Playing Fair

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Part 3: Kerosene
Electronic musician Grimes, to the simultaneous dismay and support of music listeners, critics, and makers, published a short, well-executed post to her Tumblr recently in which she pleads for men and women alike to take her seriously as an artist. “I’m sad that my desire to be treated as an equal and as a human being is interpreted as hatred of men, rather than a request to be included and respected,” and “I’m tired of creeps on message boards discussing whether or not they’d ‘fuck’ me” are two of the best lines from it, exhibiting two of the biggest problems women in music often encounter. If you act out against men, you’re a bitter cunt, and if you look too pretty, your body and its uses are up for unwanted sexual discussion. Fly under the radar and you’ll probably escape unscathed.

Being pretty is a fucked up thing. I’ve always been averse to having my face attached to my creative pursuits simply because I want to be judged for my talents and not a face or body that I’ve had no choice to be born with, whether or not the combination of the two appeals to the male masses. But the strange thing is, I’ve noticed that men take you more seriously as a guitar player if you’re not ‘pretty’. You only need take a cursory look at the comments on any YouTube video or BrooklynVegan post re: females making music and if the woman in question happens to have even a remotely done-up look and a slim figure, it won’t be long before you hear mention of how someone wants to fuck her or how gorgeous she is, as if that should ever have any impact on how well she plays. When I first started to listen to Blink-182, I constantly said things like that about the slim-bodied, tattooed specimen that is Tom DeLonge, but I was 13 and had awful taste. And then I grew out of it. Like an adult would. (I might also mention that I grew out of taking him seriously as a guitar player, but that’s another story.)

One particularly potent variety of this compliment-cum-insult-via-minimilazing-someone’s-talent-due-to-their-looks came from a video that was circulating the Internet a few years ago. St. Vincent (also known as Annie Clark), guitar impresario and unstoppable effects goddess, was filmed playing a cover of ‘Kerosene’ by Big Black with her band. The electricity that emits from even a standard 600 x 800 YouTube view, while you’re doing something else, dreaming of waffles, is unforgettable. It was big on the Internet, being sent around and showcased not unlike rare footage of a lion hugging a man. The video was paraded and lapped over as if it were an uncompromising feat, a stellar attempt at workmanship that was successful, highly unquestionable, and a final “we can all agree on this” moment. As a great admirer of both St. Vincent and the internet, I appreciated the way the video was praised because I find anything that the collective “we” can agree on to be a success for humanity. There appeared to be no St. Vincent ‘Kerosene’ backlash, which, given the incredible choice of song title, art was imitating life and life art.

When I say this was a “we can all agree on this” moment, it’s because St. Vincent, Marnie Stern, Marissa Paternoster, Merryl Garbus, Carrie Brownstein, Kaki King, Viv Albertine, Kelly Johnson (the list goes ever on and ever on) aren’t always so lucky with that outcome. People often find it difficult to look past the gender of the guitar player, finding it — no matter what — wholly necessary to remark not only on their femininity, but perhaps the sexual preference, the outfit choice, the layers of or lack of layers of make-up, all in addition to and often preceding any remark about the player’s talent on the guitar. And when an instance comes about when a woman surpasses the supposed ability a woman is known to produce, she’s praised with the added bonus of ‘surprise’. How does she do it? It’s like your grandfather telling you that you’re not just a pretty face, good golly! You can play the guitar, too! Ain’t you special?!

This phenomenon goes as far down as feminizing the guitar itself. A guy friend of mine, whom I grew up playing guitar with in high school, once described to me why he thought women were inherently bound to be less talented guitarists as men: “A guitar is an extension of a penis, and when we play it, it’s like we’re making love to a beautiful woman, or we’re pounding off in front of a crowd.” If playing guitar meant that I had to ejaculate on stage in front of an adoring crowd, I didn’t give a fuck if I was a man or a woman. Claiming an instrument is an extension of one’s genitalia belittles not only the beauty and care put into becoming a studied musician, but also the painstaking intellect it takes to keep up with it. When I began to understand that a portion of men saw their instruments as such, as a feminized love toy to be caressed and wooed, I thought that maybe there was something to making gender-specific labels for guitarists.

