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September 8, 2008 | by  | in Music |
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Why Do Chicks Play Bass?

Female participation in music is an issue that gets my goat, again and again. There’s not nearly enough of it for a start. Then there are the pathetic stereotypes that rock music particularly is plagued by: the girlfriend-of-the-singer bass player, the whispery, coquettish front woman, the mock punk ‘girl power’ schtick of bands like The Donnas. Then there’s the perennial mystery of why the only successful female artists we see and hear are almost all vocalists. And bass players.

(Seriously, what the? That chick in The Smashing Pumpkins, that other chick in Elemeno P, that other chick in The Subways, Kim Deal of the Pixies… Someone in the office just suggested that girls play bass because the low frequency vibrations mean that they need only sit on their amps and play to become sexually aroused. I’ll have to ask the (female) bass player in my band about this…)

A look at the Top 40 charts reveals very few women artists that actually have artistic control over their work, almost all of whom are vocalists, almost all of whom also exploit their sexuality to some degree to achieve success. This problem isn’t restricted just to the land of pop music either: my jazz student flatmate tells me that out of around 30 students in his year, only two are female (vocal students not included). Classical music is probably the genre with the most female artists, but even then they’re underrepresented. And despite a few notable exceptions, there are very few female DJs, MCs, rap artists, and producers and producers in the land of dance and hip hop music.

What’s happening here? Why aren’t girls making music? There doesn’t seem to be any simple answer.

Is it biological disposition? I’ve seen my fair share of shitty ‘chick bands’ and musicians, who have almost led me to think this is the case. But the amount of stunningly creative female vocalists that history offers us suggests that women have the same capacity for musical genius that men do. The work of artists like Nina Simone, Anita O’Day, Patti Smith, Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin and modern day Peaches, M.I.A. and Bjork exhibits incredible creativity and artistry.

Let me offer you some hastily thought up alternative explanations as to what’s going wrong:

We associate being a successful musician with a certain lifestyle of misogynistic debauchery, a ‘rock star’ lifestyle if you will, that females find it hard to cast themselves in to. They are discouraged from pursuing their musical careers further because there is no pre-existing mould to follow.

Being successful – on a commercial level at least – involves a certain level of egoism, a brash confidence that few women possess. In my experience, even highly talented and skilled female musos have a staggering lack of self belief.

Female artists are less willing to compromise their sound for the sake of appealing to a wider audience. If the idea of becoming a pop music puppet doesn’t appeal to a woman, then she’s forced to find an alternative to the mainstream options – an alternative which there is invariably no space for on the Top 40 charts.

Maybe women lack the competitive drive to practice hard and exceed their contemporaries’ abilities. My jazz student flatmate suggested this one, to which I replied “Competitive gymnastics”. We decided that maybe women are only driven to compete against each other.

Perhaps women are too sensible to attempt a musical career, which is always a risky path. Maybe without the rock star dream to delude us, we’re forced to be more realistic about our careers, thus perhaps taking music less seriously and missing opportunities.

Perhaps instruments, and guitars especially, are really psychological extensions or substitutes for the penis. Wait, wouldn’t following this archaic viewpoint entail that women should all play guitars to satisfy their penis envy?

Perhaps this is getting silly.

I have to admit to more than a trace of frustration at my own sex for giving up so easily. Having not found any significant obstacle to playing music in my own life, I struggle to find any such thing that could affect anyone else. I’m not sure if any of the above offer us any more than a partial explanation, and to be honest I find them all dissatisfying. But what other reason can there be?

In any case it’s about time we got over whatever is keeping us women from succeeding in this field. There is no logical, substantial reason why there shouldn’t be as many women playing instruments as men, to the same level that men do. I do, several of my friends do, and frankly I don’t see what’s so hard about it.

Thankfully, the times seem to be changing. When I look around at the world of Wellington music I see plenty of musical femmes happily jamming out. People such as Bachelorette, Charmaine Ford and MC Kyla all exhibit some choice talent across many different genres. As always, mainstream pop culture will probably be the last to catch on and keeping pushing its bland doll-like singers at us – long after female jazz guitar virtuosos and metal drummers are commonplace. I can’t wait. In the meantime, check out Punchbowl, Cherry Gemstone, The Dissentors, Hoopla!, Palace This!, The Windups, Kitten Et Me and Dyke? Dyke? Dyke?, to name but a few: all up and coming musical ladies with more to offer than eye candy.

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Comments (18)

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  1. derekguy says:

    “A look at the Top 40 charts reveals very few women artists that actually have artistic control over their work…” Where do you get the information on that? I’d argue that most of the popular pop artists today have plenty of control over their work. They often have writing help but then so do most bands.

    “We associate being a successful musician with a certain lifestyle of misogynistic debauchery…” A more accurate description of a rock star lifestyle would be that of simply debauchery. Misogynism doesn’t always enter into the equation because plenty of rock stars are homosexual and even more are philogynistic.

    I’m afraid this article comes off as sounding like it was written purely for the Feminism week and is poorly constructed with ideas strewn everywhere. Better luck next time.

  2. lameozoid says:

    Derek, I’m afraid you come of as a douche

  3. The Ghost of John Keys says:

    “better luck next time”

    yeah seriously with the roll of the dice flip of a coin blow of the ref’s whistle this article could’ve been completely different

    you’re a garbage man derek

  4. lameozoid says:

    Aw pete you’re just sour cause I called you a TERRORIST that time.

