Emily Guendelsberger Emily is City Paper's arts editor. She enjoys writing about feminism, opera, television, arts ecosystems, music theory, people with weird jobs and pretty much everything involving money. You can also find her writing at the A.V. Club and other fine publications.
“I’m the queen of rock ’n’ roll!”
I’m still a block away from Punk Rock Karaoke when I hear those words, and my heart sinks. Son of a bitch, I think, handing over my $10 at the door. I knew I should have showed up on time. I wanted to be their Joey Ramone!
Of course, this is a fundraiser for . And Sleater-Kinney was a major force behind the first Ladyfest in Olympia, Wash., back in 2000 that spun off into countless DIY-feminism-themed music festivals, including a huge one in Philly 10 years ago. They’ve got to have a solid Corin Tucker bloc. I leaf through the binder. Maybe “Milkshake N’ Honey”?
But though this is a Ladyfest benefit, it ain’t Ladyfest karaoke. And that means six songs by the Smiths versus one by Patti Smith. Twenty by the Ramones, five by Bikini Kill. Ten by the Misfits, three by Siouxsie and the Banshees. Twelve by the Clash and one by the Breeders. One by Screaming Females (). One by Babes in Toyland. One by Joan Jett. One by Sonic Youth. Nothing by the Raincoats or the Slits or P.J. Harvey.
As the singers onstage are wrapping up “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” I flip past an enormous swath of Green Day to find … exactly one other song by Sleater-Kinney. (Well, more like half a song; “A Real Man,” at just over a minute long, is short even by Joey’s standards.) A woman next to me groans that this is, like, the second time someone’s done this song.
A lot of women I talk to showed up in the mood to sing songs written by and for women. But there just don’t seem to be enough familiar ones to go around. I consider taking a stab at Fugazi’s “Suggestion” to go with the feminism vibe, but who am I kidding — it’s hard enough to sound like Ian MacKaye if you’re starting out with a dude voice. I’d just come off weird and/or tone-deaf.
I examine the song list later. There are 479 songs; 400 of them are completely by dudes. Even if you stretch the definition of “sung by a woman” to include, say, Kim Deal’s “So long, so long” asides on “Here Comes Your Man,” that’s still only 16 percent — about one out of every six songs.
But this isn’t just griping about karaoke. Once you start looking for it, the 5-to-1 ratio (imagine a single Trivial Pursuit wedge) keeps turning up everywhere as a representation of the female presence in punk and indie rock — aside from events like Ladyfest that make a conscious effort to alter it. As if white-kid music is a nautilus shell or pine cone whose growth is dictated by an invisible mathematical ratio, punk and indie rock tend to have between four and six male voices for each female one. Is it any wonder that a bunch of post-riot-grrrl women musicians came up with Ladyfest — this one place, for one weekend, where they could take a brief vacation from sticking out in the crowd, and a break from having to shout louder than five dudes to get heard?
Ladyfest isn’t about gleefully giving men the boot because men, amirite; it’s about providing a music space for women where, for once, they’re not constantly in the minority, says Grace Ambrose. Despite the festival planning’s communal, consensus-based nature, Ambrose is clearly the person everyone at this penultimate Ladyfest planning meeting looks at when someone needs to say, “OK, we’ve made that decision, then.”
Ambrose grew up outside Washington, D.C., frequenting the weeknight punk shows in Fort Reno Park and waiting for Fugazi to come back to play that mythical final show that is the unicorn of everyone who barely missed the Dischord era of D.C. punk by reasons of being in elementary school. When she moved to Philly to go to Penn in 2007, she started booking house shows, and she’s now a core member of DIY PHL, .
The experience seems to have been useful; Ladyfest is the most efficiently organized big DIY event I’ve ever seen. “We’re all trying to fit this in around our full-time jobs, and our bands, and the other feminist groups we’re involved in,” says Ambrose. Good organization was not optional.
