Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Women in Alternative Music

As you could probably guess from perusing this blog, I am a great lover of music. I wrote my master’s thesis about Kurt Cobain which really forced me to dig deep into what music I love and why. The first music I can remember loving was Dolly Parton and that was when I was a very small child. In middle school I developed a fondness for Stevie Nicks (I even managed to convince my aunt to take me to one of her concerts in Chicago when I was barely a tween). Later in middle school I started to break free from what my parents listened to and I loved the Spice Girls. It was around that time that I started a little CD collection of my own. I can vividly remember a day when my father sat down in my bedroom and looked through my CDs. I should note that music led to some of the greatest wars between my parents and myself starting in middle school and ignited battles well into my adult years. At any rate, that day my father said to me “all you have are female musicians here. Don’t you like any men?” I don’t think he meant it in an accusatory way but the vast majority of his large music collection is comprised of male artists. It wasn’t long after that that I began high school. In high school I learned through observation what music was cool and how music and style went hand in hand.


One of the first things that happened when I transitioned from grade school to high school was I grew very rebellious and did not want to be associated with the popular kids. I became friends with a large group of boys who liked alternative music and I made it my music. It was around that time that I started to dress like Kurt Cobain and listened to Nirvana on my discman and in my car all the time.


My CD collection made a dramatic shift from entirely female artists to mostly male artists within the course of just two years. I loved grunge and I can recall listening to Hole in middle school but then when I got to high school and saw the reaction I got when I said I liked Courtney Love, I started to believe that she was a villain murderer and stopped listening to Hole altogether.


In my thesis last summer I examined the cultural reactions to Courtney Love and the narratives around her life with Kurt Cobain. One of the most compelling findings of my thesis was that women are either completely invisible in alternative music or they are demonized as vixens who bring down talented men (think Yoko Ono).

The first thing I noticed in the narrative about Cobain’s life was that Bikini Kill is often completely erased as an influence. Kurt dated Tobi Vail and was good friends with Kathleen Hanna for years. They even moved him to feminist activism. How that part of the story gets erased is nothing short of remarkable. It takes intentional and deliberate storytelling on the part of biographers and music critics. The sheer insidiousness of that erasure stuns me. And it is not only Bikini Kill it is the whole Riot Grrrl movement that is not part of the story.


Of course there are many layers and ways in which fame was deployed as a tool by Cobain who claimed to eschew all of the trappings of his celebrity while at the same time being the biggest advocate for his own success. Part of the “coolness” of grunge was that the artists did not wish to be cool… supposedly. Considering that, it is especially interesting that Cobain used his celebrity as a platform to put forth ideas about queerness, gender, sexuality and feminism. That was part of who he was and that part is completely erased in the biographies, reviews and stories told about him in mainstream culture.


At any rate, all of these things are swirling through my head lately and I get passionately angry when I listen to alternative radio these days. You could go days and I mean DAYS without hearing a single female voice on the alternative radio stations here in Chicago. What I want to know is what the hell is alternative about alternative music? They seem to propound the same old patriarchal stories or worse, the ‘poor me’ stories so popular amongst young white men. They sing about women and heartache all the while real women are invisible. What really set me off what when I realized last summer that Lollapalooza was almost entirely comprised of white male artists. (Kings of Leon, Depeche Mode, Tool, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Decemberists, Jane’s Addiction, The Killers, Lou Reed, Silversun Pickups, and Snoop Dogg.) I cannot think of one excuse good enough for not including any female headliners. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were added last minute or there wouldn’t have been a female presence at all (save for a female band member in the Decemberists and Silversun Pickups). How do we justify that in 2009? It isn’t like these women don’t exist. And what makes it even more insideous is that many of the male artists slated to preform are deeply misogynistic and that ideology has no female voice to balance it out.




Then just yesterday my partner told me that he wants to go to Q101’s Jamboree and he asked if I’d be interested in going. I said if even one of the headliners was a band comprised of at least half women I’d go. Guess who’s not going? This blogger! Three Days Grace, Seether, Hollywood Undead, Papa Roach, Puddle of Mudd, Saliva, Janus, Story of the Year, Flobots, Crash Kings and AM Taxi. I think I might have seen one female face WAY in the back of one of their band pictures but that was all. I am not surprised but I am deeply saddened by it the more I think about it.


