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September 10, 2007 | by  | in Features |
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Chicks Who Rock

Why is it that whenever you see a drummer, guitarist, vocalist, bassist, keyboardist, DJ – any instrumentalist who is female – you will inevitably point out her sex first then instrument? For example, saying “that girl drummer” whereas, if it is a male behind the kit, they are just “that drummer.” The music industry is dominated by men, from CEOs to music store workers to technicians to journalists to musicians; men are the norm and women the exception. Wellington’s music scene is no exception to this observation. Salient music editor Stacey Knott got in touch with some local musicians involved in various scenes in Wellington – most of them involved in the upcoming VUWSA Women’s Fest – to see how women are doing on the representation scale and to see if and how their gender has affected their music.

Folk and singer-songwriter music is territory that females do appear quite prominently in however; Seriah Mia, a local solo singer-songwriter who blends folk and country readily admits that in this genre there are many obstacles in regards to her gender. Most of her songs are about falling in love, which she finds frustrating as she yearns to be – what she thinks is characteristic of male singer-songwriters – able to write objectivity, instead of about her subjective feelings and relationships. “I think everything I write is very feminine and girly. Someone said it is very sweet. I’ve tried to think of writing the way a boy would write but it’s very hard. I listen to a lot of male writers, and they put things into perspective.” She says she finds that “acoustic girl music is very much feeling orientated, whereas boys can pretty much write about anything.” She admits she has songs that are “quite dirty” and explicit, which she says her audience often find hard to drink their coffees to. Even though there are more female success stories in this genre, she finds that for “a female to do well by herself she needs to be the next Brooke Fraser.”

For the more traditionally ‘masculine genres’, there have been many male moulds broken and territory invaded by female performers over the past few decades – allowing today’s women in the music industry to become more visible, both in the mainstream and underground scenes. But unfortunately, like the women interviewed here, the tired cliché – “pretty good for a girl” is still to often used. It implies girls are not usually good musicians and that man’s abilities are the benchmark to go by. The women interviewed are, in my opinion, at the forefront of their genres – which is why they are featured, yet they have all felt at some point and to varying degrees that their gender has been especially referred to – either as an attempted compliment or a paranoid criticism to either validate or undermine their involvement in music.

Kim Gruschow, lead vocalist for local punk/hardcore group Punchbowl, has found that Punchbowl get a lot of comments like the above, and “it’s great to see girls up there”. While she sees the positive of this – the fact that people are genuinely trying to compliment them – she does believe at the same time these comments are disappointing as they are not looking at the talent of the band, instead just observing the physical facts as opposed to judging them on their sound.

Likewise, Kristen Paterson, guitarist/vocalist for the lo-fi indie band Death Rattle admits it has taken a while for her to get out there and perform – in the past she was put off by negative comments by territorial males. “I think to an extent I felt it (music) was quite a guy’s domain in a way, when I was at high school anyway. When I said I wanted to play the guitar, one guy got a bit funny about it being their thing.” However with age and wisdom, she realised, “not to let people saying positive or negative things towards it affect you, basically if you want to do it you should do it.” Like Punchbowl, she has had a lot of people comment on her band in a way that pins them as being good, only in context of their gender.

Tali Williams, a local well-established hardcore vocalist currently fronting Dial, and Alison Harley (DJ Alion), a long time, well renowned drum and bass DJ/producer, both believe they have passed the gender categorisation stage, which maybe because it is usually attributed to girls who are starting out in music who have to “earn the right” to be recognised as just a musician without the gender attachment. Both have been active in their respective scenes for more than 10 years.

Williams says “I can’t really recall any times where anyone has treated me differently based on my gender but that may be because I haven’t had to break those boundaries myself – there’s been women that have done that before me. I’m in a privileged enough position. Occasionally you get things like, ‘oh you’re okay for a girl’ or stuff like that, but it hasn’t been significant as such that it’s made me feel upset or anything.”

Harley notes that when she first started out “people did use to say things like ‘it’s so good to see a girl doing it’. I never liked hearing it. I always believed I was good at what I do because I am, not because I’m good for a girl.”

Having worked hard to establish herself as a talented DJ, who just happens to be female, she now uses her gender to her advantage, saying “as I’ve carried on in the scene (drum and bass) I have kind of grabbed at the whole “yip I’m a girl that does it” thing because it makes me different to the million other wannabe DJs out there.”

So, Harley is okay with using this identity of gender to her advantage, but what are the effects of this approach on other female musicians? Should we acknowledge it or would that undermine musical merit? Should we say the female/girl drummer/vocalist, etc? Would you say that French guitarist? The gay drummer?

