Daina DUBAUSKAITĖ & Emilija VISOCKAITĖ | Gender as the Avant-Garde

Lithuanian female composers Justė Janulytė, Egidija Medekšaitė, Raminta Šerkšnytė, Justina Repečkaitė, Rūta Vitkauskaitė, and Lina Lapelytė are currently working actively and internationally. Some would suggest to begin this ever-expanding list with the laureate of the Lithuanian National Prize for Culture and the Arts Onutė Narbutaitė, but it would be more correct to remember here Konstancija Brundzaitė (1942–1971), who did not restrict herself to just music but was also a painter and writer. Her diaries were recently published in book form.

As you’ve probably already understood, we want to talk about women in music. Is a composer’s, performer’s or musician’s gender an important factor in planning a career, in looking for success, in expecting prizes and recognition? Is femininity the same as feminism, and is masculinity then misogyny? To put it another way, is gender always a declaration? Most probably these are only extremes. And are the rules the same in Lithuania and in the rest of the world? Most probably not. The best-known Lithuanian composers abroad are, as it happens, female, and not infrequently that comes as a surprise to the representatives of academic music in other countries. And what about pop music and alternative music with the latter being closer in its constructs to popular than academic music? The alternative music journalists Daina Dubauskaitė and Emilija Visockaitė here discuss the state of things, causes, stereotypes and possible consequences.

Emilija Visockaitė: It’s only very recently that I’ve begun to feel the absence of young women on the Lithuanian music scene and to think about why they’re not there. I’ve always felt comfortable in my own environment; the issue of gender equality wasn’t of crucial importance. The most important musicians in my life were all men, it was them I identified with and learned from. In my teenage years that didn’t seem to be any sort of a problem. Perhaps even now it doesn’t seem a big problem, but because of my education and the intensive discussions I’ve had I simply think about it more often. Now I see more clearly that disproportion in the country’s music and understand that, however you look at it, it is nevertheless a symptom. In the same way as the custom of singing in English is also symptomatic. In and of itself there’s no harm to it, everyone is free to create as they wish. However, if that becomes the dominant tendency, the only possible choice, then that becomes a kind of unhealthy limit being placed on you. You could say that women are after all free to do what they wish and not all of them wish to climb onto the stage. But if none of them are on the stage, then that must mean something. If we were to analyze these tendencies that have taken root, they would reveal some more general psychological disorders of society.

Do you feel the absence of women in Lithuanian music?

Daina Dubauskaitė: As it happens, the phrase ‘to feel the absence of’ is particularly apt. For a long time, I felt good listening to men on the electronic music scene, dancing to their music, writing about them and encouraging others to go to those evenings, where only they were playing. That was the environment of my acquaintances and friends. I would even happily agree to play at ‘girls only’ evenings, even though I’ve never learned to play all that well. It was only with the passage of time, some writings and historical works that I happened to come across, as well as the observations of the women around me, that my sense of well-being began to be disrupted. I can even remember one very specific verbal confrontation with a DJ who I think now lives in the Netherlands: she refused to write a guest column for a magazine to be put out by the club I was working in. She said she felt uneasy about working with a club which in its music politics didn’t reflect her own feelings as a woman working on the scene. The quotation I’ve given you isn’t exact but, on serious reflection, it is true that I saw around me quite a lot of misogyny, everyday sexism and other nuances, which didn’t inspire women to play, to do that well, and pursue a career in that field. This discovery was followed by a feeling of there being an absence. All the same, without experiencing the above-mentioned negative nuances, I don’t see the possibility for an equal distribution of genders on the scene. And then I immediately begin to think that perhaps it’ll never change.

To return to the phrase ‘there is a shortage of’ – no, that’s not the same thing as ‘to feel an absence of’. If there is a shortage of something, it’s very easy to take it from somewhere else. Not necessarily from Lithuania, not necessarily from music. I think that any artificial encouragement or being dragged towards some new imagined norms has nothing to do with pure culture and its value.

