Photo Credit: Cultura/Steve Prezant

By Amy Zimmerman

Originally Posted 26 August 2015 at

Women’s Music Industry Horror Stories: Abuse, Sexism, and Erasure

Women took to Twitter to share their tales of music biz struggles. Their heartbreaking stories paint a disturbing portrait of an industry rife with misogyny.

On Monday, Pitchfork Senior Editor Jessica Hopper asked the Twitterverse: “Gals/other marginalized folks: what was your 1st brush (in music industry, journalism, scene) w/ idea that you didn’t ‘count’?” What followed were hundreds of responses, mostly detailing the tragic timeline of any chick who dares to like music, thus infringing on the safe spaces of country bros and alt-rock dudes. Hopper’s retweets tell a pretty predictable story: girl develops interest in a music scene, girl is endlessly scrutinized and told that her fandom is illegitimate/invalid, girl is mistaken for a groupie or a girlfriend, girl is harassed/groped/assaulted at shows.

Various tropes are repeated over and over again, like a riff you’ve heard too many times before: an aspiring bassist being told by a music teacher that bass is for boys, or a teenager being asked by her dubious male classmates to recite a band’s entire discography in order to prove her fan cred. The narrative gets even more disturbing and specific when you start charting the testimonials of women who pursued careers as musicians, sound engineers, executives, and journalists. The recurring message is that, for women, the music industry is a Banksy-designed Choose Your Own Adventure book, with each career path containing its own lady-specific land mines.

Rampant misogyny is the music industry’s worst kept secret. Recently, legendary rapper—and the richest musician on the planet—Dr. Dre finally apologized for a lifetime of physical and emotional abuse against women. The apology stemmed from outrage over Straight Outta Compton, the N.W.A biopic, which topped the box office without addressing Dre’s problematic past. In her essay “Here’s What’s Missing From Straight Outta Compton: Me and the Other Women Dr. Dre Beat Up,” rapper and television personality Dee Barnes described the night in 1991 when Dre “straddled me and beat me mercilessly on the floor of the women’s restroom.” Dre later told Rolling Stone, “It ain’t no big thing—I just threw her through a door.” He pleaded no contest to Barnes’s assault charges and settled with her out of court for an undisclosed sum.

Dre’s history of violence against women was similarly uncontested. Everyone knew that Dr. Dre beat up women—they just didn’t really care. Michel’le, an R&B singer and Dr. Dre’s former girlfriend, explained, “I’ve been talking about my abuse for many, many years, but it has not gotten any ears until now,” before detailing how her relationship with one of hip-hop’s greats left her with “black eyes, a cracked rib and scars.” Singer Tairrie B is Dre’s third known music industry victim—the rapper punched her twice in the face at a Grammys after party in 1990. Straight Outta Compton director (and Barnes’s ex-cameraman) F. Gary Gray explained away the exclusion of these incidents by insisting that “we had to make sure we served the narrative… it wasn’t about side stories.”

The injustices that women face in the music industry range from micro (“no, I’m not dating someone in the band, and no, I don’t want to date you”) to debilitating (assault and/or constant fear of violence).

After decades of having his assault history dismissed as extraneous, Dr. Dre’s short New York Times apology feels like an insultingly small price to pay for his barely blemished legacy. Dre is currently enjoying the success of his new album Compton; the sale of his unfortunately named music company, Beats by Dr. Dre, made him the self-proclaimed “first billionaire in hip-hop.” Meanwhile, Dee Barnes was “blacklisted” from the industry by hip-hop insiders who didn’t want to jeopardize their relationships with the all-powerful D-R-E.

Straight Outta Compton doesn’t just erase Dre’s female victims—it also denies the influence of his female contemporaries. Female artists like J.J. Fad, Jewell, The Lady of Rage, Michel’le, and Tairrie B are notably absent from the biopic. Apparently, any woman who isn’t a half-naked groupie or a video girl is chopping block fodder in F. Gary Gray’s interpretation of the hip-hop world. While the history of women in hip-hop runs parallel to the story that Straight Outta Compton tells, it’s effectively silenced. When N.W.A’s swagger is so amplified, and Dr. Dre’s apology so well-executed as to appear almost sincere, it’s easy to ignore the female artists and victims who have spent decades screaming to be heard. Imagine an industry where the presence of women is not only discouraged, but also flat-out denied—that’s the vision that earned F. Gary Gray a $24.2 million opening day.

In her essay, Barnes writes that, “Accurately articulating the frustrations of young black men being constantly harassed by the cops is at Straight Outta Compton’s activistic core. There is a direct connection between the oppression of black men and the violence perpetrated by black men against black women. It is a cycle of victimization and reenactment of violence that is rooted in racism and perpetuated by patriarchy.” That being said, labeling hip-hop culture (i.e. black men) as the main source of music industry misogyny is a gross misreading of the cycle that Barnes is describing. No, black men are not inherently more violent—no, movie theaters, you do not have to request increased security in preparation for black fans at Straight Outta Compton showings.

Obviously, hip-hop is a handy scapegoat for #AllLivesMatter advocates and their similarly addled forebears. Making America great again all too often seems to involve chastising rappers for violent videos, while ignoring the deeply dysfunctional music cultures flourishing just left of the dial. What Hopper’s Twitter disruption does so well is highlight how misogyny plagues the music industry at large. As any college-aged girl will tell you, a penchant for alternative scenes and liberal politics can often mask some abhorrently outdated ideas about gender. A Bikini Kill T-shirt does not a male feminist make. The initial betrayal comes when a female outsider leaves mainstream scenes on a quest for a more niche set of sounds and sites—only to find that even in the big wide alternative world, women are still ostracized as other and less than.