Writing About Writing About Female Musicians

Last fall, a friend from work told me that a friend from his Los Angeles art school was in some band on some tour, and they were playing Philly that night. I went to the show on a whim – taking the Market-Frankford line further west than I had ever been – and wasn’t sure what to expect, since I didn’t even know the name of any band playing.

The show turned out to be one of the best basement gigs I’ve ever seen, featuring Amanda X of Philadelphia, and Slutever and Girlpool of Los Angeles, who were touring the East Coast together (Girlpool later relocated to Philadelphia – lucky us). Notably, there was not a single male musician on the bill that night, which got me thinking – how many shows had I attended where the only musicians were male?

In February, we ran a piece at Rock On Philly about Coachella’s lack of female artists, responding to a thought-provoking dialogue between Slate and Buzzfeed. As Buzzfeed points out, women account for only about ten percent of Coachella’s lineup each year. Commenters on the Buzzfeed article argued that this disparity stems from a gap between male and female artists in the industry at large, and that Coachella’s lineup only reflected a bigger problem – but as Slate and Rock On Philly’s own Katie Antonsson point out, it’s difficult to assert that there aren’t more than plenty of female musicians who can hold their own on a major festival’s stage (and if you don’t believe that, just check out the playlist at the bottom of this page).

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In short, there’s no denying that the music industry is just another realm where it’s hard to be female. But as someone who writes about musicians, cares about gender politics, and identifies with the feminist label, another challenge emerges: how do we write about female musicians in a way that neither commodifies nor erases their gender identity?

Julia Shapiro of Chastity Belt hits the nail on the head – earlier this year, she said in an interview with Rookie: “Most interviews bring up labels—’riot grrl’ or ‘all-female’ or what have you. We’re proud to be women creating something together, but I wish more people recognized it’s not the sole thing that defines us. We’re almost exclusively compared to other female musicians in reviews, even when the only thing we have in common [with those female musicians] is our gender identity.”

Shortly after reading the interview in Rookie, I went down to Union Transfer to conduct my own interview with Chastity Belt before their opening set for Courtney Barnett. But as I looked over my pre-written interview questions on the train to Spring Garden, I found myself with a conundrum on my hands. Was there a way that I could talk about feminism and gender issues with Chastity Belt without being one of those writers who only wants to talk about what it’s like to be a woman in a band? A lyric from my favorite Chastity Belt song “Drone” kept repeating in my brain: “He was just another man trying to teach me something.” At my interview with Chastity Belt – or at any interview I may conduct for as long as I’m writing about music – I never want to be just another journalist trying to teach a band something, to borrow Shapiro’s words.

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Courtney Barnett at Union Transfer

If I had planned to talk to Courtney Barnett before that show last month, rather than Chastity Belt, the answer would be simple – there’s no reason to ask Courtney Barnett about her gender, as it has nothing to do with her music. In fact, when a writer from Noisey complimented her for writing garage rock, rather than electro-pop “like a lot of female artists,” Barnett quickly brushed the compliment off, saying that “there’s a lot of garage rock definitely around Melbourne,” where she is from. Courtney Barnett, as an Australian musician with just one album out, developed an absurdly large fanbase in an extremely short timespan overseas. Doesn’t it seem more interesting to talk to Courtney Barnett about her impressive musical feats, rather than something that has little to no bearing on her artistry? The same goes for a wealth of female musicians – if you wouldn’t ask The Districts what it’s like to be a group of men on stage, you probably shouldn’t ask Haim about their femininity.

Here’s the problem, though – many bands, like Chastity Belt and Girlpool, write about gender politics in their music, and gender is a major influence on the band’s perspective. For their first album No Regerts, Chastity Belt penned songs with ironic titles like “Giant Vagina.” On their new album Time To Go Home, songs like “Cool Slut” encourage women to not be ashamed of their sexuality; Shapiro sings, “To all the girls in the world/trying to take off their shirts/Ladies, it’s okay to be slutty.” Female-specific experiences are the focal point of many Chastity Belt songs, and in that case, talking to bands like them about women’s issues seems almost as natural as asking Paul McCartney about what playing in The Beatles was like.

