Sexism In Music by Dave Schwartz
Well it seems like an easy enough assignment. Let's see, it says to contact a several of the local female musicians and ask them about the exploitation of women in rock and roll today. I spent a few weeks discussing this topic with friends and associates and, to my surprise, received somewhat mixed reactions. Everyone sees this as an important subject, but some people still just don't get it. I had a friend ask me...
"So what's up on the Web site?"
"A lot of hard work... getting more hits than we expected... doing a story on sexism in music...," I reply.
"So who have you been interviewing for the story?" he asked.
"Well I've contacted several women in local bands... They've been quite generous with their time and insight..."
And then it all starts... "Are they hot?" "What, two girls in one band? Are they dykes?" "I bet they're at least bisexual..."
At this point I had my fill... "You know, this isn't a story about the sexual orientation of women musicians, hell, I didn't even ask. What difference does it make anyway? This topic has little to do with sexuality and everything to do with the attitude of the questions that you're asking!"
Grrrrrrrr. Well, I guess you can see the point of the story.
It seemed like a straight enough assignment. And it really is a very simple question of self-exploitation versus the exploitation of your efforts by others. From the male perspective it's not even a question. Most male band members are willing to "do whatever it takes" to make it in this industry today. It is often that simple willingness that helps push a band over the top, but rarely are men faced with the dilemma to "spit or swallow."
Let's face facts here. Women enter into a band situation with several strikes against them. The first question is seldom "Can she play?" Appearance tends to be one of the earliest considerations of a woman's entrance into a mixed or male dominated band. Sexual affiliation and promiscuity also rank toward the top. Is this fair? Undoubtedly not, but keep in mind that certain inequalities exist on both sides of the fence.
Musicians and strippers have long been a popular comparison. Both climbing on that stage to bare their souls to all who will watch. But does this comparison hold true? And if so, who is being exploited? And more importantly, is exploitation sexism?
As artists we strive to be known for our work. But all to often society views the work of a male artist primarily in terms of ability as opposed to the female artist who is viewed physically. When a big-name female celebrity appears in public, all the women want to know what she's wearing and all the men want to know is what she's not. And there's always that added pressure to make THE appearance. To wear that dress that's a little too short, shows a little more cleavage, or is a little too see-through. I have no doubt that the "right" management company could take any bunting starlet with little more than potential, put her on the red carpet at the Academy Awards wearing virtually nothing, and by morning the media would make her a star. What does she offer us other than a peek at her "assets"?
So what do we do? Where do we go from here? Are things all right the way they are or are we going to do something about it? It's time to hear what the ladies have to say.
Melanie Sisneros was born in New Mexico and is currently a resident of Los Angeles. She has a Bachelor's degree in Dead Languages from Pomona College. Melanie has been playing the bass for ten years and her most recent project is Raven Mad. (http://www.ravan-mad.com)
Anastasia Greco has been playing guitar for eleven years, was born and raised in Los Angeles and her most recent project was the band Rapture. Rapture was a thrash metal band fronted by Ana and another woman. They played around the Southland for several years. She has a Bachelor's degree in Deaf Studies/Human Services and an AA in Liberal Arts. (http://www.rapturemetal.com/)
Wanda "Smartbomb" has been playing the bass since the age of nine with experience in classical, jazz and rock formats. She has a Bachelor's degree in Music (bass) from University of California, Irvine and a Masters in Business Administration from Pepperdine University. Wanda is currently playing bass with Rotten Rod and the Warheads and has a side project with Rod called Tom Bones. (http://rottenrod.virtualave.net/)
What brought you to LA?
"School. I took a tour of LA while I was in high school," Melanie replied.
"The area fascinated me because this was the birthplace of so many of the metal bands
that I love. I came here and received a degree in Dead Languages from Pomona
Ana's arrival on the music scene was a bit more direct, "I was born and raised in LA. My dad brought my mom here from Canada when she was pregnant with me."
Like Ana, Wanda is also a true local, born and raised in Laguna Beach.
Have you played in an all-female band and, if so, which is your preference all females or mixed?
