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Why Is Mainstream Media Choosing to Silence Us?

An article published by The New York Times discussing the “comeback” of the guitar propels our investigation into the dangers of mainstream narratives.

September 29, 2020
Written by
Cynthia Schemmer

In 2017, Geoff Edgars published a requiem for the guitar in the Washington Post with “The Slow, Secret Death of the Electric Guitar.” According to the piece, electric guitar sales had dropped significantly during the previous decade, from about 1.5 million annually to just over 1 million, and the biggest names in the business were either bankrupt, in debt, or making major budget cuts. However, the following year Fender’s market research showed that the market was evolving: the new generation’s motivation had shifted, with a focus on emotional benefits, and 50 percent of all beginner and aspirational players identified as women—with 19 percent as Black and 25 percent as Latinx. This critical progression of both motive and player offered the industry a seemingly clear cut way to resurrect the guitar: by taking the demands of women—especially those of women of color—more seriously, and offering more visibility.

And yet, many music industry leaders and media outlets seem to prefer to bury the guitar alive—or wait for a catastrophic pandemic—rather than include us in the conversation.

Earlier this month, the New York Times published, “Guitars Are Back, Baby!,” which reflects on 2020’s record-breaking increase of guitar sales due to the pandemic. The piece includes quotes from some of the industry’’s leading companies, demographic statistics, the influence of the guitar hero, and a few slight nods to the role of women. However, this piece fails us in the same ways previous writing about the relevance of guitar has: the visual portrayal and influence of BIPOC women are nowhere to be found and, more often than not, images of women rely on sexualized and feminine depictions.

The inherent problem lies in who’s doing the writing (older white men), who they are writing for (certainly not us, who make up half the market), who is invited into the conversation (older men), and who is being visually represented (cis white men and women). These same regurgitated voices and images preserve an antiquated guitar industry and culture, and in turn, these pieces speak exclusively to an older, white demographic. Apparently we, a community of diverse players from many different backgrounds and ages, are not included. 

Mainstream media, as we mentioned in “Changing Tides: The Evolution of Women in Music Media,” shapes our understanding of who truly embodies and belongs in guitar and music culture. Imagine how these guitar death/rebirth pieces might read if they were written by a woman of color guitarist—the choices in language, representation, and dialogue would be drastically different, and more representative of players as a whole. 

In an attempt to fill some of the gaps left by the New York Times piece, we aim to answer the following questions: Why are mainstream publications repeatedly failing to document our experiences and stories? What parts of the guitar and its culture are we saying goodbye to? Who are we welcoming and how is that shifting our understanding of guitar culture, education, and community? 

Death to the Guitar Hero

The role of the guitar hero is almost always speculated upon in these articles. This archaic and masculine model (or overtly sexualized when women are depicted) perpetuated by these writers has long been dead in many of our communities. In general, the term refers to a guitar player’s specific individual ability to inspire through technical ability, and someone who fits this definition, yet very rarely mentioned, is H.E.R. 

With an amazing combination of inspiration variations, H.E.R. plays with a technical presentation that leans toward melodic and ear-heavy training, as discussed in our cover interview for She Shreds Issue 20. Just last week, she became the first Black woman to release a Fender Signature Guitar, and yet the mainstream is still choosing to almost exclusively showcase Taylor Swift—as if women who play guitar should exclusively stick to acoustic, singer-songwriter music.

In 2020, the mainstream media must prioritize the representation and influence of communities outside of the white cis mold in order to keep up with trends and, ultimately, to showcase the reality of the culture, which is why H.E.R.’s signature guitar is a massive milestone. There is plenty of mainstream visibility for women and women of color guitarists right now (H.E.R., St. Vincent, Willow Smith, Brittany Howard, Yola, and the increased popularity of pop stars and their all-women bands, like Beyonce and Lizzo) but when guitar is discussed at an industry level, we’re still seeing the same old faces and hearing the same dull voices. 

On the other hand, the guitar hero is no longer our sole source of inspiration. The ability to immediately connect via social media has strengthened our desire to learn and our ability to create community through guitar and music. On the ground level, we must recognize that community over individuality is of utmost importance for change—something that the mainstream and older generations seem to have a hard time grasping. To inspire outside of the mainstream understanding of guitar heros, we need to broaden our definition of what inspires us. And in order to include an intersectionality of women players, we need to look outside of ourselves to create and find inspiration through each other.

