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Friday, July 19, 2002

Grrl Power

National Public Radio reported this morning on a summer camp for young girls who want to explore their musical talent free from the sexism that permeates the music industry. The camp was started by a thirty year-old college student with music industry experience who wanted to do something for her musically inclined fellow woman. The camp accepts girls ranging in age from 8 to 18, and provides an environment where they can write lyrics and music, perform, and receive instruction on everything from guitar muting techniques (use the palm of your strumming hand) to sexism in the music industry (it's everywhere).

Being neither a woman nor a professional musician, I can't comment with authority on the sexism charge. One might point to the considerable number of women musicians who are doing quite well, but people with gender antennae more finely tuned retort that most top female earners prove a sexist reality, which is that women are pressured to fit the socially acceptable profiles of sweetheart or sexpot. The goal of the music camp is to overcome this reality by removing budding female musicians from the pressures to conform.

Unfortunately, NPR left me with the impression that the camp also frees the girls from the pressure to produce good music. A quote from one of the expert lecturers, a guitarist for a successful chick band whose name escapes me: "It's not that hard. You really only need three chords." Later in the report, one of the campers explains: "Anyone can be a rock star." I think she may be right.

While the reporter interviewed other campers about their experiences, I could hear in the background various camp bands performing. One featured a young woman squealing "Girls rock! Girls rock! Grrrrrllllssss!" Another affected a quasi-Jewel sound, only the guitarist used two chords (one less than the expert's recommendation; an appropriate thumb in the eye of repressive authority), while the singer unleashed her voice on the scale like an untended fire hose on full blast.

I suppose the point of the camp is not to refine talent so much as it is to remove social expectations. Of course it fails even at this; it simply creates a new set of social expectations -- that girls will not feel compelled to sing in a soft voice (too much like Britney Spears, notes one camper), or write lyrics that make sense, or critique one another's work, or choose to learn guitar methods from anyone without a vagina.

I'm all for fighting the pressure the entertainment industry puts on women to behave like whores (though this is substantially a demand-side problem, it seems). In attempting to cast off all constraints, however, I wonder how much good the camp organizers do their charges. It's one thing to help a girl see that Britney Spears demeans herself by flashing a bit of thong to sell albums. It's another to convince this girl that she is belittled by singing in a voice that pleases the ear, or that real empowerment lies with casting off the tight constraints enforced by scales, rhythm, and lyrical subtlety in favor of unconstrained noise-making. Obeying the former leads to the creation of art; succumbing to the latter leads to momentary satiation, which can only be sustained with increasingly bizarre departures from social stricture. The former builds within the girl a repertoire of talent that contributes vastly to her self-esteem, the latter sets her on a path to seek approval by debasing herself in the name of challenging conformity.

But then, I'm only a man, no doubt blinded by the vast male hegemony that at once binds and empowers me. Or something like that. But it seems to me that Etta James, Rosemary Clooney, and Aretha Franklin, to name a few legends, and Sarah McLachlan, Norah Jones, and Jennifer Knapp, to name a few young stars, have all been successful precisely because they have gone against the grain in their musical subfields, providing different voices and music that is suffused not just with some vague attitude (what today one calls "grrl power"), but with independence supported always by superior talent.

So my hypothesis is as follows: there appears to be ample room for real talent to emerge and thrive in the American music scene, even in an age where Cher can be a multi-millionaire. Perhaps the problem is not that women are pressured into voicing sticky sweet lyrics or flashing their cleavage; perhaps the problem is that women with relatively little talent are able to excel in the entertainment industry by doing so, because a vast market of ignorant consumers awaits.

In other words, the women in music who feel most pressured to be the next superstar sexpot are precisely the ones who have a lesser foundation of talent. Women with superior talent have great opportunity, in a world of increasing disposable income, to carve out a profitable niche for their voice, without doing a Britney Spears bump-and-grind.

Which brings me to this ironic conclusion: by trumpeting non-conformity and tribal identity over discipline and ruthless pursuit of an artistic ideal, people like this camp's organizers may, despite their intentions, actually contribute to the very social phenomenon they despise. They heighten the passion of girls to be performers, but they fill them with the delusion that what is needed to succeed is not talent ("you only need three chords;" "anybody can be a rock star"), but attitude. Far better -- if the goal is to foster female musical talent that doesn't fit the sickening mold -- to subject these girls to rigorous training and critique, provided by the best available talent, regardless of vaginal status.

