Woman’s Hour’s list of the most powerful women in music was designed to provoke conversation, though not the one that actually resulted. What was intended as a rocket up the backside of the music world’s failure to acknowledge, reward and foster its dependence on talented women was transformed into a dubious power contest in which 40 females fought it out in a scrappy league table, 39 of them yielding to the all-powerful might of Beyoncé.
Any chart that includes Taylor Swift and Nicola Benedetti has cast its net admirably widely but that was precisely the problem. Of course, we can salute those figures for their galvanizing musicianship. But Woman’s Hour’s list had nothing to do with music and everything to do with some indefinable notion of power. Until, that is, classical music was crowbarred into the picture – a subsidised art form whose drive for social change is residual and whose pursuit of brilliance is mostly not-for-profit. With all respect to Marin Alsop, it was bizarre to see her on the list a few places down from Beyoncé – a figure who has the ear of billions of young women (and men) – precisely because Alsop’s career has been distinguished by something subtler than all-conquering profile, marketability and sexual liberation.
You can hardly blame Jessica Duchen, who was charged with the unenviable and practically impossible task of nominating figures from the classical music sector before dovetailing them into BBC criteria that clearly saw little distinction between ‘music’ and ‘the music business’ (a chronic problem with all the wider Corporation’s attempts to deal seriously with creativity). The point is, what might work for Woman’s Hour’s other power lists (politics, law, business) is a lot more troublesome in the domain of music, art and culture.
Outstanding non-commercial musicians in the year 2018 don’t put much effort into amassing or exercising power, which is why they are outstanding non-commercial musicians. Gillian Moore wields far more power than Benedetti or Alsop, but that goes with the territory of programming London’s most prominent arts centre. In every way, Moore’s activities are positioned a long way, commercially speaking, from Beyoncé’s. But the proximity of the two women on the list – and many more from disparate corners of the sector – brought the whole exercise dangerously close to appearing like an apology for women’s lack of prevalence at the top end of classical music. Such an apology might be due, but we should probably allow men to make it and make good on it. Another of the list’s unintended effects was to underline just how far from the global musical ‘power game’ the entire classical music world lies, which might be a virtue but certainly wouldn’t have been read as one.
Woman’s Hour’s list was followed by a flurry from Norman Lebrecht, who wasted no time telling us who he deemed the most powerful women in classical music in the US and Germany (knowing Norman, it is likely that he dashed off the lists using nothing more than his own extensive knowledge and without consulting any women, but I am sure he will put me right if I am mistaken). The arguments that played out underneath were telling. ‘According to who?’ wrote one commentator; ‘what is power?’ another. A third spoke for many when he claimed to be more interested in Hilary Hahn’s rubato than in how many people follow her on Twitter. Naturally, there were more Johns, Roberts, Brians and Bruces chewing over Lebrecht’s beauty parade than there were Elizabeths and Annas. So, another chance for men to stand in judgment over women. Put that one down as a fail.
The irony is, if the conversation had been about rubato, then the conclusions might well have been more cut and dried – and gender blind. It is the wielding of ‘power’ that has kept women down for centuries and that has seen their talent supressed. If that teaches us anything, it’s that we’d be better off appraising talent itself in all its guises than encouraging those involved in real creativity – women or men – to set their sights on accumulating power.