Yesterday The Washington Post published “Why My Guitar Gently Weeps,” an interesting story on the electric guitar that looks at the pervasiveness of guitar culture in the 60s-80s, the decline that started with the introduction of drum machines and continues today with laptop-based music production, and how the guitar industry is dealing with the dwindling market for their signature instrument.
The article is subtitled “the slow, secret death of the six-string electric,” and cites real evidence that things aren’t what they used to be. But it also contradicts its own narrative. Or rather, it would contradict its own narrative if it recognized something simple: girl guitarists count too.
Instead, the article opens with a guitar dealer’s plea, “what we need is guitar heroes,” and proceeds to discuss guitar heroes as creatures of the past. Having established the non-existence of present-day guitar heroes, the article ends with a revelation: Taylor Swift has been inspiring girls to learn guitar. According to Philip McKnight, who ran a guitar academy in Arizona, the percentage of female students at his academy went from below 10% before 2010 to around 60% after 2012. Taylor Swift was the number one reason these girls gave for picking up the guitar.
Rather than see in this phenomenon the makings of a come-back story, or at least a ray of hope for the electric guitar, however, the finding is belittled. Fender CEO Andy Mooney is quoted as the authoritative word: “I don’t think that young girls looked at Taylor and said, ‘I’m really impressed by the way she plays G major arpeggios. They liked how she looked, and they wanted to emulate her.'” The “death of the electric guitar” narrative is allowed to stand, even though it’s now been shown really to be a story of fewer boys inspired by Eric Clapton or Eddie Van Halen (who, the assumption seems to be, are in it for authentic reasons of the music as opposed to mere looks).
Rather than let Mooney’s dismissive comment stand, the author might have spent more time with McKnight. For something McKnight has also pointed out – but that goes unmentioned in the Post article – is that while there are more girls playing electric guitar, they are ill-served by the guitar industry. As he explains in this video:
we noticed that we didn’t have any products for them. And what we really noticed is this industry has a strange kind of philosophy called shrink it and pink it. In other words they take every guitar and they just make it smaller and pink…and then they go, ‘that’s for a girl!’ which is stupid….but the more important thing is that, they’re not even acknowledging that girls really are the same guitar players they just maybe have slightly different tastes.
“Why My Guitar Gently Weeps,” unfortunately, confirms McKnight’s assessment: there is still a failure to recognize girls as equally valid and valuable guitar players, who maybe have different tastes. Likewise, with a few notable exceptions – like the ergonomically-friendly St. Vincent signature guitar from Ernie Ball – little progress has been made in the way of product development. So it seems the guitar world, and especially the electric guitar industry still have opportunities to learn – and with that, maybe also to grow.
Read more about the significance of women in the history of the electric guitar at Play Like a Girl, by Alicia Borromeo.
An excerpt from my book, Haydn’s Sunrise, Beethoven’s Shadow: Audiovisual Culture and the Emergence of Musical Romanticism (University of Chicago Press, 2016), has been published at the blog Musicology Now. You can read it here: http://musicologynow.ams-net.org/2016/10/audiovisual-returns.html
One critic, writing around 1800, had this to say about Haydn’s oratorio The Creation:
“what can aesthetics have to say to a natural history, or geogony, set to music, where the objects pass before us as in a magic lantern?”
The remark made me to wonder: what is a magic lantern? And why was it so bad for a musical work to be like one?
So began the research journey that has led to the publication of my book, Haydn’s Sunrise, Beethoven’s Shadow: Audiovisual Culture and the Emergence of Musical Romanticism, out now from University of Chicago Press (also available from the usual suspects). In it, you can find out what a magic lantern is (an early form of slide projector), why it was so bad for a musical work to be like one – but also how the links people forged between music and moving-image technologies in the time of Haydn and Beethoven fostered new ways of performing, listening to and thinking about music. As it turns out, there was a vibrant culture of peep and screen media in the eighteenth century that both involved music and informed musical experiences even when the technologies themselves were not present on stage. Beyond magic lanterns, there were telescopes, microscopes, peepshows, shadow-plays and phantasmagorias, which found their way into operas, salons, scientific entertainments and – as in the case of the quote above – the very ways people perceived and described music.
I hope you’ll check it out!
A quick flip through: