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Underwhelmed

Girl Talk

By Sandy Asirvatham | Posted 4/17/2002

Someone asked me the other day if I was offended by the use of the term "chick" to refer to women. Or, specifically, the term "chick singer," a label I've heard male musicians use to refer to female vocalists, albeit usually in a cheeky, ironic tone of voice. A sax player I know who invited me to play keyboards in a new swing/funk/rock band he's forming asked me in all sincerity if I got pissed when he said things like, "We need to hire a chick singer," or referred to tunes needing to be transposed to a "chick key." And in all sincerity, I said I really could not care less.

Maybe I've just been anesthetized these past few years of hanging around working musicians--99 percent of them men, and generally not the most sensitive bunch of guys I've ever encountered. I'm sure that earlier in my life I might have been disturbed or threatened by the term in question, or any label that so starkly segregates female from male. (I'm still uncomfortable about the fact that so many people--male and female--still use the term "girl" to refer to any female in any context, whether she's a 7-year-old second-grader or a 70-year-old professor of neuroscience.) The way my bandleader pal uses it, "chick singer" is mostly just a jokey, good-guy-pretending-to-be-sexist sort of term, a relatively innocent label of convenience. Yet I know the label can have a contemptuous edge to it.

Problem is, to some extent I share that contempt. One hard thing about being a jazz or pop instrumentalist is knowing that even a thoroughly mediocre female singer can capture an audience's attention much faster and much better than you'll ever be able to. It's true for male vocalists as well, because the sound of the singing human voice is compelling in a way that instruments can only mimic. But since this is a predominantly female-objectifying culture, the effect is multiplied when you've got some nubile young woman trussed up in sequins and sighing into the microphone. Sometimes it doesn't seem to matter if she's not hitting half her notes, or if she really has nothing to offer beyond a winning smile and a good coif. Meanwhile, the men in the band (plus the occasional "girl" like me) are relegated to the background, no matter how accomplished, knowledgeable, and passionate we are as musicians.

Of course, that's just one side of the story. I also know that even a heart-wrenchingly great vocalist will have trouble getting work if she's not a babe, or is not willing to pretend that she thinks she's a babe and dress the part. And I'm sure many women singers still have a tough time getting their bandmates to take them seriously as musicians even if they do defy the stereotype and actually know music as well as they know wardrobe. Then again, you do run across those who seem to be working hard to embody the stereotype.

Several weeks ago, I had an experience that my seasoned musical mentors assure me is typical. I auditioned for an R&B "singer/songwriter" who'd been getting some airplay on D.C. radio stations and had an upcoming club date. She'd sent me a tape of one song, and although I'm not a huge R&B fan, I liked the song a lot and thought it would be fun to work with her. When I got to the rehearsal, it was obvious she was not quite the in-charge professional she claimed to be. She was an hour late to her own rehearsal; she had no microphone of her own and had to borrow mine; and her guitarist and manager both failed to show up. Without those men around, she was not able to tell us the bass line of the tune (which was ambiguous on the highly produced tape) or explain simple things like the order of the different sections of the song. Turns out, this "singer/songwriter" had come up with a lyric hook and shipped it off to a musician friend of hers, who pulled together a bunch of professional studio players to compose and record the entire song on her behalf. I suppose this is the way things are done with potentially marketable singers in the music business, but it's also exactly the kind of thing that drives earnest musicians crazy.

So I guess this is a roundabout way of saying that the term "chick singer" doesn't bother me because I find myself tempted to use it myself, mostly ironically but sometimes in a dismissive, contemptuous way, as horribly unfeminist as that is. Here's the complicated part: I'm a confessed chick singer myself, although as a self-accompanying pianist/vocalist, I find I'm more interested in being an integrated part of the band--a player who happens also to sing--than a shiny, barely competent bauble fronting it. Last year a friend asked me to sing at her wedding, so I sat down at the keyboard and did the swing-era classic "Our Love Is Here to Stay." You'll have to trust me when I say it turned out pretty well. I heard nice firsthand comments about my voice and some nice secondhand comments about my looks, but not a damn soul said anything about my piano playing. It shouldn't annoy me, but it does.

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