10.23.2014

Where have all the women gone, country music?

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Last week on Nashville (aka, My Show), fictional country music superstar, Rayna James, made an impassioned plea to fictional country music up-n-comer, Sadie Stone, to join James’ new music label, Highway 65 Records. Do not join that other label, Rayna implored, where “big-hat cowboys” rule the roost and female artists are an endangered species. Highway 65, Rayna told Sadie, wants to support female artists, get them back on the charts.

It got me thinking. Despite now living out here in the good ol' cornfield, I am barely literate when it comes to the who's who of contemporary country music artists. But I know that the scene, the lyrics, the image, is less than supportive of women's success and autonomy than of their superstar men's. Sure, there are acts like Maddie & Tae who had a tongue-in-cheek hit with their single, Girl in a Country Song, poking fun at the role of once powerful players in Country having been relegated to Daisy-Duke wearing booty shakers sitting in the back of pick-up trucks while the men have their fun (and get gold records), but I'm guessing this will be a one-hit wonder, likely to have offered some discussion this summer, but barely a revolution. Where have the all the women gone? As I said, I have little in the way of even a fan's knowledge of the country music scene, but I did work for a record company for 12 years, I know what those boardrooms look like. And I know how to read a Billboard chart. So just for fun, let's see how they compare:

Adapted from Billboard.com.

Country airplay:

1 Burnin' It Down Jason Aldean
2 Dirt Florida Georgia Line 
3 Leave The Night On Sam Hunt 
4 Neon Light Blake Shelton 
5 Roller Coaster Luke Bryan 
6 Ready Set Roll Chase Rice 
7 Day Drinking Little Big Town
8 Sunshine & Whiskey Frankie Ballard 
9 Small Town Throwdown Brantley Gilbert Featuring Justin Moore & Thomas Rhett
10 Somewhere In My Car Keith Urban

Pop airplay:

1 Black Widow Iggy Azalea Featuring Rita Ora
2 Shake It Off Taylor Swift
3 All About That Bass Meghan Trainor
4 Bang Bang Jessie J, Ariana Grande & Nicki Minaj
5 Don’t Tell ‘Em Jeremih Featuring YG
6 Habits (Stay High) Tove Lo
7 Don’t Ed Sheeran
8 Break Free Ariana Grande Featuring Zedd
9 Cool Kids Echosmith
10 Blame Calvin Harris Featuring John Newman

R&B/Hip Hop airplay:

1 New Flame Chris Brown Featuring Usher & Rick Ross
2 Lifestyle Rich Gang Featuring Young Thug & Rich Homie Quan
3 Don't Tell 'Em Jeremih Featuring YG
4 Hold You Down DJ Khaled Featuring Chris Brown, August Alsina, Future & Jeremih
5 ***Flawless Beyonce Featuring Nicki Minaj Or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
6 0 To 100 / The Catch Up Drake
7 Hot Boy Bobby Shmurda
8 Studio ScHoolboy Q Featuring BJ The Chicago Kid
9 About The Money T.I. Featuring Young Thug
10 Stay With Me Sam Smith

So, to recap: As of the week of October 20, 2014, women in country are silenced even more than women in the notoriously misogynist hip hop sphere. (Don’t argue with me on this one - note the artist woman abuser in the top spot.) But then I thought, ok, this is just a snapshot; a week in time. Surely women are given more credit in maintaining the modern country music scene than the charts would suggest.

And then I saw a commercial for the upcoming CMA Awards. Performers were listed, and I watched as male after male (big-hat cowboys, thank you Nashville writers) were shown:

Jason Aldean
Dierks Bentley
Luke Bryan
Kenny Chesney
Eric Church
Florida Georgia Line
Lady Antebellum
Tim McGraw
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton
The Band Perry

Oh, wait! Kacey Musgrove. (Though the wording is unclear as to whether she will be singing on her own or as part of a collaboration.)

Phew. And hey, there are a few other women on the bill. Ariana Grande is performing. With Little Big Town. But look! Miranda Lambert is performing! With Carrie Underwood. Who – vindication! – is also a host. Oh – with Brad Paisley.

What is CMA afraid will happen if a woman gets the stage to herself? Will she start a revolution? Flash the old-timers in the front row? Declare that they are leaving their record company to join Highway 65? I suspect the true fear organizers have of putting women on the stage on their own is much more nefarious: They might prove themselves better performers than the men. And for some reason, in country music, more than in pop, rock, or even hip hop, the men seem to always need to be seen as stronger, better, larger than the women. I suspect that’s what all them big hats are for.

