Dude vs. Chick Rock: Is There a Music Gender Divide?

Rush and Metric both drop new albums this week—but only one of them has a song about kittens

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If you spend enough time at the nail salon… (Oops did I lose all the male readers already? Patience will be rewarded with a review of the new Rush album, I promise…) Anyway, if you spend enough time at the temple of femininity known as the nail salon, you start to recognize a genre of music known fondly as chick rock. Chick rock is not exclusively listened to by women, but it is the music that nail salon owners feel comfortable putting on repeat knowing that their customer base will appreciate the first listen and won’t mind the second or third. Adele typifies the mainstream iteration of this type of music; Metric a more indie version. Before you pull out the tar and feathers, wait… There’s more on that later. A nail salon I visited recently had Adele’s concert DVD on continuous play in the back of the salon. The camera would occasionally cut to the audience and there you would see it: seas of women beaming in joy with the occasional man sprinkled in the audience, usually rubbing the back of his date. The men didn’t look unhappy, they just looked like this was quid pro quo for taking their dates to a “boy” concert. Something like Rush, perhaps.

Rush is a band that has garnered legions of lifelong fans who are now aging rockers eager to introduce Neil Peart’s drum solos to the next generation. The new album, Clockwork Angels, the band’s 19th, provides those lifer fans exactly what they are looking for: Wild instrumental runs from Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee paired with extreme drumming from Peart and obtuse, darkly metal lyrics about fire and steel and fighting. If you’re a fan of Rush, you’ll be eager to add this album to your collection and crank it up on your MP3 player. That said, there’s something about Rush that feels like it should only be listened to in your parents’ wood-paneled basement or in the garage where your mom banished you and your boom box. Listening to Rush on an iPod feels anachronistic, despite the fact that the band has been working to sate their current fanbase’s need for Lee’s dark howls, Lifeson’s guitar riffs, and the trademark Peart drum fills with a moderately updated sound for modern listeners.

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The album’s 12 tracks were recorded with producer Nick Raskulinecz, who has worked with the likes of the Foo Fighters and the Deftones. Raskulinecz seems to have added some freshness to the band’s sound and material. Rush didn’t make it easy on him, though, opting to craft a concept album (surprisingly a first for the band) that, according to a description in the press release, sounds like a cross between Indiana Jones, Dungeons & Dragons and the Legend of Zelda. The album “chronicles a young man’s quest across a lavish and colorful world of steampunk and alchemy as he attempts to follow his dreams. The story features lost cities, pirates, anarchists, an exotic carnival and a rigid Watchmaker who imposes precision on every aspect of daily life.” In a brilliant marketing move, a novelization of the album is being written by science fiction writer Kevin J. Anderson in collaboration with Peart, the band’s lyricist.

If you’re a lifelong Rush fan, you will probably love this album, but I’m not sure it will garner new fans. It sounds like Rush through and through, and while I admire their skill and longevity, I’m not really a fan of Rush, and this album didn’t win me over. It is a phenomenon perhaps best explained (like most things) by a quote from Freaks and Geeks. Jason Segel’s Nick brings Linda Cardellini’s Lindsay to his house to show off his drum kit:

Nick: Check it out man, that’s, uh, 14 mounted toms, eight floor toms, four splashes, two gongs, 10 cowbells, four rides, five snares, a rototom rack, and it’s all mounted on my infamous quadruple kick drum system. Six more pieces and I got a bigger set than Neil Peart from Rush, yeah.

Lindsay: That’s great, Nick.

“That’s great” sums up my emotional response to Rush. Yes, Neil Peart is a skilled drummer with the biggest drum kit and the fastest fills. Yes, Geddy Lee’s bass playing is phenomenal and Alex Lifeson’s guitar chops are virtuosic. That’s great. I still don’t want to listen to it more than I have to. Songs about pirates and steampunks set to a noodley prog rock beat just aren’t for me. But women aren’t Rush’s target audience, and I think women are happy to return the favor: I don’t think there are that many female Rush fans out there. I’m sure they exist and will undoubtedly pop up to tell me how wrong I am and show off their Starman tattoos or pictures of themselves in 2112 t-shirts. Still, I think there are as many female Rush fans as there are ardent male admirers of Metric.

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Listening to Emily Haines sing about “sipping cocktails in the loo” on the catchy track “Lost Kitten,” it seems clear that I am the target audience for the band’s new album, Synthetica. While there’s a good chance the lyrics in “Lost Kitten” were  meant ironically, still: A driving beat over a sing-songy playground chant about kittens (metaphorical or not) equals a female demographic. It’s chick rock and that is not a bad thing at all. “Chick” tends to be used derogatorily when it comes to “lit” or “flicks” or music—as a denomination to justify harsh or dismissive reviews of female-oriented culture by male critics. But most critics that review Metric albums are, in fact, female. (The men who do review the band tend to include justifications for doing so outside of the music. For example, Jon Dolan at Rolling Stone dubbed her a “perennial indie crush.”) Rush, on the other hand, is reviewed almost exclusively by men. But chick rock (or lit or movies) can also just be precisely that: Music for women that women (and undoubtedly a lot of men, if they gave it a chance) will really enjoy. The term chick rock is not a bad thing, nor is it meant at all to be demeaning. On the contrary, I relate to the topics addressed in Metric’s new tracks more than I relate to, say, a concept album about alchemist Watchmakers.

No one has quite captured what I think of as chick rock so well as HBO’s Girls. There has never been a truer moment of women immersed in music than watching two twenty-somethings rockin’ out to Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” alone in their apartment late at night. Did most girls “get” that scene? Probably. Did most guys? I have no idea. I do know that while Robyn was the perfect choice for that scene, a track from Metric’s new album could easily have been swapped in for comparable effect. Synethetica’s first single, “Youth on Youth,” has a driving beat sprinkled with lyrics like “playing double dutch with a hand grenade,” which is perfect summer listening for girls who feel (or felt) like outsiders in high school. (Read: Pretty much all girls.) “Breathing Underwater” is filled with soaring beats that harks to Haines’ other band, Broken Social Scene, and seems ready-made for licensing in a Gossip Girl episode. “Dreams So Real” is an audacious all-systems-go anthem that asks, “Have I ever really helped anyone but myself/To believe in the power of girls.” It’s a good question, to which I don’t know the answer, but when I hear the underlying urgency in the track, I get it. I don’t doubt that this is how many people feel about Rush. And you know what? That’s great.

I don’t think anyone can ever ascertain whether boy rock or chick rock is better, and I don’t think the exercise would be worth the effort. I do think there is a belief among record executives—one that is probably not true but lingers on life support anyway—that men won’t listen to bands with female singers. It’s the same phenomenon that affects television: Boys supposedly won’t watch movies or TV shows with female leads. Movies like Bridesmaids and television shows like Girls and The New Girl are challenging those long-held notions. As bands like Metric or Regina Spektor continue to put out solid, accessible rock music, or as performers like Nicki Minaj and newcomers like Azealia Banks rise up, hopefully the notions of boy music and girl music will disappear.

In short, listen to what you want, and don’t feel guilty about it, not if you find yourself drawn to stereotypical chick rock or boy rock or even (* gasp*) boy bands. And if you are worried about being judged for your musical taste, you can always listen to The Beatles. Everyone likes The Beatles, even Rolling Stones fans. Well, maybe not all Stones fans.

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