Where the girls are
When I first started becoming involved with music there was no notion that it was only for boys. Sure, all of the bands were full of guys, but when I was young all of my friends were guys so I just didn’t notice that things we’re more than a little off-balance. I just saw really cool people doing really cool things and couldn’t think of one reason why I couldn’t yell Prince songs to the strums of a tennis racket guitar (which was a Prince brand racket, oddly enough) to an audience of Ninja Turtles. But as I got older and replaced the catgut with round-wounds, I started experiencing first hand that not every 4-Point stag is keen to let you in on the Reindeer Games. Awesomely enough, in the past few years it seems that this “boys-only” rule is going the way of Jim Crow, Gay Marriage Bans and Grass Illegality. More and more guys are abandoning that outdated notion that only boys can rock & roll.
And no more is this more obvious than our own backyard. In all aspects and all capacities, women are essential to the awesome directions the Houston music scene has been taking as of late. From the roles of musicians to photographers, to promoters, to producers, the ladies of Houston enrich and nourish the community at large and without them, I hate to think of the sorry state we’d still be in. I’ve had the unparalleled pleasure of hearing what many of these great women have had to say on various topics. And with the space I have been allowed, it is with great pride and appreciation I present to you a unique glimpse into the experiences and perspectives of the women of the Houston music scene.
This month we’ll be exploring the essential experience of being a female in a realm that has for so long been male dominated and controlled. From artists like Rolling Stones to Pavement and all the way to svengalis like Phil Spector to Kim Fowley, men have always been taken seriously as artists and forces behind the scenes, while women were ones to be in some cases written about and wooed, and other cases manipulated and sculpted. Yet, there were always the Moe Tuckers, and the Patti Smiths, pounding out a rhythm unencumbered by the limitations of gender roles as dictated by the status quo. Today it seems that ratio of men to women in music approaching stasis, as evidenced by the women I spoke to. By and large it seems that females are readily accepted by their male peers, though moments of friction do arise.
Asli, of The Tontons expressed a reoccurring sentiment, “Probably the most common experience I have had being a female in a band is people assuming that I am a band member’s girlfriend, I get asked who I’m with a lot.”
Artist/Promoter Kam had the same tale to tell, having been told by security at her own show “band girlfriends aren’t allowed in the green rooms”.
Melissa from Sharks and Sailors shared a similar experience, “Occasionally venue employees (in Houston and elsewhere) would think I was lying when my band was loading equipment into a club and I’d have to repeat ‘Yes, I’m IN the band. I play an actual instrument in the band. No, I’m not trying to get in free and I’m not someone’s girlfriend, so please let me load my gear.’ Though, she admits situations like this are becoming fewer and farther between. It seems that the farther from Houston you go, the more problems you encounter.
Dominique, vocalist/bassist of The Delta Block, has been literally beaten up for having the gall to ask for her band’s cut of the door.
Sometimes it’s the audience, as evidence by an experience of Ema Kid vocalist/bassist of punk outfit Penny Arcade who was once told “Wow, I thought you were great and I was surprised too cause I wasn’t expecting you to be good because well…you know, you’re a girl.”
And Natalie of Wayside Drive found a perfect way to counter the gear snobs. “They would ask me what kind of gear I was playing and you know what kind of guitar my guitar was. It’s like they didn’t take me seriously. I worked at Guitar Center for about six months, got familiar with all the gear, I worked in accessories. Now I’m at a point where I can tell them what they’re playing and I know more about their gear than they do!”
But these clashes aren’t just happening out in the clubs, sometimes it’s going down in the practice room. Stacey of Guitars and Lenny Briscoe had this to say about a former outfit. “I was blatantly ignored. They would walk into my home when we would practice, look at my husband, who was the drummer, and tell him ‘Will you tell your wife to play this instead?’” An experience shared by Dominique who also was faced with friction by a stand-in band mate “He bold faced refused to listen to me and my suggestions as to how to play the song, and simply told me ‘I’m following (guitarist) John.’ He wouldn’t even look me in the eyes when he spoke to me. It was quite obvious that he couldn’t handle taking directions from girls.”
Fortunately, sometimes it’s a little lighthearted competition, “I think the farthest it goes is to see just how much gear I can haul around,” says Gillian of News on the March.
And as much as we’d like to make this a black and white, cut and dry gender issue, being a female in a band often means facing oppositions from other women. Asli had this to say, “it’s been my experience that when you’re in a band with other females they tend to compete with you.” As if feeling the need to compete in musicianship wasn’t enough. Zahira of Wild Moccasins adds, “I’ve definitely had experiences where I’ve read that I wasn’t pretty enough, and then they don’t mention if I’m talented or not.
Not all of the ladies I spoke with faced any of these obstacles; many have had the good fortune of either life long equality with childhood friends or sharing common goals and interests with open-minded band mates. Those that haven’t been so lucky have found ways to get by. Anna, formally of Hands Up Houston, and now a promoter on her own, says, “I purposely didn’t socialize with any of the touring bands because of being seen as a groupie. Male musicians tend to think that if you’re female and you’re nice to them you’re hitting on them, they don’t take you seriously.”
Rosa of Ditchwater took an opposing approach. “I want to be more Mae West about things than trying to go in and bulldoze my way through anything”. When describing her dealings with less than level-headed hard rockers, “That’s what boys are used to.”
I received similar replies regarding the charms of the fairer sex from other females like singer-songwriter Elaine. “Sometimes it’s helpful because people tend to be more impressed when you don’t completely suck.” And Asli had this to add, “I think that having females in a band adds a level of sensuality, and balance that is necessary. I think it’s harder for us to win the approval of an audience but if and once you have it then its easier for us to captivate an audience in a way that most men can’t.”
But in the end, it seems that this biggest source of competition comes from within. Amye of Wols admits, “I think I’m always more concerned with proving myself to myself rather than other people.” Mlee of Hearts of Animals and sometime collaborator with Amye shares a similar outlook. “I guess I have not really felt that it was ever my gender that caused me to feel the need to prove myself in a band situation, but rather my insecurity either in my skill or creativity.”
I hope that this month’s insights into the experiences Houston women have had gaining equal ground in the music community has been at worst and entertaining read, and at best enlightening. I would like to thank all of the wonderful ladies who contributed to this and future articles in this series. When I first started contacting women in the scene, the responses came fast and frequent. If I missed you in my initial call, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, your insights are enthusiastically welcome. Next month I will be looking at what roles females are playing in this music community and their drives and interests.