***



10.21.2014

Halloween Costume Horror Stories


Picture it: October, 1982. People across the nation are going bananas for Cabbage Patch Kids, Lady Di's hair, and a loveable little alien and his human friend, Elliott, who have taken the cinematic world by storm.

A little boy who had recently seen E.T. decided that he just had to be the extra-terrestrial for Halloween. The only problem, his mother recalled, was that all of the E.T. costumes were long sold out. So she hit the fabric store and spent hours and hours sewing her own E.T. costume for her six-year-old son. It was a thing of beauty, with scaly "skin" and big, bulging eyes, and enough padding to keep her little trick-or-treater warm on even the most blustery of All Hallow's Eves. She presented her son the costume with pride, and was relieved to see the smile on his face. "It's great, mom," he exclaimed, "now let's get the sheet!"
"The sheet?" The mother was puzzled.

"Yes, we need to get a sheet and cut eyes into it," her son explained. And just why would he want to get a sheet and cut eyes into it when his mother had just left her blood, sweat, and tears on the sewing table to make him an E.T. costume?
"Because mom," her son said sweetly, "E.T. was a ghost for Halloween."

***

You've got to love the thought and creativity that goes into Halloween costume requests, but it's not always possible - or appropriate - to acquiesce. Just ask these other moms:

 
One year, Beck's son requested to trick-or-treat as obscure 19c Swedish playwright, August Strindberg, known as much for his affection for a pink helium balloon as for his plays. “We talked him out of it,” says Beck, “because ‘depressed 19th c Swedish playwright’ isn't a real friend-winner of a costume as a kid.”


Christi’s toddler son wanted to be a yellow Lego brick. “Easy to build,” she says, “but not compatible with toddler use. He could not sit down in class.” But – style points.


Julie’s daughter knew exactly what she wanted to be for Halloween in 2011. Then six years old, she went out, quite convincingly, as a vampire …. kitty … with no sense of humour.


Jill was actually excited when her daughter asked to be a sink – like, a bathroom sink – for Halloween this year. Jill started planning immediately, even working out how the “pipes” could be a candy-delivery system. Alas, children are fickle, and she decided instead to be a cookie. A great idea, down the drain.


Thea’s son went for a holiday mashup – yep, that was a pint-sized Santa Claus knocking at the door. Thea says he pulled it off quite nicely. Ho Ho Halloween.


Sarah’s daughter has asked to be a Pop Pixie character this year, but only once they’ve “popped,” which means Sarah has to make her daughter magically sprout gigantic wings and turn into a superhero. Can she pull it off? “I’ll let you know in about two weeks,” Sarah says. (Count this as one more reason I’m glad I don’t have cable.)


Lisa’s daughter decided to be a crane one year. No, not the flying kind – the kind you see at building sites. Dad spent a lot of hours constructing that one.


Beth ran into a strange gender binary/sexism issue when trying to satisfy her son’s desire to dress up as Hamm, the piggy bank, from Toy Story. Voiced by John Ratzenberger, it’s easy to assume that Hamm identifies as male. But the only Hamm costumes Beth could find were relegated to the “Girl” section of the costume store, meaning that (sigh) the costume had a short, poufy skirt. Thankfully, Beth’s son was not able to tell one ham from another, and loved the bespoke piggy bank costume Beth provided, with nary a tutu or logo in sight.


And you’d think that Jen got off easy when her son voiced his desire to be The Invisible Man – but all that invisibility takes a lot of work.



So what do your kids want to be this year? Have you ever had to field any bizarre requests?

***







10.09.2014

The Drills: An Act in Five Parts

and out into the wilderness we must let them go


They were excited to show me what they had learned that day. Clambering down from their chairs, they took me, each by a hand, into the narrow hallway leading from kitchen to dining room.
           
"There has to be no windows," said six-year-old Cassidy.
"And you have to be away from doors," added Mischa, my nine-year-old.

They were as giddy as if they were staging a play, which of course in a way, they were. They were the students, dutiful and serious learners; the house was the school, and the source of tension was a vague, shapeless threat to be conquered in four acts.

The children would have called the play, Preparing for Things We Don't Understand, But That's OK Because We Used Up an Entire Block of Time and got to Roll on the Floor.

I would have called the play, (Even More) Terrifying Things for a Parent to Think About When They Relinquish Their Children to the World.

Act one: Fire Drill

The girls knew this act best of all of course, having rehearsed it several times yearly in elementary school, in preschool, at home. The most jarring part was the initial alarm, but once they recognized the sound for what it was, they fell easily into their roles, with little fear. In fact, they both told me, even while the horn blared, excitement reigned as they exited, single file, out of the school and onto a designated meeting spot in record time.

