I recently finished reading a book on conspiracy theories. Before you get worried that I’m going to start telling you that lizards were responsible for 9/11 or that the Bilderburg group are to blame for my poor mobile phone reception, I should point out that the book in question was David Aaronovitch’s ‘Voodoo Histories‘, which tries to both debunk a number of well known conspiracy theories and explain why they are so widely believed.
This got me thinking about musical conspiracy theories. You know the kind of thing. Paul McCartney is actually dead. Tupac is actually alive. Courtney killed Kurt. Now I think these type of conspiracies are too ridiculous to be given much time (although a friend who actually knew Kurt and Courtney a little completely believes the latter one), but there is a kind of lower-level conspiracy theory which is more insidious and damaging. This is the theory that gets bandied about every time a successful female musician is in a relationship with a male musician, that he secretly wrote all of her songs.The two cases I particularly remember from my peak music press reading years in the 1990s were Hole and Elastica.
Many people fervently believed that Kurt Cobain had secretly written the songs on the second Hole album ‘Live Through This’. The evidence seemed to be that Hole became massively more successfully between their debut, pre-Kurt and Courtney, and their second album which was written after the couple married. Also there was a demo version of one of the song which featured Kurt on backing vocals. The first point ignores the fact that many, many bands become massively more successful on their second album (Nirvana included), and that Hole had an equally successful third album released four years after Cobain died (and you’d have to believe some really out there conspiracies to think he managed to write that one). The second point is equally flimsy. They were married, they lived together, is it that unrealistic that Courtney would have asked him to provide some backing vocals on a demo she was working on?
The theory was also advanced that Damon Albarn wrote the first Elastica album for his then partner Justine Frischmann. I don’t remember this theory even having the flimsiest of arguments to support it, and it totally ignores the fact that, wonderful as they were, at least three of the most well-known Elastica songs lifted their main riffs or melodies directly from songs by Wire and The Stranglers (just listen to Elastica’s Line Up and Wire’s Three Girl Rhumba below), so Justine hardly needed Damon to write them for her. Whilst such theories are pretty difficult to disprove, there is absolutely no reason to believe their truth, but many do.
Related to this, whilst not a conspiracy theory, is the constant blaming of female partners of musicians for the breaking up of bands. Yoko Ono being the most famous example, but far from the only one. I always think that this doesn’t say much for the man in question, as it suggests he is too weak-willed to resist the influence of his partner, and incapable of simultaneously holding together both a band and a marriage.
Why does all this irk me so? It’s the sexism as usual. The belief that a female musician couldn’t be as talented as their male counterpart. The constant knocking, ignoring or disbelieving of women’s achievements. The fact that no conspiracy theorist ever suggests that a female musician has secretly written her male partner’s songs, even if that would be equally likely (or unlikely I suppose). I want my daughter to grow up in a world where she receives due credit for her achievements, be they in music or any other field, and a world where she won’t be blamed for the failures of a man. That world still seems like a long way away.