A couple weeks back, I was flipping through a certain music magazine when something struck me. There was a band with four women on the cover. There were features and photos on bands with women throughout the issue. I looked at the cover again. I looked at the contents page. There wasn’t anything declaring it the “Women In Rock!” issue.
OK, the magazine was MAGNET, the very product you’re holding in your hands. But that’s not the point. The point is that this was a music magazine filled with stories about women who rock without feeling the need to proclaim itself as an issue devoted to “Women In Rock!”
That was a real thing not that long ago. And the reason was as simple as it was unfortunate: There weren’t that many women involved in indie rock. If you were editing a magazine and you wanted to focus on something for an issue, you could do something on “Shoegaze Bands!” or “Bands From Seattle!” or, yes, “Women In Rock!”
We’re talking about the ’90s here. There were women around, of course. There were Bikini Kill and Hole. There was Scrawl, one of my favorite bands (if memory serves, and it seldom does, they did a live cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody” once that was brilliant). There were Liz Phair and Mary Timony. There were Tsunami and Pee Shy. There were women who were in otherwise male bands, from Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon to Superchunk’s Laura Ballance to Jawbox’s Kim Coletta to Small Factory’s Phoebe Summersquash to Handsome Family’s Rennie Sparks (hi, Rennie!).
Aside from being a great bassist, Ballance was and is a partner in Merge Records. So I kind of think (and hope) that the proliferation of woman-led bands (whether the bands are all female or there are guys playing, too) results at least in part from the pioneers who carried their guitars and amps into clubs and posed for photos for the “Women In Rock!” issues of music magazines.
But I think there’s something else at work, too. One of the primary differences between the current music scene and the indie scene of the ’90s is that we’re essentially living in the post-label era. With the internet and social media and iTunes and so on, artists are able to reach the public without the benefit of the mighty record labels.
I’m inclined to believe that labels served at some level to keep women on the margins. Not entirely by design. Labels tended to dumb down almost everything in their misguided attempt to market music. Labels are fine with women and men who are going to sell 10 million units. It’s the less commercial and often more worthwhile artists that give them trouble.
If Nirvana was breaking out and selling a zillion records, labels went out and signed bands from Seattle or bands that looked or sounded like Nirvana. It never occurred to any of them that Nirvana was a unique phenomenon and it would have been much more fruitful to go find another original and gifted artist.
To take that a step farther, labels have no idea what makes an artist worth signing. When something breaks big, they trample over talented artists in their rush to duplicate the last big breakthrough. And almost all of what they were trying to duplicate for 40 years was rock music made by men. But there’s more to it than that. A group of women in the ’90s had to deal with other shit besides label indifference. The recent imbroglio involving publicist Heathcliff Beru, who resigned from his firm after allegations of sexual harassment, brought to light something that has no doubt been going on for ages. A woman in a band has to deal with sexist behavior from labels, from publicists, from journalists, from producers, from booking agents, from club owners and from fans. That surely goes on now, but it was certainly more prevalent and in the open in the 1990s.
It’s not like we’ve gotten past all that. It’s just that the trend has been toward more gender equity than there used to be. Once upon a time, Chicago’s Lounge Ax was notable because it was owned and operated by two women, Julia Adams (hi, Julia!) and Sue Miller. Now there are women booking shows and managing venues all over the place.
Once upon a time, Merge and Kill Rock Stars were labels that treated female artists respect- fully. Now there are women involved in every aspect of the music business. Once upon a time, Liz Phair recorded songs on a four-track machine in her bedroom. Now everyone with a computer has access to soft- ware more sophisticated than the studios the Beatles used.
So more women have ac- cess to recording technology. More women are able to get their work out via social media and the web. More women are writing about music on blogs and in online and old-fashioned print publications. It turns out that when women are free from the forces that limited their access, they make some pretty damn good music on their own terms.
This sounds a little odd, but bear with me. For decades, only white players were allowed to play in Major League Baseball. That deprived generations of black players from getting the opportunity to play. But here’s the thing. Because of that racist policy, all of us were denied the chance to know and to appreciate those excluded players. Society was the bigger loser. We have Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and other great players in our collective memory. But we were denied access to Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell. Terrific baseball was played in the Negro Leagues, but America would be a better place if all those great players, black and white, had been able to compete with each other.
We’ll never know how many talented women never pursued music because it was so stacked against them. We can look around and appreciate that it seems like a lot more women are driving right through those road- blocks, if the roadblocks are even there. We’re going to get the chance to hear a lot more interesting ideas from a lot wider range of artists.
This may mean the death of the “Women In Rock!” issue. I think that’s probably a good thing.