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So you want to be in a rock band?: Dissecting discrimination toward women rockers

Rose Cora Perry | Interrobang | Lifestyles | November 3rd, 2008



As revealed last week, despite serious efforts made by both artists and industry professionals alike, unequal treatment, offensive stereotyping and degrading presuppositions regarding their musical abilities remain current challenges confronting women who venture into the male-dominated ranks of rock'n'roll.

Some ‘chickrawkers,' in an effort to battle these issues head-on, advocate playing down their difference in order to achieve admission into the all boys club of rock, while others have taken a stand, embracing their femininity as a source of strength. Both positions, in my opinion, are equally justified, but clearly, as this problem persists, neither offers the complete solution.

To elaborate on why sexism in the music biz seems to have such staying power, I've invited fellow rocker, music critic, and my dear friend with whom I've shared the stage many times, Ash Keenan, frontwoman of Toronto's hardcore punk project Bukkake Katholik, to share her thoughts. Here is what she had to say:

Aspect one: Gear & technical
One of the fastest ways for a female band member to get dismissed as vacuous eye-candy is to not know her gear. And truly, from experience, that know-how doesn't come as readily to the ladies. Speakers, wattage, Ohms, DI's, mixers — it feels like a foreign language. When I hear the menfolk talk, it's as if they went to a secret rock band camp. In fact, I have a theory that this fantasy isn't far from truth.

Consider this: there aren't a lot of moms out there with music tech experience, but there are a whole lot of dads, and while, girls, as teenagers, are looking to get laid and doing so successfully with older guys, the awkward, sexually-repressed, pizza-faced boys have cloistered themselves in the ‘cool' parents' basement where they form bands and talk shop. It's no wonder that by the time rock boys and rock girls are getting serious about forming and succeeding in a bitchin' rock outfit that there is a very distinct and divisive difference in technical knowledge. And since it's both easier and more advantageous to exchange knowledge than to teach it, the dudes continue to talk amongst themselves, unknowingly but effectively ostracizing the dude-ettes. And by that point, why shouldn't they? It's obvious they're not interested in that stuff anyway. A very wise and worldly soundguy I know sums up the male attitude: “Teach a woman to fish and she'll go buy shoes.”

Aspect two: Composition
Compared to other aspects of the industry, writing is probably the area where men and women are on the most level playing field. However people still associate female songwriters with the more accessible, laid-back, love (or hate) obsessed ‘feminine' singer/songwriter. A handful of times I have walked in on a conversation where a guy is complimenting one of my band members on his songwriting. When the band member explains that I'm the one he should be complimenting, it's always been the same weird reaction: the compliment flees the conversation, replaced by a facial expression somewhere between confusion and contempt. It's so strange. Let's keep in mind that rock ‘n' roll evolved from the music of slaves, and if, to quote John Lennon, “woman is the slave of the slaves,” shouldn't women be quite capable of rock composition? Is it that hard to conceive that the fairer sex can express the gravitas of the human condition in the aggressive manner it deserves? Hey, by that logic, aren't white males the least likely to be able to truly rock? But enough of semantics; let's move on to the third, and possibly most difficult category.

Aspect three: Performance
A female performer must be significantly better than a male counterpart to garner the same amount of praise — believe it, it's true. Like with the other areas discussed, there is an audience assumption that the woman just isn't gonna cut it. When a guy onstage is impressive it's par for the course; applause and shouting, some throwing of the goat, a post-gig pat on the back. When a woman kicks ass, there's a required suspension of disbelief. When people are not willing to do that, well, they just don't believe it. Often they'll find any reason to defend their position: “Yeah that band is okay, but it's only getting attention because of the hot chick lead singer (or the like)” is a favourite rock-crowd sound bite. The worst part is that often this petty logic is actually true.

There aren't enough women in rock bands to get a true percentage, but from what I've seen and heard I can formulate with some confidence that the greater the amount of tit-shaking, the lesser the quality of music. Why this is, I can't really say. It's as if the endowed band member realized that the band sucks, but if she takes the twins out for a stroll, the audience will still react as if they are decent musically.

If you pit a great song against a nice pair of jugs in a predominantly male audience, put your money on the jugs. It's not that a woman shouldn't have the right to dress like a five-dollar crackwhore whenever she pleases, but we're talking about music here, arguably the greatest thing on earth. When it's great it requires no distraction and should be treated with the utmost reverence.

The fact that an article on sexism in the music biz ends with a discussion on tits may indicate how far we haven't come. But all in all I hope, like so many other professions, it is getting better. Even if women still have to press their ear to the door of the boys' club, maybe one day they'll have a key that they can pass down to their daughters.
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