Recognizing Women in Rock Music

Photo courtesy of Smith.edu | Panelists of the Woman of Rock Oral History Project discussed how gender played a role in their musical careers.

Photo courtesy of Smith.edu | Panelists of the Woman of Rock Oral History Project discussed how gender played a role in their musical careers.

 

Eliza Going ’18
Staff Writer

On Oct. 22, a panel of influential female musicians discussed gender differences in the rock industry. Kristin Hersh (from Throwing Muses and 50 Foot Wave), Alice Bag (from The Bags), JD Samson (from Le Tigre and MEN), June Millington (from Fanny), Kim House (from Kim and The Created) and Julie Cafritz (from Pussy Galore and Free Kitten) spoke about their backgrounds in the music industry, as well as the gender inequalities and injustices they’ve experienced as female-identifying rockers.

Tanya Pearson ’AC, an oral historian, organized and led the panel discussion; in addition, she received Smith’s first Rosenthal grant to create the Women of Rock Oral History Collection. By and for women who have been perceived as anomalous and omitted from rock history, the collection will consist of video interviews and transcripts from many of the same women who were featured on the panel. It also aims to focus on female rockers who have been lazily categorized with the Riot Grrrl movement simply because they were female and making music during the same time period, or they were simply forgotten because they weren’t a part of the movement.

The panelists began the discussion by speaking about their accomplishments as rock musicians. June Millington was a member of Fanny, the first all-female rock band signed to a major label in the United States, which was deemed “one of the finest f***ing rock bands of their time” by David Bowie. Alice Bag spoke about the development of the wide-open Los Angeles punk scene and how women have influenced it. She said, “We as women shaped it. We were involved in every aspect. We shaped it as much as men.”

Julie Cafritz saw her accomplishments differently. On her start in music, she said, “I did not sleep with the lead singer. I played the guitar poorly.” She downplayed her musical abilities, calling herself “famously not a musician,” and rejected the notion that you have to be “masterful [at] your instrument to be respected or authentic.”

Both JD Samson and Kim House had more activist themes running through their identity and their music. JD Samson, a genderqueer individual with high visibility in the music industry, promotes inclusivity of all sexual and gender identities through dance music and explained that one of Le Tigre’s main goals was to create a safe space for queer women and genderqueer individuals to dance without judgment. In the same vein, Kim House talked about the role of anxiety and depression in her songs as a platform “not to make mental illness cool but to make it not so stigmatized.”

The panelists also discussed the gender divide in the rock industry, a business seen as inherently masculine. Pondering the start of her band, the Throwing Muses, Kristin Hersh mentioned, “It never occurred to any of us that we were female. It was never pointed out.” She didn’t label her band as a “girl band,” and she certainly did not label her target audience as what was recommended to her. While her label pressured her to write music for single females, she flatly refused because she didn’t want to write for one specific demographic.

In the rock industry, men are seen as the norm and women are seen as an anomaly. Often, this causes people to explicitly call attention to a female musician’s gender. As a solution, Pearson explained that she refers to bands with men as “male-fronted” and bands featuring women as “female-fronted” to suggest that women are not second-class musicians. Kim House weighed in on the terminology, saying “female-fronted, all-girl … that’s all great, but I think it still creates a divide.”

In closing the panel, Pearson brought home a key point: the importance of female visibility. “Rock [has been] considered, since its conception, to be inherently masculine,” said Pearson. “Let us also hear some female experiences. I don’t accept agency. I want to fill in the gaps.” Once told she couldn’t rewrite history, Pearson responded, “Well, I’m doing it.”

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