Charlotte, myself, Chris C and Maree are back from enjoying ourselves at Ladyfest Manchester this cold and damp weekend just past with heads still buzzing (and in some cases throbbing) with experiences and interviews to relate back to you over the course of the week. While we’re piecing it all together, I thought you might like to have a read of some of the talks that comprised the Saturday debate on the topic of feminism and counterculture.
Featuring some of the UK’s finest scholars and commentators on feminism and the arts, the panel included: Professor Sheila Rowbotham, a famed feminist socialist writer currently teaching at the University of Manchester; Dr Amelia Fletcher, legendary frontwoman of Talulah Gosh, Heavenly, Marine Research and Tender Trap (and currently Chief Economist at the Office of Fair Trading); Dr Marion Leonard, lecturer at the Institute of Popular Music in Liverpool and author of ‘Gender In The Music Industry: Rock, Discourse and Girl Power’ (Ashgate Publishing, 2007); Katherine M Graham, co-founder of Guerilla Cabaret and visiting lecturer at the University of Westminster in London; and a Ladyfest representative who I’ve shamefully forgotten the name of (sorry!).
While Sheila spoke about feminism in literature and the effect that founding feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft had on her as a young girl and Katherine gave an insightful look into fringe theatre, we’ve only transcribed the words of Amelia and Marion, who both had really interesting things to say about the role of women in music. Segments of Sheila’s speech will appear in a future BBC4 documentary, ‘WOMEN’, about feminism and its impact on contemporary women’s lives, so look out for that in the schedules.
This is quite an academic panel, and while I am fairly academic I’m fairly academic in the area of economics, and I don’t think anyone here wants to hear about that. So while I am an economist, I’m going to talk more about my experience of being in bands, putting on shows, DJing and generally being an obsessive music fan, and especially of female music. So my focus is really going to be on women in indie music. I’m not sure I’m going to say anything hugely substantive in that I’m going to focus on anecdotes and maybe a couple of theories, pet theories, and hopefully there will be interesting questions later.
I’m going to start from when I was young. I started in music a very long time ago, the mid ’80s, when most of the bands playing at this Ladyfest were in the process of being born, and I felt at that time that it was a very optimistic time being a woman in a band. Women seemed to be getting really involved in music all over the place, and I think that was partly as a result of the DIY ethos that had kind of been engendered by punk. It was after punk, but that kind of ethos was still around and I love some of the more DIY bands, so bands like Dolly Mixture, Marine Girls, The Shop Assistants, and a bit before that, X-Ray Spex, and girls were definitely involved as singers, songwriters, band members, and also writing fanzines, starting labels, putting on gigs. And actually, this never happened to me but some of the younger people coming through seemed to be learning instruments at school, which seemed incredible to me. Rock instruments at school! I learnt violin! So I thought the future was looking golden.
As a result, and kind of embarrassing in retrospect, I think I was pretty snotty and sure of myself, and very dismissive of the concept of feminism. It just seemed very outmoded and uncool, and I remember doing an interview with this woman, who was about 10 years older than me, about feminism and music. And I think I was pretty obnoxious in retrospect. I was pretty negative about the whole concept of feminism, and I think this can be traced back to a cartoon in Private Eye at that time, which was called ‘Wimmin’, and basically the characters were kind of archetypal feminists – probably more ’70s than ’80s feminists, actually: po-faced, lank hair, saggy boobs and basically uncool – and when I was 17 or 18 with a sort of punk rock attitude, that just didn’t appeal. And I think that cartoon on its own tainted feminism for me for a very long time.
Also, I refused to say another thing the interviewer wanted me to say – and while I backed down on feminism I would not back down on this one – and that was to say that boys had somehow got in my way in making music, and that absolutely wasn’t true. A boy taught me how to play guitar. Boys had done all sorts of things to help me. Maybe they were psychologically incompetent males as the ones described by Sheila, but broadly helpful. But while loving female music and actually being very interested in female issues and putting them in my songs, I actually nevertheless retained this broadly negative view about feminism pretty much until this thing called riot grrl came along.