I would never treat my guitar like I treat my boyfriends. It means more to me than that.

Part 4: No Girls Allowed: On Treehouses and Soapboxes and Being Alone Together
There is, no matter what we’re talking about, a danger in making a minority out of a group based upon qualities that are not the decision of the person being minoritized. That’s obvious and I’m not a scholar on those issues, so I can’t speak to it much more than that. But I know that from my experience, I have found it unimaginably frustrating to have my own music labeled — pigeonholed, typecast even — as girl music, or as music that only a girl could create. I remember feeling that there was nothing more castrating than knowing when I recorded something, no matter what it was, there would be a label attached to it that gave away my secret identity as a woman. No matter how hard I tried, I wouldn’t be in a band; I’d be in a girlband.

In June, there is a festival that I’ll be attending in Philly called Ladyfest. Ladyfest has been happening every year for the past 20, and was founded in — where else? — Olympia. In finding out that this was a thing, I experienced a range of emotions. First, the completely demolishing use of the noun ‘lady’ just sorrowfully fucks me up. It feels diminishing even when it isn’t meant to be. And then the whole idea of putting on a festival comprised entirely of girlbands felt like the unforgivable “setting ourselves aside” which I didn’t approve of. I’d spent so many years fighting my way into a boys’ club that surely we didn’t need a festival that worked against that? All I wanted to do was show up to a show with my band and not be treated like we didn’t know how to set up. My Peavey tube amp, which I’ve had for nearly 10 years, and weighs over 50 pounds, is a troublesome monster to carry, but no I don’t need you to fucking carry it, thanks.

Ultimately, I’ve tried to live my life and follow all my creative pursuits by one philosophy: there isn’t any gender if you don’t want there to be. I know that I can do many things as well, if not better, and if not worse, as every man who is doing it, too. All I’ve ever wanted is to be taking as seriously as the male counterpart who is failing at it just as hard. I don’t fashion my guitar as a penis because creating art is more than just getting yourself off: it’s therapy, it’s struggle, it’s movement, and it’s catharsis. And there is nothing gender-specific about that. But sometimes, despite yourself, you need to feel a part of something that wants you back.

The grizzly problem with “women in art” isn’t that women aren’t not just treated equally as men in most scenarios, but they’re simply not treated like they’re even remotely close to being valued, or the way they are valued is scrutinized with a higher intensity in the vein of She plays well… for a girl. I think Ladyfest exists because women very simply needed to devise their own soapbox to stand out and generate a community of understanding among a group of women who are all doing it alone. It’s a chance to bring the alone together and to foster a group that often gets tossed aside and forgotten. If you won’t accept us into your boys club, then we don’t need you. 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.

I’ve always felt that the guitar is one of the music world’s only equalizers. At least in my case, when I hear a great record with some sumptuous finger-picking or a gnarly shred or a singing moan, I feel like it’s not just the guitar pulling on its own strings, but those strings are connected to my heart. (You know, like… heartstrings.) I think there is something mildly human, even personified about the guitar, just not in the way that my friend phallic-ly described it. It’s a masterfully human instrument in that you can put it in your hands like it’s a baby, like an embrace of a friend, a touch of a lover. Call me what you will but there are times when I feel that I can relate to my guitar and the sounds we create together on deeper levels than I can relate to humans. And when that feeling, which is so meaningful and has gotten me through so much of my life, gets singularly disregarded with a label of FEMALE or MALE, I shrink as though my feelings, too, are being diminished. When you see Marissa Paternoster pull on her high E string on the 20th fret, she’s not a female — she’s a person. And that person is using the one tool she has to get those feelings out.

Dayna Evans is a writer from Philadelphia, she is in a band called Manors.

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