4
Aug 10

I Wanna Be A Macro Man

FT10 comments • 348 views

It’s the question that’s on everyone’s lips: what can the Bank of England tell us about women in music criticism?

Radio 4’s Today programme was recently discussing how Kate Barker, the single female on the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) had stepped down, and had been replaced by a man, Dr Martin Weale. A quick catch-up for those of you not fluent in finance: the MPC makes decisions on interest rate levels and tries to control inflation. The results affect pretty much everyone and so ideally the committee’s decisions would reflect the interests of the country as a whole, especially as the credit crunch has made the financial sector appear alarmingly out of touch with ordinary people.

Getting annoyed at the MPC’s gender imbalance may seem like an argument for positive discrimination, or even worse, imply that women are needed for their ‘social outreach’ abilities (displaying a warm, friendly face that the public will trust). The women that appeared on Today dismissed both these trains of thought, and agreed there are plenty of top-class female economists — Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel prize for Economics last year. But only 4 of the 38 candidates for the empty committee seat were women. Why are female economists shunning the MPC?

The evidence shows that most female economists at this level tend to come from an industry background, with practical experience in the markets. MPC members on the other hand almost entirely have their background in academia. The MPC favours the application of macro economics, which (roughly) involves attempting to find umbrella trends throughout the entire economy. Unfortunately, the business-orientated female economists generally agree that macro economics doesn’t actually work in real life. Former Independent economics editor Diane Coyle (one of the Today guests) didn’t actually say “women think macro economics is a load of old bollocks” on the radio but she came fairly close.

So how is this a tenuous metaphor for music criticism? Well, despite the appearance of a male-dominated culture, there is no shortage of female music critics either. However many of them tend to avoid traditional review-based music journalism that marks songs out of 10 and constructs all-time top-100 lists, preferring conversations and long-form pieces that leave numbers out of the equation. List-making is the macro economics here: satisfying in theory, but many female writers think it’s just not worthwhile bothering with in real life.

Does gender really matter when talking about music? Could women necessarily contribute something that men couldn’t, just because of their ovaries? Our passive music consumption is certainly over-gendered: not the CDs we buy or the websites we visit, but the songs heard while clothes-shopping, or on adverts for computer games (products aimed at both sexes, but compare Girls Aloud cooing at their Nintendogs to Eminem’s bilious ranting over footage of Call of Duty 2). Alexandra Burke is currently flaunting her perfect armpits for Sure and you can set your watch by how often Muse turn up during Formula 1 racing coverage. Music remains firmly targeted at demographics whether those demographics like it or not, and so men and women who are equally passionate about the same music will probably bring different experiences of it to the table.

These days we don’t need critics to tell us what a song sounds like — if we bother to read a music blog then it’s likely that we are interested in the writer’s opinion, formed by how they relate to the artist or the music. This obviously affects the kind of music that gets covered in the first place: to construct a rather stereotypical example, who would be best qualified (and willing) to write competently about a member of S Club Juniors who had chosen to release a song about the devastating social impact of My Little Pony? Someone who has experienced the horror first hand, of course — be they male or female. Without that background Calvin’s magnum opus likely wouldn’t be written about at all.

The experts interviewed on Today agreed that although gender was largely irrelevant to economics, there should be a mixture of both business and academic backgrounds on the MPC, not least to avoid the reinforcement of bad habits and general risk-taking idiocy. Similarly, to avoid becoming obsolete, the world of music criticism needs a balance between in-depth debate, top 100 lists, and developing mad macro-critical theories to prove how Lady Gaga’s lobster outfit is somehow linked to the new Belle & Sebastian album. Exploring our different musical experiences may not be as vital to the world as economic stability, but if we’re going to bother at all then we must make it as rich and varied as possible.

Comments

  1. 1
    koganbot on 4 Aug 2010 #

    Sorry, but the analogy doesn’t work at all. Record reviewing and listmaking aren’t remotely analogous to macroeconomics. Record reviewing is about evaluating a single commercial unit – the album or the single – whereas macroeconomics is about understanding economies as a whole, and the effect of policy on the economy. The music-critic equivalent of macroeconomics isn’t the record review but meta-discussions and articles like the one you’ve just written. Of course, back in the day writers who wrote record reviews often tried to turn them into essays about the broader world, but that sort of criticism was beaten down commercially in the ’90s. In any event, unless you’re an out-and-out anti-intellectual and reactionary, you’re not going to say that macro-economics doesn’t matter or that macro-criticism shouldn’t exist (which isn’t what you’re saying, but I don’t know what you’re saying, actually).

    Unfortunately, the business-orientated female economists generally agree that macro economics doesn’t actually work in real life.

