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An interview with Berlin artist Maren Karlson / by Katie Alice Greer

Maren Karlson is an artist living in Berlin, Germany. I'd like to let our conversation about the gendered implications of loving music speak for itself. 

Kate: So, first let's get some intro questions out of the way. Tell me who you are, where you live, I dunno, the last show you went to? Tell me anything else you want.

Maren: My name is Maren, I live in Berlin, Germany. The last show I went to was Destruction Unit and P.U.F.F. here in Berlin at one of my favorite venues, West Germany. I was away from Berlin for a year and a bit sad when I came back about the lack of good punk shows here (people in Berlin are obsessed with techno for obvious reasons, and I love that too but I want EVERYTHING haha), and this show satisfied me for a while. Everyone was sooo into it and it made me feel like I finally arrived back home!

No one should have to justify why they can claim to be part of "The Scene" (whatever that means), but do you want to talk about how you are involved in music? Are you a lover who is always listening to new (or old) stuff? Are you booking shows? Are you making music? Obviously, this is hardly the extent to which a person can be involved, but just tell me who you are in relation to what you love (or hate) about music. 

I don't really see myself as part of a scene... mostly because I feel like things here in Berlin are super cliquey and everyone just stays in their own little circles and doesn't get out of that too much, like in high school. It's obviously a little bit like this everywhere but I feel like people here are super extreme about it. For example liking pop music is STILL deemed kind of uncool/trashy/not intellectual enough (also comes hand in hand with an anti-American attitude a lot of times...) and the only way it's okay to do it is ironically.

This one time at my school's end of the year party (I go to a big "prestigious" art school here where a lot of people take themselves very seriously) a guy from class came up to me while me and my friend were playing TLC and was like, "As someone who is always wearing Sonic Youth shirts I really thought you'd play something better than this." He was genuinely disappointed that I didn't stick to my "true" taste! Lol? For me, it always felt like belonging to a scene here means deciding on one thing. If people wanna do that that's totally fine but for me personally that has never seemed very appealing. All I want is listen to/see all kinds of different styles of music without having to ask myself if I am "allowed" to like something.

The idea of "guilty pleasures" is so weird to me. Maybe I want to listen to Taylor Swift on my way to a punk show and maybe I want to listen to Discharge while I wait in line for Berghain. Who cares?! I am always excited to listen to something I have never heard of before. Old or new doesn't matter. The only thing music should do to me is make me feel something, no matter what... it saddens me that so much of what I see/hear seems to be extremely disconnected from people's lives, like they don't feel particularly connected to or excited or passionate about what they are doing, but just try to fit in with a certain style or try to belong to a scene or whatever.

I understand that it's important to feel like you belong somewhere, I just wish people weren't so concerned about appearing to be "cool"? For me, what is really powerful and what matters and has the ability to actually make change happen is people opening up without any filters about things that are supposed to stay "private." I have so much respect for that. You are constantly told it's your individual struggle and if you fail then you just didn't try hard enough. It takes so much power and courage to admit that you are weak, sad, insecure, that you want to give up, resign, that life isn't always cool and fun and exciting. We all know that it's not, but so little of that knowledge usually shows? This Angel Haze song "Cleaning Out My Closet" is a good example of that.

Anyway, I have a lot of friends who are musicians and/or work in the music "industry" in one way or another. I for myself play the drums sometimes and also DJ occasionally but for the "making" part I am mostly into the visual side of music right now (drawing flyers, album artwork etc.)

I jumped to interview you because you blogged about something that has really touched a nerve with me recently, I'd like to quote your post here: "OH YES if i listen to “cool” music/music you think of as “obscure” (hahaha lol) it MUST be because my male friend/boyfriend/brother/any other male person in my life showed me and NOT because i found out about it MYSELF. OF COURSE. JESUS CHRIST why is this still a thing. PLEASE SOMEONE EXPLAIN TO ME WHY I AM STILL DEALING WITH THIS IN 2013. I understand if some random 18 year old bro has that attitude. But people who are surrounded by and work with female musicians on a daily basis? How is that even possible??? GIRLS ARE USING THE INTERNET TOO YOU KNO" Now, I realize this was probably a spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness-type Internet post. But I think it really articulates a very real, and very hurtful kind of sexism and ignorance a lot of people are dealing with recently. Do you want to elaborate on this?

