'Women In Rock' Is Dead; Long Live Women In Rock
If 2018 has taught us anything, it's that women's dominance of rock music isn't a trend – it's the new normal. Criticism has to reflect that.
Left via PR / Right by Michael Lavine
2018 has been a phenomenal year for music made by people playing guitars. In a pop-dominated era where critics seem to be routinely hand-wringing every six months over the health of rock music, 2018 has provided relief for their poor wrists, as a host of new acts have taken the genre at large to unseen heights. What’s even more interesting is that the new names who’ve made the biggest impacts have invariably been women: Soccer Mommy’s Sophie Allison; Lindsey Jordan of Snail Mail, and Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker, three solo artists who, in 2018, also began playing together as boygenius.
This is important, for obvious reasons. Rock is a genre which has always shut women out – its annals are full of the faces of men, and year on year, interchangeable, pallid all-boy five pieces are tipped as the new saviours of indie, usually by male critics. And despite the fact that from Sister Rosetta Tharpe all the way down to Mitski and St Vincent, women have been making diverse types of guitar music since rock’s inception, it’s still much harder for female artists to break through into wider consciousness as rock musicians. Indeed, for even one woman to make her mark as solidly as any of the artists who’ve done so in 2018 is still rare, especially when day-to-day life as a female touring musician can be so exhaustingly peppered with sexism.
In a roundtable conversation for the New York Times published back in September 2017, a number of woman rock musicians – including Allison and Jordan – talked about habitual gender prejudice in the industry. This ranged from getting mistaken for their own band’s tour manager or fan, to being solicited for naked photos after turning down a musical collaboration. Despite, however, the common nature of these experiences, there’s often a pervading perception that misogyny in rock is over and done with. In fact, earlier this month, speaking to The Fader, Matty Healy of The 1975 (who also co-owns the label Dirty Hit, which has a predominantly female-led roster) suggested that “misogyny doesn't happen in rock and roll anymore.” And while Healy has since clarified and apologised for the remarks, they perhaps point to a wider sense that because women in rock music are now more visible, they don’t have to contend with the genre’s historic woman problem.
Obviously they do – and it’s a testament to their talent and resilience that they’ve had to cope with pressures that men in music don’t, and still manage to make some (basically all) of the most exciting work that currently exists in the genre. As such, it’s no wonder that critics in 2018 want to shout about the success of women in rock music: women’s artistic dominance of the genre has been a long time coming, and it has happened even while the world of guitar music is still not particularly accommodating towards people who aren’t white cis men.
Throughout the year we’ve seen articles upon articles about a “movement” or “scene” of women in indie rock – some loosely grouping woman artists together because of lyrical style (most of the women involved write candid music affected by their personal experiences), others acknowledging that what unites these women is mostly the fact that they’re women. In my own work, too, when interviewing various artists involved in the current explosion of women in different areas of rock, I’ve asked them about the communities they’ve formed with other woman musicians, and how this has helped them both personally and artistically.
It’s tempting to create a narrative which positions these artists alongside one another as bastions of a new “movement” in rock music, even if they don’t feel much like this themselves. Speaking over the phone, Sophie Allison, the wry bandleader of Soccer Mommy, whose sparkling, bedroom diary of a debut record Clean came out earlier this year, tells me, “I get asked about being a part of this movement all the time, but I’m not. I haven’t done anything for it, I don’t necessarily know all the people that are grouped with me all the time.” Her words are an indicator that while representation of women at all levels of the music industry must expand, and though the sheer number of women in breakthrough rock acts is one interesting lens through which to look at the last year, when we focus entirely on gender, and on who these musicians are rather than what they’re making, we do them a disservice.
Lindsey Jordan of Snail Mail agrees. She calls me from the departure lounge at Heathrow Airport, fresh off her biggest tour yet. For the past few months, she’s been promoting her debut record Lush, which is currently circling the highest ranks of basically every Albums of the Year list, and is officially Noisey’s fourth favourite LP of 2018. She’s one of the most impressive new musicians in rock music – sharp, funny, observant – and yet, time and again, most coverage is preoccupied with her gender or sexuality, or both. Frankly, when asked how she feels about constantly discussing her position as a Woman In Rock, Jordan sounds fucking burnt out: “I used to be a lot more angry about it, especially because our press cycle was really intense,” she says. “I was talking about it like, ten times a day – not exaggerating. I identify as a woman and I identify as gay, but talking about both doesn’t have anything to do with the reason why I started playing music. I just see myself as a writer and a musician.”
Allison has expressed her frustrations with similar lines of questioning – which centre on gender – publicly in the past. For her, they can feel minimising and essentialising: “It’s just not every woman’s obligation to explain to everyone the annoying stuff that happens to them every day, and explain to everyone what their struggles are, just so they can get treated better,” she states. “Obviously it’s a really important thing, but you’re more than that as a person, you’re not just a woman and nothing else. There’s layers.”