I’m going to assume that everyone here knows what riot grrl was, and actually Marion’s going to talk more about it, but I first discovered riot grrl from some the actual protagonists in Olympia, Washington, because my band Heavenly was on tour there – people like Molly Neuman and Allison Wolfe from Bratmobile and the girls from Bikini Kill – and it had a really huge impact on me. I suddenly realised that I did already care desperately about some of the issues they were talking about and finally there was a name I was willing to apply to myself. Riot grrl didn’t have all these difficult connotations, I was happy with riot grrl. The people who did riot grrl looked a bit like me.
Riot grrl made me even more optimistic about the role of women in music. Suddenly there were really cool, girl-based bands everywhere singing specifically about what it was like to be female and a lot of them seemed to be on a sort of upwards trajectory, especially Huggy Bear, Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, and there were big events at places like the ICA in London, millions of fanzines, and just this amazing buzz. Even in the mainstream world the Spice Girls seemed to want to get in on the act with their kind of ridiculous, in retrospect, talk of girl power.
So how about now? Personally, I’m a lot keener on straightforward, good old-fashioned feminism, although it’s interesting hearing that actually there’s no such thing as old-fashioned feminism and it’s been through all these tangled webs. But I’ve got older, I probably look a bit more like the people in the Private Eye cartoon these days, and I’ve read a lot more about the wider issues facing women in all areas of the economy, so for me at the moment a big issue has been trying to do both: to have a career and raise two small children. But what about the music scene? Well, in a way there are positives there as well. If you look at the top 20, there’s a huge amount of female representation. You’ve got P!nk, Rihanna, Sugababes, and you’ve got a few spikier things too like M.I.A. and The Ting Tings. Actually, if you look at this week’s top 20, more than half of it could broadly be described as being female. So far so good. The Spice Girls were right, maybe.
But the story isn’t actually as good if you look at indie music, which is the music that I love. There’s lots of great indie bands, female-based indie bands, playing this Ladyfest and all the other Ladyfests that occur, and that’s really great. But it’s worth looking at sort of mainstream indie – and I know we’re talking about counterculture here but I just want to focus on the more successful end of indie – and probably because I’m an economist I’m a bit obsessed with data so I went and got some data on ‘indie’. A couple of weeks ago, I looked at the top 30 indie chart – and there’s quite a lot of dance music in there so I took those out – and counted up the number of women in the 15 indie bands that were in there. There were 64 people in those 15 bands, and four of those were women. So that’s one woman to 15 men, which I think is actually pretty bad. I was surprised at how bad it was.
But does that matter? Well, it does to me because this is the music I love. I love indie. I love females in indie bands. I want them to have at least the potential to be successful. And I know that this session is about counterculture and maybe we don’t care about mainstream indie but what I want to come onto is that I think there is a link between mainstream and counterculture indie and the desire of females to get into bands at any level. So why, contrary to these optimistic expectations that I’ve had over the years, do there seem to be so few female indie bands – and I’m absolutely ready for people to shout me down in a minute and tell me all the bands that I actually have missed and should be listening to – but if my hypothesis is right and there is a bit of a lag, I don’t really know why this is.
Speaking for myself and being in bands trying to get a smidgen of success, I think there’s three things that might be worth pointing to and worth discussing. First, what is the role of role models? The second thing is the role of social networks. And the third is the role of the media, and particularly I wanted to focus on radio. So I’m just going to talk about each of those three quickly.
Role models. It can seem a bit daft, but I’m increasingly convinced that girls do need girl role models. Male role models are great as well but somehow female role models speak to you a bit more. I really struggled for the lack of female role models when I first went to work as an economist. It was an incredibly male company with no senior women and pretty much any other female who ever joined that company left after about 3 months and I somehow stayed. People just didn’t like having no one they could look up to and understand how they were meant to dress, how they were meant to act. Certainly music-wise, I had loads and loads of influences, male and female, but it was the bands that had females in that really made me feel that I could be in a band too, that I could do it.
