Males have dominated the music industry since the dawn of commercial pop music. In the 1960s, male bands were painted as serious musicians while the equally talented female vocal groups were treated as novelties. Slowly, fearless rocker chicks like Blondie's Debbie Harry and Jefferson Airplane's Grace Slick began permeating the mainstream rock scene. Underground, the punk and post-punk scenes embraced women like Lydia Lunch and Poly Styrene. By the 1990s, top 40 radio played singles by female-fronted alternative rock bands like Garbage and Lush. But even in 2013 women in music are still facing an uphill battle. Recently the Canadian-born experimental electro-pop artist Grimes took to her blog to discuss sexism in the music industry. Sure we're seeing more females in bands but are things really improving?
I picked up a guitar when I was 11-years-old. Inspired by Oasis' Noel Gallagher (really!), I quit cheerleading and junior cotillion in favor of weekly guitar lessons. Eventually I enrolled in bass guitar lessons, piano lessons and music theory classes. My parents fully supported my musical endeavors. I was lucky enough to attend the Southern Girls Rock 'n' Roll Camp each summer at Middle Tennessee State University. Inspired by the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, SGRRC is a week-long day camp dedicated to empowering young female musicians. We received instrument instruction, formed our own bands and attended workshops and seminars about topics ranging from songwriting to touring. There was an equal split between male and female camp instructors. As campers, we were showered with support from the volunteers and instructors. It was an environment free from music industry gender discrimination. But I wasn't always so lucky. Like many other guitar slinging girls, I've faced a fair amount of prejudice in music stores. I don't proclaim to be the most proficient guitarist but I know what types of strings I prefer. It infuriates me when music store employees ask me if I'm there to pick something up for a boyfriend. Even today, the sight of a girl who knows her way around a fretboard baffles some men.
The late '90s saw an influx of teen queens in pop music. The Britneys and Christinas of this era were sexualized before reaching their 18th birthdays. They used their bodies to sell singles penned by professional songwriters. Christina Aguilera's powerhouse vocals aside, these girls were not being marketed for their talent. Unfortunately that's the nature of bubblegum pop. It's simply a product that most of us consume during childhood. I can't profess to coming out of the womb appreciating Joy Division. My preteen years were spent idolizing the Spice Girls. Manufactured pop stars realize that their careers are based on an image, not music. This is what angers Grimes and countless other female musicians. Serious singers and songwriters are still expected to conform to the pop star formula.
"I don't want to be infantilized because I refuse to be sexualized," Grimes wrote on her blog. She further expresses her disgust in being constantly judged by her looks. And she has a valid point -- there are attractive guys in indie rock bands but how often is this mentioned in their reviews? Grimes also mentions that she is constantly bombarded with unsolicited advice and suggestions from men that aren't even professionals. The idea that a woman can be successful as a solo artist without a team of songwriters and a backing band is still clearly unfathomable to many.
My band days ended shortly after high school. I continued my music education by earning a piano performance minor in college. But aside from the occasional evening jamming to the Pastels (a Scottish band with female members!) with friends, I've abandoned my rock star dreams in favor of pursuing a writing career. These days I look to writers like Courtney E. Smith and Louise Wener for inspiration. In her book Record Collecting For Girls, Smith chronicles her experiences working for MTV. Wener fronted the Britpop band Sleeper. Her memoir Different For Girls is about life as a pop star. Both women faced their fair amount of discrimination as women in a male-dominated industry. Famously, the music press wrote Sleeper off calling them "just another female-fronted act" with faceless backup musicians. Responding to their undue novelty status, Sleeper sold t-shirts at their gigs printed with the word "Sleeperbloke."
In 2013 female artists are prominent across all genres of popular music. While this is an improvement, these artists still face the negative effects of sexism daily in the form of unsolicited criticism about their looks and personal lives. Until we are able to judge female musicians solely by their music, we will not overcome sexism in this industry.