A few things first:
1. Frank Turner is my favourite songwriter / artist / entertainer for a whole bunch of reasons. I’ve been fangirling over him on this blog many, many times and will continue to do so.
2. I’m a white, straight, cis European woman.
3. I’m a feminist.
4. I am excited and happy that my favourite artist is using his plattform to shine light on some of the many women who’s stories have been ignored by historical records. Or in other words: Frank Turner doing the whole “No Man’s Land” project (album and podcast) is a good thing in my opinion! [As I’ve mentioned already months ago at the end of this post]
In a bit I will explain why I am fully on board with this project and why I’m really looking forward to it. I will also try to counter some of the critisicm, that has been hurled at Frank on Twitter (my main social media) in context of this new release. I’m not sure I’m better equipped to do that than the Sleeping Souls, who had his back these past few days (I love you guys for that!), but I want to put my two cents in regardless, because I personally think a lot of the critisicm was uncalled for. Some I still don’t understand even after exchanging a few tweets with the person who was criticising. And some wasn’t critisicm but just plain rudeness and not worth paying attention to.
But first of all I need to examine my own reaction to the backlash to the album announcement (release of first song and podcast), because to be honest: I was surprised by the negative reactions to it. I still haven’t gotten a good grasp of the magnitude and / or multitude of critical voices. Twitter and Facebook are not the most reliable tools to measure that, because we’ve all experienced over the last few years, that negative voices on these services tend to get more exposure and traction. Maybe the Frank Turner haters are just louder than his friends, but that doesn’t make the haters’ arguments any more valid, does it? I also caught myself in a classic “can’t avert my eyes from the trainwreck” situation, when I kept reading through endless Twitter and a bit of Facebook threads, in which some critics were just piling on and on. That wasn’t healthy for my state of mind, so I wanted to step away and definitely not get involved. I also wanted to stay out of it, because for a short while I questioned the validity of my own feminist opinion. Was my fangirl bias clouding my judgement? Do I really know or understand a marginalised woman’s plight? I consider myself a feminst, but I don’t claim to be very knowledgable in feminist theory / history from a sociological angle. I don’t think about feminsm or women’s right issues 24/7 and I’m well aware that not having to think about or fight for womens’ (my own) rights 24/7 is a privilege. So, am I actually entitle to utter an opinion and defend Frank and this project? Self-doubt and imposter syndrom and so on. But then I thought: Fuck it! I AM a woman! Of course I have the right to say my piece.
Personally I’ve always considered Frank’s songs a huge source of inspiration to myself. Whether he’s singing about situations / relationships I find myself in. Or emotions I have to work through over and over again. Inspiring me to question my way of thinking about some things. Not necessarily changing my way of thinking to fit Frank’s, but to at least take pause and re-evaluate. That’s a good thing. Some of Frank’s songs or anecdotes during a show or statement in interviews pique my interest in the way that I look up some of the historical / political references. That’s a good thing. My favourite artist singing about interesting women who I haven’t heard (much) about yet and thus educating me – and other listeners – about them and maybe make me want to read more about those women? That’s a good thing. I’ve heard a few of the songs live already and I enjoyed and even loved most of them. So… Frank writing songs I will enjoy listening and singing along to? That’s a good thing! Working with a female producer and exclusively female group of musicians, graphic artist etc. on this album? That’s a good thing!
From my own experience of following Frank’s work (music, shows, interviews etc) these past few years, I consider him an ally to feminism and women’s rights issues. Supporting Safe Gigs For Women and other organisations. Doing his best to call out misogyny at his shows. Trying to regulary put female artists / bands on his support bill. All these are good things. Is he doing all he can? I don’t know. Could he do more? I don’t know. I see what he’s been doing so far and that’s plenty. More than I see other male artists do, though I admit I don’t follow any other artist’s work as closely as I follow Frank’s. But also plenty more than I see a lot of other men and women do in their everyday life; including myself sometimes. And thus I was so baffled to see so many up on the barricades against this project and/or him.
The main argument against it?
As a man he can’t possibly speak for women. Men have been doing it for centuries and they (here: Frank) should just shut up and let women talk and tell their own stories.
As a woman I do have a problem with this kind of generalisation. I don’t see Frank trying to speak “for” women as long as those women can (still) speak for themselves. Not in these songs and certainly not in general. In my eyes these days he does everything he can to let women speak for themselves, by bringing them along on tour, by sharing stuff on twitter, by giving them a plattform at his shows and festivals. But I also don’t like this generalisation in the context of writing a song / creating art inspired by historical female figures. It’s assuming that this particular man today can never do these women’s stories justice, because… the many many men who came before him didn’t. And that’s just a too much of a stereotype for my taste.
