In the last issue of the Reykjavík Grapevine we published an open letter from Björk, where she lambasted the music press collectively for being sexist and not doing their homework. Her letter provoked some controversy, and generated a lively Internet debate in the blogosphere on sexism in music and the inadequacy of the music press. As an editor of a magazine that covers music a great deal, and the recipient of her letter, I decided to sit down with her to gain further insight into some of the issues she addressed.
Let’s start with a short summary of Björk’s letter. Her main complaint was that for the last seven years, Valgeir Sigurðsson has been wrongly credited as a producer on her album Vespertine (2001), and that while he worked as computer programmer and a recording engineer on the album, he was not a part of the production or the writing process for the album. She offered four possible explanations for this misconception: 1) “The pop critics of this world have not totally yet worked out the difference between engineering, programming, writing and producing electronic music.” 2) “It could be that this is some degree of sexism.” 3) “I’ll admit that one thing could confuse things: people have to use their ears (sic!) and actually read the credit list to get this information. 4) “One thing that could have kept this misunderstanding alive is that neither me nor Valgeir Sigurðsson have bothered to correct it. But I am doing it now.”
“For a long time I thought it would be childish to correct this misunderstanding,” Björk explains. “Now it has persisted so long that I am going to stop making a fool of myself. Maybe I’ll be the one who gets burned for correcting this now, but maybe it means that on my next albums, the media will do their homework.” So, is the media to blame? “It seems as if the music media does not have a tradition yet for interpreting how people in electronic music are credited. Everyone is just called a producer. I can understand when people look at a traditional rock group, and they can see who is playing bass and who is playing drums, so it might take some time for the music press to learn the difference between who is doing what in electronic music,” she says. “I can understand that my generation might have difficulties understanding this, but I am surprised to learn that today’s generation has the same problems. Electronic music is not new anymore. It is just as traditional as rock music.”
Is this caused by sloppy journalism? “Hmm… I think sometimes the standard is really not good enough. Something starts out as a rumour, and then that story circulates until it considered a fact,” she says and adds that she sometimes wonders why the standard in magazines on other art forms, visual arts, film and literature, seems to be higher than in the music press.
Another possibility Björk has mentioned is sexism; does she think that there is a conscious effort to push women down? “No, not at all. I don’t think anyone has any ill intentions. I mentioned four possibilities and sexism was just one of them. I was just coming trying to come up with explanations. Sexism is a very square subject, it is still sort of a taboo, and you couldn’t really bring up a more boring subject,” says Björk. “This happened to me with Mark Bell as well on Homogenic. People believe he did everything on that album, when he only did a few beats. The beats that define that album, the beats from Jóga, Bachelorette and Five Years for example, the distorted beats, which I described in the media as my attempt to make volcanic beats, Mark Bell did not do those beats, but he has often been credited with making them, and producing the whole album.”
“I know Goldfrapp has had the same problem. Everyone seems to think she just does vocals. She recently said that whenever she and (collaborator) Will Gregory are interviewed together, she is asked about her dress while questions about their equipment are directed at Gregory. Missy Elliott, too whenever people write about their music, they always talk about Timbaland, too. I have heard the same story from so many women, the exact same thing. M.I.A., Peaches, Missy Elliott, Joanna Newsom, they can’t believe it, but it has happened to all of them. There is a reason people don’t talk about this, as it might be the most boring subject ever, but I am willing to take it upon me if it means that in the future, journalists will do their research.”
Electronica 101 by Björk
In an attempt to clear up some of the perceived confusion surrounding the recording process in the electronic genre, Björk agreed to write us a short description of the role of everyone involved. “I hope this will simplify things for most people,” she states. So here it is, straight from the horse’s mouth:
Person who will program a computer to make patterns or sounds under instructions from producer, songwriter or arranger. This does not include song writing, arranging or production.
Person who places microphones and wires in or around instruments and records them. This person also operates the mixing desk. Not to be confused with mixing engineer which is something different.
This person will receive all the music that has been made and recorded and is responsible for all the sounds to sonically blend in the best possible way.
This person will take the final mix and make sure it will work in every format of equipment it will eventually be played in. like car stereos, clubs, headphones and so on…
Person who does arrangements for acoustic instruments like strings, choirs, music boxes, brass, orchestras and so on. Most often written out in “classical” scores.
Person who has creative musical vision how the song should be arranged/programmed /recorded. Makes decisions which instruments should be used, what structure the song should have, what kind of performance is required from the musicians and is the leader in the studio.