Emilija Visockaitė: I agree with you about artificial encouragement: events ‘by women for women’ seem to me to be even more discriminatory than any kind of everyday experience. God forbid if someone were to try to pull me into something because of my gender. Change has to happen naturally. An uncomplicated and effective way is simply to talk about the problem. And not in closed feminist circles but through the biggest nationwide channels. They upset everyone by their persistence, you can’t anymore forget the question, so you see it everywhere (as happened with #metoo). You need time to allow everyone to calm down and then you’ll see that the situation will already be a little better. For example, the image of young men on the Lithuanian rock scene in contrast to the traditional macho characteristics has quite suddenly been supplemented by sensitivity, sincerity, and humour…Young men at concerts nowadays kiss each other, laugh at themselves, and don’t just demonstrate their power through holding their guitars. Several good examples can sometimes turn that imbalance in the sexes around.

In many instances women are overlooked not out of bad will but simply out of inertia. Perhaps sometimes it requires more effort to notice them as if they were some original niche genre. You try, you look, and it turns out that this genre is not at all strange and exotic but, as it happens, very close to you and of universal significance.

Daina Dubauskaitė: There’s one more point I’d like to touch on – that’s music awards. I’m not sure when awards for men and women were first presented separately. But it’s a fact that already at the first Oscars in 1929 Academy Awards were given for Best Actress and Best Actor. In the first Grammy Awards in 1959 there were separate categories for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. No gender distinctions are made in the other categories and that, by the way, also presents a considerable problem. Let’s take as an example the Brit Awards, where analysts have observed that although gender is used in the performer category, it isn’t applied in the most important category – that of best album, and women here are less frequently nominated.

We can also look at the Lithuanian M.A.M.A. nominations and winners. In this sense last year was a pleasant surprise – in the nominations for Breakthrough of the Year and Best Song the winner was the young performer Beatrich. It’s true she works with producers, but her personality is clear enough for you to understand that she isn’t a studio-created construct. Not for the first time a male/female duet was Band of the Year – in observing the creative paths taken by the performers after their split it’s clear that Leon Somov would not have been able to achieve as much success without Jazzu (Justė Arlauskaitė). But that’s it. In the Electronic Music category all the nominees are men (but there aren’t many women working in that field), in the Best Band category there’s just Jazzu, rock is a male preserve, as is alternative music. In 2011, when the history of M.A.M.A. began, there was at least one woman in almost all the categories, apart from rock and hip-hop (but then again, do we have any stand-out women rappers in Lithuania?), and the Best Alternative Band category was won by Rasabasa.

In speaking about alternative music, let’s not forget T.Ė.T.Ė, which took on the task of awarding prizes ‘to those whom M.A.M.A. didn’t give anything to’.[1] Even in the two years T.Ė.T.Ė awarded prizes there were also very few women. In the first year Ieva Narkutė was the winner in the Vocalist of the Year category, the mixed group Pievos in the Ethnic/Folk Group category, and KeyMono with frontwoman Daiva Starinskaitė won Album of the Year. In the second year the mixed project Spanxti won the Ethno category, Avaspo the Experimental Group category, and Saulės kliošas the Funk. Again, these were mixed groups.

These examples make me think that if you were to put performers into the same pot, men would rise to the top, while women would be floating about at the bottom. In such a circumstance a division like this would seem to be necessary since it helps to draw our attention to both men and women equally, but the question of gender quotas is a painful one. We can nevertheless say that these sorts of misunderstanding in awards only show that awards are not the be all and end all. And it’s not because of them that those who cannot but create do that.

Emilija Visockaitė: It seems to me that nominations for male and female artists are simply an opportunity to draw attention to more performers. Both in film and music these nominations carry equal weight – after all, the selection of best male is not the culmination of an awards ceremony.