But then again, I'm just a man.

posted by Woodlief | link | (15) comments

Tuesday, July 16, 2002

Aid Versus Care

Several days ago I was eating with my family in one of our favorite little restaurants, when I noticed from our table by the window a man in an electric wheelchair rolling slowly toward the entrance. After several seconds I realized that he had not come through the door. It occurred to me that he might be having trouble; this restaurant has two successive single doors at its entrance, creating a small sealed foyer to keep the temperature inside consistent. True to the form of many small family eateries, it has no handicapped access.

I got up and went to the door, and sure enough, this fellow was stopped just outside. He barely had movement in the hand he used to control the wheelchair's joystick, and no apparent movement in the other hand. His head sat to one side, as if he didn't have the strength to hold it up. I went through the outer door and held it open for him. He slurred "thank you" to me twice, and slowly cruised into the foyer. A young lady eating in the restaurant had noticed the action, and she was already at the inner door, holding it open for him. He slurred more thank you's, and made his way into the restaurant.

The problem at this point was that this restaurant has a very narrow row, like a cattle stall which turns back on itself, leading up to the single cash register. (Trust me, the food is really good.) There was no way this fellow was going to get his wheelchair to that register. He didn't even try; instead he slowly positioned himself in front of a small side table. A moment later, one of the employees emerged from the kitchen and came over to him.

"Here comes trouble," the employee said to him, amiably. The fellow in the wheelchair grunted happily in reply. They spent the next couple of minutes , which was a difficult affair, about what he wanted. Finally the employee went back to the kitchen, and emerged a couple of minutes later with the man's order on a tray. He placed it on the table in front of the man, and told him the price. The man handed over a little change purse, and the employee counted out four ones and some change (this is Kansas), and then placed the purse back in the man's shirt pocket.

"Thank you, Paul," he said, patted the man on the back, and went back to work. The man in the wheelchair proceeded to eat his lunch -- slowly, precariously, happily.

This is the kind of place a trial attorney well-versed in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) would love to get his claws into. It appears to be highly profitable, and almost always full. Everyone in town who isn't a food snob (mercifully few of these in Kansas) knows about it and loves it, which means the attorney would have the added pleasure of sticking it to someplace newsworthy.

This is precisely why I won't tell you the name of the restaurant. While enlightened "progressives" view this vignette as an example of why we need the ADA, I see a much better alternative -- people in the community helping out, albeit in just a small way, their neighbor. To be sure, if this man had no access to care facilities or transportation, one might convincingly argue that such things are worthwhile public expenditures. The ADA, of course, frequently mandates that private businesses and homeowners take on such expenses -- all the better to conceal from citizens the true cost of such a law -- and ignores the existence of private aid.

The ADA, like many attempts to legislate hardship out of existence, extends itself deep into our private lives, and pretends that people are neither interested in nor capable of caring for one another. Perhaps, if Al Gore's embarrassingly low charitable giving is any indication, this is an accurate reflection of the left-wing worldview; leftists view society as filled with selfish narcissists because they themselves are selfish narcissists. (Many conservatives and many more libertarians are just as selfish and narcissistic, of course, they just don't feel guilty about it.)

The ADA, or welfare, or public housing, or government-funded abortion, all serve therefore as cheap penance, enabling us to pursue our self-satisfaction while pretending that we are helping the less fortunate without going about the dirty, frustrating work of actually helping them.

And what a paltry alternative such laws are. Rather than bring hurting souls into contact with caring humans, they deliberately remove them: instead of receiving a smile from the stranger who opens the door, the man in a wheelchair pushes a button and goes in alone; instead of receiving counsel and a home-cooked meal from a neighbor, the single mother drags her child from her dangerous, segregated public housing to a local store and buys a can of soup. If she lives in the right state and can take a hint, she helps herself to a Medicaid-funded abortion and relieves the rest of us from the burden altogether. The authors of these laws think themselves humanitarians, but in reality they are authors of dehumanization. They are busy about the work of destroying the foundations of civil society by removing the need for neighbors to take care of one another.

As a result, most of us don't know how to care for a neighbor in need. Opening a door is simple enough, but I'm talking about personal involvement -- providing food, counsel, spiritual support, or just attention. I know I'm not very good at this, and I suspect most of you aren't either. A few of us are fortunate enough to find ourselves in a good church or civic organization where we can learn these skills, but most of us never do. We pay our taxes, give to the United Way, and pat ourselves on the back for helping our fellow man.

But at least in this small thing, on this day, in this restaurant, a few people proved that they don't need a faceless federal bureaucrat to tell them what simple human decency requires. Wouldn't it be nice if everyone could learn how to do this again, so that politicians proclaiming the need for some new government benefit are met with laughter from the intended beneficiaries themselves? Keep your program, G-Man. My neighbors take care of me just fine.

posted by Woodlief | link | (10) comments