Classical Music and the Problem of ‘Default Man’

Last year the artist, cross-dresser an all-round National Treasure Grayson Perry guest-edited the New Statesman, and wrote a fantastic piece called The Rise and Fall of Default Man.

Perry explained that Default Men are ‘white, middle-class, heterosexual men, usually middle-aged’. Crucially, while this only describes 10% of Britain’s population, Default Men ‘dominate the upper echelons of our society, imposing, unconsciously or otherwise, their values and preferences on the rest […] they make up an overwhelming majority in government, in boardrooms and also in the media’. Perry adds that ‘Lone Default Man will never admit to, or be fully aware of, the tribal advantages of his identity. They are, naturally, full subscribers to that glorious capitalist project, they are individuals!’

Classical music is disproportionately populated with varying degrees of Default Man, and I must admit that I’m 10 years away from a full-house in Default Man Bingo myself. Look at Tom Service’s recent blog about the continued male dominance in classical music: Christina Scharff of King’s College London surveyed 40 orchestras, and women made up 1.4% of conductors and 2.9% of artistic/musical directors. Of the players, 1.7% were from a Black and Minority Ethnic background. And that’s before you even get to the composers. As I blogged recently, if you don’t think the female composer gap is a problem, then that’s part of the problem.

A few things I’ve read have made me mull over this state of affairs. This story from 2012 by Alexandra Coghlan has stuck in my mind ever since I read it:

I was attending the concert with a university-age girl […] A chronic asthmatic, she had coughed a little during the first half, but infrequently, and had stifled it to the very best of her ability. After the first piece a man turned round and told her off (not a whit of sympathy, concern or even basic politeness to his complaint). We apologised, and moved to some empty seats further away. When the interval arrived three middle-aged men accosted us in the foyer. My companion was told to get out, that she had no right to be there, and the parting shot from one –  “You dirty bitch” – was announced loud enough for everyone nearby to hear (including two ushers, who did nothing).

Then yesterday, I read this article from New Yorker Collier Meyerson, who had the audacity to be at the Opera while being young, female, and black. Called ‘disgusting’ and forced to move seats because her hair was getting in the way of a Default Man’s view, she wryly observed: ‘in a lot of ways, he’s lucky. There is no moisture in the air. I slept the night before in braids.’ (To top things off, it was a production of Aida, and Collier makes excellent points about the production’s completely nonsensical representations of black people).

Finally, my attention was drawn to an astonishingly rude series of tweets from a conductor and founder of a well-established ensemble to a young female blogger. Unhappy that she had tweeted a lot about a performance she had enjoyed, he wrote: ‘you’re a twenty-something student…I’m interested in opinions but…’ going on to muse whether the volume of her tweets amounted to ‘pathological self-importance and obsession’. I won’t name-and-shame the conductor only because I don’t want to embarrass the woman (though she needn’t be, she rightly gave him the short shrift he deserved). He went on: ‘what I object to is the mixture of childish enthusiasm for [the main performer] and his charms followed by pseudo music criticism’.

This is hugely patronising, and yet if you read young feminist writers like Laurie Penny who have a big online presence, it’s sadly not surprising. Women are subjected to all sorts of hostility online when they dare to have a voice in male-dominated areas – computer games are a well-documented example. The conductor’s tweets reveal the irritation of seeing someone outside of his Default Man tribe presuming to use such a voice. Of course he is under no obligation to follow her twitter account, but as Perry said, Default Men impose their values and preferences on the rest: how dare she be a young woman tweeting so many opinions on his art-form that don’t meet his approval? Perhaps to self-rationalise his threatened supremacy, he dismissed her enthusiasms as ‘childish’, her prolific tweeting as ‘self-obsession’; but tellingly he felt a need to tell her this, and put her in her place. Just like Alexandra Coghlan’s friend who had no right to be there. Just like Collier Meyerson having no right to be in Default Man’s view, with her hair ‘sticking straight out of [her] head like that’.

These examples illustrate the ingrained attitudes that will have to be overcome to make classical music a place that genuinely values diversity. Not every Default Man acts with such nastiness, but these examples are the ugly tip of an iceberg of privilege and unconscious bias. As my blog post detailed, Radio 3 simply didn’t think to do a whole day on female composers for International Women’s Day, but they did think, in the same week, to play a whole day of Ravel for his 139th birthday. And as I concluded, there is a lack of imagination about how much richer and more interesting classical music would be with more female voices, and that goes for non-white and younger voices too. This is surely because too many middle-class, middle-aged white men are running the show while thinking of themselves purely as enterprising individuals, neither acknowledging nor addressing the enormous advantage their Default Man status confers on them.

One final note: I couldn’t write about this without mentioning the spat that emerged this week when the Shadow Minister for Culture Chris Bryant made a call for more diversity in the arts, naming the old Harrovian pop star James Blunt as an example of too-common privilege. Blunt, demonstrating Perry’s individualist maxim, wrote a rather bad-tempered reply detailing how his unlikely rise to the top was down to hard work and determination. In a sense, it was unfair to single out Blunt, because the problem is not with him per se, it’s much wider. But I did enjoy one person’s pithy tweet on Blunt’s sense of indignation: couldn’t Bryant see that he had succeeded despite the astronomical bad luck of his privileged background conferring no advantages?