Around 15 years ago I started going to local rock shows in and around Boston. At that time, the rock bands I saw play at halls and clubs around Massachusetts were made up of almost all guys. And yet today, all of my favorite rock bands from in and around Boston have at least one female member, if not more. I love seeing women in rock bands. I love that they do not let the gender stereotypes of our society dictate to them what they can do, what they can say, or how they should behave.
For the second installment of my From the Gut column, I interviewed four Massachusetts-based female rock musicians. In the process of doing these interviews I realized that I have read countless “women who rock!” type articles, and I didn’t want to write another one. I started to feel like just by focusing on gender as an attribute I would be helping add to the idea that female musicians should be written about, looked at, and judged separately from male musicians instead of everyone being thought of as equal.
Perhaps I am still reinforcing that stereotype here, but as a man, I wanted to get an understanding of a female musician’s perspective on being the minority in what is still a male dominated genre. Although women in rock bands are no longer a rarity, I wanted to get their perspective on what it may be like dealing with some of the stereotypes and prejudices that still exist, and find out if they feel it is any different being a female in a rock band in 2013, than it was ten, 20, or 30 years ago. I was going to take quotes from my interviews with these women and write an article from my perspective, but I ended up feeling like a much better understanding could be reached by just listening to what they had to say.
Here are their responses to my questions, but I don’t even need to list the questions for us all to understand their answers:
Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz
Boston’s a supportive environment for women in music, but that's not specific to the last ten years. There were tons of successful Boston bands from the '80s and '90s with women in their rosters -- Pixies, Helium, Swirlies, Spore, Tracy Bonham, Juliana Hatfield, Letters to Cleo, Mary Lou Lord -- and that's just naming a few. That being said, rock music everywhere, even in MA, even in the punk and DIY scenes, is still male dominated. I would be lying if I said otherwise. It feels good to know that MA supports its female artists, and it's cool to live in a place that attracts so many talented female artists, but that doesn't change statistics. Almost all of the bands I see and play with are still entirely comprised of dudes. I really don't think we've reached any kind of actual gender equality in rock music, in Boston or anywhere else. That's kind of like saying that having one woman in every office means we're all good on the glass ceiling front and that sexism doesn't exist in the workplace.
Our last Boston show was with four other bands who are some of my favorite bands on the planet, bands that I think are really exemplary of why Boston's music scene is so good and exciting. Out of 18 musicians who performed that night, I was the only female. Which is fine, I'm not complaining about that. All of those guys are my friends, and I don't have a problem hanging out with almost all dudes all of the time, because I don't think my gender is a defining role in my personality, or my relationships, or my life as a musician, but the norm for me is being one out of eighteen, and I'm not going to pretend it isn't. Until the male/female ratio of rock musicians draws a little closer to 50/50, I don't think "we're good there" and it's pointless to act like we are.
As far as writing and performing, I don't think that my gender plays a major role. If I see a good male guitarist, I don't think "he's a pretty good male guitarist," so I hope when people see us they don't think of me as a "good female guitarist" but instead as "a good guitarist.” Sometimes it can be frustrating to see adjectives like "sexy" or "sultry" used in reviews about us. We play nerdy guitar rock; "sexy" has nothing to do with it. The lyrics are sometimes related to sex, but a lot of times those are meant to be funny or sarcastic commentary on gender and sexuality, and not necessarily narrated from a feminine or even female point of view. Spending a lot of time on the fact that we're "female fronted," and connecting that to loose sexual themes, reinforces the idea that as a woman in a band I'm a novelty, or a shtick, or, worse, a sexual object. I'm not any of those things. I'm just a musician.
Mallory Hestand of Earthquake Party
I think I would be more excited about seeing more females in rock bands had I experienced a lower saturation of females in rock bands in my lifetime, but this just simply isn't the case. My first favorite musicians were women, and I hold my female peers up to the standards of their male counterparts, without regard for gender.
I honestly don’t think I’ve even thought about it, but it's really funny that I can experience a lack of awareness regarding women in rock bands, and simultaneously experience frustration with it. I have been in countless situations from city to city where I haven't been received or respected as I should as a musician, and it's always obvious that it’s because I'm a woman. People blatantly ignore me and speak to my band mates about things only I know about. I'm hit on by bartenders and promoters alike. Not that it's not flattering or whatever (honestly it's not), but hey guys, I'm in the band. Yes I belong here before the show starts. No I don't need help carrying my keyboard stand. Chivalry isn't dead, but neither is blatant sexism.
In all seriousness though, I don't face much difficulty as a female in a band probably because it is so common, especially in Boston. I am so happy and proud to be part of a time in our wonderful little bubble where girls totally dominate music, and will probably continue to do so in the coming years (sorry boys).
Mariam Saleh of Fat Creeps
It isn't any different from 10 or 20 years ago. There were just as many bands with females in them then than there are now. I think we just hear about more of them every day because of all the support in the community, which is obviously a cool thing. I never once thought when I began playing in a band and performing that because I’m a woman I’ll be taken less seriously and have to prove myself in anyway. I’ve always just thought, well either they’re going to like us or not. I don’t view myself as a girl in a band. I’m just a person in a band doing my thing. I don’t like to think of Fat Creeps as a girl band because we have a male drummer who works just as hard as us, we are all equal.
Amelia Gormley of New Highway Hymnal
I think anyone who says that female musicians are no different from male musicians is in denial. Of course we're different. That doesn't mean we can't be on the same level musically. We have to work hard to be taken seriously just like guys do. We just have to work a little bit harder sometimes. I'm sure every female musician has experienced stereotyping at some point. The door guy who assumes she's just the girlfriend, the sound guy who assumes she doesn't know how to plug in her own amp, the dudes in the other band who spew some condescending version of "Yeah, you're pretty good - for a girl," or "It's not often I see a chick who can actually play!" I've gotten all of that and it's frustrating. It's like people have lower expectations of female musicians. I just want to be known as a good bassist.
At the same time, I don't expect people to ignore the fact that I'm a girl. I'm proud to be a female musician in the Boston music scene. There are quite a lot of us now and it's empowering to me. I hope it empowers other girls who play or want to play music too. We just have to work harder to be confident and not let the boys discourage us. Confidence has a lot to do with it. I think girls have a tendency to play more timidly and be unsure onstage, because so much pressure is already put on women in our society to appear a certain way. "Playing like a girl" has come to connote playing weakly, so the confidence thing is something us girls have to really work to overcome if we want to be taken seriously. That's not to say guys can't be self-conscious onstage too. Guys just have the advantage of already being the majority in this industry. But regardless of your gender, playing like you mean it is certainly very important if you want to be a good musician.
From the Gut is a guest column by Chris Keene, the singer/guitarist of Boston rock band Mean Creek. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org