Obviously there’s some very famous role models for girls now – all those successful females in the top 20 – so I really hope that loads and loads of girls start making music because of Lily Allen, M.I.A., Kate Nash. But it’s far harder to think of successful female role models in today’s indie scene. There are some, but if you think about all the successful indie role models who are inspiring the bands that are playing here this weekend, a lot of them I think are from the past. Not the very distant past, but there does seem to be a bit of a lack at the moment. I think it’s a real pity because I think with indie music’s sort of DIY approach, it’s a form of music that, with role models, females can be really attracted to and make a real success of.
Social networks. What I mean by this is basically your local community and your mates. That can be really important in terms of inspiring you and in setting your ambitions. If your friends think you can make it then you are more likely to think you can make it too. But on a more basic level, your social network can be really important just for allowing you to form a band. It’s much much easier to form a band if you’ve got mates and they want to form a band with you than if you haven’t got mates to form a band with and you’ve got to advertise for them, which is a much more nerve-wracking experience. You’ve got to be really confident in your own ability.
I actually have a couple of friends, well, children of friends, who are really talented girls, at school, really wanting to be in a band, and they’re actually too shy to form bands with the boys at their school because they’re nervous of playing in front of them, and there’s no other girls at their school who want to form a band with them. So they’re sitting there, able to play guitar much better than I ever could, and somehow psychologically unable to start a band. I think it’s interesting to compare this with boys, and there’s usually a few sort of boy bands in schools cajoling their mates to join in. It can feel a much bigger step, I think, for females.
I think riot grrl and these Ladyfests is a really nice example, on the other side, of what strong social networks can do. When riot grrl first kicked off in the UK it felt like every female I knew was in bands, booking gigs, running fanzines or just doing something, and the sense of community was really incredible, really inspiring. And when these things work well, they can be a really great launchpad for bands. For example, I went to the first Ladyfest in Olympia, Washington, and I saw The Gossip there and thought, wow, that’s amazing. And I don’t know if they launched just because of that but I’m sure it helped.
Finally, talking about the radio. This is just a pet issue but I think that it’s gotten worse. When I was growing up everyone listened to Radio One, because really there was nothing else, and while it was really hard to get onto Radio One daytime it was really quite easy to get onto evenings and being in girl-based bands wasn’t at all a problem. My first band Tallulah Gosh got invited to do a session within about 2 months of our first gig, when we could actually barely play, and I did about eight sessions with my bands over the course of the years. What’s different now is commercial radio stations. They’ve got much more important, and particularly Xfm has got much more important for indie music. In a way that’s great, it’s great to have a radio station that just plays music of the genre that you like, but the difficulty is that they rely on advertising for their funding and basically the way they make the most revenue is to target a very specific demographic that advertisers want to reach.
The trouble is that advertising is sold on a gendered basis so advertisers who buy Xfm listeners – that’s what they do, they buy you – they buy male 16–34 year olds. And actually they buy a lot of those. Xfm’s weekly reach, the average number of people who listen every week, is over a million. I was really surprised at how many that was. So if Xfm is desperately trying to get all these male 16–34 year olds to listen to it, it has no incentive whatsoever to attract a single woman because people who want to attract women consumers don’t buy Xfm advertising.
This wouldn’t be a problem but just as I love female music, nothing at all against males but they seem to prefer male music and the occasional females that break through, whether they be slightly more raunchy or slightly more aggressive. So I looked at the Xfm playlist, which is the top 20 bands that they play, 2 weeks ago and did my calculations again. They were 77 people in those 20 bands and only one of them was female, the woman from The Ting Tings, so she’s fighting the feminist battles on Xfm at the moment. Radio One isn’t quite as bad but they’re trying to compete with commercial radio so the ratios aren’t that different. For example, Zane Lowe’s playlist.