Let me assure you that there are many women in alternative music. I like The Gossip and Metric lately. Why are they invisible on these radio stations, at these events and in these publications? The only answer I have is outright and unapologetic misogyny. Alternative music is deeply afraid of women as anything other than muse, groupie or sexual conquest.

Please feel free to suggest any awesome female alternative artists in the comments!

14 comments:

Savannah said...

I'm lucky that I hear Metric and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs quite a bit on the local alternative (well, they call it "modern rock") music station, although I haven't heard them play the Gossip yet.
However, I live in Canada, and Metric is a Canadian band, so that might be why I hear it more here (what with "CanCon" Canadian Content regulations and all).

I once read this quote from Gerard Way in Rolling Stone (12/14/2006, Issue 1015), and it always kind of stuck with me: "I see women being treated as second-class citizens, even in punk rock. So if it's happening there, it's happening everywhere."

Savannah said...

Oh, and I forgot to mention that the local alternative station also plays a lot of Tegan and Sara, which is awesome.

molly said...

this issue goes back to the beginning of "popular" music, because we learn in music history that mozart's sister was equally as talented as he was but was pushed out of the limelight so that she could have babies and whatnot. weird, because it's been a few centuries and it's still kinda the same.

SuzyV@aol.com said...

I agree with you... Suzanne Vega

jukeboxheroine said...

I just found your blog and I love it! I am also a women studies/communication master's student. But my other passion is women in music. Rock on!

Cortney said...

Thanks for all of the great comments everyone! I wrote a post awhile ago about how feminist ideas have seeped into country music throughout history. I think it is so confusing that alternative music, which is supposed to be an ALTERNATIVE to mainstream values, style and ideals is so much more fem-phobic than country music where women make up almost half of the songs played.

Jukeboxheroine, thanks for introducing me to your blog! I am just reading the post about Lady Gaga right now. Love her!

Anja said...

Hello. I have read your blog for å while and i really like it. I am currently writing my master thesis about women and norwegian popular music. I am also a fan of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, and would love to read your thesis about him. Is there anyway that is possible?
Anja

Cortney said...

Thanks Anja!

If you are interested in reading the entire paper it is published at DePaul Library. They have a relationship with I-Share and WorldCat so perhaps your school could request to have it sent?

If you are not in school, a public library could also probably request it for you. Here is the link:

https://i-share.carli.illinois.edu/dpu/cgi-bin/Pwebrecon.cgi?DB=local&v1=1&BBRecID=717590

I hope that is helpful!

H.D. said...

Hi, I came across your blog just now and got stuck reading this article. Becoming a fan of the Smashing Pumpkins at the age of twelve and listening to alternative music ever since, the issue of women in rock music concerns me personally (as a feminist). When I look at my record collection I'm embarrassed about the proportion of female artists. If they're out there (which I'm sure they are) I cannot find them. You're very right about your analysis of alternative music's misogyny but I think it is more complex than that. Look at the huge numbers of female artists in the pop music industry - where do they come from? It's because there's a market for them, they can be sold as a brand as well as sell other brands, specifically to very young girls and women, those massive consumers of beauty products, clothes, accessories etc. Beth Ditto and Karen O have become style icons as well (as rock stars always have), but they're not likely to sell much beyond their music and a certain kind of fashion. Plus their target audience is much smaller these days. Let's face it: alternative music is mainly a middle class phenomenon. I mean, don't even get me started on rock music's race issue...
I guess what i'm saying is that women's artistic endeavors are generally judged way more by their market value (selling sex, beauty, a certain lifestyle) than by actual talent and innovation.
Anyway, I like those rock duos like The Kills and the Raveonettes, or go back to the originals: Patti Smith, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Nico...
Sorry for ranting; love your blog!

the beta female said...

One thing I'd like to ask you about, seeing as how you are a scholar in the area of popular music culture...

