Gender Agenda

Gender Agenda

Issue 1 Michaelmas 2002

The magazine of

Women's Union

Girls in Music

Joelle Cleveland

Why is it that in a recent readers poll held by a major national music
magazine, only 12 out of the the top 100 ‘Greatest Artists’ of all time
were women?

Traditionally women’s presence in the music industry has not been a
powerful one. The songs sung by girl groups like the Supremes and
singlers like Dusty Springfield were written by men (without the necessary
voices or sex appeal to themselves) and were under the control of male
record company bosses. Even with figures such as Debbie Harry or more
recently like Beth Orton, the rule of thumb seems that a woman could front
a band, or sing solo, but she would always have a male band playing behind

The first challenge to these gender stereotypes happened in mid 1970s with
a wave of girls in bands like the Slits and X-ray Spex. This was punk and
it was challenging just about every stereotype, taboo and preconception it
could find. Punk’s do-it-yourself (DIY) ethic was a basis for the female
bands, writers and activists who first came together under the banner of
‘riot grrl’, around about the summer of 1991. Girl bands associated with
riot grrl such as Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and UK group Huggy Bear were
characterised by a raw punk rock sound with highly politicised lyrics.
Not just a musical movement, the riot grrls also included women publishing
fanzines (cheaply produced self-published magazines), starting record
labels, organising protests, making films and holding meetings. It was an
educational and revolutionary movement which was deeply political, dealing
with issues including identity politics, violence against women, the
pro-choice campaign and fat oppression. Riot grrl took over the feminist
agenda of the 70s and remodelled it for the 90s.


Riot Grrls

One of the most important things about the riot grrl bands is that they
provided powerful new role models for women in music. Through sleeve
notes and fanzines published by the bands, listeners could connect with
them and suddenly making music seemed a real possibility. By seizing the
means of production riot grrl established itself as a movement outside of
the mainstream channels, dissolving the division between performer or
writer and audience. The political agenda was described in terms of
revolution and resistance, and this helped foster a strong communal spirit
which encouraged active involvement. There was a strong message saying
‘write a fanzine! make a statement! pick up a guitar!’ and countless young
women were inspired to do that, resulting in fanzines and shouty girl
bands of variable quality.

Riot grrl has undoubtedly had an inspirational effect in encouraging young
women to get involved in alternative music by breaking down barriers and
expectations. Although riot grrl was largely over by the mid-1990s, many
women are still involved in similar activities, and many are discovering
its music and ideas for the first time. There have been several
‘Ladyfests’ organised by groups of mainly female volunteers in different
cities internationally. These are festivals celebrating women in music,
and feature whole weekends of music from girl bands and djs, as well as
performance poetry, drama, art, film and workshops and discussions. The
most recent was held in London in August 2002 and included song-writing
and self-publishing workshops and panel discussions on men in feminism and
women in the music industry. The whole ethic is very similar to that of
riot grrl, and many of the bands playing the Ladyfest are influenced by
that first wave of girl bands.

As a DJ at this year’s Ladyfest I found myself considering the relevance
of an all female music festival today. Audiences certainly enjoyed it,
and were interested in the issues discussed. In terms of promoting female
music though, it seemed to be preaching to the converted rather than
making any impact beyond established boundaries. Women artists are not
going to be more seriously by the male-dominated music press when press
coverage of this event was limited to ‘Diva’, a lesbian magazine, and a
tiny feature in Time Out. Again ‘women in music’ appear to be a
marginalised group.

The line ups of this year’s other music festivals, which more closely
reflect mainstream taste, include few women. The giants are male bands
like Coldplay, the Strokes and Limp Bizkit, but right down the bill the
men outweigh the women preformers. There are more men today buying music,
more men writing about it and more men in senior positions within the
industry. Since the 1950s a lot of progress has been made so that now
there is little to stop a girl from picking up a guitar. From this point
girls should be moving into the areas of music which are still dominated
by men.

LadyFest Websites of interest


Riot Grrl:

Ms Dynamite:

Missy Elliot:



Certain genres of music seem predominantly male preserves. For instance,
I could name many female guitarists but few drummers, and many girl punk
and folk singers but few female electronica artists. One notable example
is Claire Broadley a.k.a Printed Circuit, whose looped beats and fun
samples have real credibility in this seriously male genre. She also runs
her own label and distro, Catmobile Records, and promotes live electronica
gigs in Leeds. Two other inspiring and sucessful female figures are Ms
Dynamite and Missy Elliot, who work within the extremely macho and
posturing scene of hip hop. Their razor sharp lyrics challenge the sexism
and violence inherent in the culture.

In London and Brussels a group of girl DJs have started running
‘Lektrolab’ classes for women on the basics of DJing. This is something
which has been mystified by many male DJs who take anorakish delight in
discussing the technical specification and intricacies of fairly
straightforward equipment, and love to boast about the size of their
record collections. I’ll let you in on a secret, it’s really not as
difficult as they make out.

For me the most valuable contribution the Ladyfest made was not to
showcase the fact that girls can play guitar. It was the fact that as a
festival run by volunteers it gave a lot of people the opportunity to
learn new skills in a supportive environment, and prove to themselves
their capabilities. People who succeed, like the women mentioned above,
require self-belief and a willingness to take risks. All it will take for
women to become a more powerful presence in the music business is for more
individuals to decide they want a piece of it and to realise they can do
that. Hell, who knows, we might make a better job of it.



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