One of the reasons the 'Women In Rock' label is largely unhelpful is that men categorically aren’t covered by the music press in the same way. For example, other than when they share a common geography (as, say, in the cases of the Camden or Birmingham indie scenes engineered in large part by NME’s print publication at various points over the last 15 years), male musicians don’t tend to be grouped with other people whose music is not that similar to theirs. Yet, it’s frequently suggested that artists as sonically diverse as Snail Mail, who plays gravelly pop-rock, and, say, Julien Baker – a hauntingly voiced, folk rock musician – are part of the same “scene.” While both are introspective, personal musicians who play guitar, this is generally where the links end, and connections like this, for Jordan, are just plain lazy. “I think a lot of the artists that Snail Mail gets compared to are vastly different from me,” she says. “All of those artists put a lot of work into their individual projects, I don’t think any of them want to be tokenised.”
This isn’t to say that linking women artists is always either nonsensical or a bad thing – it’s difficult, for example, not to think of the boygenius musicians – Dacus, Bridgers and Baker – as a group of artists linked by a shared style or specific type of lyrical introspection. All three are guitar musicians with a knack for self-deprecation and examination, and this shared skill and area of interest means they are a natural fit for one another, slotting into each other’s grooves with ease. But to homogenise them entirely, referring to them all as a unit – a single “scene” or “movement” where everyone’s doing the same thing – is to take away from exactly what is best about boygenius, which is that each artist’s individual quirks as a soloist, for example Bridgers’ wit, Dacus’ low voice which grounds her bandmates, and Baker’s superlative skill as a guitarist, are amplified by the band context.
Something similar could be said of Soccer Mommy and Snail Mail. Although they don’t play together, they’re sensible reference points for each other’s work. They came up at the same time, playing the same house shows, and both agree that their music has what Allison characterises as “the same energy level and style.” For Jordan, however, it’s important to note that constant comparisons between the two acts does nothing for either: “I don’t want to speak for Sophie but I think that being compared because we’re both young women is annoying.” She continues, praising her friend and contemporary: “I feel like she’s got a lot of integrity as a songwriter, and her music individually is so special that I always feel like when people connect us, it just takes away from all her hard work. Soccer Mommy’s such a special band. Her and I are different songwriters and whenever I see that kind of comparison, I just get bummed because I want people to pay attention to that record for what it is, and it’s really an incredible thing.”
Jordan’s right. Soccer Mommy’s album Clean – as with all the albums made by the talented musicians who’ve been labelled as part of the wave of woman musicians in indie – deserves its own space to breathe. It is substantial enough to stand up on its own, and doesn’t really require any reference points. But in insisting upon comparison, and emphasising the importance of the Women In Rock “movement” rather than that of individual artists and bodies of work, music writers imply that it is that, rather than the artist’s music, which is of note. This, in turn, might suggest that women making rock music is viewed as a “scene” taking place in a moment in time – one which has come, but will also go. Surely a better way to approach the fact that women are now collectively at the top of rock’s pile is to treat it like the norm? Instead of making gender and identity the topline for every story?
Lucy Dacus hopes that we’re at a turning point for how women musicians are thought about by the music press and fans. We meet in late October for an interview before a London show in support of her second record Historian, and she tells me about how boygenius has fleshed out her hopes for the future: “I think Phoebe and Julien and I have been more willing to talk about [being women in music] through the whole boygenius stuff, just because we get it, we’re all together,” she reflects. “And I think the main takeaway from just like, the physical nature of the band is that we’re not competing. We’re co-existing, and growing together, working together. That should be how it is. I think the most toxic thing is when women feel like there’s limited space, so they have to compete for it.”
The way she sees it, the best thing that can come of women collectively dominating indie rock is that woman artists will just become the norm. She hopes that people will see that “it’s not a trend, you will just get covered if your music is great. You know?”
Allison and Jordan are also hoping that the way they and other women are written about will be broader in the future. While both have made work which has inspired careful and studied analyses – there are numerous examples; Jenn Pelly on Clean and Daisy Jones on Lush are two great ones – when these artists are interviewed, the focus is rarely on what they’ve created, and more on who they are. Jordan, in what is a really sad revelation, tells me that she talks about her music “so rarely,” which she feels is a shame when “the heart of what’s happening, the reason why people seem to be connecting to Snail Mail is just me by myself writing. I rarely talk about it – I feel like I’m always talking about being gay or something.” Allison, similarly, tells me: “I would rather talk more about my writing – the issues that are present in the songs, or just stuff that I speak out about that have actually been a struggle for me, like anxiety or body issues.”
It’s astonishing that two of the year’s most brightly burning new musicians, who’ve released albums lauded by every conceivable publication and devoured by music fans, feel disappointed that they’ve hardly been able to discuss what they’ve actually made. Their words, perhaps, are a wake-up call to a music press which has – understandably – been so excited by the invigoration of rock by women that it has sometimes put identity politics ahead of the music itself. Because as Jordan notes, the music is easily the most interesting part: “I think I’m a writer before all else, so naturally that’s what I would probably be feel the best talking about and that’s what I find the most joy in doing. All all times, I kind of just want to be writing.”
While it’s inevitable that the identity of an artist affects all aspects of their work, if we’ve learned anything in 2018, it’s that, going forward, this no longer has to be the full story. In 2019, let’s hope that “Women In Rock” as a genre tag really is dead – and that fans and critics alike can start treating women in rock as writers in rock, instrumentalists in rock, and creators in rock, always with the respect they deserve as world-beating musicians.
You can find Lauren on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.