Book review by Ngaire Ruth

The book’s title is a question: Why are there so few women producers?

It’s not a new conversation at LW HQ. When writing for the weekly music paper Melody Maker I had my own feminist agenda in this area: reference by name any women sound engineers in the live review.

To the music production students I teach, it seems less important; the popular discussions being whether the big studios will survive the next decade, which leads to how the marginalisation of digital technology and media has given women musicians, artists, producers, the freedom from everyday sexism, and worse.

Hey there! She’s at the Controls brings hard evidence of gender discrimination in the less visible world of music production, and is a valuable tool for multi-disciplinary DIY feminist punks as much as the juicy quotes will be for music undergraduates’ future research projects. It’s supportive and instructive to future women in the field, and for all feminists it presents new thinking, and a phrase to play with: gender ventriloquism. Reddington defines this as

“situations where men control the sound (and often the lyrical content) of songs that are supposedly empowering for women and girls”.

Helen Reddington, She’s At The Controls, p.120

This book is also an important archive in terms of giving a voice to the invisibles – the women engineers, mixers and producers – not just the ones in the public arena, as Reddington elaborates, concerned with “the aesthetics of the end product”. It’s this detail around the multiple workplace environments and informed understanding of the skills set to represent (in the primary research) that make it such a treasure. Inclusivity and multiplicity are consistent themes, threaded into each chapter. The case studies that focus on starting out in the industry show how different the roles of a producer or engineer can be, and how complex each role is, which also multiply and develop new job descriptions, that shift with technological progression (Chapter 1).

No surprise that Dr Helen Reddington, senior lecturer at East London University and BIMM London, is an official Loud Woman, as performer and mentor (she’s in the Reclaim These Streets single). She’s also the author of Lost Women of Rock Music: Female Musicians of the Punk Era.

She’s at the Controls provides hard evidence that reinforce and expand issues around stereotyping in EDM (Chapter 7); relationships with colleagues and clients (Chapter 4); the male culture of the studio (Chapter 5); access to education and professional role models and mentors (Chapter 8).

It makes compelling reading when it comes to the outright prejudice and its consequences for various genres, and the history of music in general, particularly in the case of the female pop star. Reddington’s research on songwriting, production and the mediation of women’s voices, and the concept of gender ventriloquism, is a need-to-know for women in the music business. DIY or professional. The book goes some way to normalising roles of women in the music industry. For example, Reddington takes for granted things like women artists also work as engineers or producers to supplement their living.

We’ve all heard stories or experienced mansplaining over equipment, even sabotage, and the reputation of evil and dominating producers is public knowledge.  Here though, it’s the context, the book’s choice of themes, and Reddington’s critical discussion,  which bring these valuable verbatim quotes from the mouths of professionals to life. Reddington leads good points into the 21st Century. You’re left with a fresh perspective on significant debates, because now you have the context, often with helpful reference back to the root of the theory, or viewpoint from feminist practitioners like Judith Butler, Lucy O’Brien, Sheila Whitley, Angie McRobbie (to name a few). The latter, McRobbie for example, identified how social and cultural analysis of youth culture, case in point being Dick Hebdige’s Subculture the Meaning of Style (1987), excluded women, except as objects of meaning (girlfriend of a boy in the band, a passive observer). Similarly, there were no discussions around what it was like for the girlfriends that the amphetamine-fuelled, hyped-up Mods came home to. These feminist perspectives combined, were the background to phenomena like Riot Grrrl.

Here’s a writer who knows the author is dead, announces she has constantly checked for her insider and outsider voice, a voice that is non-binary and intersectional. You can tell She’s at the Controls took ten years to write,  it’s almost too perfect a package in terms of content, reflected in the pages, small type, tight on the page. The cover is grey with bold geometric shapes of primary colours, the latter seems to be a theme for contemporary feminist voices in my book collection. When I’m searching for it on the shelf, I always think I’m looking for a yellow book – it’s sunshine, it’s hope, it’s a job done that was overdue.  You can read any which way, though not upside down. Luckily, it’s a paperback comfortable about being folded back, and annotated; the annotations are important for when it comes to passing it on (in death only, in my case, get your own copy).  

FACT FANS: Chapter 6 really compliments Kristin Lieb’s (2016) theory of the Lifecyle of a Female Pop Star, (Gender, Branding and the Modern Music Industry); can guarantee a cat-who-got-the-cream feeling because now it all makes even more sense.

Grab a copy of the book direct from the publisher here and check out the author’s singer-songwriter work as Helen McCookerybook on Facebook

Ngaire Ruth started writing for the underground cultural press in the late 80’s for Buzz magazine, a rag which spawned a Nirvana press officer, an editor of an awarding winning dance magazine, and a generous pinch of photographers and writers who gravitated towards the National music press of the 90’s, New Musical Express and Melody Maker. As a weekly writer for the Melody Maker (1989- 2000) both as Ngaire, and Ngaire Ruth, she brought P J Harvey, Blur and Seal to the table – among many others; saw Nirvana third of the bill in a tiny pub venue in Shepherd’s Bush embraced the Riot Grrrl phenomena. She moved into online journalism as a section editor in 2011- 2015 for the girls are, a magazine with feminism at its root, and helped build a successful site that took music journalism forward. She moved into academia five years ago, combining her teaching skills (PGCE) with her professional specialism’s music, media, and feminist theory, in respect of the music industry - now working with mixed pathways music undergraduates at the Academy of Contemporary Arts. She is an author for the F Word, writing with a feminist perspective, and currently writing a book.