If you’ve read a major magazine in the last few years, be it Vanity Fair, TIME, or a music industry bible like Billboard, you’ve almost certainly come across at least one man-behind-the-woman piece. These editorials tend to spring up whenever a new female artist is blowing up the pop world or a veteran is coming out with a new album.
Lily Allen noted the trend in an interview with the Daily Mail last year, ahead of the release of her most recent album, the controversial Sheezus. “You’ll also notice, of those big, successful, female artists, there’s always a man-behind-the-woman piece.”
“Whether it’s Beyonce, it’s Jay-Z; if it’s Adele, it’s Paul Epworth; with me it was Mark Ronson, same with Amy Winehouse. It’s sort of like you never get that with men,” Allen explained. “You can’t think of the man behind the man because it’s never a conversation which is bought up. If you’re Ed Sheeran nobody talks about who produced his music.”
It’s not just Allen who’s noticed the problem, and the issue goes further than just magazines looking for a story. As Slate notes, many female musicians have openly questioned why there is a pernicious trend of crediting male collaborators with a female artist’s work. Björk most recently addressed the issue during an interview with Pitchfork.
“It wasn’t just one journalist getting it wrong, everybody was getting it wrong. I’ve done music for, what, 30 years? I’ve been in the studio since I was 11; [Arca] had never done an album when I worked with him,” said the Icelandic singer, referring to a spate of articles that credited Venezuelan producer Arca as the sole producer of her new album, Vulnicura.
“He wanted to put something on his own Twitter, just to say it’s co-produced,” Björk added. “I said, ‘No, we’re never going to win this battle. Let’s just leave it.’ But he insisted.” Worst of all, this isn’t the first time it’s happened in the boundary-pushing singer’s career.
“For example, I did 80 percent of the beats on Vespertine and it took me three years to work on that album… Matmos came in the last two weeks and added percussion on top of the songs, but they didn’t do any of the main parts, and they are credited everywhere as having done the whole album,” she recounted.
“[Matmos’] Drew [Daniel] is a close friend of mine, and in every single interview he did, he corrected it. And they don’t even listen to him.” Indeed, the singer notes that while Arca also worked on Kanye West’s Yeezus, no one questioned the rapper’s authorship over any of his material, echoing Allen’s sentiments.
The problem goes beyond Allen and Björk, seemingly affecting almost every prominent or innovative female pop artist. “There is an issue especially with what male journalists write about me and say, ‘This must have come from a guy,’” said M.I.A. in a 2007 interview with Pitchfork.
Solange Knowles, meanwhile, took to Twitter to criticise reviews like Pitchfork‘s, which described her as “an ideal female vocal muse” for True co-producer Dev Hynes. “I find it very disappointing when I am presented as the ‘face’ of my music, or a ‘vocal muse’ when I write or co-write every fucking song,” Solange wrote.
Grimes took her experiences to Tumblr, where she bemoaned having to put up with male producers constantly trying to “‘help me out’”, while superstar Taylor Swift said that while she initially though the pop landscape was an even playing field, she began to notice people “sort of questioning the validity of a female songwriter”.
One of the most worrying things, however, is that it’s not simply a trend perpetuated by males. Billboard recounted the story of Imogen Heap, who was given a shock after collaborating with Swift on ‘Clean’ after she’d written on her blog that she’d “assumed Taylor didn’t write too much of her own music… and was likely puppeteered by an aging gang of music executives”.
“There’s just not a lot of women who produce, so they just immediately assume it’s a dude,” explains singer-songwriter Neko Case. “Like, I often will hear something and think a dude did it, and I’m like, ‘Ah, man, I can’t believe I just did that!’… We just have to reprogram our brains… including me.”