“Gender is over” is more of a hopeful declaration than a statement of fact — the lack of power held by women, trans, and gender nonconforming people still provides we’ve got a lot of work to do. In music, conversations about male dominance flare up around music festival season, as organizers have struggled to keep up with the times. An April analysis by Pitchfork titled “Are Music Festival Lineups Getting Worse?” revealed that in 2017, only 14 percent of surveyed acts did not include men.
The attempt to correct these imbalances can also go awry. Last week, the musician Caroline Polachek (formerly of the band Chairlift) spoke out on social media against the music and technology festival Moogfest for including her in an advanced lineup announcement of female, trans, and gender nonconforming artists who will be performing in 2018. Moogfest 2018 will feature a keynote conversation with activist Chelsea Manning, but attention about the festival quickly turned to Polachek who tweeted: “Furious to be (without approval) on an all-female & non-gender-binary announcement list for @Moogfest. Gender is not a genre. I don't need a sympathy pedestal, esp from a male curator. Take my name off this list and put me in the pit with the boys.” She followed up with a tweet announcing that she had decided to drop out of the festival altogether.
Furious to be (without approval) on an all-female & non-gender-binary announcement list for @Moogfest. Gender is not a genre. I don't need a sympathy pedestal, esp from a male curator. Take my name off this list and put me in the pit with the boys. pic.twitter.com/6XWcWgldZC— Caroline Polachek (@carolineplz) December 6, 2017
Moogfest organizers quickly responded to Polachek with an apology that thanked her for speaking out, while also attempting to clarify their intent “to combat the erasure and invisibility that can occur when [women, trans, and gender nonconforming] identities are kept on the periphery.” In their statement, organizers also corrected Polachek’s assumption that the festival’s curatorial decisions are made by a man. Moogfest is organized by a team led by Program Director Lorna-Rose Simpson, who told The Outline that a second Moogfest 2018 lineup will be announced in January. “Moogfest is proud to lead its 2018 talent line up with a list of female-Identified and non-binary artists. This announcement aligns with the festival's continued commitment to diversity and inclusion,” a representative of Moogfest also said.
As a black woman who consumes music, I was immediately excited by the Moogfest lineup, which celebrates artists I already love while introducing me to artists I'm not familiar with — the way a good festival lineup should be. Still, the mixed reaction to Polachek’s statement illustrated just how fine the line between inclusiveness and tokenization can be in an industry as commodified as music. Some were sympathetic to Polachek’s concerns. “I understand her to mean that she just wants to perform like any other man gets to: to have her music just be music, and not “music made by a woman,” wrote Jezebel’s Hazel Cills. Meanwhile, others called out Polachek’s statement as misguided, especially since she’s a white artist who's enjoyed much more exposure than the other featured artists. “If Only The Marginalized Artists That Are Given More Support By This Fest Had The Privilege You Did To “Drop” It. Solidarity Counts Girl,” wrote fellow artist Suzi Analog on Twitter.
On Twitter, Moogfest 2018 artist Stud1nt called Polachek out for her privilege: “lol this is such a corny, unnuanced response from an entitled yt womxn who only feels power when in proximity to men, Moogfest isn’t even curated by a man.” Looking to learn more about viewpoints from an artist’s perspective, The Outline reached out to others included in the lineup announcement and found that their response was as mixed as the public’s. Of the handful that were willing to comment, most said they were unaware of Moogfest’s curatorial theme for the lineup announcement, including musician Alison Chesley, who performs under the stage name Helen Money. In an email to The Outline, Chesley said that even though she wasn’t informed she would be marketed this way, she’s still looking forward to the festival. “I certainly don't want to be ghettoized or condescended to because I’m a woman, but I hardly think that’s happening here,” wrote Chesley. “That kind of implies that when you select based on being a women [sic] you're losing quality. The line-up argues against this.”
Artists Maliibu Miitch and Nicole Mitchell expressed similar sentiments. “I'm glad to see festivals including MoogFest making a conscious effort to be inclusive and to celebrate diversity in their programming,” wrote Mitchell in an email. In conversation with The Outline Miitch stated that she has never performed in a festival specifically highlighting women and that she was excited about the opportunity: “[Including me] was them seeing who I am and then understanding from the music, from what I post, and my choice of style.”
Though Polachek is the only artist to have dropped out of Moogfest, she’s not alone in feeling tokenized. Caterina Barbieri and Kali Malone of multimedia duo Upper Glossa were uncomfortable with the lineup announcement, as they did not consent to their artistic identity being marketed on the basis of their gender. “This booking agenda felt like a marketing gimmick and that’s why we are offended, because they didn’t ask us first and assumed that the femme issue is something we naturally incorporate in our artistic practice because we’re women,” they told The Outline. “And by doing this so carelessly, Moog displayed ignorance and a lack of sensitivity to the severe issue they’re attempting to address.” By the end of the same day she released her statement, Polachek issued a longer clarification of her position, doubling down on the assertion that organizers including her in the lineup was “exploitative and unprofessional” and that festivals should endeavor to “position inclusivity as normal.”
Are festivals highlighting people with marginalized identities, including women, still relevant? Absolutely.
This conversation will not resolve the issue of gender dominance at music festivals, though the mild frenzy Polachek inspired may make organizers more careful about consulting with artists before marketing them alongside a political agenda. Are festivals highlighting people with marginalized identities, including women, still relevant? Absolutely. In looking at how exclusive music continues to be for everyone except white men, it’s impossible to argue otherwise. The saga here is well-worn territory, but it’s re-emphasized how as society seeks to de-essentialize gender, consent is just as critical as diversity. That and, considering the attention Polachek’s statement drew, just how easy it is, even in a group without men, for one privileged voice to eclipse all others.