I was talking about how I recently gave Suzanne Ciani's "Seven Waves" to one of my best friends K. She loved it and played it while this guy, let's call him Steve, came over to her house. Steve acted very surprised about the fact that K was into SC and asked her where she had gotten it from. When she then told Steve that I had given "Seven Waves" to her, he replied "Oh, maybe Andy has introduced her to Suzanne then." Andy, who is both a friend of me and Steve, and who is - like me - very into music, has introduced me to a lot of great stuff. Suzanne Ciani wasn't one of those things though. I had found out about her all by myself one night on the Internet.

So what exactly about this is it that is bothering me? First of all, it really shouldn't be such a surprise that someone listens to Suzanne Ciani because she is obviously a legend, and anyone who considers her work "obscure" is definitely devaluating her work. Now, what really annoys me is the fact that Steve seems to assume that if a girl likes something that he deems as cool, it must not be because she found out about it herself, but because a male friend had shown it to her. I'm not saying he does that deliberately or consciously, or because he likes being a sexist asshole. That comment was very likely made without much thought put into it and not intended to be hurtful. The thing is though that these small things happen all the time, and they add up, and that they are constantly happening with such casual ignorance makes it even worse.

I have so many female friends who have been asked (and not just by guys) if the guitars in their bedrooms were "their boyfriends," friends who have been told that they only go to shows because "their boyfriend went," or because they "surely think that guy in the band is cute?" (I don't even want to start talking about how heterosexist these questions are.) Me and every single one of my female friends have been schooled countless times by self proclaimed "music nerds" about good taste, so-called "classics" and records one MUST own (why was Suzanne Ciani never among those?), how a record is played properly, and how I won't ever understand a lonely boy genius' struggle to create something truly new and meaningful.

In the year 2013 – what is it that makes it so unlikely for girls to not just be at a show because of a cute guy, but because they're actually into the music? How is it so unlikely - especially now with something called internet access - that a girl finds out about something all by herself, without needing a male lecturing her about it? Steve is a musician himself, and is surrounded by a lot of female musicians in his own scene all the time, some of whom are (at least regarding their record sales) more successful than him, so I'm really wondering how much it will take for people like him to see that females are as competent as everyone else, whether they're listening to music or making it.

This sounds like the most obvious statement ever, and I am sure that most people, including Steve, would agree with me. Still, he is the best example of how much internalized sexism there is still around in the music industry/scene, and how he perpetuates it without even realizing and without ever having to question himself, and what bigger issue causes little comments like the one about Suzanne Ciani.

I read this great Catherine Komp interview with Noam Chomsky where he was talking about USA media coverage of May Day. He said, "So here's this holiday, and all kinds of celebrations and so on, and nobody here [in the USA] knows what it is. It's a sign of extremely effective indoctrination. It's the kind of thing we just have to work our way out of [...] It's kind of interesting the way the press treated [the few May Day celebrations that happened in the USA]. Usually they just ignore it, but if you take a look at The New York Times the next day, it had an article that said demonstrations were in support of labor or something. But it was datelined ‘Havana’ and there was a picture of a huge mob of Cubans marching and some commentary. It was clear what the implication is: This holiday is some kind of commie business; it's got nothing to do with us. I don't know if it's conscious or if it's just so internalized that the journalists don't even see what they're doing." Anyway, I don't relay this seemingly tangential paragraph to take up space, I really think it is a great way to articulate the root of so many aggressions big and small. Is it conscious or is it just so internalized, so buried that we can't really understand what's motivating our behavior or reactions?

That [quote] is brilliant. It shows so well that the most effective kind of oppression is the one that is the most quiet, and doesn't need an outside power or authority to be established, because we're already doing it ourselves without the need of brute force. The vast majority of people from an "alternative" music scene (whatever that means) would most likely agree that sexism is the worst, and that all genders should be treated equally. For example: most people would probably correspond with the idea that a lot of the advertising we see is super sexist because it objectifies women. It gets interesting though when sexism comes along in a much more disguised, blurry, harder to pin down form, like that casual comment about the Suzanne Ciani record. It is so much easier to move the whole thing to a personal level and call someone oversensitive instead of identifying the most likely unconscious, but still sexist motivation behind a comment like that.

