subscribe: Posts | Comments

Between Rock And A Hard Place: Why Women Are Still Neglected In Rock Music

Comments Off on Between Rock And A Hard Place: Why Women Are Still Neglected In Rock Music

Between Rock And A Hard Place:
Why Women Are Still Neglected In Rock Music

Women In Rock Music

For Jacquie Neville, playing the guitar wasn’t just a hobby, it was a means of self-discovery.

“Writing my own songs, I was definitely able to find my voice and come out of my shell,” says Neville, frontwoman of The Balconies.

Neville, a native of Ottawa now living in Toronto, started her own band just to get into clubs when she was too young to enter as a customer. “We called ourselves Jacquie In The Kitchen, the ultimate sexist name,” says Neville, “because I was the most unlikely person you’d find in a kitchen.”

But Neville has had more radio play than a lot of women in rock. While female pop stars like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift enjoy fame and fortune, women still face an uphill battle in rock. She argues, “being a female musician isn’t a novelty, the industry’s shifting has just given more artists a voice.”

This voice has not always been so loud though. Recently, American singer St. Vincent became the second woman to win the Grammy for “Best Alternative Album,” following in the footsteps of Sinead O’Connor who won the award in 1990. Unfortunately St. Vincent’s critical recognition has not meant automatic mainstream success. The only women to win any Grammys in “rock” music have been Meg White, for three different White Stripes albums and both singers Pink and Evanescence in 2004.

While women dominate pop charts, why are they still such an undervalued minority in rock music?

“It’s sexism, traditionally,” says Steve Knopper, contributing editor at Rolling Stone. “Big labels will sign Nirvana and Pearl Jam, not Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney.”

Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney were part of the Riot Grrrl feminist rock movement of the ‘90s but while the subculture and its politics gained traction, it never achieved mainstream success.

“When you’re a woman and you step forward in a rock band it can be a political statement in its own,” says Knopper. “They just didn’t sell as well as women like Courtney Love.”

A 2009 survey by Creative and Cultural Skills, a British culture council, found that 66 per cent of music industry workers are male.

Earnings reflect a lopsided economy in the music industry. According to a Forbes list of the 30 highest earning musicians, Dr. Dre was the highest-earning musician in the world in 2014, earning around $620 million, with Beyoncé coming in a distant second at $115 million. While this gap is huge, it is worth noting Dre’s lead is considerably due to his company Beats. The next eight highest earners are all men, half of them, rock musicians, with Taylor Swift being the second woman on the list in the 11th highest earning spot. 

The only female rock musician on the list was Pink. However Pink’s recent work falls more into the pop genre than rock.

“Rock in general already has trouble being big right now,” says Knopper, who also notes that pop singers like Taylor Swift and Lorde are achieving success by crossing genres and avoiding the typecast sound. “Are there many women playing like Joan Jett? No, but are they selling gold records? Yes.”

It was hard for women in the ‘90s to even get into bands at all. Mary Ann Clawson, gender studies professor, pointed out in her essay “When Women Play The Bass” that many women broke into rock in the ‘90s by playing bass not just because it was easiest to learn but because it was in demand.

Joan Jett was one of the female pioneers of rock, and a veritable icon of the genre. Despite this, she was only inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame this year, (with The Blackhearts) almost 10 years after she was first eligible and 15 years since her all-female band, The Runaways, have been eligible. Jett was inducted alongside Green Day, who were inducted in the first year they were eligible, and Jett performed for Nirvana’s induction, who were also inaugurated the same year they were eligible.

In fact, of the Hall of Fame’s 304 inductees only 14 per cent are women. Of these women, more than half fall under the soul or R&B category as opposed to rock, and only eight play instruments consistently in their respective groups. 

“If you’re a hard-rocking female, you have to be that much better than everyone else to get noticed and actually played,” says Peter Karroll, owner of record label Reliant Music.

This double standard means female musicians have to assert themselves on stage more than men.

“You see it with acts like Bjork and St. Vincent. Many women have to be theatrical to stand out,” says Lori Burns, a gender studies and music studies professor at the University of Ottawa.

Neville echoes these sentiments, but also points to them as growing pains.

“When I was younger, I felt like I constantly had to prove myself. But I think that came with being insecure,” she admits.

Vinyl sales reflect this too, as more dramatic artists tend to sell more recorded music. Sales data from Neilsen Soundscan show that this year St. Vincent had the 10th best-selling vinyl, while pop singers like Lorde and Lana Del Rey reached eighth and fifth respectively, all of them notably theatrical. St. Vincent is the only solo instrumentalist to break the charts with the women of bands like Arcade Fire and Beach House doing so in ensembles.

It is worth noting that many of the males topping this year’s sales are much more established names like Jack White, The Beatles and Bob Marley, while the females on this list have reached the list with shorter career spans.

The sexism persists though, in terms of attribution and belief of talent. Bjork recently told Pitchfork Magazine about how a male co-producer who got involved late in the process was credited in the press as the sole producer of her latest album, and electronic artist Claire Boucher, better known as Grimes, spoke online about how her male peers often offer to help produce her work and it gives her the impression they do not believe she can do it herself.

Media coverage continues to feed stereotypes. Helen Davies pointed out in her article “All rock and roll is homosocial” that the press refers to them as women more than musicians, putting a stronger focus on their gender rather than their talent.

Neville has experienced this first-hand: “I’ve been asked ridiculous questions like, ‘What’s it like being in a band with all boys? Is it hard? Do they like being in a band with a woman? What have you learned about men?’” says Neville. “We do not want our music to be defined by the fact that I have a vagina.”

Lesley Marshall is an Ottawa entrepreneur and musician involved with Megaphono, an organization dedicated to improving the Ottawa music community. She says, “Women have always been involved in creating music, just not getting any credit for it.” Marshall has seen every side of the industry as an artist, manager, promoter and booking agent. “We need more women in leadership roles; I think I am part of that,” she says.

However the tides are turning as technology levels the playing field for women.

Mark Passera, professor of a music economy MA program at Kingston University in Britain, notes that the internet has opened things up for women. “The democratisation of digital tools and distribution does mean that talent and clever packaging can reach millions overnight.” YouTube provided the stepping stone for Lorde’s North American success last year, showing that even foreign artists can break through with the right song.

Things are looking up, as the industry is slowly becoming less male-dominated. Label owner Karroll says, “Eighty per cent of the demos I receive are from women.”

There’s a resurgence of these bands as well as Riot Grrrl bands returning to the game. Sleater-Kinney just released their first album in 10 years and Riot Grrrl icons like Kathleen Hanna, of Bikini Kill, and Mary Timony of Autoclave, have both started new bands in the past year.

Neville maintains her belief that at the end of the day, the music will always matter most. “If you focus on perfecting your craft, people will take notice and will naturally gravitate towards you and respect you.”

You can catch The Balconies playing on opening night of Ottawa’s newest venue, LIVE! on Elgin.

Owen Maxwell
THE SCENE

Owen Maxwell