"I haven't played in an all-girl band. Rapture was two girls and two
guys. Other than that, I've always played with all guys. I like playing with both mixes
equally, providing I'm playing with people who are compatible to work with and good at
what they do," Ana explained.
Melanie agreed, "With Raven Mad, I feel like our relationship is more of siblings -- they're like brothers to me, and I make sure to give 'em hell when I can! I have been in another band where one of the members admitted he had a crush on me, and it really made the band situation very uncomfortable."
Wanda has played in a couple of all-girl bands, "I don't really have a preference between all-girl or mixed bands. There are some definite differences. After all, women think and work differently then men, but I enjoyed both."
From a guy's perspective the addition of a female often adds an unforeseen twist to the dynamics of the band. There are always so many underlying politics and agendas going on that the addition of sexuality can make matters more complicated. One of the bands that I played in years back ended rather abruptly when we discovered that the female
singer was sleeping her way through the band. It turned into a real "he said, she said".
"Band incest, that's insane. It's the fastest way to ruin a good band," Melanie comments. "I could never do that. Most bands become so close that it's like a family and to end up sleeping with another member could only tear things apart."
Do you often hear the cat calls from the audience?
Melanie began, "Not usually. But one night I got an interesting comment. I had a
guy come up to me after the show and tell me that I gave him a hard-on."
"Obviously an unwanted advance?" I asked.
"Not really an advance, probably more his idea of a compliment. Uhhh... too much information!! He turned out to be very nice and wanted to introduce me to his daughter!"
"I have heard catcalls from the audience. The catcalls are usually funny," explained Ana. "What freaks me out is the one drunk guy up in front... you know who I'm talking about. He's at every show. He just stands there and stares.... That's a bit weird! One guy 'got a boner' during one of our songs - that was pretty funny!"
"Quite honestly, what I usually hear is skepticism," Melanie continued. "Like 'oh, look, it's a girl playing bass- which one of the band is she dating?' with the assumption that I have to be dating one of the members in order to have landed a gig. A girlfriend planted in the band, which I might add, does happen and usually they give her a bass, turn her down, and tell her to be cute. I mean, there's this assumption that girls should play bass because bass is supposedly 'easy'. Heh heh, they should see my fingers shredded to ribbons after a good jam! I'm hoping that people walk in with their skepticism, but leave with their ass completely massacred by the music! I'm in it for the love of the music, and I think that comes across on stage with Raven Mad."
Do you feel that other women have, by their actions, put pressure on you to be more promiscuous in your performance? For example, Courtney Love diving into the audience and losing her panties each show, Madonna and her escapades, Shirley Manson from Garbage reportedly being asked by the BBC to please wear panties next time she's on TV and so on.
"No matter what any other female performer is doing, I always wear my
panties!" said Ana. "I don't feel the need to seduce the audience to make my
performance any more interesting. If someone likes my playing and my interaction, that's
enough to make them stick around and watch; listen. If they want something other than what
I offer, it doesn't hurt my feelings if they leave. Of course, I want to look interesting
on stage, but there are more ways to doing that than just in a sexual way, so I don't feel
"I take care in choosing my stage attire because I don't want to alienate the women who come see my band." Wanda stresses the importance of playing to the entire audience, "Dressing overly revealing is not my style but I don't fault other women for doing it. Every woman has the right to make her own choice, to do what is right for her."
Melanie was somewhat more to the point, "I'm not interested in being anyone's sex kitten. It's more important for me to be known as a person and for the music first. I've never been one to be revealing for shock value's sake -- there are more dignified ways to attract attention! It's important to me to blaze my own trail and just be who I am."
Tell us about the "craziest" night that you've ever had on stage.
"What do you mean 'craziest'?" Melanie asked.
Yes, this is a somewhat ambiguous question isn't it? "Define crazy any way you would like," I replied.
"We've been fortunate that things on stage tend to run pretty smoothly," said Melanie. "I think my craziest night on stage was at the Anthrax show. My band Raven Mad opened and there was a real love there between the bands. Our style of music is very similar to theirs. That night I had a short in my cord and I had to keep messing with my amp, there was a lot of crackling on the PA. I had another night when my fly wouldn't stay zipped. I kept holding the bass in front of me and zipping up in between songs."