I've often found myself making an extra effort to defend the independence of my music taste, or fandom. I didn't grow up in a scene, most music I found by myself, too. But, sometimes I hear myself almost bragging about this, and it's so weird! I've definitely found out about some music through friends or romantic partners. Why am I less proud of this? Why is a male fan who discovered his music through a peer group legitimate when I am not?

You're totally right, I find myself bragging about how I found out ALONE about music I love too. I find this a little ridiculous considering that I get super excited about sharing music with my friends, and I love when someone shares their favorites with me. I sometimes even catch myself being reluctant about liking something that a male friend has told me about, or trying to be less passionate about music that my male friends make, and not showing my excitement about it as much. Doesn't this sound totally nuts? Shouldn't gender be completely irrelevant when it comes to liking something? Obviously. I am usually quite good at not paying too much attention to it and just being as open as I can be towards everyone and everything. Recently though I have felt more and more like it doesn't matter how open I try to be, people have already made their assumptions, and seem to know a lot of things about me and my taste/listening habits, but not because people actually know me as a person and my behaviour, but because certain things have already been decided about females in general. It might be because of this reaction, a lot of times I feel like I have to prove myself, that I have an independent taste, that I am not just a "naive fangirl", that I am someone who can be taken seriously. Which is a shame really, because I'd rather focus on just liking what I like, instead of constantly being reminded that I am a girl liking music.

It's also showing how I internalized some sexist behaviour myself, in the sense that I seem to feel the need to prove that I'm not one of those "weak" females, that I'm not one of those girls who only listens to the music their boyfriends listen to. The thing is that there really isn't anything wrong with being weak, and instead of constantly needing to prove that I'm not, I'd much rather live in an environment that allows me and everyone to behave however we want to behave, without being judged or stereotyped for doing so.

I think a lot of people who are female, of color, queer, trans, disabled, poor, are often excommunicated from larger groups because of these identity signifiers (there are, of course, myriad other ways and identities that are excluded). And because a person might be excluded for these reasons, they often find out about certain cultural signifiers second hand. Does that make a fan illegitimate? Our gut reaction is often to discredit or devalue a woman who's learned about an artist or a band from a man. But why? What do you think about this idea?

I've been thinking a lot about legitimacy of fandom, and how straight white males are more "legitimate" fans than anyone else. I think the idea of someone being true, real, authentic, legitimate is questionable - what makes someone an authentic fan? And on the other hand, what makes someone not authentic, fake, illegitimate? Is someone more authentic because they have been listening to something for a longer time, or before it got "hip" or "mainstream"? Is it because their way of dressing matches their musical taste? Because they contribute actively to a scene or have been part of a scene for a long time? Or because they know a lot of details about the music they listen to? And if all of the above is the case, who has higher chance of succeeding to fulfill those ideals of realness, and who doesn't have a chance at all? 

I feel like there is a really weird double standard existing right now: on one hand, we always strive to be real, which more or less describes someone who is independent in their taste and opinions, well informed, is participating in a scene, among other things, and we definitely devalue those who aren't being authentic enough in our eyes as "wannabees" (for example, a girl who learns about new music through second hand sources, e.g. her boyfriend). At the same time, pretty much anyone who isn't a straight white cis dude is excluded in some ways or others from scenes, media, etc. So how exactly is it possible to fulfill these extremely high standards of authenticity and realness, while at the same time you are constantly being denied access to the sources of that same realness? 

You said, "I understand that it's important to feel like you belong somewhere" -- is it hard to feel like you belong to any sort of musical community (or even WANT to belong) when your credibility is being constantly questioned?

So many questions that I don't know an answer to! I also have more to say about belonging somewhere, and having to constantly defend my tastes, I have to think about how to articulate it though. I know this is supposed to be an interview but I'm super interested in what you have to stay about all this too! 

Do you have a favorite pop record? 

Tough question because it changes every day. One that I definitely always come back to though is  Survivor by Destiny's Child.

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