Shifting Culture and Community

The death of the 20th century guitar hero seems to be at the hands of technological advances, resulting in a shift toward community-based inspiration and learning. “Maybe the issue isn’t too few guitar heroes, but too many of them,” writes Alex Williams in the New York Times article. “As any 30-minute foray through cover-song videos on YouTube will attest, there are approximately 1,000,000,007 much-better-than-average guitarists out there, many of whom are in their teens or early 20s. A great many of them are tearing through Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen or Jimmy Page licks. And a great many of them positively shred.” But Williams overlooked two crucial changes in the culture: first, that being “a good guitar player” no longer only means playing like the aforementioned men (for many, it’s to have the ability to express feeling and communicate); and second, that there is strength in community—modern players seek inspiration through representation. 

In Fender’s 2018 market research, the company found that 72 percent of respondents picked up the guitar to learn something new and better their lives (players don’t necessarily want to become rock stars anymore), 61 percent of guitar players want to learn how to play for themselves, and 42 percent viewed guitar as part of their identity. While the 20th century beginner guitarist may have needed a hero to inspire progress and stardom, players today can learn more easily than ever through technological advances which equipt just about everyone with the right tools. But oftentimes, because of the overwhelming options and stimulation, there might be a lack of emotional, cultural, or personal connection, and the process might not be as meaningful or engaging. Watching a player show off their soloing speed is no longer as fulfilling as the right combination of chords, personality, and kindredship.

The shift toward community-based learning and inspiration is even more apparent in 2020, with stay-at-home orders and more time on our hands. While Williams credits the resurrection of the guitar to the pandemic, he fails to consider the recent trends that have greatly contributed as well—many of which are led by women and women of color. Musicians are hitting IG Live for more intimate performances, often accompanied by a minimal set up including an electric or acoustic guitar. One example has been Girls with Guitars, a weekly Instagram live performance and conversation series hosted by H.E.R. that gave viewers a glimpse into her technique, and even helped the rise of other participating guitarists including Cat Burns, who has recently become the face of TikTok UK. There’s also Pickup Music, a monthly membership artist-taught guitar education community built on showcasing the talents of a young Instagram community; In Session, a free six-day digital camp for women and nonbinary music producers of color from all levels and backgrounds; the influx of TikTok performances; Tiny Desk Home Concerts; and the many weekly IG live performances that we’ve flocked to in the absence of live music, such as Victoria Boyd of Infinity Song

“The guitar will always evolve with popular music,” says Sam Blakelock, founder of Pickup Music. “The problem is the way the guitar is often taught is stuck in the 1980s. Many online guitar courses are still dominated by old white men teaching classic rock. This doesn’t speak to young players and isn’t representative of the new community of guitarists.”

Pickup Music is just one example of how social media has changed the landscape of guitar education, by breaking out of the mold with a modern and inclusive guitar-based community with reflective teachers of all ages, genders, and race. “Bringing people together who are interested in similar styles of guitar and who are at the same stage of their learning journey is the key to reaching new levels as a player,” says Blakelock. 

The Facts

Fender’s recent revival, as stated in the New York Time article, is accounted for by the following: in 2020, nearly 20 percent of beginner guitarists were under 24, 70 percent were under 45, and 45 percent identified as women.

“We’ve broken so many records,” Andy Mooney, chief executive of Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, told the New York Times. “It will be the biggest year of sales volume in Fender history, record days of double-digit growth, e-commerce sales and beginner gear sales. I never would have thought we would be where we are today if you asked me back in March.”

This information, combined with Fender’s 2018 research that showed 19 percent of beginner’s identified as Black and 25 percent as Latinx (and what we can only imagine has increased since, with role models like H.E.R. and Willow breaking further into the mainstream) should act as a glaring indicator as to who the mainstream media should be passing the mic to. Any mainstream publication that addresses the death/rebirth of the guitar and fails to include the voices of women and younger generations is damaging not only to those voices, but to the sustainability of the industry at large. If mainstream media shapes the general population’s understanding of guitar and music culture, and mainstream media is not accurately representing that culture, then perhaps the guitar’s demise has just as much to do with the media’s negligence as it does with consumers. 

Grasping onto a culture that simply doesn’t hold a future for the music industry anymore is detrimental on many levels. And as a result, if the question remains, “Is the guitar dying?” then the answer is yes: let the guitar, as the media has forced us to perceive it, fissile out. It’s time to let those who are being left out of the narrative—the major contributors to the guitar’s resurrection, thus lining the pockets of these major music companies—to lead the conversation,  and to be recognized and uplifted for the imperative role they play in saving the industry.

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