Ana's craziest night began after a show, "One night after playing in Hollywood, the tour manager of the band before us was outside the club, and stopped me to ask me, 'DO YOU WANT TO BE A ROCK STAR?' He explained how he was signing local bands to his indie label. After I took an earful, he asked me, 'Hey where are you and her (other guitarist) going after this? Do you wanna come back to our hotel and take care of our guys?' 120 drunk guys who chartered a bus from San Diego needed some fun. Unfortunately, he was a couple miles South of the action. Needless to say I pointed him towards Sunset and Gower. Heh, heh."
I doubt that Ana was the first woman to mistakenly be taken as an easy conquest just because she is in a band.
I asked both Ana and Wanda, When you go into a music store do you feel that you're taken seriously? I have a friend that complains that salesmen never come over to talk to her and when she finally does get their attention she's treated like a bimbo.
"Well, less now than before," Ana started. "When I was seventeen, my
friend wanted to buy my guitarist a guitar for her birthday and he took me to try out a
few guitars. I picked up a Gibson SG and a salesman rushed over to me and said, 'Please
don't pick up the guitars.' I was kind of perplexed, since I have to 'touch' them to see
how they play! I explained that I was helping my friend shop. Yes, I am the musician and
he isn't. The guy asked what I play and I told him 'I have an Ibanez Iceman.' He asked,
'What do you use it for, a countertop?' I thought that was so funny and so rude at the
same time - I just answered 'yep, it makes a nice one!' and went on to the next music
store. As time passed, I started getting more to the point about exactly what I'm shopping
for, and the salespeople are good to me these days."
Wanda added, "If I walked into a music store to pick up a new cord the sales rep. will often walk over to my boyfriend instead of me. Sometimes I'm asked if I am there to buy a gift. But I think the situation is getting better. The more women play in bands, the more aware the salespeople become."
What are your goals?
Melanie started, "I think that it would be great to make a living playing music. I
really enjoy playing live and I think it would be great fun to travel around on tour -- I
love road trips! And of course, if I can inspire young women to believe that they don't
have to be half-assed pop sex trinkets, that would be an added bonus. There aren't too
many female role models for young girls, particularly in the predominantly male genre of
metal. And quite honestly, I think about all those bands that have really made a
difference in my life. I mean, fifteen years later, I'm still listening to and loving a
lot of the same music -- how awesome would it be to make that kind of profound difference
in someone's life, even a decade and a half later!"
Ana added, "My goal is to be a respected and disciplined musician in a band that keeps me on my toes. I don't need to be signed, or a rock star. I will be fine in a well-recognized local band that supports national touring bands or to get good responses to local shows and CD sales. Most of all I want to continue to enjoy playing what I play and whom I play with."
As artists we strive to be known for our work. But all to often society views the work of a male artist primarily in terms of ability as opposed to the female artist who is viewed more physically. Is that fair?
"Of course not. Women are not objects. But I do agree that some women enjoy being
treated as objects. I want to be known as a person and for my music first and as a woman
second," Melanie continued to stress the importance of credibility to her. She wants
to be known for her accomplishments rather than skirt length.
Wanda didn't find this practice necessarily discriminatory, "I feel that looks are important regardless of gender. Bands often discriminate when looking for a new member; it's only natural. Most often the discrimination is based on image. Bands like Mother Mercy with their 'Bad Boys in Black' image would never hire a female player. And I've seen overweight male guitar players, competent in their ability to play, not get hired because of their size."
The point is well taken. Discrimination is something that happens to both males and females, albeit for somewhat different reasons.
Ana feels much the same way adding, "I think playing skills are the most important, but honestly more people would like to watch someone who's good-looking whether male or female. Since there are so few female artists compared to the number of males, I think the industry picks the best looking or most extreme females and pushes them harder than they would an ordinary girl. I believe that if there were two female bands made up of 'the plain looking shredders' and the 'hot mediocre musicians' we can both guess who would get there first. I don't think it's really fair for the ones who bust their asses to be overlooked, but unfortunately that's the way it seems to go."
