ONE PAINTBRUSH PER CHILD
Updated: May 3
An unfortunately binaristic but illustrative chart on gender representation in music
I was 17 years old the first time I tried to improvise music. I don't remember now why in my senior year of high school I decided to try out for Band II. I had taken every theater class I could for the past three years, and never one music class. But there I was during my lunch, staring at the chart for Stevie Wonder's "You Are the Sunshine of my Life." Even though I had played classical piano for over 8 years, I hadn't ever seen music like this before. Jazz charts give you a lot less information on what to play than classical sheet music does. That's kind of the idea: a lot of it is up to you. The teacher asked me to play through the first few bars, and then to vamp a little bit over the chords. I have very little recollection of what I did. I remember it felt clunky and unsure, like I was trying to play with horse hooves for fingers. So I was surprised when, after I finished, Mr. Rowley asked me to join the class. A little over a year later, I found myself surprised again, this time in the office hours of my physics professor during my first semester of college. I wasn't surprised to be studying physics: in fact, coming to college, I thought I was going to be a Physics / Government double major. But that first physics class was far harder than any science class I had taken in high school. I went to almost every office hour to go over the homework, I spent more time on that class than I did on any other that semester. What had begun as a source of fun turned into one of massive stress and insecurity. It was jarring: I thought this was what I was good at, that this was my path, I now wavered, and questioned whether or not I had any aptitude. It didn't help that the tests in physics were curved incredibly high, so that one's raw score could be 40% or 50% and one's final grade an A. So even though I did end up getting an A-, I came out of the tests feeling dejected and incompetent. But near the end of the semester, while going over a problem set in his office hours, my professor asked me if I was going to major in physics. He phrased it as if he was double checking an obvious fact, as in, "So, you're going to be a physics major?" I looked around the room. I was the only student in there. I was, in fact, very often the only student there, because I felt so unsure of the material. Meanwhile, my my two housemates (both men) were acing the class and had never shown up once. But my professor was in fact talking to me. I didn't get it. What was I missing? Apparently, nothing. And that was the point. As many of you may already know, I'm not alone in my experiences with science. Women are severely underrepresented in STEM. An article published in 2015 purported that one of the main predictors for gender disparity in college majors was the belief in an innate ability in a field as an essential component of success. Meaning, the more someone believed that innate aptitude for a subject was a determinant for success, the less likely they were to study in STEM. The researchers also found a similar correlation in racial disparity between white and African American students in college majors. When I read this article, I immediately remembered that conversation in college that I had brushed aside. Anecdotally, the article's suppositions were spot-on: I initially chose to major in physics because I thought I had a natural knack for it (i.e. it was easy for me), and I decided not to major in it when I started to believe I didn't (when it got hard). Even though my grades remained the same, my belief in myself wavered, ultimately deterring me from something I genuinely liked. Music faces a similarly stark disparity in gender representation. As Seattle-based journalist Alexa Peters points out in a new series called "No Man's Band," while the some of the biggest names in pop music are women, this distorts the reality of the industry. Peters cites a report from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which found that only 12.3% of songwriters are female, and only 2% of producers across some 400 songs they studied were. (As a reminder, women make up over half of the globe's population). But Peters' article is worth a read for more than the factoids. Because she hits on something that I think is directly related to what was found by the Science Magazine article above. I found Peters' interview with local producer Natalie Bayne especially striking:
"I found that even in intro classes there was this boy’s club attitude of we already know the basics," said Bayne. "I think there’s this male culture of getting started in music really early, like their dads showing them how to do stuff. So, a teacher would take a gauge of the room, like, who knows how to set up this kind of thing, and even the guys were like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah' and they’d all act like they knew what it was, so [the professor would say] 'Ok, we’re going to jump ahead then." Bayne said that she felt “stupid” and “embarrassed” to ask questions because of this, and instead would be forced to research and learn about the subject on her own after class. “I had to go back and work twice as hard trying to figure things out because it was kind of this, I felt like I was already behind the curve when I started and that was really tough,” she said. “Plus, you had to be buddy-buddy with all the bros and it was a very uncomfortable situation sometimes. I felt like I couldn’t stand up to them, I felt like I had to be one of the guys in order to get by. Like laugh at the sexist jokes.”
