March 8, 2008

Are songbirds pretty? Data from indie babes

A running debate I've been having with blogger Thursday is whether musically talented females tend to be good-looking or not. His main objection is that I'm getting most of my data from popular music, where record label moguls may consciously or unconsciously screen for good looks in addition to musical ability. However, my obsession with this topic started when I noted some beautiful classical musicians, although this may be confined to piano and violin (maybe cello). They are not screened for good looks. But I don't want to stake too much on them, since I didn't search classical musicians at random and get an impression of their looks -- I visited a site that catalogued "babes in classical music," whose representativeness I don't know.

So I then looked at the performers at the inaugural Lilith Fair -- a feminist carnival -- and showed they were good-looking, although Thursday objected that these had already been screened by record moguls before they were signed up to play the show. As an aside, there is at least one case of a songbird who has a model mother and musician father: Linda Perry. The pattern holds even among low-power ethnic groups such as Gypsy chanteuses, though again the screening issue may play a role in their pop music too.

All right, I've got a new dataset that I think settles the matter in my favor, when combined with the above data as well. Being ignorant of the currents in pop or indie music for the past five years, I consulted my 18 year-old indie chick friend, who directed me to the website Music for Ants. This frequently updated blog focuses on indie bands of the week, and I checked the entries on the similar websites Stereogum and Fluxblog (as suggested by the SWPL entry on indie music) to make sure the same bands were featured, to ensure representativeness. But Music for Ants also has lots of pictures of the bands, allowing us to see what the average indie guy or girl rocker looks like.

I checked the latest 20 pages of the website looking for pictures of females, and though I didn't keep count, there were a fair number of them -- maybe 20 to 30. I don't recall more than one or two being ugly, with a small minority being average, but a modest majority being above-average. They're not quite as good-looking as pop music stars, but the majority are "cute" or better. I'd say the average American female scores 4 or 5 out of 10, while the average female indie rocker is 6.5 or 7, and the average pop star an 8 or higher. Pop music moguls may therefore be exploiting (and exaggerating) a pre-existing tendency for musical females to be good-looking.

Indie band-of-the-week rockers are deliberately not screened according to "mainstream" criteria, such as how good-looking they are. They serve mainly as brands that Whiterpeople can use to show off how unique they are, rather than serve as sex fantasy icons, so their looks do not matter. As long as they have some musical ability and are committed to remaining obscurish, they'll do. Sure, they may not represent the pinnacle of musical genius, but we'd classify them as having clearly above-average musical ability (though they may lack drive, originality, and so on).

So, this pretty much settles whether or not females with greater musical ability also tend to be better looking. I don't claim the trend is perfect (the correlation r is probably modest, around 0.4 or 0.5), nor do I claim that the trend is perfectly linear (at the very highest levels of musical ability, their looks may be average or below-average -- I'll try to find out later). This fits into a larger pattern of artistically talented females who are good-looking, such as attractive fashion designers. Even fashion models are smart, which admittedly isn't the same as having artistic talent.

I outlined in previous posts what I think accounts for the pattern: cross-assortative mating between talented males and attractive females. I've outlined simple tests for this, such as doing a study of families to see if looks correlate with musical ability within families, which would go against my theory and would suggest something like genes that affect both looks and musical ability. I do, however, think genes that affect both looks and talent are at work in ballet dancers, since I don't think ugly or average-looking male dancers enjoy the same sex appeal through their talent that ugly or average musicians do, so cross-assortative mating is unlikely here.

An additional reason I'm skeptical of genes that influence both looks and music skill is that I don't think male musicians tend to be above-average in looks, although I'm not a very good judge of male looks. Still, flipping through Music for Ants, the guys looked pretty average, with many more ugly guys than girls. Under my view, they represent the talented fathers who would pair up with attractive groupies (or whoever) to produce pretty, musical daughters.


  1. Interesting, but I see two potential complications here. One, while classical musicians are likely to have one or two musician parents, IME indie musicians don't usually come from the typical "musical family" so not that many of them have musically talented (or at least musically active) fathers.

    Two, I'm sure you realize that an ugly girl is going to have a much harder time finding skilled and motivated bandmates than a pretty one. In other words, they're pre-screened by bandmates even before they get pre-screened by fans, bar owners, indie label owners etc.

    Having said that, I've met a lot of female musicians over the years and few have been really ugly (and those were almost invariably overweight). I would even say that musician wanted ads are a good way to meet attractive women, assuming you have some accomplishments or skill of your own.

  2. indie musicians don't usually come from the typical "musical family" so not that many of them have musically talented (or at least musically active) fathers.

    I think it's the latter -- their father may have chosen another profession, but they could play instruments well as a kid, or had a knack for singing, have perfect pitch, etc.

    I'm sure you realize that an ugly girl is going to have a much harder time finding skilled and motivated bandmates than a pretty one.

    This makes it sound like there is a premium to having a female bandmate, and that so many apply that male band members screen by looks.

    But look through Music for Ants or similar site -- the bands are mostly male. It's like a group of math majors: they'd kill to have a cool chick who shares their interests and would like to rock out with them. The scarcity of such females means that interested guys would snatch up whoever was interested.

  3. Your reply gives me an idea. I think you can improve your data quality by restricting it to instrumentalists and ignoring vocalists.

    You're right that most indie guys would kill to have a chick who rocks out with them, but many are not keen on female vocalists for whatever reason. So they do pre-screen vocalists, sometimes even settling for a girl as a last resort because they can't find a guy, but probably don't pre-screen instrumentalists because those really are rare.

    Also, instrumentalists may be more likely to have musician fathers who often encourage their children to take up an instrument at an early age.

    So if you come up with separate averages for vocalists and instrumentalists, what's the result?

    I'm also thinking of other potential data sets... Jazz or cover bands have enough business sense to pre-screen their female members for looks so those are out. Maybe youth or university symphony orchestras?

  4. There is some evidence that people with more musical talent are more attractive (e.g. music of people independently rated as more attractive gets better ratings even when people rating the music can't see the performers).

    It's possible this is related to a third variable. For instance, take dance. Men with lower fluctuating asymmetry were found to be better dancers. A replication, though, showed that the FA-dancing link was accounted for by the fact that the symmetrical dancers were more intelligent.

  5. Here's a possible data source:

    Most of the women look better than the average American, I'd say. Though to avoid complications I think the sample should be restricted to white girls. They also have galleries for other seasons and orchestras but that one's got the most individual photos.

    Interesting links Jason posted... I've reposted them on a few metal forums and made their members quite angry. Ah, metalheads...


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