That's a picture of my band, "Cartoon Bar Fight." Upon first glance, you'll note that there is only one lady in this group--and that's me.
I have been songwriting, singing and playing in Cartoon Bar Fight for over four years. I initially started the group in Fall of 2007, during my first semester at San Jose State University, and was quickly joined by Dirk (the lovely fellow on the far right, who also happens to be my boyfriend), the only other remaining original member.
We live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and play indie rock music influenced by bands like Eisley, Radiohead, Feist, Brand New, Bon Iver, Neutral Milk Hotel and Arcade Fire.
I have certainly been spoiled to find such intelligent, respectful, creative and extremely talented band mates, and I love them all like family. With them, I don't feel there is much of a divide because of gender. I don't feel lonely, or like the "odd one out" or anything like that, and this is because we share common goals, interests and skill levels. Though I would love to have another woman in the band for vocal harmonies and duets (I adore the way female voices sound in harmony), we haven't found her yet.
Over the years, I've given a fair amount of thought to how gender plays out within our band, as well as in the lower levels of the music business. Getting in to the music industry is tricky for anyone, but it can get even more frustrating for women who are trying to make their way, due to subtle sexism perpetuated by band mates, family members, booking agents, sound engineers, folks in the audience, and even from ourselves. Allow me to count some of the ways:
1. If a band has a female lead vocalist, the band may henceforth be referred to as a "girl band." My brother demonstrated this to me as I watched him import an Eisley CD to iTunes and change the genre to "Girl Indie." I was like "NO BRO!" Cartoon Bar Fight has also been referred to as a "girl band." Apparently, the presence of people of my gender in a band is enough to nullify the boyhood (and I say "boyhood" because if I am going to be referred to as a "girl" then they get to be "boys!") of the other members! Does this mean I can start referring to Radiohead as "Boy Experimental Rock" or to Bon Iver as "Boy Folk?" Or do they not require the same qualifiers? Frankly, I don't care if six girls are playing the music, or three boys are playing the music, or if three girls and one boy are playing the music. Music = music, k? Thx!
2. I hate getting dressed to play shows. Yeah. Sounds trivial, but it can make a person pretty agitated. There is a fine line for me between wanting to appear simple yet put-together, or "perfect" and all feminine and sparkly. I typically shy away from dresses and jewelry and heels because first, they can be distracting and pull attention away from the band as a whole and unjustly focus it on to one person. Second, I don't like projecting an image of fragility when I'm on stage. I don't want to look like I could topple over at any moment because of some stupid shoes, and I don't want to worry about how I'm standing or constantly be fretting that someone can see up my dress (however, bike shorts under dresses have solved this one in the past!!). Third, it's just impractical. You can't safely carry your gear in heels, and I'm certainly not about to let one of the dudes in my band carry my stuff for me. I just don't like it. But, unfortunately, I had it crammed into my brain from a young age that nothing you do matters that much unless you look attractive while you're doing it. For women, there will always be pressure to look conventionally attractive, while performing music (unless you want to go the Lady Gaga route, in which case, more power to you!), and even while conducting your general day-to-day life. Thanks MTV. Thanks, you rotten, garbage teen magazines. Wish I knew about BUST or B*TCH or Ms. Magazine when I was a lass.
3. As I discussed with some friends after one of our last shows, some local promoters will throw certain bands together on a bill based purely on the fact that the singers all have lady parts. It doesn't seem to matter much that the bands may play completely non-complimentary styles of music--what matters is that the singers are female and it is therefor assumed that all their music must sound the same. This item is particularly frustrating, as it sends a very negative message to the woman musicians: our songwriting and lyrics and style don't matter as much as the fact that we're female. Booking blunders like this aren't just lazy. They're very, very sexist, and probably frequently overlooked, since they likely occur most often in the lower levels of the music industry.
4. Contrary to popular opinion, I do not perform music for the purpose of attracting suitors. Yes sir, I will be pleased to talk with you about my fricking awesome, rare, gorgeous Telecaster tenor guitar. No, I will not go get coffee with you. No, I do not want your cell phone number in case I change my mind. Go bother one of my band mates.
I self-admittedly cite more male or mostly-male musical acts as influences than I do female acts. Similarly, most of my friends and band mates listen to libraries of music comprised primarily of male groups or artists. Many of us seem to have tricked ourselves into thinking that male creative works are the default--that they are the pieces of music and film and literature and art that everyone can relate to, regardless of their gender. Creations by women are often thought to be less accessible or not as widely applicable, despite the fact that women make up half of the global population.
Perhaps at one point it was more difficult to come across female musicians because the mainstream music industry was so male dominated (actually, it still is, in most ways). We have obviously had some mainstream female acts get huge, but they remain vastly outnumbered by their male counterparts.
But it is the great year 2012. When it comes to indie music, we have the internet, and we have services like Last.fm and Spotify and Pandora that exist purely to help us track down new artists that are worthy of becoming mainstays in our musical collections. Plus, we have locals shows to go to, and at least in the San Francisco Bay Area, bands are playing all over the place all the time. And there are a lot of women in those bands. Indie music has no shortage of talented women, and it would serve our ears well to move beyond the stigma of "girl music" versus the supposed real or regular (male) music. There is no real divide. We only tell ourselves there is. Music made by women is no less valuable or relatable than music made by men, just like literature and films by or about women are not and should not be treated as any less valuable or relatable.
And it's important not to forget that a great deal of music (and other creative material, for that matter) is produced by women and men, together. To celebrate this notion, I leave you with these links to some bands I adore:
Local Bay Area bands:
Who are some of your favorites?