If the Grammy nominations are a complex mechanism, then Lithuanian awards are quite straightforward to understand. Fewer women are nominated because there are hardly more than a few stand-out ones. There aren’t that many performers in Lithuania for organizers to maliciously allow themselves the luxury of ignoring anyone. Also noteworthy is the fact that there’s an awfully small percentage of women on the 100-strong M.A.M.A. committee (as is also true of other similar juries). This shows that there are few women visible not just on the stage but also in all of the pop music industry. Generally speaking, awards hardly ever reflect reality in a correct way. But they are probably a pretty good reflection of the gender issue.

The winners of the T.Ė.T.Ė. awards that you mentioned are mixed-sex groups – today that seems like quite an original phenomenon. It would seem 2011–2012 wasn’t that long ago but there are very few people following in their footsteps. I remember how stunned I was to see the Silverpieces last year – a rock band from Kaunas with a girl as their leader. And there’s Vidas Bareikis who has a female drummer. However, in both those cases I’d say that gender is the statement. If you don’t want gender to be noticed on stage, you have to put in even more effort.

Daina Dubauskaitė:  As long as we have this division into men and women, then some areas will remain more female, others – more male. So, we don’t just need to point our fingers at the manifestations of sexism, but also not to initiate them ourselves, that is to say, to have no ‘girls only’ evenings, concerts, festivals, and groups. If a girl or a collective in creating their stage image declare their gender, then the question immediately arises if he/she/they aren’t using that to cover up for something missing in the very performance.

Let’s take as an example a musician as a statistical unit. He is moderately talented when it comes to writing texts and music and getting some sort of noise out of a guitar – he can be said to have the necessary qualities. And now let’s put a short scaly frock on him, muss up his hair, and get him in high heels. Will he sound better, shine better and be featured more in the online tabloids than the same musician if he were to wear just a t-shirt and jeans? Yes, and it wouldn’t be all important if it’s a man or a woman. I’d like to remind you here of Lolita from the film Zero who ended up in the Eurovision finals.

If you don’t agree and say that you can’t mask an absence of talent with a frock, I wouldn’t dare to argue with that because I agree. All the same, only a minority pay attention to the background where in the case of a good dress you also have a voice, a composition and originality. So, because it’s women who most often wear frocks thanks to history that they get more of the spotlights turned on them.

You could say that the Lithuanian stage is especially friendly to women and even more friendly to feminine women! Well, and also to feminine men. As well as masculine women. And to manly men – perhaps most of all. Marijonas Mikutavičius, Egidijus Dragūnas, Gytis Paškevičius – I could go on and on. The stage, to be more exact – the audience, and not just in Lithuania, love those who are over the top. The more pronounced a particular characteristic the easier it is to stand out, to be recognizable, valued, invited, and saleable. ‘To sing with your tits’ – a cult phrase once used by Karolis Jachimavičius in evaluating the Eurovision selection process, aimed at the girl group YVA[2], and suitable for illustrating all the combinations and concentrations of characteristics named by me. You can sing with your chest, your cowboy boots, your tattoos, and your shaven head. Some still choose to sing with their voices and, it is to be hoped, they will soon be included on a UNESCO Intangible Heritage list for that.

Emilija Visockaitė: Well, singing with your tits or other parts of the body not meant for that purpose is absolutely of no interest to me. The constant noise about second-rate pop music and the example of YVA has really gotten old. Of course, that’s how the news is announced on TV. After all, there has always been a huge mass of second-rate estrada music. It doesn’t change the future, nor does it dictate the conditions – it only conforms to the existing ones (‘it’s what the viewer wants’). The conditions are laid down by an original, personal, progressive auteur’s art – I don’t want to call it ‘high’ or ‘serious’ or to be discriminatory in any other way. But that’s what we need to be talking about. Because that’s what will survive. It sets its own rules and doesn’t have to conform to the wishes of the public. The problem is that sometimes it does conform. The problem is that alternative music – even though it has complete freedom – often in spite of that takes on mass stereotypes.