"Less than a minute, mom!" Mischa proudly exclaimed. Alas, the younger children were not quite as jubilant, having taken almost twice as long to regroup on the field.
"Some kids just can't settle down," said Cassidy, shaking her head. "But we were warned about this one. The next one will be a surprise, and I bet we'll do better."

Act two: Gas Leak Drill

"It's just like a fire drill, only once you are in your groups outside, you go across the street to the church," explained Mischa.
"Yeah, but we didn't get to go to the church today. Awwww." How exciting Cassidy thought it would have been to not only leave the school grounds spontaneously, but to be exited to a new and foreign building to await the all-clear.

I wondered if the church was larger inside than it looked from the outside, and how strong a gas leak would have to grow to be detected in the first place.

Act three: Tornado Drill

When we moved to the cornfield, we traded the life we were used to for a set of unknowns, of news. One of the news was the weather. In Toronto we had lake effect, we had slush, we had humidity. We had lots and lots of concrete to buffer wind and hold the heat. Out here, we have fog, we have hail and we have hundreds of kilometres of flat land that the wind roars across, battering whatever is brave enough to stand upright in its wake. We have tornado weather. There hasn't been a touchdown in our time here yet, but we have spent a treacherous night huddled in the basement as the weather alerts implored us to take cover. We had no tornado drills where I went to school, so the children demonstrate. 

"Go close to the wall and go like this," Cassidy gets down low, bum on her heels and forehead on her knees. "Then, take your arms and cover your head, and try to cover your ears if it's too loud."
"We don't use our hands, we use a binder to cover our head!" Mischa runs to the sunroom, grabs a magazine, and scrambles into position next to her sister. 150 flimsy pages as protective as any three-ringed binder against 200 km per hour winds, I suppose.

Act Four: Lockdown

"It's like a tornado drill, but we don't leave the classroom. We go into the cubby room, and get down really small behind our jackets." Cassidy is serious now.
"We don't have a cubby room, so we go under our desks and pull our chair in front of us," says Mischa. "But you have to be quiet."
"Yeah," says Cassidy, "the most important part is to be really, really quiet."

I swallow the lump in my throat.

"Why would you have to go on lockdown?" I try to sound gentle, inquisitive. I want to know the language that was used to persuade my children that their survival depends on being as tiny, as quiet, as unseen as they can possibly be. I want to know how it was explained to my children that invisibility is their best shield when the threat is neither nature, nor accident.

"Well maybe there's a bad person in the school, or maybe somebody that doesn't belong here gets in." There's no waiver in my six-year-old's voice so I try to hide my own.

"And how do you know that you have to go on lockdown? What's the signal?"

"Oh," says Mischa, "the principal comes on the loudspeaker and says: Students and teachers, lockdown." Her voice is terse, authoritative as she mimics the announcement, and I nod as she tells me.

"So was everybody very still and very quiet?" I ask.
"Yeah, in my class they were," says Mischa.
"No, not in mine," says Cassidy. "Some people were being silly and wiggly and couldn't stop laughing even though we were supposed to be super quiet."

And this is where my head begins to swim and I go all the places a parent doesn't want to go. First to Newtown, then back to the hallways of our school, where - what if? What if the bad person gets in while the principal is away from his desk, unable to give the lockdown signal? What if the bad person sees our students before they see him? What if my child is in the library or the computer lab or the gym when the lockdown signal is given? What if my child is in the bathroom, and doesn't hear the announcement and walks out into the hall, deserted but for one bad person ...  

I want to scream, I want to scream a huge fuck you to a world where a six-year-old's giggle could get her killed and I want to rage against the country we live beside where mass school shootings ignite no change but lobby groups ensure that anybody can walk into a grocery store with an automatic weapon strapped to his back and I want to rage against the country I live in for allowing this fear, this influence, this possibility, into our own school and for allowing the word "lockdown" to enter the lexicon of my children.

But I blink back my rage and my fear and allow the children to play out their scene. I want them to understand what they must do in such circumstances, and to never understand why they are doing it.

Act Five: Epilogue

"You guys impress me," I tell my children after they have stood up out of the lockdown position. "I'm glad you were paying close attention. Do you feel like you'll remember what to do if there's another drill?"

"Uh-huh" Cassidy says, hopping over to where I stand. "We practiced a lot."
"I'll remember," says Mischa, "I am in grade four, y'know."

"Right." I say, "Of course. How about if we go outside now and play for a bit; I could use some fresh air."

We leave the dinner dishes on the table and head into the backyard. I breathe in the cool autumn evening and the girls run to find the badminton raquets. They are arguing over whose team I will be on. We decide on a triangle; we'll change direction every now and then.

"Ok," I say, lobbing the bird, "let's start playing because we don't have much time. It's going to get dark soon."

***