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Female music industry insiders talk gender, race, sexuality in pop music

February 25, 2011 | 10:09 am


Artists utilizing and exploring their sexuality through music isn't news -- it's part of their self-expression.

But today, as much as ever, pop music’s biggest players, especially female -– be it Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Rihanna, Katy Perry or Nikki Minaj -– have all found ways to harness their sexuality to their benefit.

As the artists in the spotlight are considered by many to be heroes, the women who play quieter roles behind the scenes -- music critics, managers, publicists and industry leaders -- face obvious hurdles in a historically male-driven record industry.

In advance of the 10th Annual Experience Music Project Pop Conference at the UCLA this weekend, "Work It: Gender, Race, and Sexuality in Pop Music Professions" brought together a group of prominent music journalists, scholars, musicians and music industry professionals for a day-long conference at USC on Thursday to discuss the changing roles in today’s pop music.

Times pop music critic Ann Powers, also an organizer of the conference, led the day's first panel, "S/he works hard for the money." (Disclosure: Four Times writers, included this one, will be presenting work at the Experience Music Project Pop Conference this weekend.)

In front of an intimate audience at USC’s Tutor Campus Center, Powers led an open discussion with a slew of diverse industry insiders: Amy Blackman (of Cookman Management), Nicole Vandenberg (head of Vandenberg Communications), Evelyn McDonnell (journalist and memoirist), Lauren Onkey (from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum), Hanna Pantle (from BMI), Kristen Madsen (Grammy & MusiCares foundations) and singer-songwriter Holland Greco.

For the women on the panel, gender and sexuality seemed to play a pivotal role in their daily life work.

"Unfortunately there is this battle of the sexes," said Pantle, assistant vice president of corporate and media relations at BMI. “You walk in a woman, you walk out a woman. You walk in a man, you walk out a man. It’s very hard to feel that you’re not a woman. Everyone comes in with their own impression of what you’re going to be. There is no avoiding it."

Blackman, who manages the Latin/hip-hop/rock collective Ozomatli, had to overcome being the only female in a room full of guys.

"They have an all-male crew and historically when we were traveling I was invited into these traditionally hallowed male spaces like the tour bus, recording studio and the dressing room -- and it's very apparent that I’m the only female in this space," she said. "I did in the beginning feel like I had to compensate for that by being .... really unreasonably aggressive, because I thought other women wouldn’t be taken seriously. [But] I realized there is authentic power in just being good at what I do.”

That relationship of females working in male-dominated workplaces (something that’s still a conversation in professions outside of music) easily becomes a sensitive subject as issues of sexuality, equality and money come into the conversation.

Vandenberg recalled prepping for her first touring experience with a male artist and the advice a male colleague gave her.

“I had my pen and paper and was very studious in taking notes because I wanted to do things right. But he was so awkward and he was getting at something, though I wasn’t quite sure what it was,” she said. “What he was ultimately trying to say was, ‘Don’t sleep with anyone in the band.’ I was horrified that was even something he thought he had to say."

Powers noted that because music is often fueled by sexuality, those conversations trickle down to the culture surrounding it and women are typically forced, or expected, to present themselves in a certain way by either choosing to play their sexuality up or down.

“Being one of the only girls around, a lot of times the guys are sexy and it’s tempting to get involved,” said Greco, an L.A.-based singer. “Being around them, there are people who become beautiful. It’s important to protect yourself. Males have a certain sexual behavior. It can become attractive. Sometimes you think, ‘You don’t care about anything. I want to be more like that. I want to have my pleasures and walk away.’ But for a girl it’s so different.”

Onkey didn’t work in the music business until she went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, where she works as the vice president of education and public programs.

“I came at this job with a real challenge to expertise. Artists would look to the male members on my staff and assume I work for them, which was kind of a shock,” Onkey said. “You had to try to flow past it.”

Onkey added that she realizes she has her work cut out for her.

“Before this year’s class, 605 people were inducted, groups and individuals. Nine percent of that was women,” she said. “We’ve gotta do better than that.”

Pantle said although there have been strides –- Esperanza Spalding’s surprising Grammy win recently being one of them -- women still have a very long way to go to get equal footing in this business.

“I think there’s still a glass ceiling. I think it’s getting thicker, which is sad,” she said.

-- Gerrick D. Kennedy


Photos: At top left, Nicki Minaj. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times.

In the middle, Lady GaGa performs onstage during the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards held at Staples Center earlier this month. Credit: Kevin Winter / Getty Images

At right, Beyonce brought her "I Am....Sasha Fierce" tour to the Honda Center in Anaheim in 2009. Credit: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times