The word "songstress" refuses to die. Used as an alternative to "singer-songwriter" or simply "musician," songstress long has carried an irksome undertone, and is loaded with connotations and assumptions that reflect ugly biases, at least to this male music journalist. And, as I found out after asking several women who write songs, it doesn't sit right with many of the people to whom it is applied, either. The first known usage of songstress, according to Merriam-Webster, occurred in 1684. Taking that into account, it certainly does possess an archaic aura. Similarly, as with "actress," "poetess," "Negress," and "waitress," one wishes "songstress" would vanish from the lexicon—or be ridiculed out of existence. But no. I still see it almost daily in PR e-mails and in music reviews.
But I'm not the word's target demo. So, after years of wondering what actual women who compose tunes think about being referred to as a "songstress," I decided to put the question to them.
Nicole Carr (Bloom Offering): They don't call dudes "songsters"... 'nuff said. As someone once said, "Female-fronted is not a genre"; gender and genitalia do not define the nuances of one's art.
Kelly Fleek (The Spider Ferns): "Songstress" and terms like "female-fronted," etc. all get my hackles up. I tend toward "vocalist" or "singer," since they lack gender and simply describe what I do.
As a multi-instrumentalist, producer and vocalist, no matter what I create, the focus returns to compartmentalizing me as a woman in everything I do. It often feels diminutive. Yes, I am a woman, but I never hear of male vocalists referred to with the many qualifiers women are tacked with. No one says male vocalist. Ever.
"Songstress" feels smarmy, though I sometimes use it in jest in a tweet or when speaking sarcastically. We don't call men "songsters" and the term "chanteur" is never used as a male descriptive, but I am called a chanteuse frequently by others. Admittedly, I have used that term on occasion myself because French just often sounds better in a sentence, but I sometimes blanch after it falls out of my mouth.
I've also taken to calling male singers like Robert Plant, Thom Yorke, etc. as "song dudes" just for shits and giggles when discussing music with men. It's absolutely hilarious that 4 out of 5 men will laugh and ask me why I called an artist such a thing—"He's a singer!" or "He's the frontman!" is the instant battle cry. I referred to Tony Iommi as a "male guitarist" during a holiday party and drew critical stares and silence from a group of male musicians I was having drinks with. Removing gender from myriad music titles is what needs to happen to boost the signal of equity in the music industry and beyond.
Natasha El-Sergany (somesurprises): Um, I prefer chanteuse. Just kidding. It's hard to say "songstress" without coming off as kind of reductive. Maybe moving toward "songsmith" for everyone (similar to how "actress" was phased out) is better for everyone involved?
Chloe Harris (Raica): I think it’s shitty and I’m not keen on it at all, but I also don’t think it really applies as much to electronic producers when they don’t use vocals. Adding "tress" to anything seems lazy.
Christina Clifton: I like it much better than "singer/songwriter."
Stephanie Brown: No thanks. "Songwriter" is asexual, like politician or director. It makes no difference to me whether someone imagines me as a man, until they are informed otherwise.
Lauren Rodriguez: (TERMINATor, Chris Cheveyo) I hate it. "Songwriter" is gender-neutral and covers the idea. "Songstress" sounds goofy and even the idea of looking to refer to a womxn differently than her male cohort for doing the same thing obviously feels condescending.
Laurie Styron: Language is dynamic, and word connotations can evolve over time. Presently I think adding this suffix to the word has a condescending connotation. It gives me this cringeworthy feeling of, “Aw. Isn’t that cute? A girly girl wrote a song.”
The term "songstress" tends to only be used when the female who writes/sings the song is considered particularly feminine, and in a particularly non-threatening way. I don’t recall the term ever being used to describe powerful women like Ani DiFranco or k.d. lang.
"Songstress" seems to be reserved for witchy women, or hyper-feminine ones. It modifies the terminology used for all men—singer/songwriter. So the question becomes, what is the purpose of this modification? I can’t identify a compelling answer to that question that isn’t rooted in diminishing the meaning. It’s subtle, but these modifications matter. It’s like the ongoing joke in the TV show The Office. There is a big difference in authority between the Assistant Manager and the Assistant to the Manager.
Modifying the term "singer/songwriter" to "songstress" subtly changes the connotation from subject to object, as is so often done with gendered words expressed in the feminine.
Erin Jane Larue: You can refer to me as a "songstress" and I feel that would be accurate, and if you refer to someone as "songstress," I think I will know what you mean and understand. Go for it.
Meagan Angus (Thunder Grey Pilgrim): I'm a musician. The end.
Susan Surface: I don’t understand if it specifies someone who performs, writes what they perform, writes generally, all of the above? It just seems unclear and unnecessarily gendered. But if folks of all genders like to be called "songstresses" and "songsters," they can self-determine!
Mary Genova (VVaves): Why do songwriters need to be put in a gendered category? What qualifies as “women” who write “songs”?
Kim House (Fotoform): This feels like a step in the wrong direction. I identify as a songwriter and a musician. The term "songstress" makes me cringe. It feels anachronistic, sounds diminutive and overly feminized/precious/pretentious. But that’s just my initial (and clearly pretty visceral) gut reaction. If the idea is to draw attention to the fact that there are a lot of women out there writing music, it could potentially be a positive thing. Maybe—but I really do dislike the term. It just sounds antiquated somehow.
As we move forward as a culture embracing the idea of gender-neutral, I like the idea of continuing with the umbrella of "songwriter," which feels more all-encompassing. (And doesn't conjure up a Stevie Nicks vibe that "songstress" does. I love me some Stevie Nicks, but I'd rather not be labeled in a way that has a stylistic association attached to it...) That said, I am surprised at how many people ask if I write my own songs. (I play bass and sing; the other members of the band I’m in are men.) I wonder if that question would be asked if it were one of the men singing instead of me.
Helen America: Here’s the advice I would give men who are tempted to use gendered language in writing about women who make art:
1) Think about the fellow who described Jane Austen in his 1813 review of Pride and Prejudice as an "authoress."
2) Form a sympathetic, but sort of pitying, opinion about this person.
3) Imagine someone really attractive, who grew up in a gay anarchist space commune 205 years in the future, forming the same opinion about you.
4) Don't do it.
Cary Grace: I think it's unnecessary. Women face enough discrimination from the music industry as it is. Using a gendered term presents a female songwriter as an anomaly.
I have mixed feelings about singer/songwriter as well, for either gender, because it has come to imply a particular type of music in some circles. I am a singer and a songwriter, but am equally involved in music production, sound manipulation, etc., perform live with a rock band, and solo with electronic instruments, and don't want to be shoved into any stylistic pigeonholes that minimize my other abilities (I have absolutely nothing against performing solo with an acoustic guitar, but that isn't all I do.) Has Mick Jagger ever been called a singer/songwriter? Brian Eno?
If given a choice between those two terms, I'd choose the latter, but would really prefer "songwriter." No need to bring gender into it.
Winter Marie Parkin (This Blinding Light): Other people's use of words do not define me, so if geared toward describing my art by another person, so be it. However, ["songstress"] is certainly not a word that would even occur to me to use.
Maryam Haddad: It's unnecessary. I'm a songwriter. The suffix -"stress" only serves to separate me from male songwriters. It's not offensive, it's just not needed.