Singing the unsung



I stare out the bus window, my eyes chasing raindrops down the glass. They jiggle in unison as we jolt over speed bumps. I imagine they’re dancing along with the songs belting through my tangled earphones.  A Carla Geneve lyric catches my attention: It's raining on Tuesday, got my Doc Martens wet. I glance down and smile at my soggy docs.

Illustration Chris Johnston

I’m cheap-wine drunk and giggling with my friend. We dance around the room in our undies, ignoring our unfinished uni assignments in the corner. Alex Lahey is blasting from the speaker as we yell along: I went to B Grade University and got myself an arts degree!

I’ve just met someone new, and we’ve been chatting all week. I go out night after night in a big group, and he’s there too. We flirt on the dancefloor, obvious and awkward and excellent, and I can’t stop smiling on the way home. There’s an Amy Shark song stuck in my head: I had a great night because you kept pressing against my arm. 

Women’s voices have long been deemed unpleasant and unneeded. In her 1995 essay The Gender of Sound, Anne Carson explains that in Hellenistic and Roman times, women’s very vocal chords were considered incompatible with meaningful sound: women were too shrill, too hysterical, too woman. Carson notes that from Ancient Greece until the modern day, the patriarchy has said of women: ‘their sounds are bad to hear and make men uncomfortable.’ Thus, women and their stories have historically remained unsung. 

The modern music industry reflects and perpetuates the sexism of the song-world. The USC Annenburg Inclusion Initiative found that women 'are missing in popular music,' with 3.6 male artists for every female artist and 37 male producers for every female producer in the Billboard Hot 100 song list of 2019. But times are changing­ — or rather, they are being changed at the hands of exceptional woman-musicians across Australia. In fact, Aussie youth broadcaster’s Triple J’s latest Hottest 100 showed a shifting sentiment to women in music, as more and more women take to the stage and sing their stories. 

And these stories are immeasurably important. When Geneve sings about wet boots and Lahey sings about university and Shark sings about flirting on a night out, they are singing, seemingly innocuously, about their banal everyday life. But when I hear those songs, I hear my quotidian, too. And I hear: ‘these are our lives, the everyday lives of women, and they’re worthy of a song’. Of course, our lives — and therefore our song­s ­— aren't all shoes and university and flirting.


'For millennia, patriarchy has deemed women’s voices incomprehensible and the content of their songs unspeakable.'


I’m in a bar in the north of England. It smells like wooden tables and warm beer, and Julia Jacklin is on stage wearing Rossi Boots. She quells the rowdy crowd and the room is spellbound as she stares above us, singing: Don't let the time go by without sitting your mother down, and asking what life was like for her, before you came to be around. I call my mum the next day.

I’m walking home at night, and I’m scared. I call my boyfriend, keep him on the phone til my keys are in the door. I think of Courtney Barnett: I wanna walk through the park in the dark, men are scared that women will laugh at them. I wanna walk through the park in the dark, women are scared that men will kill them. I hold my keys between my fingers. 

I’m on my mate’s shoulders at a festival, and it’s sunset. The crowd around me is swaying underneath the pines, and Stella Donnelly sings into the sun: Why was she all alone, wearing her shirt that low, they said, ‘Boys will be boys’, deaf to the word no. I’m tearing up as I sing along, and I know I’m not the only one brimming with emotion in the midst of a mosh. 

When women sing about the little things — the wet shoes and the nights out — and people listen, it paves the way to sing about the big things, too. When you’re a woman, procrastinating a university assignment and being sexually harassed are not mutually exclusive: both are part of the everyday experience of womanhood. When the crowd sings along to Stella Donnelly, we are letting that long-repressed reality of womanhood out into the world. What once lived in hushed conversations, whispered in confidence between female friends, now bursts through the united mouths of a crowd. In the words of Carson, we are ‘discharging unspeakable things on behalf of the city, on the structures that the city sets up to contain such speech.’

For millennia, patriarchy has deemed women’s voices incomprehensible and the content of their songs unspeakable. Lyric by lyric this ancient ideology is being chipped away, with every woman’s story that is sung. 



Louise MiolinLouise Miolin is an arts graduate and freelance writer, who is passionate about people and their stories. She lives and works on Noongar land in Perth.

Main image: Illustration Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Louise Miolin, music, feminism



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Existing comments

Women's voices are all too comprehensible. And about Doc Marten's: I love them but keep in mind the best long-distance runners in the world emerge from the barefoot people in Africa.
Pam | 16 September 2020

In Homer's "Odyssey", a classic of Greek and world literature, Penelope, by witty speech and resourceful action, kept her beleaguered household intact virtually unaided for twenty years before her husband's return from Ilium; and, in the same epic, the singing of the sirens was so audible, fetchingly beautiful and famous that it arrested hardened soldiers and sailors, often irrevocably, in their homeward journeys. Celebrated females like Sophocles' Antigone and Aristophanes' Lysistrata also had minds and voices independent and strong enough to make men, even kings, take notice. Aspasia, the mistress of Athens' leading citizen, Pericles, could hold her own in male company and conversation spiced with Socratic dialogue at symposia. Roman imperial matriarchs, too, were far from shrinking violets; and the mother of Augustine, Monica, was a decisive figure in the intellectual and faith recovery of her monumentally influential son. Such women don't fit the mold of "structures that the city sets up" to enforce female silence.
John RD | 16 September 2020


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