On women, music, feminism and all that


Don't rock out too hard, little lady, you might hurt yourself.

I guess I’d call myself a feminist. Although, in order to avoid the negative baggage that seems to have got lumped in with that tag, I’m more “equalitist”, or whatever the word is – striving towards a place where men and women have genuinely equal opportunities. Sadly, looking at the world today and the place of women in it, I don’t think we’ve reached that state quite yet.

In my working life, I’m lucky enough to have swapped a relatively male-dominated world – science – for the female-dominated charity sector. It’s not uncommon to find myself in meetings consisting entirely of women, or peppered with just one or two men.

I’m surrounded by exceptionally talented and passionate women (and men!) all working hard to make a difference.  Where I work, as far as I can tell, your gender is unremarkable – what counts is whether you can do your job, although a love of musical theatre helps…

This all sits happily with my egalitarian leanings. But there’s another world I inhabit – the world of popular music.  And it’s here that I need to challenge my own prejudices, and some ingrained baggage that I seem to have picked up along the way. Namely, why do I do a mental double-take when I see women playing rock guitar, drums, or bass, DJing or fiddling about behind a mixing desk?

I’ve been wondering about this for a while, but was inspired to write this pathetic-excuse-for-a-brain-dump-of-a-post by watching the Michael Jackson documentary This Is It. Among the cast of dancers and musicians I noticed a stunning blonde female guitarist (the awesome Orianthi Panagaris) shredding it up and pulling off some kick-ass solos.

Clearly, this woman wouldn’t be have been picked to be in the band if she wasn’t an exceptional musician, but she stood out as being the only female.  And she totally rocked. But it still seems unusual to me to see women in the ‘back line’ – seeing a female drummer makes me want to run around shouting “LOOK! LOOK!! THERE’S A LADY PLAYING DRUMS! AND SHE’S GOOD AT IT!”

I have no idea why I’ve picked up this bizarre notion that there’s something odd about women being guitarists, drummers, sound engineers, bassist or whatever.  Perhaps it’s the legacy of growing up feasting on male bands like the Beatles and U2, and a popular music culture that says that women can only be singers (oh, OK, maybe they can strum an acoustic guitar whimsically or bash a piano a bit. or even – god forbid –  play the flute…).

Or perhaps it’s years of subtle indoctrination that says women simply can’t rock, have crap taste in records, and can’t tell one end of an XLR cable from the other.  None of which is true, but all of which I have heard more than once in my life.

But why should we be surprised when a woman can shred a guitar better than most guys? What’s the difference between a girl who spent years learning classical violin and the one who spent hours a day fiddling the frets on a Fender Strat? Nothing. They’ve both diligently put the hours in to master their instrument, and we should celebrate their expertise.

And while there’s still a gender disparity in classical music, it feels to me – trawling round the live music scene – that the situation is even worse on the other side. There are certainly plenty of women out there who are incredibly talented, and rock it hard, from the famous ones like Kim Deal and Meg White to the not-famous-yet ones like Laura Kidd and Dana Jade.

However, I’ve been gigging for more than 15 years now (I started young, OK?) and I’ve seen endless female singers, but I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of lady bassists, drummers and sound techs who’ve crossed my path.

Do girls lack the nerdiness and dedication required for those long hours of practice? I say not – after all, I’ve done my time in solitary, as have the many talented female musicians I know. And although I’m pretty nerdy, they’re certainly not.

So what’s the problem? Are women discouraged from learning instruments like the bass, electric guitar or drums? Where are all the female superstar DJs? Do we still have a sexist culture in popular music? Who are your female music icons? And why are there so few female sound techs?

I don’t know – you tell me.

2 responses to “On women, music, feminism and all that

  1. Yay! Another egalitarian! I’ve done some time as a rhythm guitarist, frontwoman, and now I’m a drummer (looking for a guitarist and bassist to have another bash as a frontwoman in a political punk band though, if anyone’s interested?)

    I feel bad when I look through my music collection and realise how few women there are. I put this partly down to history; I don’t have many CDs from bands contemporary with me, so those girls could have been actively discouraged from playing, and since things have changed a fair bit since, I hope the next crop will be more evenly distributed.

    I think the lack of girls taking up electric guitar, bass, drums etc is due to the general lower level of bombast, selfconfidence, and bloody-mindedness in girls (largely due to social conditioning IMHO rather than genetics). Oh, and role models who you’d actually want to be like – Courtney Love did some good things, but her life is a trainwreck. When you see how badly some women in rock have been treated (the runaway’s manager had sex with a prostitute in front of them to show those fifteen year olds ‘how to fuck’), it doesn’t seem like much of an ambition.

    I also think a level of introversion and dedication to the exclusion of social interactions is accepted more in boys than girls – think of Baron-Cohen’s ‘systematizing male’ brain versus an ’empathizing female’ brain. I know few people who argue with that interpretation.* Spending time with your computer to the exclusion of real people (a common trait in sound techs) certainly seems to be more of a boy thing.

    On a vanity level, when I took up playing drums in January some people were concerned that my arms would become over muscled and mannish. And guitar/bass gives you finger calluses that are a manicurist’s nightmare. Maybe this concerns girls? After all teenage girls are damn sensitive about their appearance.

    We all need to encourage young ladies of our acquaintance to rock out, I think.

    *One of them is me, but if people in general think it rings true then they must believe in it a little, and pass it on?

    • Thanks for your thoughts – and good luck with the drums.

      On the subject of callouses – you should see my fingertips! Funnily enough, when I was playing guitar as a teenager, I actively liked my callouses – to me they seemed like a badge of honour.

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