Music & Gender: ‘I think she’s dating one of the guys in the band’

Wednesday, November 16, 2016 - 7:36pm

About a month ago, I attended a small show in Pontiac with a fellow punk-witch music writer. Let’s call her Lemina. The Garden, Heyrocco and So Pitted lured Lemina and me into the Pike Room in downtown Pontiac; they’re just the kind of grungy, off-kilter bands we crave. The night was rainy and chilly, the roads slick and shining. It was less than ideal. But the anxiety and uncertainty brought on by the weather was forgotten once we entered the cozy venue.

Upon arrival, a narrow flight of stairs led us up to the Pike Room, where a smattering of flannel-wearing, mosh-pitting fans patiently waited. We milled about the crowd, the room not much bigger than a classroom. The audience was talkative, and we quickly made friends among our fellow fans — music can do that, you know.

One newfound acquaintance, let’s call her Alex, accompanied us to the bathroom, making light conversation. And then, you know the drill: Women’s bathrooms are a cesspool of compliments and camaraderie. Amid this fog, we made the acquaintance of another woman, seemingly a fan. She was tall and well built, with bobbed grey hair and a killer fur coat. After a few passing words, she exited with more grace than I thought ever possible in a dingy bar restroom.

Alex then took this opportunity to lean into us and breathlessly state, “I think she’s dating one of the boys in The Garden, I saw her with the bands earlier.” The awe was evident in her eyes. Having no real reason to doubt her, I nodded my head in agreement, not thinking much of the seemingly innocuous comment.

Soon after, our motley trio parted ways and Lemina and I returned to the crowd, watching and waiting. We watched as Heyrocco weaved in and out of the audience, setting up their equipment on the small stage. We watched as they played, shirtless, sweaty and drinking, and again as they dismantled.

The next band, So Pitted, then took the stage. There, gripping her guitar, was the girl from the bathroom — the supposed girlfriend. She wore round, black sunglasses and stared sternly ahead. So Pitted began to play and there she remained, plucking deliberately at her guitar; the extent of her movement included only her fingers and a slight sway of her hips or a nod of her head. She was raw and rad as hell.

As the evening spun forward and I was engulfed in the oddity that is The Garden, there was a nagging discomfort that wouldn’t leave me. It was that comment, that assumption made by Alex in the bathroom — the one that I didn’t give a second thought to at the time of its oration. A woman seen with the band is automatically a girlfriend or a groupie, a tagalong to the real musicians.

The longer I thought about it, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t immediately seen such an utterance as problematic. I’m a feminist, damnit. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how deeply engrained and pernicious this kind of sentiment is — especially in the realms of rock, punk and grunge.

This is nothing new. The role of women as accessories to male rockers has existed almost as long as the genre itself. Nearly all sub-rock genres — punk, pop, psychedelic, etc. — all share the thread of male-fronted or male-dominated ensembles. Even when early punks like the New York Dolls subverted gender roles, dressing up in women’s clothing and heavy makeup, they did so without actually letting women into the scene. The music was too hard, too angry for women to pull off.

But, thankfully, women have not sat idly by. We have taken action, mobilized against this musical structure that tries to limit us. I think about Pussy Riot, and their status as one of the most overtly (and successfully) political bands — male or female. Or of groups like Sleater-Kinney, The Raincoats or Bratmobile. Even musicians that don’t fall under the rock umbrella continually and boldly do what they’re told they can’t.  

As grateful as we are for these talents, we shouldn’t leave all the legwork to them. We — the fans, aficionados, journalists, people — can help to break down these structures. Next time you encounter an Alex-esque comment, immediately think critically. Don’t wait for it to sink down and settle in you for you to realize the meaning behind the words, like I did. Engage in discourse. Support your local, national and extraterrestrial girl groups. Slowly but surely, it will make all the difference.