Is it melodramatic to say I fight back tears when I read that? They're not tears of self-pity. They're tears of revelation and solidarity. The words that run through my head while I read Bayne's story are "YES. This. Exactly this." What she says about her music production class easily describes my physics class as well. I went to office hours because my physics class was a lecture of over 100 people, most of whom were white men. Hardly anyone ever asked questions. And while it's possible that I was the only one who had a lot of questions, I find 1 in 100 odds hard to swallow. Maybe, just maybe, my classmates had a lot of the same questions I did. They just never asked. But even if I was the only person in that classroom with a lot of questions, that actually shouldn't matter. I got the same or better grades, so it shouldn't matter that I had to ask a few more questions to get there. But it took me literal years of my life to really believe that. Ultimately, I didn't take Band II and I didn't major in Physics. I'm not sure if I can say I ought to have, but I could have. And I wanted to. But I also wanted to feel good about myself. So I pushed that want deep into a place where I couldn't find it for a long long time, and suppressed a lot of curiosity, creativity, and brain power in the process. Instead of Physics and Government, I majored in African-American Studies and Theater. Both disciplines were were discussion-based and emphasize cooperation, collaboration, and collective action over individual achievement. Both majors literally included curricula about how to listen to other people, and both taught me about the necessity in our life and work of seeing, appreciating, and valuing another person. Empathizing with others and investing in shared empowerment (teamwork) are required to succeed in these fields. Of course I was interested in the subjects. But I was interested in a lot of things. I think I ended up in AfAm and Theater because, among other reasons: a) my values were reflected in how the material was taught and b) issues of inequality and diversity were explicitly part of the curriculum. When I mentioned two Dumpster Diaries ago that I wanted to dive deeper into what was keeping us from a world in which everyone is able to develop their creative potential, I didn't say I wanted to talk about "Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion." It's not because I want to make these words taboo. DEI departments, programs, coordinators, and directors are more commonplace now than when I was in school, which I think is undoubtedly a good thing. But I also think grouping diversity, equity, and inclusion together has the potential to gloss over the differences between them. A diverse space is not necessarily an equitable one, and vice versa. An equitable space is not even necessarily an equal one. And there are a lots of ways of including people in a space that fosters neither diversity nor equality. Lumping these values together also silos them off into their own little department, as if diversity, equity, and equality will emanate from that single coordinator or office and trickle over into the rest of society. This, instead of integrating concrete actions horizontally across institutions and communities in order to make diversity, equity, equality, and inclusion realities, not just aspirations or ideals. For example, when I read over Natalie Bayne's account of school, I immediately think of clear, concrete changes that could be made to make those classrooms at CalArts more equitable and diverse. Examples of those changes include:
Structure all areas of study so that there is a path from 0. Even if you come to college knowing nothing about it, you can graduate in a given field.
In that structure, make introductory classes actually introductory.
In those introductory classes, create an anonymous system for asking questions, while you build a culture that encourages questions and teamwork and discourages competition.
If those introductory classes require gear, provide it, or offer financial aid (scholarships, not loans) to acquire it.
Create a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment and hate speech, and actually enforce it (Ok, I know, these "concrete" steps are getting a bit grander).
Review and revise hiring and recruiting practices so that your applicant pool is more diverse, your hires are more diverse, and your attrition with underrepresented groups drops.