I play keyboard and sing, and have been trying to make it as a solo singer songwriter for about ten years, with no success. 2 years ago, I accidentally ended up in a band that has been seeing a lot of regional success and I'm proud to say that I am considered a musician rather than a "female musician" and that while our band may be known for many things, we are NOT known as "The jam band with the chick keyboard player."

What I'm wondering, and i've been trying to find good reading material on this but have not been lucky enough to find any, is why women in music are pigeonholed into only certain roles or personas. How did we end up with 1 woman for every 10 men in most local music scenes, and why do those women almost exclusively play the role of the singer songwriter or the lead singer of a band?

I am not the lead singer of my band, although I do sing lead on some songs. I take a lot of keyboard solos, and take part in composing, but I am definitely not a lead singer or singer/songwriter type of personality. This took me a long time to realize, and I am shocked that I was never encouraged from the beginning to rock out on my instrument and have a good time.

So, I'm a woman and I play an instrument and sing. Why does it seem that the most common path for women with that skill set is that of the frontwoman? Is it that women in music are eye candy before they are a musical presence? Please, say it ain't so. Tell me we've evolved. And if not, how the hell did it get this way?

the beta female said...

One thing I'd like to ask you about, seeing as how you are a scholar in the area of popular music culture...

I play keyboard and sing, and have been trying to make it as a solo singer songwriter for about ten years, with no success. 2 years ago, I accidentally ended up in a band that has been enjoying a lot of regional success and I'm proud to say that, in that context, I am considered a musician rather than a "female musician" and that while our band may be known for many things, we are NOT known as "The jam band with the chick keyboard player."

What I'm wondering, and i've been trying to find good reading material on this but have not been lucky enough to find any, is why women in music are pigeonholed into such narrow roles. How did we end up with 1 woman for every 50 men in most local music scenes, and why do those women almost exclusively play the role of the singer songwriter or the lead singer of a band?

Maybe it's the town I live in, and perhaps in more established music scenes, the proportion of females is greater. Nevertheless, the world of rock and roll bands (alternative, etc) primarily belongs to the guys.

I am not the lead singer of my band, although I do sing lead on some songs. I take a lot of keyboard solos and do half of the composing, but I am definitely not a lead singer or singer/songwriter type of personality. This took me a long time to realize, and I am shocked that I was never encouraged from the beginning to rock out on my instrument and have a good time. I suffered a lot trying to stuff myself into the "female musician" mold.

So, I'm a woman and I play an instrument and sing. Why does it seem that the most common path for women with that skill set is to be a frontwoman? Is it that women in music are eye candy before they are a musical presence? Please, say it ain't so. Tell me we've evolved. And if not, how the hell did it get this way? Your intelligent, historically based commentary would be greatly appreciated!!!

Cortney said...

You might enjoy reading Norma Coates or Sarah Cohen's writings. I believe it was Coates who wrote about the very narrowly defined roles for women in rock music: groupie or fan. This book has some excellent pieces in it about gender in popular music.
http://www.amazon.com/Sexing-Groove-Popular-Music-Gender/dp/0415146712

I haven't actually read this book but it was on my reading list for a long time.
http://www.amazon.com/Women-Popular-Music-Sexuality-Subjectivity/dp/0415211905/ref=pd_sim_b_1

Enjoy!

Anonymous said...

I will reccomend Sheila Whiteley, (sexing the groove and women in the music industry), Simon Firth, Susan McClary and Marion Leonard.

Courtney, thanks for the answer and link to your thesis, but I am from Norway, so I doubt my libary will take it in :) I thought maybe its online? You see in Norway we have to publish our thesis online:)

Anja

Holga said...

Re: the riot grrrls being left out of the Kurt Cobain story: have you read the bio of him called "Heavier Than Heaven?" By the way, I am a big riot grrrl, Kurt Cobain, AND Courtney Love fan.

Re: alternative female musicians... well, first of all, I wasn't aware that alternative was still a label actively being used, but I'll toss some names your way that I consider "indie," which is maybe 2011 vernacular for "alternative:" Ingrid Michaelson, Laura Veirs, Joanna Newsom, Rose Polenzani, one of the members of the AWESOME band The Kills is female. I really enjoy your blog... I hope you start writing again!