The music women make when left to their own devices is often sidelined. Julia Downes, editor of 2012’s Women Make Noise, previews an upcoming discussion in Sheffield on 16 October about DIY feminist efforts to counter this
Thursday 16 October 2014
Coffee Revolution, University of Sheffield Students’ Union, Western Bank, S10, 2TG
It has been almost two years since the book I edited, Women Make Noise: Girl bands from Motown to modern, was published on the Supernova imprint of the woman-run independent publisher Aurora Metro. The book was sparked by what seemed to me to be an obvious gap in the dominant narrative of popular music: the persistent underrepresentation of the all-girl band.
There is something peculiarly dangerous about the all-girl band. We are almost not allowed to know that they exist. In music culture, as all-girl bands are given very little visibility, it would be easy to assume that there are just not that many around. For instance, a recent survey of UK summer music festivals suggested that all-girl bands made up a mere 3.5% of total acts playing compared to 43% of all-male bands, 15.9% of bands with men and women and 16% female solo musicians. However, Women Make Noise is a testament to what happens when you start to push music history a little further, to see what women create together when left to their own devices.
Of course, anyone who dares to point out the misogyny of the popular music industry is faced with predictable responses. We are told that there is no fault with the status quo of the industry. The blame lies with the audience for choosing not to buy music made by women — the market rule. Or the blame is on women musicians who just are not talented enough — the bad music rule. Alternatively, we are to blame for speaking out about gender inequality in a neoliberal world where we are reassured that everyone is equal. Apparently, we are the sexist ones — the shut up rule.
We are reminded that, in fact, there is a role for women in music — to be looked at — that is an ‘advantage’ leading many men to envy women musicians. This jealousy is based on a misled belief that women are more likely to gain undeserved success based on their looks. We are told that we should be grateful for that. We can be pretty things that men like to look at. We are reminded of the handful of musicians that have gained credibility – Sleater-Kinney, PJ Harvey and The Slits. In the music press, women musicians are compared to a small list of acceptable-to-talk-about women in music who do not sound anything like them. Gender is highlighted and new terms, like ‘foxcore’, are seized on to make sure women know their place. This effectively diminishes the breadth and diversity of women’s musical legacies in the popular consciousness. I mean what is the point of starting a band if everything you create will be automatically put down as derivative of, or a female-version, of ‘insert male artist here‘?
Obviously this is the same old sexism recycled in the present day, a symptom of a culture that chooses to think about women’s contributions in ways that marginalise them. This is before you even take into account the intersections of race, class, sexuality, ability and gender fluidity that add more layers of misrepresentation, erasure and dismissal. There is clearly a lot more complexity in the lived entanglements of music, gender and feminism. This is why LaDIYfest Sheffield, in association with Off the Shelf book festival, have organised and kindly asked me to lead a panel discussion of women musicians, DJs, organisers, writers and activists.
The fact that LaDIYfest Sheffield has opened up this space emphasises how crucial DIY feminist resistance is in disrupting the recirculation of sexism and misogyny that is repackaged as common sense. Grassroots initiatives like First Timers and Rock Camp for Girls are providing support for girls, women, queers and people of colour to start their own bands and projects.
There are many more encouraging signs that women’s creativity is being celebrated and valued in its own right. For instance, the fifth annual Wysing Arts festival, Space Time: The Future, focused on women-led bands and women in experimental and electronic music and art. There is an ever-expanding network of outspoken feminist bands and performers active in the UK. (Examples include Trash Kit, No Ditching, Ravioli Me Away, The Wharves, Shopping, Beauty Pageant, Colour Me Wednesday, Ajah UK, Slum of Legs, Olive Anne, Chrissy Barnacle, Liz Cronin, Woolf, Frau, Good Throb, Jesus and His Judgemental Father, Ye Nuns, The Middle Ones, Martha, Muncie Girls, Not Right, Ill, Alison’s Birthday, Muscles of Joy and Men Oh Pause.)
First up on the Women Make Noise panel is Alanna McArdle, member of the band Joanna Gruesome, who also performs solo as Ides. Alanna has recently made some excellent, smart yet scathing critiques of music culture – calling out the misogyny she sees around her on stage, online and in the press.
Joining Alanna is Stephanie Phillips, member of the bands My Therapist Says Hot Damn and Big Joanie, co-organiser of riot grrrl club night Bloody Ice Cream and writer for The F-Word [you can find her articles here and here] and the blog Don’t Dance Her Down Boys.
Finally on the panel is the house and techno DJ Sarita Karir, who performs at Sheffield Techno Institute, Plug and Tramlines festival.
Topics in the discussion will include: the particular struggles of women of colour in music, media representations of women in bands, the demise and reincarnation of riot grrrl and the complexities of sexism, homophobia, classism and racism in underground and popular music spaces. Panellists will also be hanging out after the discussion and guest DJ’ing special one-off sets after the panel at the nearby Harrisons bar.
The Women Make Noise discussion promises to be an enlightening evening of noise, feminism and troublemaking that you do not want to miss.
Image descriptions and credits:
Flyer for Women make Noise: A Discussion. By Neil Holmes and shared with permission. This shows a close-up of a drawing of a black vinyl record with a yellow label showing the details of the event. A proportion of a description of LaDIYfest Sheffield as an inclusive DIY anti-capitalist community helping organise socials and fundraise for local community groups can be partially seen around the edge of the yellow label. The yellow label contains the name of the discussion at the top in white, with black text in separated boxes (from left to right and top to bottom) underneath. Most of these details have already been shared above but boxes containing the following are also included:
A drawing between “Presented by:” and “LADIYFEST SHEFFIELD 2014”. This shows three waving figures. The left person has medium length hair, a heart tattoo on their right arm and is sitting in a wheelchair, the middle person has short hair and stands, while the person on the right has short hair, a distinctive black and white striped top and is standing. By Emma Thacker and shared with permission.
“All rights of the owner and distributor of this record are unreserved and quite friendly / WMN-161014 / Verbal advertising and excitement for this event are highly encouraged by no laws at all.”