    I don’t really know what this means, but if the people on the panel are saying that interest rates and tax policy and government spending and reglation (or lack thereof) and the actions of large corporations etc. have no effect on the market or on inflation and unemployment or on whether or not economies function at high capacity or fall into recessions and depressions, then I wouldn’t want the people on the panel to have anything to do with the MPC. If macroeconomics doesn’t work, then what do they propose to replace it with? Or should we just not think about economies as a whole? (By the way, if the MPC is like the U.S. Fed, this is an inaccurate statement: “The MPC makes decisions on interest rate levels and tries to control inflation.” If it’s like the Fed, it also has employment targets and is responsible for helping to stimulate the economy at times of low output. “Control inflation” is a politically loaded statement at the moment, since if anything we’re threatened with deflation and stagnation, but the supposed hypothetical threat of inflation is being used as a club to beat back any further attempts at stimulus and to not extend unemployment benefits etc. (And I don’t mean to pretend that I know what I’m talking about when it comes to economics; I’m just parroting points I read from Paul Krugman’s blog.))

    The experts interviewed on Today agreed that although gender was largely irrelevant to economics, there should be a mixture of both business and academic backgrounds on the MPC, not least to avoid the reinforcement of bad habits and general risk-taking idiocy.

    Well, the risk-taking idiocy of the ’00s was on the part of the investment banks, of “business,” not of the government – or, anyway, the government’s risk-taking idiocy was to inadequately regulate or monitor the markets. (Again, I’m parroting stuff, but I’ve not heard anyone but wingnuts say anything to the contrary recently.) But also, the experts can’t have it both ways; they can’t argue on the one hand that women are practical in regard to real-life whereas the guys, at least the ones on the MPC, are all pointy-headed academics, and then in the next breath say that gender is largely irrelevant to economics. And you yourself are not arguing that gender is largely irrelevant to music criticism. You’re arguing that women can bring something that guys generally don’t.

    I know I’m not addressing your concerns here. Just don’t want you to innocently buy into what looks like a right-wing view of economics and try to layer it onto a feminist look at music criticism.

  2. 2
    Kat but logged out innit on 4 Aug 2010 #

    See actually *knowing* something about economics spoils the entire thing :)

    What I am saying is basically “Area 1 has superficial similarities to Area 2” with an extra My Little Pony joke tacked on to the end. I am not shattering any earth.

  3. 3
    Mark M on 4 Aug 2010 #

    Yeah, as Frank said. the MPC’s job is to set interest rates, which is, by definition, a macroeconomic decision.
    Also, like Frank said, one of the lessons of the past decade seems to be pretending macroeconomics doesn’t exist is very foolish. (By the way, I’m not sure about the Fed’s remit but the MPC’s primary job is, as Kat said, to control inflation* – growth is meant to be something of a happy by-product of that. In practice, as now, the MPC ignore the inflation target in order to promote growth and employment (which is why I don’t think we’re going to get the interest rate spike everyone fears).

    [*”The Bank’s monetary policy objective is to deliver price stability – low inflation – and, subject to that, to support the Government’s economic objectives including those for growth and employment. Price stability is defined by the Government’s inflation target of 2%. The remit recognises the role of price stability in achieving economic stability more generally, and in providing the right conditions for sustainable growth in output and employment. The Government’s inflation target is announced each year by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the annual Budget statement.”]

  4. 4
    Mark M on 4 Aug 2010 #

    As for your point about music criticism – yes.

  5. 5
    Mark M on 4 Aug 2010 #

    Incidentally, for those who don’t know, one of Britain’s most senior economists is also an old-school indie icon in her spare time.

  6. 6
    Sam on 4 Aug 2010 #

    I give this article four stars out of five.

  7. 7
    koganbot on 5 Aug 2010 #

    (Actually, I have no idea if the Fed has employment targets. And I’m too busy to look.)

  8. 8
    Kat but logged out innit on 6 Aug 2010 #

    Frank/Mark – I may well have misinterpreted what the experts on the radio said then. I don’t think they were saying macro-economics ‘doesn’t exist’, more that not taking into account real-world events that don’t fit in these theoretical models might not be the best idea, so having committee members who have that background would be v useful.

  9. 9
    Kat but logged out innit on 6 Aug 2010 #

    And you yourself are not arguing that gender is largely irrelevant to music criticism. You’re arguing that women can bring something that guys generally don’t.

    Well this is the sticking point, isn’t it? It shouldn’t matter but our gendered music consumption as a society means that it does, so we might as well take advantage of it.

  10. 10
    Tommy Mack on 6 Aug 2010 #

    I’d say the macro-economics of music criticism is stuff like Tony Wilson(RIP)’s 13-year cycle – placing events in pop history in a large-scale pattern. Where macro-criticism goes wrong into pointy-headed navel gazing is when it attempts to place every event into a trend with no sense of perspective (e.g. journos inventing silly scenes like Romo).

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