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Playing Fair

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Dayna Evans

By Dayna Evans

Part 1: When Corin Tucker Held My First Real Guitar Like An Infant Child
In characteristic Internet hive-mind fashion, when the post-punk all-female band Savages first crossed my radar, within hours, they were suddenly everywhere, as if they’d been birthed from Zeus’ headache, fully formed and restlessly ready to show us the brutal cold reality of life. I was initially surprised to hear that this was a band that most, if not all, critics were rallying around with cheerleader-like admiration because it is rare, practically unheard of, for the hive to endorse a band comprised entirely of women. I hadn’t yet listened to their debut record, Silence Yourself, but I had seen pictures of and read interviews with the group, and the thoughts in my head started to swirl. It was compelling that the group most always wears black, that their frontwoman, Jehnny Beth, had boyish, severely cut hair, that they scowled and looked stoic in all their press shots. They appeared distant, defiantly inconsolable, and with impressive believability, they rejected looking vulnerable. Something about this performance for the press, no matter how authentic others claimed it to be, felt forced, staged, an innocuously deceptive put-on. In the constant comparisons to Joy Division, Wire, and Clinic, there reigned one unspoken truth among the words: the band’s domination of the critical hive-mind came from the fact that, in everything Savages did, they were channeling not women, but men. And men in music are granted elaborate cover storiesthoughtful, praise-heavy reviews, and the opportunity to be seen for who they are and nothing else: as musicians.

Rewind to three months before this moment, before Savages were inescapable on my blog roll, and you’ll find me in Other Music buying the new Marnie Stern record and a magazine called She Shreds. As it proudly states on the cover, She Shreds is a magazine “dedicated to women guitarists”, a deliberate dedication to the females who have picked up the six-stringed beauty (or 12, if you’re into that kind of thing) and making it a passion unfettered by the layers of complicated nuance that come with the title of Guitar Player. It’s a thoughtful, if thin, magazine, helmed by a musician named Fabi Reyna (of Modern Marriage, Reynosa) in Portland, and though, at the time, it was only the first issue ever, it has feature interviews with Scout Niblett, Olympia hardcore band Hysterics, and the Riot Grrrl we all dream of as we noodle, Sleater-Kinney guitarist Corin Tucker. Reading the short issue felt like catching up with old friends, a feeling of recognition that speaks to you when you’re a part of a limited, under-appreciated, and mildly-covered community. As I paged through it I felt as if I’d been raised by wolves my whole life and I was finally seeing a picture of a human. These are my people, I thought, which was exactly the opposite of the way I felt when I had my first encounter with Savages.

Corin Tucker, who plays my first real guitar, the cherry Gibson Les Paul Special, speaks in She Shreds to the slowness of the development of girl power in music, which I identified with and found worthy of nodding along. I went on to read specific guitar technique tutorials and about female pedal-builders and a subset of musicians as strong and bonded-together as the ragtag group of baseball players in The Sandlot, or more appropriately, A League Of Their Own. As I finished and put the magazine down, though, I saw my warmth in finding a publication that seemed so made for me turning to irritation. I frowned. There are niche magazines on everything from indoor ping-pong to grilled cheese sandwiches, but what was it about female guitar players that felt necessary to celebrate in print? It started to occur to me that my discovery of She Shreds felt so serendipitous and fortuitous because I hadn’t really ever thought that was a niche genre before. Aren’t guitar players just, well, guitar players? Since when did gender define how you played your instrument?

Should we pretend that to play a guitar as a woman is so different to play a guitar as a man? It requires the same skillset and the same attention, so how could it possibly warrant enough reflection to make an entire magazine out of the subject? And with the inevitable complicated birth of Savages lying faintly in my future, I started thinking about what happens when women act like, learn from, and aspire to be the same as men. I posit that we’re on a frontier of gender equality in music, while simultaneously finding the need to further distinguish genders among players. With anything so temperamental as gender issues, the push and pull between these two polarities is maddening.

Part 2: All Teenagers Play the Squier Strat
I learned to play guitar from a man. Actually, more accurately, I learned how to play a guitar by watching men. I got my first guitar on my fifteenth birthday, the incomparable Squier Stratocaster, Mexican-made and cherry bomb red. It was a gift from my mom, who was a single parent, and knew that playing and listening to music had already been therapy for me, so to encourage me to keep up with it was a way of telling me that everything would be okay. (See: the Gloria Carter monologue on ‘December 4th’.) It was a Squier Strat because she couldn’t (and by all means shouldn’t) afford the Fender Strat I wanted, a Fender Strat that I’m not embarrassed to admit I saw being toiled in the arms of Tom DeLonge, Blink-182’s guitar player.