I tend to agree with Ana's assertion. But I do believe the "looks factor" is relevant regardless of gender. There are countless starving virtuoso musicians in this world that continue to go unappreciated, if not ignored, while the likes of 98 Degrees, Christine Aguilera and others fill their pockets with more cash than they can carry. Music is about more than just ability. Unfortunately this has led to the continually building mountain of shit that inhabits our radio airwaves (a decidedly non-visual medium). For years, the record companies have pushed for the instant success and, naturally, the instant return on their investment. It is my opinion that this has resulted in the more talented producers finding and manufacturing less talented artists. Obviously the record companies need to promote their new "stars," and if you don't have talent, then you had better have looks. For some, the rise to the top is almost as fast as the fall from it. As always, you can expect the record companies to simply dispose of the artist after there worth has diminished.
Melanie, Is there a "glass ceiling" in the music business?
"I don't feel that there is a glass ceiling in music, at least not in my
situation. An all-girl pop band though, that might be different."
"But that has to do with marketing," I comment. "That has to do with the people surrounding and marketing the band, developing the image; the package that will be sold to the public."
"Yes but in my situation," Melanie continued. "Male-dominated metal bands aren't normally marketed like a pop band. And then there's the divas. They are selling more records then most of their male contemporaries."
Ana, do you feel that the current "rules of the game" are appropriate and, if not, what can you do to change things?
"If the rules of the game are to pick musicians/bands to promote based on looks or money versus talent, I think right now too many bands are being promoted who will basically stay around for three years and one or two albums and die. If I could change anything, (it would be) playing in a group with well-learned male musicians (who) won't emphasize the fact that I'm female and give something to push. Instead, the music will be appealing enough to attract listeners and me being female will just be a bit of a unique bonus. I wouldn't mind doing everything (recording, promoting, etc.) independently, so having management with money to push me doesn't spark any interest."
Wanda, obviously music is more than just something you do, it's a part of you. If you were to "make it" tomorrow what would change for you?
"I don't think that anything would change for me, I mean, I hope my outlook would stay the same. I would most likely have more money but I expect that I would try to do most everything the same."
There is a simple reality that we as musicians must all face. In many respects we are identical to those delightful young ladies walking that catwalk. We are attention whores. Male or female, black, white or polka dotted. Our job is to turn some heads, to promote ourselves and our band in every way possible. It's a simple fact that, in the end, our entire existence as musicians is based on our ability to put bodies in a club so that the promoter running the door can make a buck off our hard work.
Yes, it really is that simple. Rock and roll is exploitation, but it doesn't have to be sexist. The defining line lies within each individual, but there is one common element for all... you. It should be no surprise that bands continue to push the boundaries of "good taste". It's our job. It's the way we get attention. Shaved heads, tattoos, piercing, or appearing on stage topless (as some Southland women have begun doing) all fall within that category. As Wanda said, the only thing that should temper our performance is "OUR individual comfort zone". We shouldn't fault anyone for using every asset at their disposal, but I have more respect for those who let the music come first or remain an equal part of the performance. After all, I came to hear the band tonight as much as to see them.
Let me know what you think. Post any comments or replies on the DaBelly
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Links worth reviewing:
Women on Top, The Quiet Revolution That's Rocking the American Music Industry by James Dickerson
http://www.thejack.nau.edu/042397/com4.html Women must rally against sexism... Instead of blaming society, they should take responsibility by Nora Burke Joyce
And for a different view http://members.aol.com/al31415926/sexism.html The Joy of Sexism
http://www.ontherag.net A Punk Rock web site in So. Cal.
http://www.comnet.ca/~rina/index.html Women of 1970s PUNK
http://www.island.net/~blues/women.html Women of the Blues
http://members.aol.com/autumnfest/index.htm The Midwest Womyn's Autumnfest
http://www.wpkn.org/wpkn/amazon/index.html Amazon Radio
http://www.rockrgrl.com/ RockGirl Magazine
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