So what does all this mean? It means, basically, that if you’re a female-based band it’s harder to get that kind of mass media coverage which is incredibly important in becoming more successful. Does this matter? We’re in a situation of credit crunch, which I do have to worry about as an economist, so lots of these things don’t seem to matter at all, but as a lover of indie music I think it does. If female musicians struggle to get on the radio then they’re less likely to be successful. If they don’t get successful they’re less likely to provide role models for future generations of females. And without a community of females in future generations interested in forming bands then maybe there won’t even be the formation of bands trying to get successful to have enough of a social network.
I really, really hope this is inappropriately doom laden and I really hope that I’m wrong about all this. The nice thing about the music scene is that there’s always people who break through against the odds and then open doors for others, which is great. And I really hope that fantastic Ladyfests like this one become sort of niche interests for the few but do actually provide a launchpad for success.
I’m going to talk about women in rock too, but from the point of view of a researcher. My research is concerned with the operation of gender within the music industry, or perhaps I should say industries, and I look to examine the experiences of female musicians in the music industry and particularly those forming woman-centred indie rock bands. To understand how they experienced the music industry I ask them about their interactions with other music industry professionals, so how they operate with journalists, sound engineers, promoters, photographers, people working in A&R. And I look to examine how they’re represented in the music press and the media. Throughout our conversations it is clear that the culture the music industry produces is a very gendered culture, and more specifically the culture of rock music is a masculinist culture. So we can see this effect in a whole range of ways, from attitudes relating to how that music is performed or promoted or prioritised through to how it has been historicised and consumed and experienced.
The musicians that I spoke to discussed how gender roles were naturalised in various contexts, such as in the backstage area or in the musical instruments shop, so that they felt, as women, slightly out of place or not normative. Other musicians discussed how their promotional campaigns and the questions they were asked by journalists in interviews were informed by attitudes towards gender, which in turn shaped how they were marketed or the ways in which they were represented in the music media. These comments I think highlight a pathway in which attitudes towards gender are upheld and reinforced, ways which help to maintain the status quo and can actually exclude or discourage participation of women. So what I’m pointing towards here is the dominance of rock music by male music makers. It’s not explainable in simple terms. It’s not the case that women are excluded completely from the practice, or that women are not interested in this form of music production. There are instead a whole range of ways in which rock music is produced and understood to be masculine which are powerful and have an effect on those that are interested in it or actively engaged in working with this form of practice.
There are lots of instances that we can look at to see that in operation, and perhaps it would help us to try and tie that down a little bit. So if we briefly think about the ways in which rock music is discussed and canonised and historicised within the rock press and in general practice, we can see how masculinist or traditionalist structure has been maintained. The very phrase “women in rock”, which features in a great number of articles focusing on female musicians, is itself problematic. Rather than simply pointing to the activity of female musicians, the phrase usually serves to peculiarise the presence of women rock performers. And this point is reinforced by the fact that journalists often describe female musicians by this phrase rather than just talking about them as rock performers.
So rock discourse normalises the male performer and so deems the activity of women in this field as worthy of note. And moreover, the coverage of women rock performers peculiarises them as novel and erases the history of women who have worked within this field. Drawing on a couple of my interviews, singer and guitarist Kim Deal commented to me, “I get asked about every 6 months, well not even every 6 months, but every 3 months I get asked about the resurgence of women in rock.” So there are many ways in which the gendering of popular music more generally takes place and different approaches and modes of analysis will allow us to unpack those, but it’s more difficult to consider how these attitudes can be shifted and I want to turn now to consider how some people have actively tried to contest established gender roles within the music industry and the wider cultural industry.
Because of the title of this panel being Feminism and Counterculture, I must attend then to the intersections between the music industries and the underground. My research has cited a specific focus on the development and continuity of the riot grrl network, and I’ve also been quite keen to think, most aptly today, about the new wave of Ladyfest events that have been inspired by and follow on from the premises underpinning riot grrl. Both of these initiatives have had a clear feminist agenda in addressing effective change for women working in the cultural industries.
