Rock and roll is changing. Gone are the days when white guys with long hair and often questionable morals dominated critics’ year-end best-of lists. The rock music landscape looks very different than it did 30 – even 20 – years ago, much to the dismay of men who grew up idolizing Kurt Cobain but demonizing Kathleen Hanna. Artists like Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, Mitski, and the Haim sisters are critical darlings. Overall, the rock landscape is more open to the participation – and domination – of women than ever.
While this shift has been a great one to witness, it has brought forth a new wave of microaggressive misogyny in the rock scene. Have you ever noticed that if you listen to, for instance, a lot of Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, and HAIM, that people sometimes go out of their way to point out that you listen to a lot of “female rock artists”? Or how when musicians like these get interviewed, they often get asked what it’s like to be a ~woman in music~? Somehow, we have created a staunch separation between male musicians or male-fronted acts and those of women. Men can make indie rock, punk rock, surf rock, garage rock, the list goes on and on. Women can only make “female rock music”. Nobody will bat an eye if you listen to Pearl Jam, but eyebrows will raise if you bring up Bratmobile. People will even go as far as to act like we only listen to female rock musicians out of a sense of political duty, and not just because their music is good. It is seen as a noble thing to be so kind as to give the life’s work of amazing female artists any ounce of consideration.
People take all the hard work, nuance, and difference found in these individual women’s work just to put them in a neat box that is more palatable to the average rock listener. Musicians don’t even get a chance to grow into themselves artistically before they are limited by tokenizing labels. Emily Haines, who is both a solo artist and part of both the collective Broken Social Scene and the band Metric, talks about this in a Washington Post article, “As a female musician, you get dumped in your little pink sidecar before you’ve even stepped into your own shoes[…]”.
Additionally, when you put many people in a little box on the basis of some shared characteristic, the differences between their work begin to fade away, with one nebulous classification taking their place. Janet Weiss, the drummer for band Sleater-Kinney, spoke on this in a live interview for Broad City, “The all-women’s issue. The women in rock. This ghetto that they put us in. You get the one issue a year. People always compare us to bands with female singers. Not that we don’t love those bands, but it seems so narrow-minded to me.” This inflexible thinking also leads to people pitting women in the music industry against each other. The people who believe that women should be put into boxes also think that these boxes can’t get too big. To them, there is only space for a few token women in rock; pitting people against each other helps in weeding some out. In the same interview for Broad City, Carrie Brownstein puts it perfectly: “If you’re an ‘other,’ they want you to beat up the other ‘other.’”Women musicians often feel pressure to play into this; it feels like if they don’t, they won’t stand a fighting chance in the industry. On the other hand, many actively speak out against this notion, going out of their way to uplift other women musicians. But this often forces people into politicizing their existence, which puts us right back to where we started. You cannot win as a woman in the music industry; the only choice you have is how you want to lose.
Even though a lot of women are (understandably) frustrated with being reduced to their gender and only their gender, many feel a duty to answer all the stupid questions and put up with the mildly offensive comments, because they know that it’s still hard to be a woman who is involved with music in any way, whether it be learning guitar as a kid or working in the music industry. In an interview with the Collaborative, musician Madeline Rees touches on this, saying, “some sound guy walks into the bar and is looking around for the bands to see who’s playing and just completely ignores us.” In a Washington Post article, Sadie Dupuis mentions that these harmful ideas are perpetuated from when kids are really young, saying, “For a lot of kids, their gender [got] in the way of them having access to certain genres of music.” Many female artists almost were – or at first, were – those kids. They don’t want to see other people go through that. They want little girls to have people in the media to look up to – they want them to know that it is possible to be a woman in music. And if putting up with some inconveniences allows them to serve as living proof, they are willing to brave it. Julia Cummings of band Sunflower Bean talks about this in a Washington Post article: “It’s boring and frustrating to have similar conversations [again and again]. But at the same time, if there’s still girls that don’t feel comfortable playing, and they still need to see someone out there to do it, then it’s still important to talk about.” Indie rock artist Mitski does the same thing, even putting it into practice when she performs, despite criticism from listeners. In her 2015 NPR Tiny Desk Concert, she addressed these grievances, saying, “I’ve gotten a lot of complaints saying that I can’t play guitar, and it’s true, I’m a keyboardist. But I do this because for a lot of girls it’s kind of scary to try to start playing guitar cause you feel like you immediately won’t be good enough. So I’m telling you right now, ‘I can’t play guitar and I’m playing guitar on stage.’ You can just start where you can.”
Besides the tokenization and patronization many women face in the industry, this pretense of progressiveness in the music sphere makes it harder to call out the fact that the few women we concentrate all our attention on are privileged. Fiona Apple, Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, the list goes on – they are all talented women. They are also white and cis. In fact, the only woman of color in the rock sphere that gets the amount of praise that the aforementioned women enjoy is Mitski. Rock is definitely diversifying at its roots, but that positive change has yet to reflect on Rolling Stone magazine covers and Pitchfork end-year best-of lists. Women of color are still being pushed to the margins, their immense and important contributions to rock being forgotten. Without them, the genre as we know it wouldn’t exist; it’s probably about time to give credit where credit is due.
The weirdest thing about acting like women existing in the rock sphere is some novel and revolutionary thing, is that this could not be further from the truth – women have been at the forefront of rock innovation since the genre’s inception. Contrary to popular belief, rock music did not start when some gloom-and-doom white guys in a basement decided to pick up guitars for the first time. Before the genre even came to be, jazz singers like Ella Fitzgerald were laying the foundations for its existence. In the 60s and 70s, women like Joan Jett and Janis Joplin impacted the genre in many ways. In the 70s and 80s, Stevie Nicks made her mark on the genre – both with Fleetwood Mac and as a solo artist – as a songwriting powerhouse. In the 90s, the riot grrrl movement placed women at the center of the alt-rock scene. Hell, king of rock Elvis Presley didn’t even make Hound Dog; we have Big Mama Thornton to thank for that. So many women have been integral to the creation, survival, and thriving of rock as a genre, and acting like women started making rock in 2015 erases all of that. Lucy Dacus talks about this, saying, “It’s funny. [These pieces always state,] ‘Women are making such good music right now.’ Endquote. But it’s like, [what about] Janis Joplin? Billie Holiday? Ella Fitzgerald?” Women aren’t new to rock; it’s not like they go through cycles of leaving and then reappearing again, either. They have always been here, regardless of what the year or subgenre of interest was. And they always will be, whether you give them the time of day or not.