The Surprising Truth About Being A Woman In A Band

Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage.
Without googling it, can you name one iconic female guitarist? I don’t mean a woman who plays guitar, but a woman who is acclaimed for her guitar playing. Have someone in mind? Great. Now can you name five? It’s a little bit harder. Would asking you to name 10 be impossible? It’s not your fault. Seriously. Since the birth of rock ’n roll, there has been a high barrier to entry for women. It became a man’s game when Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the first rock guitar virtuoso, and Big Mamma Thornton created the genre of rock, only to have Elvis Presley become the face of it and Chuck Berry run off with the credit for being rock’s foremost guitar god.
Luckily, it isn’t all bad news. In 2007, Beyoncé made a change to her stage show. She started touring with an all-female band called Sugar Mama. It’s not something you’ll see on any other female pop star’s show. They do guitar solos and drum solos during set and costume changes. Bey comes on stage to rock out with them. The first time I saw it was during her Made In America set in 2015, and it made me cry.
In Elle’s oral history of her all-girl band, they cite a YouTube interview from 2009 in which a little boy asks Bey why her band is all women. "I had an idea to have a lot of women on stage playing instruments, so hopefully young girls can see that, and it inspires them to play instruments,” Beyoncé told him. Representation matters. Having little girls see that they can pick up an instrument, any instrument, and play matters. Being told that this space is for you, that you are welcome in it matters. Rock music rarely tells women they are welcome.
In my career, I’ve interviewed a lot of musicians. I’ve had guys ask me if I’d like to "see the tour bus," and yes they did mean hook up. I’ve had them challenge my musical knowledge, from testing me on which bands I know to asking if I play any instruments. (I used to play piano and drums, and I can read and write music, which is already more than most dudes in a band can say — not that any of that is needed to write about music.) I’ve been backstage, where people have asked, in ways that ranged from subtle to direct, if I was a girlfriend or a groupie.
Female musicians have it even rougher. Just ask Taylor Swift, Björk, M.I.A., and Solange about fighting to get credit for writing, performing, or producing their own work. Ask Madonna, who has had to deal with not only being slut shamed but ageism. Ask Ellie Goulding, who’d like to know why she’s the only woman on so many festival bills. Ask Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who grapples with feeling isolated and lonely because she is the only woman in a sea of male peers. Ask Maren Morris, who doesn’t want anyone telling her what kind of songs women have to write to get radio airplay. Ask Bethany Consentino of Best Coast, who is tired of the abusive online commentary and vulgar heckling women in music have to deal with. Ask Grimes, who is tired of being sexualized as the price of entry to be an artist who is female.
An alternative rock radio programmer once told me he would never play two female singers next to each other because the audience doesn’t want to hear that many women. Sadly, he’s not the only one who feels that way. The charts don’t lie: According to Billboard the only women to break into the No. 1 spot on their alternative rock chart since 1996 are Lorde and Elle King. Of the top 40 songs in alt rock right now, three are by women Of note that the amazing Haim haven’t broken in with their new song yet, but they’re the very epitome of women rocking right now, so I’m pulling for them — though they’ve had only one song chart in their career thus far. The news gets even worse for hard and mainstream rock, where Paramore, Halestorm, the Pretty Reckless (a.k.a. Little J from Gossip Girl’s band) are basically the only bands with a female in them being played — and everyone else in the band is a dude. Does no one want to hear women rock?
If it’s not obvious yet, I do — which is why the trailer for Pitch Perfect 3 made my heart sink when I saw that the Bellas were going to be facing off against an all-female rock band. Don’t get it twisted: I love the Pitch Perfect movies. I was in the theater opening week for the first two, and I’ll likely be there for the third. Watching those pitches bond, sing, and win despite their underdog status is damn fine entertainment. But I’m disappointed that they’re pitted against a female rock band because it’s already hard as hell to get girls into rock bands (and even harder to for them to get credit for their contributions). Now we’re going to vilify them to a female-centric audience? That is a total bummer.
The thing is, what I love about women who play instruments is also what I love about the Barden Bellas. I can see myself in both. They’re all underdogs. They’re all making a name for themselves in a space where people don’t necessarily give them the respect they deserve. They all love music. Most importantly, they bring a much-needed female gaze to music: none of their performances are about being sexualized or conforming to some norm about how women should act. They’re about performing and being complete badasses in a space where women support each other. And they do it all while making a lot of noise.
In the trailer, we are introduced to a female band, led by Ruby Rose, who the Bellas are competing against for a slot performing in front of the USO. The band girls are condescending to the Bellas, who have all apparently been on a big downswing in life since they graduated from college. On the one hand, it’s awesome to imagine that the two frontrunners in this contest are both all-girl groups. On the other hand, do we really need to pit women who sing pop music against women who play instruments? It’s a hackneyed concept, playing on the idea that rock is somehow more authentic than pop when in reality, pop is a much bigger industry with significantly more cultural cache right now.
I’d love to see the Bellas move away from fighting an all-female rock band and back towards fighting the status quo. That’s what they did in the first movie and made it feel so special. Beca helped them change their ideas of what kinds of songs they should sing, how they should dress, and even how they should behave — shedding female stereotypes in search of their authentic selves. That’s how they won.
And as for Ruby Rose’s band? Let them be heroes, too. The Washington Post recently wrote about the death of the electric guitar, explaining that younger generations have no guitar heroes to look up to (while overlooking St. Vincent, who is the current ruling guitar vituioso, entirely). When I was growing up, you could barely drive to the grocery store without hearing a badass female rock star: Hole, Garbage, No Doubt, Fiona Apple, Alanis Morissette, PJ Harvey, the Cranberries, the Breeders, Veruca Salt, the Cranberries, Elastica, and Luscious Jackson were at our fingertips — and that’s only to name the bands who got played on the radio. There isn’t going to just be another Debbie Harry or Joan Jett. That’s not how it works. Without seeing a Stevie Nicks or Patti Smith modeled for them, young girls aren’t likely to take up that mantle. And while Beyoncé and Sugar Mama are wonderful, we can’t leave it them to inspire an entire generation of women. We need to give them more than that.
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