Mia invokes the spirit of a lady-positive song by some dudes to reflect on female musicians and her adolescent nerdiness.
I wanted to write a piece on why some people don’t listen to female-fronted bands – clearly, I’m projecting, because that used to be me. I mentioned this phenomenon briefly in my post on sisterhood, but reading Sara Marcus’s Girls to the Front really made me think about how few female-fronted bands receive mainstream or even music-nerd-level popularity. I figured I knew enough about music – like, music-nerd music – to write this, but when I initially sat down to start typing, I froze. I realized that I didn’t really know why I avoided these bands; I had some inklings, but I was hesitant to make overarching statements about the nature of the music industry and audiences and misogyny. Because what if I was wrong? What if I didn’t know enough about it, and someone called me out on it and revealed how clueless I am?
And there it was.
Let me back up. My interest in non-mainstream music began in middle school, as I suppose it often does. Realizing that I would never have the popularity or shiny hair of the girls at the top of the middle school social ladder, I made a conscious decision to create a persona for myself outside of their framework. It was like a political statement without any politics to back it up. But I had plenty of blue hair dye (which fades to gray – I don’t recommend it for the lazy hair dyer) and a growing CD collection featuring bands like The Cure and Sonic Youth, who were, to my classmates’ middle school ears, about as underground as you could get. In my never-ending search for music, I’d buy indie music magazines and pour over them again and again, until I knew exactly how bands with names like Suede, Built to Spill and the Blood Brothers were supposed to sound, even though I’d never heard them.
By the time I got to college and actually knew other people who listened to this music and was able to trade albums with them, I was pretty confident in my knowledge of it. And so began those conversations that one has at parties; the ones where you name a band you like, and some dude says, “Oh have you heard this obscure recording of theirs? What’s your favorite song on it?” And you’re expected to keep up and pretend like you know what he’s talking about because this is the type of cool person you want to be friends with and talk about cool things with.
One very important lesson I learned from those music magazines and those guys is that indie music is a boys’ club. Kind of like mainstream music. Except the conversations about sexism in mainstream music are pretty, well, mainstream. You know the cliches: Rockstars sleep with groupies! Rappers objectify women! Isn’t it awful! In a sexy way! Surely, indie music will offer us a refuge from this sexy awfulness!
Except it doesn’t. As someone who studied indie album reviews with unwavering concentration between the ages of 13 and 18, I can tell you that male musicians make Important Music, and female musicians make either breathy, folky music or sexy, angry music (but like, not that angry). But whether the female musician is a pixie-girl or a wild-child (women are so unhuman-like, you know?), we are never allowed to forget for a second that our male reviewer might find her attractive. The majority of music criticism that I read was written by men and, as such, it became pretty apparent to me that if I wanted to listen to Important Music – and I did; I so desperately did – it’d probably just be easier to stick to male-fronted bands. (I hope that Lindsay, who is both a music critic and a lady, will weigh in on this some more in the comments.)
And this is a real shame. Because in my attempts to prove to hypothetical music nerd dudes at parties that I knew what I was talking about, I avoided listening to female musicians. Said music nerd dudes had painstakingly and obsessively constructed a musical canon based on their dudely values and experiences, and there just wasn’t room for the ladies. There isn’t even that much room for lady-generated criticism because, as is the case with literary canons, male critics had set the agenda long ago and valued characteristics typically associated with men over characteristics typically associated with women.
So the legacy of riot grrrl in the early 2000s, as read by teenage Mia in indie music magazines? Some of the bands were maybe okay, and you should probably know their names, but they’re really only useful to reference if you’re talking about other girl bands (regardless of whether those bands actually sound anything alike – women tend to be pretty similar). Because you can’t possibly compare male musicians to female musicians. Because women can’t be role models for people, only for other women.
If I, as a female fan, was weighed down by this baggage, how do female musicians compete with this mentality? Well, for one, a lot of girls don’t even get to that point. Or, in the immortal words of Kathleen Hanna, “People are like, ‘Why aren’t there more women in bands?’ And it’s like, duh, you know?”