The Man Behind the Woman: Gender and the Pop-Star/Producer Duality

by: Peter Boyle

A friend of mine has a friend in Holychild, a Los Angeles-based pop duo whose star is beginning to rise. They’ve started getting some deserved internet press on the strength of bombastic hook-heavy tracks like “Happy With Me,” a sub-three-minute post-Passion Pit confection not recommended for those with impaired glucose tolerance:

Like any group that aspires to notoriety, if not stardom, Holychild is fully integrated with social media and offer plenty of photographs to further convey their aesthetic intention. The pair almost always appear together (except in selfies on Tumblr), with Louie Diller acting the fashion plate nearly as much as frontwoman Liz Nistico, demonstrating not only their sex appeal but also their symbiosis as performers. Neither party is interchangeable from the other, which is an obvious statement before you consider the way similar groups are presented—like, say, Sleigh Bells, a somewhat more gunshot-heavy forebear for bands like Holychild:

Alexis Krauss is so fully foregrounded that video viewers unfamiliar with Derek Miller, the sunglasses-adorned guitarist of the group, are probably wondering who the hell the dude in the Nirvana shirt is. Maybe the equivalent of the bearded guy in that Ke$ha video? On the other hand, Pitchfork can run an entire interview with only Miller about his personal investment in the group’s cover art. I’m surprised that more personnel listings don’t say “Alexis Krauss – Vocals; Derek Miller – Everything Else.”

All of this points to the constant perception of male/female combinations as brains/beauty acts. The impetus is on the man in question to manufacture a body of work upon which the woman can sound and look pretty, thus appealing to the ravenous (and apparently normatively male) viewer/listener. More generally, pop music depowers its starlets into talents contingent upon the contribution of a ‘genius’ producer—see, for example, Max Martin’s insanely omnipresent production credits. Women become male-manufactured objects for public consumption, devaluing their abilities and personalities into attractiveness, and thereby, sales figures. Not entirely unlike insidious Hollywood starlet culture, this configuration forces women into a double bind, where they must be appealing physical specimens to gain notice, but cannot achieve respect or notoriety beyond that attractiveness. Further, it allows oft-sexist, rockist Real Music types to point to the invisible producers as the true forces behind these women, fortifying the skepticism surrounding women in independent music and perpetuating the androcentrism of otherwise extra-cultural genres like hardcore punk or real emo.

Bands like Holychild, not unaware of their commercial appeal, have to actively attempt to avoid being pigeonholed in this manner, because it seems simply inevitable. Take, for example, CHVRCHES, whose exemplary synthpop debut, The Bones of What You Believe, is bringing them to quick international fame.

Lead singer Lauren Mayberry has already spoken in interviews about her desire to portray the band as an egalitarian outfit to avoid sticking out as the ‘girl singer’ among two keyboard jockeys, but the public response has been so vicious she took to The Guardian to decry the ubiquitous misogynist backlash. Amid this remarkably hateful climate surrounding the generally low-key Glaswegians, even professional editorialist Tom Breihan at Stereogum feels compelled to hypothesize that Iain Cook and Martin Doherty are using Mayberry as their “lottery ticket,” a charismatic frontwoman to take their Very Serious Manstrumentals to the top of the charts, in a positive review of the record. When the men are not entirely removed from the star image, they are either the implicit masterminds, profiteers or both.

Ultimately, this concept speaks to an inherent sexist conceit that men are the only sensible and capable people in the equation, that they, regardless of the scenario, are the only pertinent creative minds. It’s troubling, but it’s changing slowly as people like Mayberry actively reject being fetishized and silenced. Or someone like Grimes, who has discussed her attempts to embody both sides of the dichotomy as well as holding out against insinuations that her success is somehow “accidental.” As long as women continue to make popular music, though, there will be those wholly crediting a man with that success—and someone telling them to stand behind the woman, and not next to her.