(Written 9th March 2017 for Famous Company)
With international women’s day yesterday it was wonderful to see the number of individuals making statements on the significant roles women play throughout society. It is a reassuring reminder of how far we have come in a matter of decades even if there are the inevitable growing pains. The world of independent music, is in my opinion, still an unwelcoming environment for women to inhabit. The number of times I’ve personally witnessed sexual harassment at gigs, be it directed at members of the audience or female musicians up on stage, is sadly countless. Is there something about the spaces that gigs take place, clubs and bars? The way that people adjust their behavior in these spaces has always simultaneously intrigued and horrified me. I can only imagine how infuriating and frustrating this must be to musicians who just care about delivering their artistic vision only to be constantly heckled for reasons completely out of their control. The result of this is a pressure for women traversing music scenes to act as agents of change, with a sense of responsibility to take overtly feminist stances in their lyrics or alternatively use exaggerated sexuality as a form of control and empowerment. It’s sad, I feel these spaces should not escape the standards being formulated in the rest of society (which are getting there gradually) yet gigs at clubs and bars remain a restricting space for women to exist outside a stance of political resistance.
The Riot Grrrl movement came out of the Washington DC hardcore punk scene during the early 90’s and exemplified the need to address these issues while also illuminating some of the issues that remain a constant struggle today. The reality of extreme music genres that are disseminated in the club environment is that dancing is often rough and semi-violent. Girls who wanted to listen to the band were relegated to a spot at the back of the crowd whilst groups of guys and maybe one or two girls would slam into each other at the front. A lot of these guys are naturally are a lot bigger and not everyone, guys included, fancies having their face getting smashed into some overexcited drunk dudes fist. It’s an uneasy situation; figures like Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hannah were held up by the riot grrl community as role models, held under a microscope, accountable for any discrepancy that may go against some constructed, uniform ideology. Women in underground music scenes are often effectively regimented as feminists first and musicians second. It’s an odd roundabout battle that often feels like it adds fuel to one fire while putting out the other.
Female musicians are somewhat able to escape this world when they reach a certain plateau of high artistic recognition. When was the last time you heard about someone heckling Bjork at a show? The problem is if you are a female musician, well, I get a feeling there is an immense pressure to stand out from the crowd. It’s an incredibly difficult battle for bands of female musicians who dare to be part of the crowd going. This has however had the indirect positive effect of turning out some of the most interesting and exciting musical projects that shine out between the countless formulaic bands you see in underground scenes. One of the greatest bands to come out of the 70’s punk movement in my opinion were The Slits. Filled by a desire (or indeed, a necessity) to differentiate themselves in a male dominated genre the band crafted a funky, ramshackle and wild sound that feels fresh even by today’s standards with danceable disco and dub reggae rhythms coming hand in hand with the grit of punk. You can sift through entire record stores of musty punk LP’s and be hard pressed to find anything as original!
When female artists find themselves liberated from the club scene new barriers erect in different places. Its true, you aren’t likely to hear Bjork getting heckled at her gig, but when success is achieved the next battle faced by female musicians is that of authorship. She draws attention to this in a 2015 interview with pitchfork:
“I have nothing against Kanye West. Help me with this—I’m not dissing him—this is about how people talk about him. With the last album he did, he got all the best beatmakers on the planet at the time to make beats for him. A lot of the time, he wasn’t even there. Yet no one would question his authorship for a second. If whatever I’m saying to you now helps women, I’m up for saying it. For example, I did 80% of the beats on Vespertine and it took me three years to work on that album, because it was all microbeats—it was like doing a huge embroidery piece. Matmos came in the last two weeks and added percussion on top of the songs, but they didn’t do any of the main parts, and they are credited everywhere as having done the whole album. [Matmos’] Drew [Daniel] is a close friend of mine, and in every single interview he did, he corrected it. And they don’t even listen to him. It really is strange.”
Bjork is cautious when stepping in this territory and identifies that there is many reasons, in particular with her music, such as her solitary compositional style or use of orchestral backing, perhaps driving people to assume a largely collaborative process is taking place. The steep climb that women face in the music industry really illuminates many of the underlying social struggles that still need to be fought in the western world in terms of gender inequality. It may be an environment that has pushed some individuals, driving them to stand out above the crowd however not every creative individual excels in such pressured environments and as a result I think it’s still a lot easier to organically develop yourself as a male artist than a female. Attitudes are gradually progressing but the world of underground music and club gigs unquestionably has a great deal of catching up to do.