Pitchfork published a new interview with Björk on Wednesday, and in it she speaks powerfully about the kind of sexism she’s faced in her career. Asked by Jessica Hopper about early reports that Arca was the “sole producer” on her new album rather than, as Arca later clarified, a co-producer, Björk opened up about how she’s been denied due credit for the production on her albums again and again. “I didn’t want to talk about that kind of thing for 10 years,” she said, “but then I thought, ‘You’re a coward if you don’t stand up. Not for you, but for women. Say something.’ ” Here she is on her experience with the new album:
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. He wanted to put something on his own Twitter, just to say it’s co-produced. I said, “No, we’re never going to win this battle. Let’s just leave it.” But he insisted.
She compared the way the press talks about her to the way they talk about Kanye West. West works with a wide array of producers on his albums (on Yeezus, he worked with Arca, just like Björk), “yet no one would question his authorship for a second,” Björk says. And she described how male producers sometimes ended up getting outsized credit when she co-produced Vespertine:
For example, I did 80 percent of the beats on Vespertine and it took me three years to work on that album, because it was all microbeats—it was like doing a huge embroidery piece. 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. [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.
She added that she wanted “to support young girls who are in their 20s now and tell them: You’re not just imagining things.”
If you read interviews with female songwriters, producers, and musicians, you know that’s true, because you’ve heard these stories again and again. Björk points to another such example herself, recounting how M.I.A. was the victim of similar assumptions about who authored her music. As the Sri Lankan songwriter-producer said in a contentious interview with Pitchfork in 2007, “There is an issue especially with what male journalists write about me and say, ‘This must have come from a guy.’ ” Björk says she advised her at the time, “Just photograph yourself in front of the mixing desk in the studio, and people will go, Oh, OK! A woman with a tool, like a man with a guitar.’ ”
In 2013, Solange Knowles, responding to reviews like Pitchfork’s that described her as “an ideal female vocal muse” for True co-producer Dev Hynes (who Pitchfork described as the EP’s “main producer”), took her complaints to Twitter:
That same week, Grimes wrote on Tumblr:
I’m tired of men who aren’t professional or even accomplished musicians continually offering to ‘help me out’ (without being asked), as if i did this by accident and i’m gonna flounder without them. or as if the fact that I’m a woman makes me incapable of using technology. I have never seen this kind of thing happen to any of my male peers
I’m tired of the weird insistence that i need a band or i need to work with outside producers (and I’m eternally grateful to the people who don’t do this).
My friend Ed [Sheeran], no one questions whether he writes everything. In the beginning, I liked to think that we were all on the same playing field. And then it became pretty obvious to me that when you have people sort of questioning the validity of a female songwriter … It’s a little discouraging that females have to work so much harder to prove that they do their own things.
Swift expanded on this point in an interview with Billboard in December:
If someone has studied my catalog and still doesn’t think I’m behind it, there’s nothing I can do for that person. They may have to deal with their own sexist issues, because if I were a guy and you were to look at my catalog and my lyrics, you would not wonder if I was the person behind it.
Perhaps the strongest evidence of just how pernicious and pervasive these stereotypes really are is that even women fall victim to them. The Billboard interviewer asked Swift about this issue in part because Imogen Heap, a talented female musician and songwriter herself, had written on her blog that she had “assumed Taylor didn’t write too much of her own music … and was likely puppeteered by an aging gang of music executives.” Heap realized her error when she collaborated with Swift on “Clean.” Swift showed up guitar in hand, in control, and having written most of the song already.
Or take Neko Case. In a 2013 interview with Sound Opinions, she confessed that she’s been guilty of the same mistake:
There’s just not a lot of women who produce, so they just immediately assume it’s a dude. 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.
Everyone is prejudged and sorted into preexisting categories. Man with guitar: songwriter. Man at a mixing console: Producer and mastermind. Woman with a shiny outfit: pop star. (I should note that some of these errors have been made by writers for Slate, and we’ve owned up to it.)
It might be the sheer stubborn persistence of these stereotypes that’s most frustrating of all. After all, Pitchfork’s Hopper references Joni Mitchell observing, years ago, “how whichever man was in the room with her got credit for her genius.” Even now, years later, says Björk, “Everything that a guy says once, you have to say five times.” But maybe even five times isn’t enough.