Girls to the front – women, music and the patriarchy

It is incredibly evident that patriarchy is alive and well in the music industry, as it is in our society and culture in general. Just flick the television onto any music channel on a Monday morning and see the abundance of male musicians surrounded by a multitude of female back up dancers. Turn the pages of a Rolling Stone magazine and see the many male faces of indie and rock musicians, past and present. Or wander down to your local live music pub and observe the mostly all male bands. Hell, even turn on the radio and listen to Triple J’s Hottest 100 and listen to the plethora of male acts. Yes, there are women in all these outlets and in the music industry, however, they are still outnumbered. Whilst there are many women in “pop” music, they are still othered in alternative genres. It is this lack of prominent women musicians in rock and alternative music that made it difficult for me to feel confident and accepted as a budding young musician throughout my childhood and teenage years.

I have played and had a passion for music since I was a child. It is hereditary. My father, back in his heyday of the ‘70s and ‘80s, was a drummer in many bands and a manager for many others, and my mother often reminisced about how her grandmother had the ‘chance of a lifetime’ to train in London at the London School of Opera – but her dad thought she was too young at 16, so didn’t go. It seems that music runs in our blood.

Throughout my childhood my dad would play me an array of different styles of music – from Jimi Hendrix, The Who, and the Rolling Stones, to Lou Reed, Talking Heads, Blur and the Dandy Warhols. When I was three, my favourite band was The Who, and I did and still do idolise Keith Moon’s drumming. As a child, I loved the sensation of rock music – the power, the beat, the sometimes silliness of ‘60s psychedelia and the seemingly cool lifestyle that accompanied it (I knew too much about the glamorous and often pharmaceutically enhanced vivacity of my idols for someone who hadn’t even hit double digits in age).

On the other hand, my mum would play me music from the great theatrical works and their film adaptations. Together we watched The Sound of Music a million times over, always crying when they finally escaped the Nazi control of Austria to live their new life in Switzerland. I would sing along to every song and it was not long until I knew all the lyrics. I adored Julie Andrews and the clarity in her voice. It was because of this admiration that my parents decided to enrol me in singing lessons. I wanted both to sing like Andrews but also to emulate the sounds of the rock music my dad constantly played to me.

Many singing lessons passed and before long I joined a few choirs. I developed an ‘angelic’ style of singing, as my parents and teachers told me. I was proud of my voice – until I sang to my siblings and friends. They pointed out to me that I was ‘too choral’, why did I not sound like Christina Aguilera? Or Britney Spears? Or the Spice Girls? (Note that this was the late 90s/early 2000s). Why didn’t I sound like the women who dominated popular music, I thought to myself. What was wrong with my voice? I became embarrassed, ashamed even, of singing. I tried to belt out lyrics to sound like the pop singers of the time. It didn’t work. My voice inevitably ended up cracking or being out of pitch. I gave up singing in front of others – unless it was in a choir setting. There I felt my voice belonged. But it didn’t feel like it wasn’t enough for me.

Skip forward to high school. My voice and musical comprehension scored me a place in a special music school in my hometown of Adelaide. This school focused mostly on classical instruments, so I ended up learning the clarinet in addition to singing. Yet I still wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to be in bands. Rock or grunge/garage-type bands. I wanted to have fun and use my teenage angst (oh the joys of hormones) to play hard. I wanted to sound like Nirvana. I wanted to be as cool as the Pixies or Sonic Youth. So I started to learn how to play the guitar. I practiced and was slowly getting better. I learned all the basic chords and some easy songs. I eventually wrapped my small and weak hands around barre chords. I learned how to play and sing at the same time. I still took clarinet and singing lessons but, as an angsty and severely bullied kid, playing the guitar made me feel ‘cool’.

However, I did not sound like the musicians that I idolised. I felt like I started guitar too late – and as a girl, I felt like I had to be perfect at it before asking other (mostly male) students to jam. I thought about maybe singing in bands… but my voice was too ‘pretty’ to sound like the musicians I loved – Kurt Cobain, Lou Reed, Mick Jagger or even Jimi Hendrix.