The first time I heard Dude Ranch, an album I bought under lapsed parental supervision when I was 11, I thought, Man, I want to play like that. Not that I just wanted to sit back, listen to the songs, read the liner notes, and giggle. I wanted to pick up that instrument and make those noises. I wanted to make fast, bratty punk songs with staccato riffs that travel at the speed of light. I wanted to do that and, big ups to Frank Sinatra, I wanted to do it my way. If I had had better, cooler, or more aware influences at the time, maybe I would have learned how to play from Kim Deal or PJ Harvey or Kristin Hersh or Donna Matthews. But that didn’t change that everyone around me was trying to learn guitar, and my idols were who they were, namely and wholly men.

I got the Squier and I immediately started playing along with every song I heard, beating the thing to death, letting it fall where it lay, not knowing how to properly take care of what essentially was going to be my first, shitty child. While other friends had forays with drugs or athleticism in these teenage years, I had my guitar. It was all I needed and the possibilities felt fucking endless. Have you ever known something so thrilling as the thought that a guitar, with 22 frets and 6 strings, can really harness any sound and any tone you could possibly even imagine? And that’s just playing it unamplified. Introducing varying pedals, amps, strings, pickups, and alternative tuning can make the guitar the greatest sonic vessel the world has ever seen. If you have a teenager, give him a guitar. I’m telling you — there is something about the way it works that unleashes a whole stratosphere of cathartic comfort for a young mind. Everything you do when you touch a guitar feels like one step closer to possibility, and since teenagers exist in prohibitive, restricted worlds, they will get a chance to understand the freedom of boundlessness. It will change them, I promise you.

When I was 15, I took on everything with such a grandiose gusto that it’s painful, almost embarrassing, to look back in retrospect and see how naïve I really was. When I first started a band, which was literally a minute after I’d learned how to strum two chords barely, I had my first encounter with realizing that what I was doing was different from the other people around me. I wasn’t even remotely talented musically yet, and I definitely couldn’t shake it at songwriting, but I didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t put together some songs and have people hear them. I eventually started playing with my first band, The Rising Action (a symbolically phallic moniker now that I think about it) in little local community shows that I was often in charge of organizing, and the ‘otherness’ of what we were offering was immediately obvious. All the other bands I had asked to play were full of older men. I learned everything I needed to know about guitar playing from men. I borrowed their amps, they watched our shows, they were the sound guys, the lighting guys, the guys I had childish crushes on, they were the drummers, the bass players, the singers, and the guitarists. And then there was me, my female lead guitar player, and my female bass player, and we never for an instant felt weird about any of this. Why should we? In my eyes, after learning how to play the guitar from watching men do it, I was equal to men in potential, so why would you ever need to set us apart from them?

As far as I knew, I was a guitar player. No qualifiers necessary.

(continues overleaf)

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One Response to Playing Fair

  1. Erika Elizabeth May 7, 2013 at 1:11 pm

    “I’ve now realized that events like Ladyfest are necessary to bolster the ill confidence that women have been carrying on their backs for generations — this is a chance to show each other who we are and why we deserve credit for it. And when the space to do that is a safe one, we are really given an opportunity to shine.” – This, exactly.

    I was one of the primary organizers of the Ladyfest that happened here in Western Mass two years ago & had similar mixed feelings about how the event might just wind up “othering” people who are already struggling to be recognized. But ultimately, being involved with putting on a Ladyfest was an incredible experience for me & it still probably ranks up there as the best weekend of my life so far. I’ve been involved in music for years in almost every capacity you can imagine (as a DJ, a show promoter, running a record label, etc), but spending a weekend with other women who are actively doing those things made me realize how often I’m put in a position to feel weird or out of place for taking on those roles & how the atmosphere at Ladyfest was the total opposite of that. It was a place to connect with people, to share ideas, to teach each other things & most of all, to not feel intimidated or scared to ask questions. We ran workshops for learning to play instruments, we had panel discussions about being feminist allies in the music scene, we gave silkscreening lessons so that people could make their own band merch… it was incredible to have so many different women sharing their knowledge & experiences with each other so openly. Every part of the fest was open to everyone (boy, girl, anyone), because the expectation was that we wanted to give anyone who didn’t feel empowered to take a more active role in music a safe space in which to find their way. It just happens that, more often than not, the people who need to be empowered are the ones who don’t have the privilege of being straight/white/male.

    It would be great to see something with the spirit of Ladyfest happening at EVERY show, without having to organize something separate or “exclusionary”. Even as someone who has long identified as a feminist, participating in Ladyfest really pushed me to re-examine some of the fucked up things that I had started to numb myself to (bands emailing the show space I volunteer at while always addressing the unknown recipient as a man, etc). It helped me finally gather the courage to take my bass outside of my bedroom & start a band with an incredible feminist boy ally that I met at one of the Ladyfest shows, who stuck with me as I stumbled my way through learning how to play & had my back whenever anyone tried to give me shit. For that alone, Ladyfest is forever going to be one of the most influential experiences of my life – any ladies out there who have the chance to go to one should DO IT!

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