All the same, the situation is improving. A lot in particular has changed after the hipster era.  Listeners have become more interested in strange, non-traditional sounds, jazz, and the avant-garde. The stage has become more open and that’s why I would say that this is precisely the time for girls to climb up on it. It’s funny but in the present context the female sex is also the avant-garde.

Of course, gender shouldn’t be the most important thing about an artist. But I think it’s now unavoidable. If we have a woman or a non-heterosexual, a non-white person on stage, then initially that’s what will attract most attention. And let it be. After enough chatter, everyone will calm down and the next time round on seeing someone like that, there’ll be less chatter. And then it’ll depend only on the musician if he has something more to say.

The white hetero male is now the weakest link in the chain in western pop music. The most original, most interesting, most inspiring music comes from those social groups which were pushed into a corner somewhere. It remains to be hoped that girls in Lithuania also have accumulated that potential energy.

Daina Dubauskaitė: I agree that the ‘feminine’ scene can be considered avant-garde. Like the ‘no whites no heteros no men’ one. Without expanding the discussion to include others and in speaking about women, the band shishi in Lithuania is probably the best example. You can hear they’re musicians, and then you see they’re women. They don’t play with their frocks, but they do wear them. That is to say, they don’t hide their gender, but nor do they emphasize it. Could a young male play in that group? The musicians can answer that question themselves – I think that’s not what they had in mind, so even if they could, they won’t. We cannot omit mentioning Crucial Features – I would say at present this is the only example of clear feminism in music. Not of femininity but feminism. When it’s not important what you look like, what you have to say is important.

Emilija Visockaitė:  As for image creation and the information that’s being disseminated I find the female artists migloko and Rūta Mur or the boy and girl duet of Tillae more interesting. For Lithuanians they all stand out because of their unusual expression and sexuality, which show their inner strength and not an aim to seduce anyone. They feel good in their own bodies and have taken creative paths that have hardly been trodden by anyone else in Lithuania. On the other hand, all the female performers and groups we’ve named here are in the embryonic stage. It’s great that they’ve appeared on the scene – that’ll probably encourage more female colleagues, but there’s nothing more that can be said at the moment.

The other thing which is noticeable in the Lithuanian alternative music scene – young females are taking on jobs ancillary to the music. They are managers, concert organizers, music bloggers… So, it’s as if music attracts them, but not the limelight. Does that seem a problem to you? Perhaps it’s simply a case of a lack of resolve, of daring, and choosing a quieter path, but if pushed to the extreme it can remind of the 19th century model, when a brilliant woman tended to a man’s needs.

Daina Dubauskaitė: The music business is a complex thing and it wouldn’t work without the other components – that is to say, singers would only sing for themselves, if it weren’t for a group of people, namely, sound technicians, managers, organizers, and people involved in publicity. All of that could be done by one person and we have some great examples of that, but it only shows the breadth of one person’s talent and not a model for everyone else to follow. So, if people are more inclined to being involved in management, why should they be performers? Where’s the harm if a woman who distinguishes herself through certain qualities, which perhaps were instilled in her by her family, school, and environment, helps a rich, but not particularly self-reliant or entrepreneurial male musician? And the opposite holds true. In my work I’ve come across examples of people who outside their normal work hours are or want to be DJs or creators of electronic music work as lighting technicians, sound technicians, managers, bet the question of gender generally speaking doesn’t come into it. I’m also very attracted by music, but that doesn’t mean I want to be a musician.

