Why is (Pop Music) A “Girl Thing”?

We all know that sex is not always a deciding factor in what kind of entertainment a person enjoys. Just because a particular movie or band has a target audience of middle-aged males does not mean that it is incapable of appealing to anyone other than middle-aged women. For example, I used to watch Gilmore Girls with my father all the time, a show that was clearly intended for young women to be watching with their mothers.

Yet is is equally obvious that, indeed, various media products are targeted toward a specific crowd; the Transformers movies toward boys ages 8 through 18, the Twilight books toward adult women, the My Little Pony TV show towards preschool girls and, for some reason, fraternity bros.

Old schooooool

Old schooooool

I listen to a decent amount of radio on my way to and from work every day. I usually switch back and forth between a couple of local stations, and I began to notice major differences in the way each station markets their music.

95.1, also known as WZZO, is the local rock station, playing everything from Metallica to Offspring to the occasional and thoroughly unwelcome Papa Roach. Overall, I think they play good music and I enjoy listening to their station. What I don’t enjoy is the severely sexist and remarkably unfunny “jokes” they record to play in the intervals between commercials and actual music. These little ditties last five seconds at most, but usually take the form of some juvenile, jaw-dragging joke at the expense of, almost invariably, women. They have many of them; a whole day of radio-listening would probably unearth ten or twelve different ones. A recent gem:

Man #1: “Yeah, she’s really funny…”

Man #2: “SHE’S FAT”

Man #!: “She’s got a great personality…”

Man #2: “SHE’S UGLY”

Ohhh, I get it! The subtext was that because he appreciated her for something other than her looks, she must be a hideous cow! How hilariously witty of you, 95.1!

The more I listened, the more I noticed. Not 24 hours after I heard that little shard of comedy gold, I heard the DJ touting the 95.1 website, emphasizing their “Breast Moments of 2013” list, ranking the world’s female chest lumps in order of deliciousness. If that weren’t confirmation enough that this station is aiming for heterosexual male listeners, their frequent advertisements for a sleazy strip club in the area certainly were.

I couldn’t help but feel bewildered by this marketing strategy. Does 95.1 think that they have no female listeners? After all, there I was, sitting in my car, rocking out to Van Halen, until you insisted on throwing offensive and one-sided content my way. I am your customer, motherfucker. Respect it.

Having concluded that 95.1 has male listeners as their target audience, I began to pay attention to another local station, 104.1. Their music is a mix of mostly top 100 hits, with the occasional 90’s pop anthem. I try to avoid this station, but every now and then it can be comparable to coffee in its morning wake-up call abilities.

The main DJ on 104.1 is the one and only Ryan Seacrest, who is apparently famous for being tan and dating blondes. He always sounds like a carny when he comes on, laughing abrasively at his own jokes and hitting on the female DJs. Yet I have been told that his boyish good looks have made him a popular poster-boy among women of all walks of life who want to have sex with a living Ken doll. Strike one.

The very same.

The very same.

The commercials on 104.1 tout a wide variety of products and services, but few that would be entirely unappealing to women. Last time I was in the car I heard one for the Exergen Scanner Thermometer (“Perfect for children!”) and Plato’s Closet (“Spice up your spring wardrobe!”) Nor does their website feature any kind of “Best Racks” list (though to that I say, what? No Best Bulges? What a wasted opportunity), only an advertisement for a nearby bridal showcase. Ding ding ding! The scales were balanced now: A station geared toward men, and one geared toward women, judging by their non-musical content.

As an experiment, I decided to go on the live stream of each station on their respective websites and record the most recent 3 songs played. This would give me a random sampling of their music. Let’s look at the results:

95.1 (“Men’s” Station):

1) Lynyrd Skynyrd – That Smell

2) Def Leppard – Rock of Ages

3) The White Stripes – Seven Nation Army

Was there something about each of these songs that would make them appeal to their respective target audiences?

What do they have in common? For starters, no female vocalists. In fact, very few rock bands are headed by female vocalists. According to this fascinating chart, the artists chosen most often by male Last.fm listeners hardly feature any female singers among them: Slayer, Rush, Iron Maiden, Soilwork, Periphery, Metallica, Gorillaz, Genesis – the list goes on and on. It would seem that the male music listener would rather heard a harder, deeper sound than a lighter, sweeter one. However, the vocal line takes a back seat to the instrumentation in two out of three of these songs. In the Lynyrd Skynyrd song, the repetitive words don’t add much lyricism, and the famous bass line in “Seven Nation Army” is the star of the piece. The third song, “Rock of Ages,” has an interesting vocal line, but it mostly extols the virtues of rock music itself, rater than focusing on some sort of emotional or philosophical subject matter.

104.1 (Women’s Station):

1) Pitbull featuring Ke$ha – Timber

2) Sara Bareilles – Brave

3) The Neighbourhood – Sweater Weather

I couldn’t have been less surprised by the presence of a dancey club anthem. Are women more likely to be dancing to music on the radio? Apparently, yes, since it is societally more acceptable for a woman to outwardly express emotion than it is for a man to do so. The other two are less upbeat, but their lyrics are revealing. The Sara Bareilles song is an ode to self-esteem, and the singer of “Sweater Weather” specifically mentions his love’s “little high-wasited shorts,” a garment well-known to only appeal to women.  Plus, two of these three songs feature a female vocalist. Ke$ha even sings on that Pitbull track! She’s moving up in the world, that one.

Girlfriend even left the house at some point without cornrows in.

Girlfriend even left the house at some point without cornrows in.

Now you know! Musical preferences are not completely arbitrary. These radio stations are affirming their beliefs that women want to listen almost exclusively to current pop hits, while men must prefer a strong rock influence. Fortunately, radio is free, and I can totally listen to 95.1 if I want to. Of course, it would make a lot more sense for marketers to avoid intentionally alienating clients of either sex. Until such day as radio gender segregation is enforced by the police robots, I can enjoy my gender-neutral music in peace.

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One comment

  1. > These radio stations are affirming their beliefs that women want to listen almost exclusively to current pop hits, while men must prefer a strong rock influence.

    Are they affirming a belief, or responding to market research?

    > It would seem that the male music listener would rather heard a harder, deeper sound than a lighter, sweeter one. However, the vocal line takes a back seat to the instrumentation in two out of three of these songs.

    Your description of “male” musical choices does match my own, but Pat Benatar, Heart, The Cranberries and Crooked Still also share a harder, or more complex sound that I enjoy. Music such as Loreena McKennitt’s “The Mummers’ Dance” sends me howling under a pillow like a dog exposed to ultra high frequency. I also don’t care for pop done by men (or boys either). I’m inclined to think that it’s the overall vibe, rather than the specificity of a particular voice.

    You observed: “, since it is societally more acceptable for a woman to outwardly express emotion than it is for a man to do so.”

    Interesting notion. Maybe the free-bobby dance tunes do apply. I don’t know if I’m right, but I’m more inclined to think that music resonates to a certain neurological setup, rather than some sociopolitical interpretation.

    Them’s just my 2 cents, take’em for what they’re worth.

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