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Jenny Lee Lindberg of Warpaint at Union Transfer

When I sat down in the Union Transfer green room with Chastity Belt, I started out by asking about their experience emerging from Seattle’s DIY music scene. Then we talked about swimming. After we felt more comfortable with each other, I attempted to ask that question. “So… I think there’s some similarities between female bands and female journalists.” Oh no. I said female band. I tried to compare myself to them. I needed to recover. “Like, it’s a big topic of discussion among female journalists like, making sure you like, represent female bands correctly… Because I don’t think you want me to be like, ‘Oh, you’re a female band! That’s so unique and cool!'” Yeah, I had already dug myself into a hole. There was no digging myself out. “Have you had any experiences with, umm, feeling pigeonholed?”

After a moment of silence, Shapiro responded, “I think we’re just ourselves.”

I tried my best to pose that question as respectfully and consciously as possible, but I still cringed when I transcribed the recording of the interview, and I could tell that I made the band feel a bit uneasy.

I started thinking about my responsibilities as both a feminist and a journalist around the time when Sleater-Kinney reunited. Every entertainment news outlet imaginable covered their reunion announcement, album release, and subsequent tour – and a significant portion of that coverage wasn’t pretty. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described the legendary Corin Tucker as “much too sweet and mom-like,” and later as “a West Coast riot grrrl answer to Sonic Youth.” A feature appeared in Indy Week with the headline, “What it’s like to be a grown man whose favorite band is three women.” Would we ever see a female writer pen an extensive article about how strange it is that she’s a woman whose favorite band is Nirvana? Probably not. Music journalists help shape the way that music fans think about what they listen to. If as journalists, we make it okay to reduce one of the most iconic punk bands of the last twenty years into just another “girl band,” then we make it okay for our readers to see nothing more than a female musician’s gender, rather than her talent or innovation.

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Colette and Hannah Thurlow of 2:54 at Johnny Brenda’s

I don’t think we should treat female musicians in the exact same way that we treat male musicians, because acting as though there is not a gender disparity in the music industry doesn’t help anyone – it just erases people’s struggles and prevents us from making any longterm strides towards understanding how various groups of people function differently in our culture. We shouldn’t pretend that equality exists in the music industry, because it doesn’t. If we never talk about what female musicians are doing to work towards fairer treatment, then we delegitimize their efforts and make it seem like there isn’t anything wrong. When we talk about Grimes, we should talk about how she publicly speaks out against misogyny, but we should also talk about how she writes some of the most infectious synth pop music in the business. When we talk about St. Vincent, we should talk about how Annie Clark is an openly genderqueer musician in a time when nonbinary gender identities experience major erasure, but we should also talk about how the album St. Vincent is one of the strongest LPs of 2014.

There isn’t a formula that tells you which artists it is or isn’t okay to talk about gender with. I do think, though, that there is no need to ever ask female musicians what it’s like to be female musicians – that only demeans and compartmentalizes them as artists. But the relationship between music and gender politics is not something we should ignore. Refusing to comment on a band’s overt protest against gender-based oppression is just as bad, if not worse than popping the “What’s it like to be a female musician?” question. When we do acknowledge that a band cares about certain social issues, though, we should advance the dialogue about the topics at hand, rather than hinder it. We owe it to the bands that we write about to think critically and deeply about their art.

Let’s continue to point out that it’s harder for a woman to headline Coachella than a man. Let’s talk to Sleater-Kinney about the role they played in enabling more and more women to pick up guitars and start bands in the 90s, but let’s also talk to them about the fact that they’re game-changing musicians, regardless of their gender identity. We have a long way to go before gender-based oppression no longer exists in music, but I do believe that we can get there. First things first, let’s make an effort to think about the gravity of our words before we talk about how interesting it is that Sleater-Kinney is a girl band.

Check out our playlist of over thirty incredible female musicians below!

All photos by Amanda Silberling. Coachella infographic by Chris Ritter for Buzzfeed. Featured photo is Lydia Lund of Chastity Belt.

1 Comment

  1. Lauren S

    July 8, 2015 at 3:45 pm

    I love this article so much! It brings up so many great questions that music lovers still need to recognize and deal with possible solutions.

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