I spent many years playing in bands, and despite public demand I’ve joined another one. This time it’s different, though, because this time I won’t be presenting male. That means thinking about things I’ve never had to think about before: what I should or shouldn’t wear on stage, whether I can fake the confidence I don’t feel, how I’ll deal with abuse and/or inappropriate behaviour.
I never had to think about that as a male singer. But then, as Beth McLeish writes, it’s different for girls.
Writing on Transistor, McLeish describes a change of opinion: when she was asked a few years ago about what it’s like to be a girl in a band, she didn’t think it was a particularly big deal.
I said that it was no different from being a boy in a band, as we were, quite simply doing the same thing. I recognised the barriers between women and music careers, but ultimately, I believed that things were by far better now than they used to be.
And she was right, because things are better than they used to be. And yet…
…surely it is not unreasonable for me to be getting tired of being one of only two girls on an entire gig line-up. From what I’ve gathered, the type of music we play, and the music scene, in general, is a boy’s club. For a long time, I just didn’t think there was that many women in bands. But now I’ve learned that this is 100% not the case. We just aren’t getting booked as much as our male counterparts.
Half of all guitar purchasers are women, but that isn’t reflected on stages. Festival line-ups are often embarrassingly male-dominated, and the same patterns filter down to the smallest clubs.
Putting on a line-up where the only thing the bands have in common is having a female band member isn’t helpful either. It’s tokenism.
Would you describe a band of guys with a male lead singer as “male fronted?” No, no one would say this, because sadly the assumption is that musicians are male. Surely, it’s not fair then to disregard women’s songwriting and their art, and just make it about their gender?
Musically, there is very little commonality between, say, Petrol Girls, St Vincent, Wolf Alice and Kathryn Joseph. And yet all too often women are reduced to their gender in a way male artists aren’t. Boys are classified by genre. And boys don’t have to worry about being objectified by audiences in the way girls do.
Whenever I play gigs, I feel the need to dress up in my coolest clothes and wear lots of makeup. It’s that constant pressure to look good that affects so many women in bands, and a lot of the time it matters more than what the music sounds like sadly. Of course, boys in bands are scrutinised for how they look too, and there is, of course, an expectation for them to look cool. But for female musicians, it almost seems like they’re there to be sex symbols, and their music is secondary.
The music business has long been sexist, and often misogynist. If they’re allowed to be more than just eye candy to look lovingly at the male performers, women artists have long been packaged with their sexuality first and their art second. That’s something that’s still very much in evidence today.
The treatment of women by male artists and the predominantly male people at every level from roadie to A&R rep has been famously bad. I could make my point pretty clear by listing just a few of the songs about “young girls” in which older men sing about the joys of statutory rape, or the underage lovers of your favourite rock stars or DJs. Or listing some of the court cases where powerful music business figures have exploited female artists both economically and sexually, sometimes simultaneously.
I’m constantly amazed there hasn’t been a #metoo for the music business. I suspect it’s because there’s just too much of it, the prospect of swimming against the tide must seem incredibly daunting. And once again, we’re not just talking boardrooms and limos here. We’re talking the toilet circuit of tiny venues and local radio showcases. I’ve played plenty of shows where I’ve seen appalling behaviour towards women musicians by DJs, by promoters, by audiences and by other bands’ members, and to my great shame like everybody else I said and did nothing.
McLeish has two important questions, to which her answers are “not yet”:
Are gigs safe spaces for women and girls?
Are women musicians respected and recognised for their art?
Neither of these issues are insoluble. Representation is a huge part of it. If you have more diverse people writing about music, promoting music, playing music, then it becomes less of a skinny white boys’ club. And it means things that were previously just seen as “just the way it is” can be changed.
Here’s an example. A few weeks ago I went to see Dream Wife, a pop/punk band that’s generating a lot of buzz. And very early in the show, they stopped and asked the audience to do something very simple:
Look behind you. If the person behind you is smaller than you, swap places.
And the audience looked, and they swapped places. And it was brilliant. The largely female crowd was actually able to see the show without having to try and see past hulking great blokes (and hulking great trans women; I stayed at the bar because I’m massive); the guys’ enjoyment of the gig wasn’t affected one tiny bit.
Why doesn’t that happen at every gig?
I go to loads of gigs, and it’s become really clear that the more female and fabulous the crowd, the better the atmosphere. If you go and see, say, queer punk band Queen Zee it’s a riot of cis and trans, straight and gay folks all bouncing around together. Go and see a band popular with middle-aged men and everybody’s angry-pissed, territorial and furious.
When did we collectively decide that it was okay for men to use their physicality to block the view of people who are typically smaller and socialised to be less aggressive than them?
The venue (Glasgow’s SWG3) was also plastered with posters telling attendees to report any abuse or inappropriate behaviour, and on a purely practical level it had sufficient toilets for the girls as well as the boys.
Why doesn’t that describe every venue?
And then, of course, there’s the sexual assault.
The existence of campaigns such as Safe Gigs for Women should shame us all. The group’s statement regarding this year’s festival season was sobering: they note that at many festivals “there are bands and artists who are accused or convicted of domestic abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or rape… Some are accused or have admitted to inappropriate behaviour with fans. Some may have songs that are anti-woman or pro-abuse.”
It’s not enough to change the physical environment at gigs, although adopting guidelines such as the White Ribbon Project’s Safe Gigs advice for venues of all sizes would be a big step in the right direction. We need to address the wider culture too. Respect for all women, onstage and off, should be the rule, not the exception.
My friend Professor Batty writes from Reykjavik, where he’s been at the Iceland Airwaves music festival. The ratio of men to women performers? 1:1. The ratio of male to female event workers? Also 1:1. “I have seen the future, and I like what I see,” he says.