The way I see it, Frank isn’t trying to speak for these women, but trying to acknowledge them and to share the interesting, impressive stories of their lives. Frank is a great storyteller – in his songs, anecdotes, books, interviews – and he is an avid history nerd, so I think we can all trust him to get the facts straight and to write songs worth listening to. The one song of this collection I’ve heard most so far (2-3 times yet) is “Jinny Bingham’s Ghost”. As a 21st century woman I don’t claim to have a better idea of what Jinny’s life in the 17th century must have been like than the 21st century male historian and songwriter, who researched the facts and wrote the song. The same goes for many of the other women he’s singing about. Dora Hand in the Wild West. Mata Hari. Byzantine princess Kassiani? Many of those stories haven’t been told yet and thus I consider it a good thing that a talented and competent songwriter (and historian!!) uses his plattform to do so. From all I know about Frank I trust him to tell those stories respectfully. By the way I hated the inclusion of the term “male gaze” in the NME blog, because to me that’s loaded with a “men sexually objectiving women” meaning especially from the movie / TV scene and I don’t think that applies here at all. And to be totally honest: I possibly wouldn’t listen to a whole album about these women, if it were written and sung by female artists I don’t know. Some might slay me for that, but if I had to choose between listening to Frank sing about historical women or someone new (whatever gender) I haven’t heard of yet? I will choose Frank over the unknown one. And that’s not really Frank’s fault!
Looking back on the mayhem on Twitter these past few days I think it might have been a bad choice to pick “Sister Rosetta” as the first song, while stating in a press release about the whole project, that “if there was a crowded field of people writing songs about Princess Kassiani then I would see the argument for me bowing out, but there isn’t. [….] No-one else is writing these songs right now. That’s why I want to share these stories.” Because as I’ve learned by now Sister Rosetta is the one woman from this collection who has indeed inspired other artists (black women, but also many others) to write songs about her. I understand why as a musician Frank might have wanted to start the series by honoring the overlooked woman in the history of rock’n’roll, but of course all this combined gave some critics enough ammunition to not only make it about women but also about race.
One last thing still worth remembering though is, that Frank is presenting this album and podcast in his “social role” of being an entertainer! He’s not an educator or a politician or activist pushing any kind of agenda with this, other than sharing his creative art and the interests that inspired this art. And I can’t repeat it often enough: To me that’s a good thing!
I promise the rest of this post won’t be as long. But I want to adress some more of the criticism I read online these past few days.
He should have used his plattform to let women tell those women’ stories. (Include female singers, songwriters on this project)
See above, he’s providing women with a plattform on his tours and on other occassions. By releasing this album and singing these songs he’s not taking away any other female artists chance to do something similar. Someone on Twitter argued that he would limit other female artists exposure, because he’s reaching a bigger audience and thus his songs would be more known. But that’s not his fault. To me the alternative would have been: Not making this album. But that would also make it more difficult for people like me to be exposed to these kind of interesting, potentially inspiring stories. Yes, I could have read them all up on my own if I’d started looking. But like I said above, I’m not a feminist activist 24/7, so I appreciate gettin my information and inspiration in a neat, entertaining package from my favourite artist. And yes, again to me that’s a good thing.
He’s making a profit from womens’ stories (or even their suffering). He should donate the profits to a womens rights group.
I don’t want spend too much time on the whole outdated idea that making a record is a profitable business idea nor explain that Frank does indeed quite a bit of charity work (gigs etc) for various causes, Safe Gigs For Women among them. I want to focus on the fact that he is an artist. Songwriter. Entertainer. He’s making a living by selling / performing the art HE creates! I don’t quite get how Frank writing / performing songs about historical women can be seen as exploiting those women or even worse: women in general, to such a degree that he needs to compensate for this exploitation by giving away his wages.
And by the way if getting rich were his main drive for making this album or any kind of music or playing shows, he’d had started selling expensive VIP or Meet & Greet tickets long ago. The demand among female (and probably male) fans would be there and it would be money made much easier than writing songs about historical women and suffering through the online backlash for it.
Making money off women’s backs! That’s so typical for this privately educated, white, rich Tory scumbag. [Paraphrased of course]
I have no idea who Frank Turner is, but… HOW DARE HE?
Nope. I don’t want to spend my energy on a reply here and neither on those who so obviously just want to stir trouble by misquoting him and such. Most interesting to me in this context were the white people being mad at Frank for daring to tell a black person’s story. Oh, the irony!
I’m drifting into passive agressive bitchy mode right now and that’s not a place I want to go. Be More Kind and all that. So, summed up: I’m happy and excited about this new album and podcast. Because it provides me with potentially great new songs from my favourite artist, while also educating me about interesting women, whom I didn’t know before. It’s a win/win for me. And I expected many more (female) fans to feel the same, so the negative backlash surprised and saddened me. Especially once the discussion got heated and personal and veered away from the actual topic of discussion. As I have stated above: I not only consider Frank an ally to my cause of feminism, but also my favourite artist, whom I’ve gotten to know as a kind, humble and downright lovely human being. And thus I get defensive when I see him being unfairly or even worse viciously attacked. I am a fangirl after all.