“I’m just amazed at what we can do with Google spreadsheets and Google docs,” says Maria Sciarrino, the host of this meeting. Sciarrino does it all: computer stuff for Wharton, DJs at WPRB, used to book Philly shows with Sara Sherr as Plain Parade and played in the now-defunct band Bedroom Problems.
Sciarrino and Sherr are the only two women at the meeting who were involved with the first Ladyfest Philly a decade ago. Says Sciarrino, “I’ve been looking at some of the listserv messages from the first one … we used that listserv so much. In the month of March, there were, like, 600 messages. Now there’s so many ways to communicate online — we didn’t have any of that.”
Though Plain Parade is no more, the two women established the all-women local-music showcase Sugar Town, which a couple months ago. Sherr says that though the Philly music scene has changed a lot in the past 20 years, some things haven’t. “Riot Grrrl happened when I was in my 20s — we were talking about these same issues, and then we were talking about them in 2003. And we’re still talking about them now.”
The issues partly have to do with that small, Trivial Pursuit-wedge-shaped percentage representing the female-fronted number of karaoke songs. Because that’s not the only place the 5-to-1 ratio turns up. Since Coachella started in 1999, there have on average been five male-fronted groups for every female-fronted group, . (Note: All these statistics come with a “there’s not a ton of specific data to mine about transgender representation” disclaimer.)
There wasn’t much information available on local booking, so City Paper combed through last summer’s emails from R5 Productions, the Philly-based booking company that has similar punk-DIY-indie roots to Ladyfest. Examining the headliners R5 booked at the primary six venues they work with (Union Transfer, Johnny Brenda’s, First Unitarian Church, Morgan’s Pier, Kung Fu Necktie and the Barbary) between June and August 2012, we found that around 15 percent had frontwomen — a bit less than one in five. Counting all musicians in headlining bands (factoring in all the backing musicians) the gender split was about 8.5 percent women, 91.5 percent men.
How do local music festivals compare? Well, July’s upcoming XPoNential Festival has a near-perfect Trivial Pursuit wedge of female-led acts — 16.7 percent. (Women make up about 8.8 percent of the total musicians.) Last weekend’s Roots Picnic had slightly more women, with a quarter of frontpeople and about 13 percent of total musicians being female. You don’t truly understand how few women there are in hardcore until you’ve parsed the massive, 53-band, 249-musician lineup of this August’s This Is Hardcore Fest and come up with only two outliers: bassist Amanda Daniels of Enabler and frontwoman Reba Meyers of Code Orange Kids. And the Mad Decent Block Party? Zero women.
To be clear: This isn’t an argument that karaoke DJs, R5 Productions, ?uestlove, WXPN, hardcore boys or Mad Decent hate women, or that they’re bad people, or that they’re doing anything different than what we’re all doing. But seeing such similar numbers — especially when you don’t generally find the same 5-to-1 sausage party in, say, the audience at Johnny Brenda’s — makes it feel very obvious that there’s something weird going on here. But what? And why?
“I’m Not Even Trying”
If you want a quick definition of privilege, forget invisible knapsacks: It’s having people take your side in an argument without your having to try very hard.
And there are few things more rage-inducing than pointing out something you see as messed up, then having someone smugly explain why you are actually incorrect about your own feelings and then having a whole bunch of people agree that, yes, you’re making a big fuss out of nothing.
The Internet breeds these situations; so, often, do places where women are very outnumbered by men. Sciarrino mentions that she’s felt similar types of boys-club frustrations in both her rock-’n’-roll and tech-industry lives.
Most of the women at the meeting say that there’s sometimes a steep contrast between some of their male friends’ ideas about punk and politics and confrontation, and their defensive reactions when called out for, for example, making rape jokes.
“It’s hard when people you respect and like come at you, like, ‘Ugh, you’re being such a drama queen about this — it’s not a big deal,’” says Ambrose. “I’d be more likely to flip out on a stranger, because it’s hard when you’re trying to have productive conversations with your friends and they’re not listening to you,” she continues. “I’ve done some stupid things — I spit in a guy’s face as he was riding in his van next to me on my bicycle and catcalling me for two blocks.”