  5. Isobel says:

    Good work sister (no, this is not ‘street slang’, she actually is my sister).

  6. rita says:

    i think women don’t excel as guitarists because they are too concerned with presenting themselves as girls and are still crippled with a little bit of narcissism and needing to get attention for being sexy or pretty. guys just fall in love with their instrument, play all the time, and become obsessed with their instrument in a way that women often don’t. guys are more likely to seek attention through their playing, and not through how they present themselves. women often want to play guitar so they can accompany themselves, whereas guys are often more into the sound of their instrument than the sound of their own voice.

  7. Fab says:

    I think that chicks play bass on bands with guys, because guys egos
    can’t take a girl playing lead guitar.
    I agree with rita…
    but there’s also the main issue for girls is machism i don’t think
    that any dad want’s their daughter to be a “rockstar”, so who’s gonna buy that guitar… that bass!!!! ???

  8. Fab says:

    I think that chicks play bass on bands with guys, because guys egos
    can’t take a girl playing lead guitar.
    I agree with rita…
    but there’s also the main issue for girls is machism i don’t think
    that any dad want’s their daughter to be a “rockstar”,
    so who’s gonna buy that guitar… that bass!!!! ???

  9. West Coasta says:

    Bass has less strings than guitars so that girls find them easier to play because their not as complicated for there tiny brainz!

  10. Tristan Egarr says:

    “there tiny brainz”

    Amazing.

  11. val says:

    The electric guitar is a phallic extension of a guys ego…period. It’s really true, most girls find things to accessorize themselves while most guys don’t care about looks and only care about “being better” than everybody else. Guy’s (being not as intelligent) are entertained more easily, for one and for two their ego’s drive them to constantly top everybody else and be better so they will literally lock themselves in a room and play for 10 hours to nail one solo. However, there are SOME woman like this and that is why we have some very good female guitarist, bassist, drummers etc.
    As much as I hate to say it the previous comment about girls picking bass because it has 4 strings isn’t far from the truth..for as many woman bassist as there are..how many play functional slap and pop? How many play more than 4 strings?
    Furthermore, girls are very discouraged through schools and more so by their peers. They are pressured into not liking boyish things..how do i know..i’m a girl..and even more so I remember being in 3rd grade getting to choose which instrument I’d like to play in school..i picked the snare..and i got told that was a boys instrument and i shouldn’t play it by everybody and non more pressing than my music teacher (who was a woman) herself. Ironically, I did pick up drums at 14..and I have much natural rhythmic ability…I’ve been playing and writing my own songs for over 15 years now. Music is my life and I’m a girl…
    however, I don’t exactly fit in the typical girl mold..or even typical person mold…I’m certainly a huge oddball and I think that playing whatever and with the tenacity I play it with hasn’t been a huge deal for me because music has been my outlet in which I escape and it really facilitates and helps me embrace my differences in this world.

  12. Base Spot says:

    Q. Why do Chicks only play bass?

    A. ‘Coz they like a good thumpin’

  13. Jenna the Bassist says:

    Honestly?

    Because they are only there because its cool to have a hot chick in your band, not for their musical abilities.

    There are non-hot chicks in bands and they are more likely to play a variety of instruments but that is only because no guys want fugglies in their bands.

    I am a girl buy the way. I love base, and yes – I love the cock. So sue me.

  14. liz frencham says:

    I reckon (being a chick bass player myself & a double bass player) that women are often successful bass players because women are naturally empathic & supportive in nature as is the bass role in an ensemble. A women feels good when she makes the whole band feel good, it’s tactile & warm & all the things that girls like!

  15. LordShreddor says:

    “I think that chicks play bass on bands with guys, because guys egos
    can’t take a girl playing lead guitar.
    I agree with rita…”

    Quoted from fab:
    Fab lead guitarists are THE MOST EGOTISTICAL people in rock bands save for Axel Rose… I don’t care what your gender is (And I’ve meat a fair few female guitarist) as a vast generalisation lead guitarists are very self centred. I’ve read interviews with the odd femail lead guitarist and they have mentioned that many of their contemporaries did not want to put the time into practicing to get that good. Plus when you have people like the ‘Great’ Kat pretty much saying they will use the fact that they have T and A to sell them selves as lead guitarist it makes you wonder is the whole macho man image of rock (which is a delightful fallacy) is a place where people may WANT to be.
    As a guitarist I don’t care what kind of heat you’re packing, you either have chops to burn or you don’t. I know a lot of other guitarists who feel the same… the irony of course is that many of the guys who are in rock bands don’t exactly fit the bill as macho men… yet are some how personified as masculine gods its all adds up to a pile of misguided egotistical crap anyway… much of the reason why I left the music world. The music industry is dysfunctional at best and being sexist is just one in a long line of problems that stem from a media saturated environment so to blame male lead guitarists is like assuming each Muslim is a terrorist.

  16. Well, this is not just true for music, females are lesser in many fields and as you have put it correctly “because of the lack of the mold” but times are definitely changing and I am glad about it. The Corrs seems to phenomenal in that regards.

  17. Trent says:

    If a chick plays bass all it means to me is that she has good taste.

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