From the coining of the term in 1991, information about riot grrl spread via gigs and word of mouth, through zines and then through the wider music press and print media. Those involved in riot grrl challenged the notion that indie rock was free from instances of sexism. The initiative encouraged women to participate in music production and to challenge behaviour which excluded them. It critiqued conventional norms of female display, and drawing on the DIY spirit of punk, to encourgae participation and reduce barriers to entry. Much of the publicity around riot grrl in national papers and magazines defined it as a musical movement and then proceeded to discuss a very small number of bands, but though it was initiated by musicians the production of the more broadly focused themes shows that riot grrl was important as a more general system of communication and self-produced publications offered spaces in which girls could share information and could voice opinions on issues that affected them, and as such they were underground mediums for the spread of feminist ideas and for sharing and voicing opinions and personal accounts within what was a supportive network of girls and women. Those involved repeatedly stressed that there wasn’t a singular viewpoint which could be taken as representative of the initiative, and so by saying they could only offer personal insight people kept that participation open and encouraged involvement that didn’t encourage participation of others.
It’s hard to catch hold of and calculate in terms of numerical volume of the underground feminist activity in relation to riot grrl, and indeed in terms of Ladyfest. There are many hundreds of zines which have been produced but their production is by design small scale and their distribution swift and time limited. While there have been archives of zines, we can only see them as offering a partial record. Numerous bands and musicians have been inspired by the DIY ethic of riot grrl or influenced by the creative energy of those that embrace the name, and again it’s enormously hard to chart how many musicians might fall into that category. Many bands have been short-lived and a lot of them haven’t produced recordings, but beyond these productions riot grrl has been important also to the many people who just read the zines, listened to the music, went along to the shows and maybe gained a sense of empowerment in doing so.
Thinking in a similar way, Ladyfest events since the first festival in 2000 in Olympia, Washington, are examples of this DIY feminist activity. The central Ladyfest website provides an important record of this incredible spread of the initiative, and it shows that given encouragement and an adaptable template women can mobilise in countries all around the world to create events designed to foreground, celebrate and encourage women in the creative industries. Yet despite the visible network of websites and forums for these enterprises, the number and the range of activities relating to Ladyfest is also hard to establish. The central Ladyfest website is no longer updated but records 97 events taking place up until the end of 2005. I did a bit of a trawl through the web for further information about subsequent events and seen that there was no slowdown in activity taking place under the banner of Ladyfest. I found reference to 28 festivals this year alone and there have probably been others, and those have taken place in countries including Canada, Finland, the US, Italy, UK, Mexico, Switzerland and New Zealand.
The continual production of these festivals testifies to their perceived relevance and importance and the flexibility of the format allowing organisers to adapt the programme to suit the location and the interests of those involved. And I quite like this issue about the physical record of these events because I think it says something about popular culture and about the nature of these activities themselves. There’s a mobility to the Ladyfest network and a desire to push forward to reach new audiences, and to modify the format to some extent at least to reflect those involved. Ladyfest events are temporal. They offer a snapshot of the activities and artistic production happening in a given city or region at any one time, and the festivals themselves are transient.
But I don’t think we should just talk about the festival itself. There’s a whole process and timeline which brings together women for many months in terms of organising committees and fundraisers, so through this network important friendships are formed which can be productive in terms of collaboration, support, empowerment and possibly career development. So what I’m saying then is that the impact of things like Ladyfest and riot grrl goes beyond this sort of idea of the tangible evidence of these activities. They are instances in which individuals have been engaged with an idea and motivated by a politic to produce music, text and events.
And I’m aware that my comments are probably quite celebratory, hopefully not too uncritically so, but in thinking about today’s debate I wanted to highlight two things that are maybe not in balance with each other but least in a relationship. First that gender remains very much an issue for musicians, both male and female, who are working within the music industries and affects decision making, thoughts and behaviours; and secondly, that the instances of riot grrl and the organisation and operation of Ladyfest are examples of how DIY action can create opportunities, even if only temporarily and within a limited field, to challenge accepted practices where women have been marginal. Their roots are very much in the underground but they are, I think, interesting examples of resistance to gender roles applied to women in the cultural industries.
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