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FYI

Let's Strip Away Music's Soft-Porn Preoccupation

Next year marks my 50th as a touring musician and recording artist. I can’t imagine a more interesting, rewarding, affirming career and I’d go another 50 if I had a choice!

Let's Strip Away Music's Soft-Porn Preoccupation

By Shari Ulrich

Next year marks my 50th as a touring musician and recording artist. I can’t imagine a more interesting, rewarding, affirming career and I’d go another 50 if I had a choice! I have never thought of that career in terms of gender, as I have never felt impeded, exploited, or in any way compromised in my work by virtue of being female. I may be an anomaly, I don’t know. On occasion I might run into a male sound tech who thinks he needs to explain to me how to set up my gear, but I shrug it off and can easily let him know by throwing out a few EQ suggestions that I know what I’m doing. I figure he might revise his assumptions with the next female artist. I have been in three trios with men all through my career who were nothing but respectful, and the best brothers and collaborators I could ask for.


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But lately, I’ve been feeling I should perhaps claim some cred and share my experience with the young women coming up in the music industry.

Recently I was looking at some concert footage from a BC-based young female singer-songwriter I’d never heard of. I was captivated. I loved her voice, her musicianship, her songwriting, her way with the audience - all of it. I thought….ooh, I’m going to track her down for a SongBird North! Of course, her Facebook page was my first stop. I was disappointed to see many of the cliché sexy pouty-lipped selfies that seem to be de rigueur for young women these days, but I was even more disheartened to see how much more provocative and sexual so many of the other photos were. Truly over the top - at least my version of the top! And trust me - I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area in the sixties which should convey I am hardly conservative! So here is my confession and dilemma - it deterred me from wanting to book her. And my reaction was perplexing and not something I was comfortable with or proud of.

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It would be easy to write it (and me) off as simply being out of step with the younger generation. Should I expect an artist to not be influenced by the prevailing presentation of young females on social media? Probably not. And I have been taken to task over a past pontification about women rendering their hands useless with dagger-long fingernails,  with the defence that a woman should be able to dress and behave however she chooses without being “shamed”. If she wants to have a “come get me” vibe, or 2” long nails, that is her personal choice. Yes, it is. But the more important question is, is she aware of why she is making that choice and the ramifications of that choice? It seems less a personal expression than what has been fed to her as being her most accessible and reliable currency. And that is disturbing and disappointing to me. There is also an element of responsibility involved. I wrote following some wildly graphic Grammy performances one year, that I don’t believe women can have it both ways – the freedom to blatantly present as sexual objects and then admonish men and society for treating them as such. To say nothing of the modelling of those values and standards to very impressionable young girls.

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Though I have never considered or been asked to sexualize my image in promo photos or videos, I do remember when I went from the Pied Pumkin and the Hometown Band, with my long skirts and bare feet, to a solo career, a record deal, spandex, sequins and very big hair! (Well, it was the 80’s after all.) I was often asked in interviews about the image change. I responded with full conviction, and a tinge of defensiveness, that it was me simply growing into my thirties and evolving. But in time I realized, it was of course me trying to fit in with what was expected of me by the current popular culture and the music business. It had nothing to do with personal and individual expression, which at that point, I had only found in my music, writing and voice - not in how I wanted to present myself. I would say it peaked with an outfit created for a CTV concert special that a friend described as a cross between Big Bird and Phyllis Diller. Not my proudest moment.

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So, I get it. It’s what we do when we’re young. But that didn’t stop me from wanting to tell this talented young woman how it affected me. How I wished she could see her currency as her wonderful voice, her presence, her originality and songwriting and not her body and seductive poses. Of course, I feel that about so many young and maturing female artists’ videos and photos. Their uniqueness is painted over and the ubiquitous and trite sultry poses reign. Why is the box created by videographers, photographers, and directors so small and cliché for female artists? Are they only doing the bidding of the record labels? Thankfully there are of course exceptions outside that box.   

Circling back to this young, small-town burgeoning artist who triggered all this, my first thought was wanting to contact her and convey my reaction, even just to have the discussion about the impact of social media and to bolster her confidence in the strength of her work on its own merit. I’ve been advised it’s not my place. I’m ambivalent. Who better than from a female artist who has been there?

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Thank goodness for the likes of Billie Eilish. I may long for her to sing a note full voice for once, and be forced to forgive the long nails, but I have huge respect for her determination to keep the attention focused on the music.

Frankly, it feels like it’s high time for another round of consciousness-raising!

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Valence
'La nuit s’achève' album cover

Valence

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