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The 1970’s is remembered as the “golden era” of music and culture. The haze of rock n roll, drugs, and girls bred the careers of infamous bands such as Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, and the Eagles. There was nothing like the glamour of rock n roll and the lives these artists and everyone in the industry, lived. However, the time period wasn’t all about the music and there’s plenty swept under the rug when talking about how groovy it was. We like to think we’ve moved on to better things like fair pay for the artist and gender equality. Unfortunately, if you look through the news in recent years, you’ll find that the music industry’s core stereotypes are alive and well.
In Vinyl, “office girl” Jamie Vine is constantly sidelined by her male counterparts. Her first sequence in the show has Jamie, baby-faced and wide-eyed, traveling to work. As she enters the office, she strides past the other girls, lounging on the desks of male employees or making coffee, to her own desk and promptly pulls out the largest bag of pills I’ve seen. Jamie’s innocent facade is broken immediately. She handles CDs from artists, snaps back at her male co-workers when they make sexist comments, and clearly wants to be seen as more than just an errand girl. Yet when she finally gets the chance to be involved with the agency’s new band Nasty Bits, that she actually scouts out herself, a male co-worker takes charge and is rude not only to Jamie but the band. Ironically, he only got this opportunity because of Jamie’s hard work. She tries to express her vision for the band which happens to be in opposition to her male superior, but is sent out to get him lunch, “Go. Now!” he says, “There’s a bodega on the corner.”
As much as we want to believe every woman in the music industry today is as kick-ass as Beyoncé, and rules the world(girls. GIRLS!), current news like Kesha’s legal struggle makes sexism in the music industry hard to ignore. If you’re not familiar with the reason we haven’t been able to dance the night away with our favorite party girl/genius, get the details here. Basically, Kesha filled a lawsuit saying that her producer, Dr. Luke, a prominent figure in the industry, sexually assaulted her. She wants to be released from her contract, as no one wishes to be making profit for their abuser. However, Dr. Luke has also filled a suit against Kesha, claiming her accusations are slanderous. Women in the music industry are still being seen as sexual objects. Just as Jamie’s talent for detecting the next big musical act is passed over because of her second X chromosome, if the allegations prove true Kesha’s career wasn’t even taken seriously by her own producer. Female pop stars don’t gain major popularity unless they wear wild outfits or barely anything at all. Stars like Kesha herself and Demi Lovato have been through eating disorders from the extra pressure on females to be better than the best just to be considered average.
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On the other side of the camera, Music Business Journal from the Berklee School of Music points out some troublesome statistics,
“Women working in the business are more inclined to have a superior qualification as compared to their male colleagues but nearly 50% of them earn less than £10,000 ($15,000).3 Moreover, even though there are more women in the population than men in working age, 61% of music professionals in the U.K. are male. In sectors such as promotion, management and live music, that number rises to 70%.4 Except for the salaries, the United States is unlikely to be that different.”
Music Business Journal
The 1970’s may seem glamorous, but behind the scenes a lot of butt taps and overlooked promotions took place against women and other minorities. This problem may not be exactly the same as it was seen back then, and in a lot of ways feminism has flourished in the music industry, but clearly male dominance has endured.
The main character in Vinyl, Richie Finestra, is a New York music executive trying to bring in the best talent and ultimately, large piles of money. Through a series of flashbacks completed over both episodes, we see how Richie got his start in the industry. After discovering African American blues singer Lester Grimes in a small bar, he immediately had stars in his eyes. At the start, Richie and Lester approach recording companies, united behind Lester’s dreams of being a blues singer. After a series of strike outs, one executive offers Lester a contract only to sing the popular, swing type of songs characterized by an upbeat tempo, echoing quartet of voices, and subject matter always about the singer’s girlfriend or boyfriend. We are all familiar with those viral hit songs that either have some of the simplest or just plain dumb lyrics or meanings. The cheesy songs about how pretty the singer’s girlfriend is or how they hear trumpets every time their significant other gets undressed make mad cash, regardless of their lack of substance. Repetition and catchyness are key to a payday as shown by Rebecca Black’s “Friday” and Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe”.
