Tripitaka Syndrome

Open Letter to Melbourne street press publication The Music

By Erica Lewis

Note: This piece was originally sent to the editor of Melbourne street press publication The Music on 8 August, 2014, with the suggestion that it could be published as an open letter, an opinion piece, or a letter to the editor. To date I have received no reply, so I am publishing it as part of the LISTEN project.


As a musician, electro artist and promoter, I was reading the Dance Moves section of The Music (30/7/14) with great interest. The paragraph on British artist Ronika started off well, with some evocative descriptions, but quickly slid downhill into a quagmire of shit at the point where Tim Finney wrote:

Paradoxically, Ronika herself suffers somewhat from the confidence and competence of her performances, flawlessly prowling through 14 songs with a sultry poise that is difficult to click with; what she lacks is either a sense of fragility or any hint of uncontrolled danger. Still, frequently the songs and the arrangements are good enough to cast Ronika’s professionalism in a positive light.

Excuse me? She ‘suffers’ from ‘confidence and competence’? Usually, criticism of female artists involves them being accused of not being confident or competent, so Finney’s assertion here, that being in possession of those attributes is a negative, brings the discussion to a new (and twisted) low. If this is not blatant sexism, then why aren’t we seeing any articles published on male electro acts such as Daft Punk or The Presets in which they are criticised for their ‘professionalism’, their ‘confidence and competence’? Why aren’t they being criticised for their lack of ‘fragility’? Is it equally as difficult for Finney to ‘click with’ confident and competent male artists, or does he not ‘click’ with Ronika because female artists are not supposed to be ‘confident and competent’? I’m assuming they are, instead, supposed to be fragile little acoustic artists that have no idea how to produce their own tracks or run their own record label (as Ronika does). Finney then goes on to discuss Japanese all female trio Especia in a tone of praise. They are being rewarded here for their vocal ‘bleat’ and their ‘sweetly ambitious’, ‘unaffected, girlish innocence’. So the writer clearly finds it easier to ‘click’ with ‘girlish innocence’? What is he, a pedophile? This is something that I would expect to read from a paper in the 1950’s. Unfortunately, this article only adds to a sustained trend in music street press when it comes to dealing with female artists. It seems that many male writers find women in the music industry who are ‘confident and competent’ to be rather disquieting. Why is that?

Tripitaka Syndrome

Could this, perhaps, be attributed to ‘Tripitaka Syndrome’ - an insidious cultural phenomenon and inbred cousin to our other most prevalent national syndrome ‘Tall Poppy’? Tall Poppy Syndrome has served the bitter, critical portion of Australia well (including our music press), effectively undermining and limiting the success of our musicians (with female artists disproportionally represented), singing praises for seminal creative output and then turning on them when they become more confident, competent and (the ultimate sin) successful.

So what are the symptoms of Tripitaka Syndrome? This complex syndrome, which is thought to have been transmitted via children’s afternoon television viewing in the 80’s, is based on a series of dangerous assumptions relating to gender-based ability and the damaging notion that female participation in the music industry should be relegated to certain genres (of the soft-focus ‘fragile’ ilk eg. acoustic, adult contemporary). As demonstrated by Finney’s article on Ronika’s album Selectadisc, electro is one of the many genres where a female artist who writes and produces her own music, who maintains creative control over her own output and who performs ‘confidently and competently’ flies in the face of the status quo. Thus she becomes a terrifying proposition, needing to be torn down in some way, even if that involves pretending, for a few minutes, that ‘professionalism’ is a bad thing.

Those stricken with this syndrome lead us to believe, through their articles and interviews, that the male artist, at the beginning of his music making career, is hatched from an egg, Monkey Magic style, entering the world already perfectly formed (even in miniature), blessed by the heavens with songwriting skills equivalent to a martial arts black belt and with an impenetrable god-given confidence on stage that can only be curbed by the occasional tightening of a gold ring around his fat head.

Meanwhile his female musical counterpart is handed the more disquieting role of Tripitaka, doomed to constantly have her authority questioned when she assumes what some consider to be ‘male’ attributes (espousing knowledge on the sacred topics of technical production, exhibiting godly confidence onstage) and only applauded during the credits, where she is revealed to be a small, softly spoken female (not the boy, the chosen one, we thought she was). Tripitaka, who engages with the slow and considered path to perfection, is only applauded for her ‘fragility’ whilst Monkey, who makes constant mistakes significant enough to anger the gods, is given an unlimited free pass to have his dirty laundry kept hidden and so, is painted as the hero.

And we wonder why female participation in the music industry is still sitting at only 13% (according to APRA). The constant and unnecessary tearing down of female artists, due to a prevalent Australian cultural leaning towards misogyny, is just another psychological tool used to drive women out of the industry, or to discourage them from even trying to participate. And this makes for a very bland and unbalanced cultural landscape.