‘If only I was a dude,’ I kept thinking to myself, forever angry that my feminine voice didn’t mimic those of my beloved music idols. ‘Dudes can sing badly and it doesn’t even matter,’ I thought as I beat myself up about my biology. ‘Bloody hell, just listen to ‘70s punk or ‘90s grunge!’

I felt like, if I were a boy instead of a girl, I would have had more confidence in my music ability. My voice, even if it sounded like total wank, would still be alright.

As time wore on, more all-male bands made their way into my favourites. The Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Byrds, Bob Dylan (hell, he is evidence to my teenage soul that men didn’t have to sing well!), the Kinks and many more. However, I did not see me represented anywhere. I was quickly falling through a heavily masculine dominated world. The singers? Men. Guitarists and bassists? Men. The drummers? Definitely men.

Looking back I realised that, while I wasn’t the best musician or even that competent at guitar, the musical world which I adored was inherently not set up for women. I hadn’t really heard of many women musicians (I hate that term, like ‘musicians’ automatically refers to men) who didn’t fit the mould of stereotypical pop singer or 2000s alternative emo rock (hey guys, this was before the days of readily available downloadable content and a good internet connection). Therefore, I was inexorably ignorant to all the amazing women succeeding in all genres of music.

I eventually found some women musicians who could join the long list of my musical idols. I fell in love with Grace Slick from Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin from Big Brother and the Holding Company, Blondie, Siouxsie Sioux and the vast array of cool women who played bass (hello Kim Deal). Not to mention modern artists such as Grimes, St. Vincent, Cat Power, FKA Twigs, and the lead singers from Beach House, both Braids and Blue Hawaii, and many, many more.

Contemplating my youth as an awkward and self-conscious musician, I feel that it is exceedingly important for there to be more women in music of all genres – just as it is important to have representation in all aspects of the public sphere. How are young girls supposed to know what they can do and sound like if there is little representation of bad-ass women doing bad-ass things in their respective fields?

Had I known about musicians like Grimes or Raphaelle Standon-Preston from Braids and Blue Hawaii, I might have felt differently as a teenager. I might have felt like my ‘choral’ voice did belong in the music scene. It just didn’t necessarily fit into the tiny one dimensional constructs that are dominant in the music I experienced.

Women have been predominantly invisible in music, unless it’s pop. I think we should encourage our daughters, like we do our sons, to play whatever instrument makes them happy. We should show our children, regardless of gender, women musicians of all eras and genres. Women musicians can be role models for everyone – not just girls and women. This notion, too, goes for women in all fields, not just in music.

I am slowly shedding my insecurities about my ability as a musician, in addition to just being a woman in a patriarchal world. It is a daily battle to feel like my voice and my body have a space and belong in the public domain. A big learning curve for me, musically, was around the time of my father passing away, when I picked up his drumsticks and thought ‘Fuck it, I’m going to play music because I want to’. It makes me happy. And I played on his drum kit. I didn’t care if I sounded bad. I felt powerful. I bashed those drums like I try to smash the patriarchy.

I still feel, though, that as a woman I have to sound perfect. I am trying to overcome this, in many different aspects of my life. I have, though, gained confidence in my ability both as a musician and a singer. Before I left for Canberra I played guitar and sung a small set at my going-away party. And I felt empowered.

Image: Austin Kirk

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10959001_10153616839379942_6105974438929988424_nBlair Williams is a PhD candidate focusing on the negative media portrayals of women prime ministers whilst writing articles and feminist slam poetry in her spare time. She is an active feminist warrior who is disillusioned with the world.

2 Comments

  • nathan kauschke commented on May 12, 2015 Reply

    Keith Moon, what a legend. Is it okay to post this on the social Sciences Uni page?

    • Zoya Patel commented on May 12, 2015 Reply

      Hi Nathan,

      Do you mean post the link to a Facebook page? That would be great! If you want to republish on a website, that’s a little different.

      Feel free to email me at editor.feminartsy@gmail.com to discuss if it’s the latter. 🙂

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