Emilija Visockaitė:  It sometime seems to me that talented young females don’t climb onto the stage because of a lack of confidence or courage. After all, the hardest thing is to come to terms with yourself, to cultivate self-esteem, particularly when society isn’t of much help. It seems to me that these inner psychological changes take the longest and are the most difficult. I’m a little irritated by excuses like, for example, the unfavourable attitude of society is preventing me from doing what I want, society wants me to wear high heels and false eyelashes, whereas what I want to do is create serious art… It’s entirely up to you how people look at you, whether the first thing they see is that you’re a girl or a person. It’s equally hard for a young male who is in any way original or strange to have any success, he also has to come to terms with comments from haters. But if you really have talent, feel the need to create, and know who you are, then you have to overcome those external, cultural obstacles.

We began by talking about the academic music scene. Do you find it strange that the best-known Lithuanian composers in academic music abroad are women? What could have been the decisive factor? Should we expect something similar to happen in other areas of music (and not just music)?

Daina Dubauskaitė: I’d like to believe that there is no gender discrimination for those beginning their studies at institutions of higher learning, that is to say, for those who have consciously chosen a career in academic music. All the same, you can’t avoid entrance exams in the creative fields, and if we take into account the human factor, then there will be sympathy shown to some and not to others, depending on gender, build, parentage or other factors. Are there less of these worldly sympathies in academic music than, let’s say, in painting, the theatre, and dance? People on the inside say that’s not the case.

When discussing in the ‘margins’ of this article I’ve heard the opinion that men are no longer dominant in the world of Lithuania’s composers because, with a change in the political order, the prestige of this profession has gone down. That is to say, men have for some strange reason allowed women to take over the creative field and gone off… to earn money. So, for that reason I wouldn’t call the fact that Lithuanian women composers are better known abroad anything strange but a natural phenomenon.

For creative work, which is not restricted by the need ‘to hunt’, besides other qualities, what you need is diligence, commitment, and the ability to go deep into things. Qualities like these can be inborn but they can also be developed. That is the responsibility of young parents and nursery carers, as well as other educators – to implant not a specific artistic direction, but to develop creativity in the general sense. Recently I had to smile on reading an invitation from one of the Kaunas museums to a Festive Event for Families. What was written there was that ‘young boy drummers’ and ‘small girl ballerinas’ would be taking part in the festivity. So, it’s not only the fault of today’s male and female musicians that there are too many or too few of them.

All the same I wouldn’t compare academic and popular music, never mind alternative music. What’s constructed in institutions of higher learning, grounded in canons, in certain principles of how to communicate, in ethics, is often a long way from street culture, the spotlights, image and public relations. And that holds true not just in music, but also, for example, in politics. In academic music the creator is often distant from the big stage, his or her compositions live a life of their own, not infrequently it is the musicians and conductors, male and female, who garner all the attention – and here our greetings go to Mirga Gražinytė, who has turned all the possible stereotypes about Lithuanians, women and the devil knows what else upside down. Composers not infrequently are simply named somewhere at the beginning or end of a text. And if all the space you’re allotted is barely half a line, then there really isn’t any room for gender. Whether this way of looking at things is correct and fair is a question and a discussion for another time.

To end – here’s a fresh example from the field of music and stereotypical communication, as well as the cultivation of gender variety. Men blow on their wind instruments, women lift their feet – at least, it would appear, that this is the formula that works best for the wind orchestra Ąžuolynas: ‘The most beautiful places in Kaunas? Yes, that’s right – our parks! / The coolest orchestra in Kaunas? Well, Ąžuolynas, of course! / Music that’s the most fun? Dance music with the Ąžuolynas girls!’ Of course, this absolutely does not mean that women don’t have the right to play in the orchestra, but we’re given to understand that when they’re dancing they look, well, somehow more normal and better.

Translated from the Lithuanian by Romas Kinka

[1] Translator’s note. The joke here is that the acronym M.A.M.A. can also be taken to mean mama (‘mum’) and T.Ė.T.Ė – tėtė (‘dad’). In other words, if ‘mum’ won’t give you an award, then ‘dad’ will.
[2] Translator’s note. The acronym YVA stands for Ypatingai Viliojanti Atrakcija, ‘Especially Seductive Attraction’.