While for gender it may just be an observation to identify someone from someone else, for Gruschow and Patterson this is a pet peeve. Patterson notes that “some people give that side label to try and go ‘hey look, a girl doing this!’ But that can ultimately undermine it.” This is basically saying that in order for a female’s involvement in music to be validated it needs to be acknowledged in context of her functioning in a male dominated sphere – where maybe there’s some lenience in talent because the benchmark is set by men, who girls can never be as good as?

However, we are probably all guilty of doing the gender attribution thing, and Williams is happy to admit she does. She notes that when saying a band is really good, if it has females in it, it will often be talked about in a different way. “If it’s a girl singer, people make an extra mention of that I guess because it’s less common, but we will get over that as there are increasingly more women coming to shows and participating in the scene such as putting on shows, so that gap will close.”

Since her early days, she has seen the Wellington hardcore/punk scene in particular become nearly equal in terms of gender ratio at shows, whereas she notes when she plays in Christchurch it is to predominantly male audiences. “Wellington has gone 50/50 with girls in the audience now and the same with bands, we’ll play with bands where they’ll be entirely made of female musicians or it will be like 50/50 in the bands, whereas when I first started playing with bands it would usually be only me (as the only female) playing the whole evening.”

Harley finds the same with DJing. “There are more and more girls doing the whole DJ thing every year. I think being a DJ, a serious one, takes balls. It’s a tough scene to crack. Maybe it’s easier for boys cause they actually have balls, it’s a bit of a boys’ club thing. I may be wrong in generalising, but the girls I’ve met doing it are strong women with a bit of attitude. It takes that to get taken seriously.”

Perhaps the most notable lack of female faces and voices though is mainstream rock. For example, the target market of the Rock FM is “20-44 years old with a male bias”, a station that reflects the argument that rock music is masculine music. How often do you hear a searing riff from a female lead guitarist featured on The Rock FM? It’s unlikely you will, which is a problem articulated in an essay called “Women and the Electric Guitar” by Mavis Bayton. She looks at the lack of notable female guitarists in rock music where the guitar itself was originally and is still dominantly designed for and by men, which can be blamed in part to female’s marginalisation in rock music. This is a topic dear to Paterson, who along with playing in Death Rattle is also an apprentice guitar technician, and is co-organising a workshop for women on guitar teching for the women’s fest. She is involved with tackling this male domain and educating women to sort their guitars themselves, because in the past “some guys have always made me feel, before I became a technician, like I would never get it, like the guitar is a mythical creature that could only be broken by a man – which is bollocks, because now I know more than any guy I know, so now I can laugh at them when they speak absolute bullshit about it.” The aim of the workshop is to be able to show females how to understand their instruments better in “a really great environment where first of all we get all the girls in where they won’t be intimidated by the boys’ cock-rock club, and then once we have done that and to all the girls there wanting to learn, we go on to do open ones so guys and girls can come.”

As different as Seriah Mia, Alison Harley, Tali Williams, Kim Gruschow and Kristen Paterson are, they do all agree on the desire to see more women involved in music and for them to be judged on their musical merits, not their gender. While all are driven by the passion for what they are doing, and all mention that they are motivated by some degree to encourage other females to get involved, all find the current lack of female involvement in music, in all its forms, as frustrating. Williams says, “If you feel strongly enough about it then I don’t see what could possibly stop you. I don’t really understand where people are coming from when they say, ‘I’m not getting involved because I’m a woman and it’s harder.’ I just think you can’t let this kind of thing stop you no matter how much shit you get. Like when I first started out I got a lot more shit than I do now.”

Paterson asserts the only way the situation is going to improve is if “girls just get over the fact that they think it’s chauvinistic, or even if it is, fucking do it anyway because it isn’t going to change unless more girls do get into doing it.”

Check out the featured artists at:
DJ Alion http://www.myspace.com/organikismness
Punchbowl http://www.myspace.com/punchbowlnz
Sariah Mia http://www.myspace.com/sariahthebrilliant
Death Rattle http://www.myspace.com/avoidavoidavoid
Tali Williams http://www.actionmanrecords.com

And check out the women’s fest events:
Acoustic & open mic night (women & gender queers only)
Thursday September 20, 8pm at Our Bar on Cuba Street, Featuring Kitten et me, Jessie Moss, Plum Green, Chastity Kahlua & open mic.

Women Who Want to Scare You Fest (everyone welcome)
Friday September 21, 9pm at Happy $7/$10 students/non students Featuring The Windups, Punchbowl, Death Rattle, Goodbye Galaxy.

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