Barnett sounds about as good as she looks, absolutely shite. Talentless hack’, ‘[her music is] exactly like you just said. But you forgot the part about bleeding ears and kicking your childhood pet’, ‘I have better sounding noises come out of my arse than Courtney Barnett’ and ‘best drone spoken album for the tone deaf’. As a woman who is a huge fan of Barnett’s, this type of response shocked me. I am aware that her music is quite divisive as her music style is unique, but I did not expect these sorts of personal comments.
Courtney Barnett’s vocals are very dead-pan, sarcastic, dry and Australian. She has been heralded as the Australian Bob Dylan due to comparisons between their lyrics and vocals. Unlike Dylan, however, Barnett is making waves with the public. It is rare for male musicians to experience this sort of persoanlised and gendered backlash. For example, Bob Dylan is famous for his dead-pan and sarcastic lyrics and his supposed ‘inability’ to sing, yet he is revered. However, many comments on social media cry that the comparison between Dylan and Barnett is an insult to the former.
The Facebook comments above epitomise how a lot of people feel about Barnett’s music and I believe that she is experiencing this sort of media backlash because she is transgressive. Barnett is pushing through the barriers of the small space created in the music world for women musicians – pretty/perfect vocals, a catchy pop tune or ethereal music (depending on the genre), attractive (fuckability) – and iterates a performance male musicians have been doing for decades. She, however, is punished for it.
She is transgressing the confines of acceptability for women musicians and is performing ‘like a man’ and people are unsettled by that. Barnett is, according to queer theorist Judith Butler, subverting normative gender roles. Butler theorises that gender is not innate but rather performative – it is the normalisation of masculinity and femininity through the reiterated ‘acting’ of gendered identity. Butler makes clear that gendering is [re]enforced by dominant social structures, empowering those who follow their normative iteration while disempowering those who deviate and that subverting these gender norms creates illegitimacy and risks punishment.
To get theoretical, Barnett is exposing gender as a performance and as something that is constructed rather than being innate, and she is therefore punished for it. In other words, people dislike her performances of gender because they do not coincide with the restrictive limitations that are seen as ‘normal’ and ‘legitimate’ for women musicians.
As I have mentioned, there is only a small space in music that women are allowed to occupy – and aspiring musicians only have a limited amount of women musician idols. As my previous article for Feminartsy, Girls to The Front: Women, Music and the Patriarchy explored, this really impacts on how young girls and women musicians see themselves in relation to music and the music world. Barnett is like a breath of fresh air smashing those barriers. She shows us that one can be an incredible musician and not have a ‘perfect’ voice. We can sing in a dead-pan style. We can rock out and not have to worry about being in tune. We do not have to be ‘fuckable’ to make it. We can be ourselves. She is breaking this barrier so that girls like me, when I was younger, can actually have the confidence to play music even if they don’t sound like Beyonce, Taylor Swift or even indie women musicians who still have ‘pretty’ voices.
Courtney Barnett is ultimately paving the way for how women musicians can see themselves in the music industry. She is doing what male musicians have been doing for decades and, though some people cannot handle this breaking of gendered stereotypes, we should celebrate her achievements exactly for this reason. Barnett is a transgressive and badass openly gay woman who is unafraid of being herself – her detractors will soon realise that her legacy is likely to last decades.
Image: Paul Hudson
Blair Williams is a PhD candidate focusing on the negative media portrayals of women prime ministers whilst writing articles and feminist slam poetry in her spare time. She is an active feminist warrior who is disillusioned with the world.