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Aldous Harding, gender and backlash: ‘She doesn’t need anyone’s permission’

Jessie Moss on Aldous Harding’s disruption of gender norms and her (mostly male) backlash.

This week, on the release of her sophomore album Party and during her skyrocketing ascent to a greater public consciousness, Aldous Harding’s hard graft has been highly lauded. The craft and skill that weaved Party‘s nine songs together have been carefully dissected and analysed here and here. And the list of praise and intrigue is long: the New York Times, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, NPR, Pitchfork and our own RNZ, Under The Radar, NZ Herald, and, of course, The Spinoff.

In March, Lorde endorsed her by tweeting “she is the most interesting artist around”. And like Lorde, she has been singled out time and time again (not always positively) for her on-stage appearance, her movements, and the varied and vast use of her spectacular voice.

Whether you love her or not is beside the point. Her presence and participation in the music industry is important and desperately needed. She continues to pave a path for women who will not be bound by tradition, who know what and how things can be done, and who are massively fucking talented and hardworking.

Aotearoa New Zealand has a long history of women who will not sit down for any reason, who won’t entertain ‘nicely’ while serving tea and cakes, and who are powerful and decisive trailblazers. From Shona Laing to Teremoana Rapley, Emma Paki, Anika Moa, Hollie Smith, Kimbra, Anna Coddington, Coco Solid and more recently Aaradhna, Ria Hall and Estère (the list is inexhaustible) – these women break the mould.

Something to do with our shared heritage of Kate Sheppard, Whina Cooper and Georgina Beyer? Something in the water in the South Island – Nadia Reid and Mel Parsons? Who knows, but I’m all about it.

Aldous Harding. Photo: Steven Acres

I’ve been a fan from the start. Songs, and their accompanying videos, like ‘Stop Your Tears’ from her self-titled Aldous Harding had me captivated immediately. At times her music and visuals can be challenging and uncomfortable, as in ‘No Peace’. But it is to be welcomed, a refreshing change.

Evidently this is a point which many people – or rather, many men – cannot accept without challenge. Why? Because simply by performing music, women act against the androcentric viewpoint that claims the music industry belongs to, and is created by and for men. Women still receive backlash for participating as they wish. 

In the western world, music has long been considered a male pursuit. As far back as Mozart (whose equally talented older sister’s music career was actively curtailed) it has been expected that women be the passive recipients of music in the form of screaming fans; the enablers of it in the form of managers, publicists or partners; or – if they absolutely must participate – that they do so in the least intrusive and threatening ways, usually as backup singers or melodic instrumentalists, and sometimes lead singers.

It is seen as extraordinary when women run their whole show. It is noted with surprise that Lorde masterminded her own Coachella performance, that Estère produces her own records, that Emma Paki, Hollie Smith and Anika Moa have all resisted official industry efforts to control the process of their music making and to change their image to appease the male gaze. Sometimes these statements of strength come at the cost of deals, contracts, and rights to their own music.

Aldous does what she wants. She doesn’t need anyone’s permission. She doesn’t need validation or acceptance from the patriarchy.

It pisses me off that she is labeled awkward or odd. It seems an unwelcome reward for opting to control her own image, to sing in ways that feel right to her, to truly inhabit her songs, and to engage with the audience in ways that go far beyond what the white boys club may enjoy. I don’t believe that a man would be critiqued in the same ways.

The diverse employment of her voice and her commanding visual style, as well as her decision to be the captain of her own ship, are an interruption of many traditional forms of feminine display. The ways in which she moves her face and demands attention with her body blast away any preconceptions held of her as a singer-songwriter.

The NZ Herald said, “Harding [carves] a space among the likes of Nadia Reid and Fazerdaze as Kiwi alternative artists of whom the world is beginning to take notice.”

I agree. Aldous Harding is exploring and expanding a space that has been created by many formidable women from this land. And it’s a space that obviously makes those on the rapidly fading and insignificant margins of it uncomfortable.

So here’s a brimming glass raised to Harding and her world album release tour, and one smashed for the patriarchy.


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