I am in no way saying that any of those steps is simple (or cheap). I've taught required introductory classes , and I frequently struggled with how to teach writing to a cohort of 18 year-olds that included students who literally had book deals and students who had only been speaking English for a few years. There's a lot of work in that specific area being done in Developmental Education, which would be a whole essay on its own, better written by someone with more expertise than I. All of these proposed changes, in fact, are neither solutions I invented nor the only options. People far more versed than I am in education have been studying them for years. But when I get overwhelmed by that acute pain of knowing I was not given a fair shake, I find concrete steps like these really helpful to remember. There are tools, there are steps, and they're not beyond our grasp. This experience of coming to understand how my life has been shaped by sexism (and much earlier, homophobia) was painful, but let's be absolutely clear: I have had it very easy (read: privileged). And skirting that would do a huge disservice to what I want to think about in this essay. If I, a white woman with a private school education, still saw large swaths of my potential and my passions shuttered off or curtailed, it shouldn't be very difficult to infer the vast amount of obstacles faced by people of color or people, people who come from a working-class family, or those who sit at the intersection of any number of policies that attempt to curb their growth, accomplishment, and sometimes survival. While the focus on reforming arts education is important, the very pathways to that education also need some serious attention. One specter who has haunted my thoughts around equity for a while now is Maggie Rogers. More than Rogers herself, I've railed against the narrative that has built up around her success. Listening to NPR last year, I heard a journalist describe Rogers' rise to fame as a kind of Cindarella story. She was "just another college senior," when suddenly she was "discovered" by Pharrell Williams, who liked her sound so much he gave her a record deal. As the story continued, though, I learned that Pharrell discovered Rogers not just in a random class, but a senior-level music production class at NYU, where Rogers was a music major. What the journalist failed to mention was that NYU, a school in one of the biggest cultural centers of the world, with alumni like the Olsen twins, has a yearly price tag of over $70,000 (more than I have ever earned in single year). The journalist also failed to mention that before NYU, Rogers had attended St. Andrews, one of the most prestigious private schools on the east coast. Rogers was no Jane Doe: she had nearly every imaginable advantage to make it in the music industry, many of which had to be bought at a very high price. I don't want to understate my ire at this story: to paint Maggie Rogers' rise to fame as a random gift of fate is not just a fault of omission: it's a reckless erasure of the American class system. Maggie Rogers attended NYU's music program precisely to get into classrooms with people like Pharell Williams, and she was able to go there through a combination of her own talents, hard work (because, ire aside, she can write a damn good song), and a fuck-ton of her parents' money. Pharrell didn't drop into a music class at Cal State Fullerton, and parents send their kids to NYU because they know the diploma comes with an elite professional network. Price tags at MFA programs are ghastly high, and entry into a great number of creative professions now seems to require them (teaching jobs certainly do). In an article I can't recommend enough by Jessa Crispin in the most recent issue of the Baffler, titled "The Topeka Fools," Crispin lays into the elitism in the publishing industry, citing that "of all five recipients of 2019's National Book Foundation 5 under 35 prize for 'emerging writers' have MFAs, and more than half of the National Book Award for Fiction winners attended elite schools; eight of those winners attended Yale, Harvard, or Dartmouth." These institutions, arbiters of so many other standards in education, business, and industry, are also in many ways the gatekeepers of creativity. To be clear, I don't have an issue that MFAs exist. Spending additional time mastering a craft is great, and resources and guidance from mentors even better. I have a masters degree, and so do many of my friends, and we all went into varying levels of debt to get them, with a wide range of ROI. But therein lies my beef: the price tag to get that extra time is beyond the reach of the vast majority of Americans. And I want to make sure that in all this talk of diversity, equity, and inclusion class is not an afterthought. Creative circles are in no way immune to the wealth inequality that is crippling at least half of this country's population. More accurate to say they are a terrific object lesson in them. And like wealth inequality at large, the inequities in the arts were created by policies just as concrete as the ones I suggested above for Natalie Bayne's music production class at CalArts (whose undergrad tuition now sits at $49,276 / yr). Policies like abolishing need-blind tuition, privatizing the education system, and demolishing a robust tax system to de-fund public education, cultural programs, and institutions, have all helped relegate creative accolades and accomplishment to the select few with money to buy them. These inequities need to be addressed collectively, and answered for with policies that restore economic justice. But one of the many reasons I started the Dumpster Diaries is because I also recognized I needed to address the ramifications of those inequalities in myself. For me, no degree of political involvement has totally resolved the feelings I bring into the studio, which include inadequacy, self-loathing and fear. So at 31, a good 15 years after I auditioned for high school band, I picked up a guitar and started writing songs. A week later I gave up. A week later I picked it up again, and so on for about 8 months until I started taking lessons. In those 8 months I headlined my first show in Brooklyn, but still, a month later I put the guitar in the closet thinking that that was the stupidest