Spitting on people, she immediately amends, is actually not an effective method of dealing with anger. “You just get madder and madder and madder and madder and then you organize a Ladyfest,” she says, to general amusement. “And then hopefully the dudes that come will learn something from it. Like, not just, ‘These are bands I want to see,’ but, ‘Oh, they did this for a reason. What was that reason, that I’m contributing to? Oh, right, let’s change that.’”
“Criticism does not equal condemnation. We’re just trying to make a space for people in this world. And last I checked, punk was not about propping up the system, it was about making an alternative.”
Prestigious symphony orchestras in the ’70s don’t seem to have many useful points of overlap with DIY shows. But a study on perceptions of female classical musicians may shed some light on reasons women’s participation in the punk and indie rock scenes seems to be stalled out on that single Trivial Pursuit wedge.
America’s big orchestras didn’t even admit women , and then only in a Rosie-the-Riveter sort of way. Women were mainly in the single digits until the 1970s, when a civil-rights changed the way auditions were done. To prevent potential cronyism and biases about race, a policy of “blind” auditions was instituted, in which applicants play from behind a screen. An unexpected side effect was that since the ’70s, major American orchestras have seen a steady increase in female members; most are now between 35 and 45 percent female, and the trajectory seems headed toward an eventual 50/50.
You could chalk that up to any number of societal factors, of course. But the really interesting part comes from done over the period that auditions were changing, comparing musicians who’d auditioned in both blind and non-blind conditions. When the judges could not see the musician, about 28.6 percent of women and 20.2 percent of men advanced to the final round. When the judges could see the musician, only 19.3 percent of the women went to the final round, along with 22.5 percent of the men.
It’s not that the judges were thinking, “Oh, I note that she’s a woman; her tiny brain obviously can’t handle a bassoon.” But there was clearly something happening in there — something embedded in us by the culture that makes us automatically prefer to see men playing music rather than women. The study concluded that simply removing the opportunity for whatever subconscious bias causes judges’ perceptions of a performance to drop by quite a bit if they are aware it’s being done by a woman and to increase if they know it’s being done by a man — has been responsible for about half of the increase.
Since it’s unlikely that punk shows are going to start happening behind a curtain anytime soon, then, it’s our responsibility as musicians and people who love music to try to be as aware as we can be of whatever invisible crap about women and men and music has wormed its way so deep into our heads that we’ve forgotten it’s there.
Perhaps to compensate for the lack of Sleater-Kinney, the tail end of Punk Rock Karaoke is full of women performing feminist-ish songs by men: “Punk Rock Girl”; both “Judy Is a Punk” and “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker.” Thankfully, while there are a ton of Nirvana songs, “Rape Me” is not one of them.
But another song written by a man from the POV of a furious female victim is on the list: Fugazi’s “Suggestion.” I do know it by heart, and I think about it. But you know what? That song’s meant for a male voice. Though it’s probably Fugazi’s best-known song and Ian MacKaye famously experiments with channeling the rage of a woman who has to “Suffer your words, suffer your eyes, suffer your hands,” I’ve never seen a woman sing it.
But that kind of makes sense: The song isn’t actually in the voice of a woman. It’s in the voice of a straight, white, cisgender, able-bodied hardcore guy who’s figuring out how to see things from somebody else’s point of view. And maybe if you’re a dude who loves Fugazi but thinks your female friends are overreacting about rape jokes, I suggest you sing it through a few times. I’ll be over here, pretending to be Corin Tucker pretending to be Joey Ramone.
This article has been revised to reflect the following corrections:
Correction: June 6, 2013
In an earlier version of this article, Maria Sciarrino was incorrectly described as a graphic designer; the band she was associated with, Bedroom Problems, has disbanded.
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