For clarification, I’m not saying this phenomenon is wrong.In fact we all know all the words to these songs due to a few indulgences(the phrase “guilty pleasure” exists for a reason). Regardless, we can’t deny that the simplest, least substantive songs yield major payouts. Lester is caught at a crossroads: money or his artistic integrity. Richie, now with dollar signs replacing the stars in his eyes, assures him if he does this deal then down the road he can sing the blues. Unfortunately, as we see in through present day hostility, Richie never fulfills his promise. A huge part of the industry is just focused on the money. We’ve lost touch with making music because it flows out of the artist naturally. Songs today are less about what’s happening in the minds and lives of the artist and more about women’s backsides bouncing up and down. But that’s what sells!
Just like Lester, many of the most talented artists are being forced to make cheesy tunes for initial cash flow and then being stuck in that identity forever. It’s a shame and it’s caused another reoccurring phenomenon: the break down and comeback. Even this calls into question the money these stars are making off of their “rebellion”. Britney Spears broke down in 2007 because she couldn’t handle the “sex symbol” identity anymore. She came back and is now doing very well in her Vegas show. Miley Cyrus broke from her Hannah Montana identity a few years back and has been profiting off of her wild antics ever since. Maybe Miley is making the songs she wants to now and just happens to also be making extra cash from being controversial. Another theory could be that this whole act is a PR extravaganza, and we’re once again playing right into the hands of the music industry.
A side effect of having as much money as music industry executives and artists do, is also being involved in access to drugs and alcohol in massive quantities. With stardom also comes a sense of immunity to the law and thus we see a lot of stars fall into addiction. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, Jim Morrison, and Steven Tyler are just a few of the biggest stars who used anything from marijuana to heroin in the height of their career. These names were central to the golden era of rock n roll. They exemplify the lifestyle the musicians lived in the time period Vinyl recreates. In Jamie’s first appearance on the show she uncovers a whole desk drawer of pills and bottles for her co-workers and artists. In several scenes you see Richie doing cocaine and excessively drinking before, during, and after concerts. He even met his wife in a seedy club when she was still a sort of groupie. The “lifestyle of the rich and famous” certainly is not underdone in Vinyl and the counterculture of the 1970s and sheer amount of admitted drug use by artists shows this portrayal is not inflated.
Unfortunately, this trend has followed the music industry into the 21st century. Just in the past few years, Amy Winehouse passed away from struggling with addiction. Amanda Bynes’ rebellion did not exactly reap the same benefits as Miley’s and she received several DUIs. It seems that every other week, there is a new song about getting high or drunk. On the other side of the cutsie “I love you, you love me” songs are the ones that glorify drugs and partying. These bring in just as much profit, if not more. The lives of people involved in the music industry are still as crazy as ever. Whether you see that as good or bad is up to your discretion.
The key ingredients that made the music industry what it was in the 1970’s are still prevalent today, yet the “golden era”is considered long gone. This begs the question, is Vinyl simply reviving the good ol’ days, or are Scorsese and Jagger trying to say something about how the music industry is still run today. Richie eventually looses Lester’s respect and representation and his addictions to cocaine and binge drinking cause major strains on his family. Jamie could be making waves in the industry if only her potential wasn’t hindered by her gender. By pointing out how the seemingly gnarly lives of the rich and famous never actually fulfill them, Scorsese and Jagger could be making a social statement and call for change. Seeing parallels between our history and our present is crucial to the progress of our society. What can we learn from ourselves back then to make the necessary changes we need now? Some things to consider the next time you read a People magazine or Spotify updates its Today’s Top Hits playlist.
P.S. Vinyl is on HBO Sunday nights at 9pm and can be streamed through Xfinity online
P.P.S. The idea for this article woke me up around 3 am, which I quickly took down in Notes on my phone and then got up to pee. Happens.
I hail from Chicago, land of my beloved Blackhawks. You can often find me watching sports especially hockey, going to concerts, reading, eating ridiculous amounts of food, watching titanic documentaries, and making poop jokes. Dog Person. With the proper amount of caffeination, anything is possible.