The public/private divide for women in music

Gender Agenda

Gender Agenda

Issue 5 Easter 2003

The magazine of

Women's Union

This business of women: the public/private divide for women in music

Jo Read

‘It’s music for Gods’ sakes! Who wants to come to see music? ‘I do, I do!’; pay your
money, come inside, stand in the front, scream, be excited, go home.’ – Jo Read meets Tegan
and Sara

As summer fast approaches, here comes another season of women’s festivals. Cue boycotts,
demonstrations, slanging matches, and another round of debates on what constitutes a
woman, all to be eagerly reported in the liberal press. It’s difficult to remember amidst all
these highly charged political agenda’s that at the root of it all, stands some women who like
to play music. In 1999, Tegan and Sara Quin became ‘Tegan and Sara’ with the re-release of
‘Under Feet Like Ours’, closely followed by ‘This Business of Art’ [2000], and ‘If It Was You’
[2002]. The pair have risen to note in the Canadian music community, and have spent this year
expanding their presence in the U.S. and starting in on Europe.
The duo serves as an interesting case study of women in music today. The plight of women not
looking to be Britney, consistently reported in the liberal press, as ever, remains an uphill
struggle. But what we don’t hear of is what exactly bands such as this actually want to
do. We assume, whilst buying our tickets for Ladyfest [and if we’re brave – Michigan] that
female artists relish this opportunity to perform to an open and supportive audience. We
congratulate ourselves for providing such a platform so that artists such as these can speak
about the really important events in politics that MTV just doesn’t give them a chance to
do. However, with the barrage of recent objections to women’s festivals swilling through the
arts scene, not just from our old arch-enemy ‘patriarchal society’, but from members of our
own community voicing legitimate complaints, it’s high time we began to face up to the reality
of women’s festivals and what we want from the ‘women in music’ scene. If we were truly
supportive, wouldn’t we be lobbying for a greater diversity of sounds and inclusion of bands
representative of the whole spectrum of the community [read: not just white women in their
twenties], rather than attending in hope of a summer romance, with intervals of watching the
eye candy on stage?

Sara makes a good point as she illuminates her own reality of women’s festivals, and being
treated as a mouthpiece for the women’s movement. In 2000, ‘Varsity Arts & Culture’ magazine
reported that 90% of the band’s performances in the U.S. revolved around political events,
e.g., Take Back the Night, Girlapalooza, Rock for Choice. However, instead of a tributary,
‘we couldn’t have cracked the U.S. without the women’s festivals’, she talks about the
salience of performing in front of someone else’s banner. ” We’ve chosen to make our music
about music and not about politics. We want to make sure that when we’re standing up on that
stage with a UNICEF banner behind us or a ‘Rock for Choice’ banner behind us, that we mean
it.” Tegan elaborates, “You have to feel it inside of yourself to be able to support those
people and I can’t just buy their stories, I can’t just sit down with someone and them just
tell me something that is completely foreign to me and just get it and just do it. It takes
time and… I think our priorities are different to. I don’t want to go and preach to the
converted either.”


The idea that artists we would expect to see at women’s festivals may not support the event in
principle is something we certainly have heard very little of. Support for such festivals is
usually divided up into women who go, and women who don’t, usually with minimal -if any
-debate. It seems, however, that whilst all of our attention has been focused on trans
participation in these events, we need to look back to why many women don’t attend, and stop
thinking of those performing as voiceless oracles of the women’s movement. As Sara puts it,
“I’d rather get on a stage with six boy-rock bands and hold my own, than get on stage with six
girl-bands and feel like we’re taking over the world. It’s a personal challenge for myself to
get up and face those kind of things. It’s a personal challenge for myself to look at a
completely mixed crowd and know that Justin Timberlake and Nickelback are before and after me
– that is a challenge.”

The ‘women’s music’ corner of the women’s scene is valued by consumers for a variety of
reasons. Whether you appreciate the political message you get from certain groups that aren’t
backed in the mainstream, simply wish to support the genre, or seek refuge from the constant
barrage of male -produced and -orientated music in the mainstream. It is easy to see the
allure of women’s festivals: self-education, safe spaces, and a supportive environment. There
is none of the fist-fights to be found in the mosh-pit of ‘Beastie Boys’ concerts, recent
problems such as the rapes that occurred during the Woodstock 2000 festival are not a
concern. What we didn’t consider, however, was that many female artists do not buy into this,
just as many consumers do not.

At the end of the day, to expect a group who do not include political messages in
their music to perform in a politicised arena, to assume that the absence of politics in their
music comes from the dictation of the record company or mainstream music scene, is just
insulting to the intelligence of these musicians. Whilst we so regularly scorn pop-culture
icons who take a stand on political issues, dismissing ‘Blue’ and ‘Westlife’ with a disdainful
‘what do they know?’, we seem to forget that when it comes to women, we expect them to speak
for the women’s movement, regardless of their knowledge or involvement. “I’m not an overly
political, religious person in my music. From the way that I was raised, because I have a
mouth, because I can talk about it constantly, I don’t feel like I have to do it in my music,
I’m not inspired to do it in my music… we’ve chosen to make our music about music and not
about politics. Maybe music isn’t the place that we have to empower people, maybe it’s
something on a larger scale.” – Sara. None of this means to say that artists cannot be
involved in politics, or that those who do not wish to participate in events with ‘political
messages’ do not have a personal politics. “There’s nothing attractive about cluttering up my
songs with all that stuff. You write a song and it symbolises a moment in time, like whereas,
with politics and women’s rights, and all that stuff, I want to go every day and try to do
something about that.” – Tegan.

The point is, quite ironically, that the personal does not have to be public. Whilst feminism
has told us during the past decades that ‘the personal is political’ that does not take away
the existence of a grey area. Not supporting every cause does not take away your right to
support a cause in the future, nor for that matter, should those who take a political stance
be valued solely by this – perhaps they make good music too, despite the fact that Bob Geldoff
didn’t. Whilst bands have to worry about keeping their record companies happy, keep the
public buying, encourage their fan-base and keep making music, one can believe there is little
time to worry about the politics of your politics. “I think we would maybe lose a lot of our
demographic if we were like ‘well this is the way we are’ and preaching, and like, ‘we only do
this, and we believe in this cause’. We didn’t get into this to preach our politics… I just
know that it would close a lot of doors. We have to attain a certain amount of power before
you can start preaching at everybody.” – Tegan. It appears, then, that women such as Tegan
and Sara can teach us something that the LadyFest workshops didn’t: we need to value women in
the business of art, rather than confining them to the business of being women.



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