thing I had ever done. Now, I try to pick up the guitar nearly every day, even though I still feel out-crafted, out-studied, and out-gifted by men (and frankly lots of people) half my age. I've started to set up a home recording studio, with the goal to put out my first fully-produced EP later this year. Because even if I don't feel ready, I don't want to get to the age of 60 or even 40, having analyzed these issues in the world without giving myself a second chance to overcome them. This may sound crazy, but I don't think I ever would have been this engaged in my own work in music had I not read that Science Magazine study. Understanding that my experience was part of a larger set of circumstances helped me see that there was not something wrong with me. As discouraging as some of those figures were, they were also a balm on some very deep wounds and flint for inspirational spark. That article was also crucial because it made me feel less alone. As you may have noticed, I didn't talk much about the ongoing coronavirus pandemic in this newsletter because I don't think I have much to add or offer. But as I was working on this Dumpster Diary I got a couple emails that made me think maybe there are some important connections after all. The first was from an artist I deeply respect and admire, a former dance artist who recently published his first YA novel. The subject of his email was "Artists, this is what we train for." In the body of the text, the author emphasized that this was a time when the world needs artists' skills more than ever, listing "navigating the unknown," "building possible futures," "connecting, convening," "challenging assumptions," "creating images, songs, dances, and stories that are needed." A couple days later, a coworker sent me a call from the UN asking creatives to help "translat[e] critical public health messages into different languages, different cultures, communities, and platforms, reaching everyone, everywhere." The call didn't say anything about remuneration. I have three rather disjointed responses to these appeals: One: On the immediate level, this crisis is what doctors train for. This is what epidemiologists and public health administrators train for. Artists have a lot to offer in the long run, but we are not super-unicorns who are going to design our way out of a broken private healthcare system and crippled public services. There is irrefutably a role culture will have to play in how we survive this, but it's going to take everyone being imaginative, flexible, resourceful, and generous. And I'm not convinced artists will prove especially resilient. First, because their jobs are some of the most precarious. Secondly and moreover, this crisis is absolutely unprecedented, and being an artist does not spare you from being human. Like everyone else, we still feel shock, grief, fear, loneliness, and have been known to drown our existential crises in Netflix and day-drinking. Let's not use this crisis to oversell both what we can do and in what ways our work is vital. Two: The only thing our society seems to love more than deifying its artists is underpaying them. If the world really does need its creatives right now, institutions should begin by asking what those creatives need. Hint: it's not another unpaid gig. I'm looking around an already gentrified Seattle wondering how many cultural institutions, large and small, will fold in the next six months, and how many creatives will go without a meal or move back in with their parents or I don't even know what. If the U.S. really valued the skills artists have, we should have made it a lot more feasible to make a living in them without a trust fund before this happened. And if we want those skills now, cough cough UN cough cough, we should do the economy a favor and pay for them. It reveals how frivolous policy-makers consider the arts when they take the labor of artists totally for granted. Yet I'm sure artists will step forward, because they recognize the severity of this current emergency, all while their checking accounts dwindle. Three: There is a real opportunity to rebuild our world after this crisis better than it was before. With this president I'm pessimistic about our chances of realizing that opportunity, but it's there nonetheless. And artists do have tremendous skills in imagining, building, and creating alternatives. But if the Maggie Rogers' of the world are the only ones by and large getting to develop those skills, the alternatives they come up with will remain limited in what they propose, and I believe limited in who they serve. Rather, if there is an opportunity in this crisis, I think it's the chance now and in the aftermath to realign our policies and social and cultural institutions with what is really important. But I think that realignment will be slow and halting, not sleek, sexy, or Utopian. When I look around, I see people prioritizing three things: our health (individual and collective, including the health of the planet), our relationships with other people, and solace in art (making it and sharing in it). Yes, we are looking to technological and scientific innovation, but only to the extent that they serve one of those three things. Our bodies, our hearts, and our imaginations. So if there's any future-projecting, I want to think about how we ensure vibrant health in those three areas for everyone. It will take more than artists to get there: it will take coalitions, it will take really boring work lobbying and making phone calls and slow, grinding bureaucracy, not to mention (I hope) some real powerful grassroots organizing. But artists' contribution will not be making the world look like a work of art: it will be helping set up the infrastructure required to get everyone a paintbrush. And ventilators. If you want to think more about what those efforts could look like, or how they could tie in to movements already happening, please write to me! Send readings, send links. And if you need groceries or toilet paper, or worry you might need those things in the future, or if you think you could spare some resources, please let me know. The size of my readership is modest, at best, but if I can be a conduit or connector between people, however small in number we may be, that seems like something. From my Lysoled counter to yours, G.