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The problem with ‘Girl Bands’

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‘All-female band’ may be the PC term as endorsed by Wikipedia, but the fact of the matter is that music, not gender, should probably be the defining characteristic for a band. (Funnily enough, there is no Wikipedia entry for ‘all-male band’.) No reverent music lover would need to be educated on the importance of Janis Joplin’s place in music history (or herstory, since I may end up being accused of indulgent feminazi nitpicking here anyway) or all the critical acclaim notable artists like Courtney Love or Aretha Franklin have achieved in their careers, but unpacked, this constant reminder of their femininity downplays all accolades earned by women in the industry. They’re great – and they’re female! Because a female achieving greatness is some crazy shit, right? How do they get dinner on the table if they’re also busy being so awesome?

Can we take a second to indulge in the fact that in the Olympics, there isn’t ‘swimming’ and then also ‘women’s swimming’, there’s ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’? Please note the difference. I’m assuming that the simple explanation for this is that if the Olympics in this day and age were to start implying that the men are playing the sport while the darling women are off to the side having a very gallant crack at it themselves, there would most likely be an outcry, because aren’t we done with those sort of shenanigans now? And sport is an industry that requires differentiation by the pure virtue of physical difference. So why has an industry that has always made room for the ‘fairer sex’ not figured this out yet?

Is the differentiation really as derogatory as it initially appears, however? As fans thirsty for tunes from all-female bands, or musicians keen to seek out fellow-sexed idols, we internally squeal every time we see an 90s Girl Band Night advertised at the Globe and add such evenings to our upcoming Facebook events quicker than you can say “Carrie Brownstein is a Goddess”. So the obvious question to ask is who is such terminology even hurting? Do we need to reframe our thinking or should we just let this one go? Indeed, many female rockers seem to embrace the ‘girl band’ or ‘chick rock’ labels and slap them to their own bands, proudly. So do these labels even matter or is this all just another chance for us eager feminists to drag the old soapbox out and make angry man-hatin’ mountains out of molehills? Don’t we feminists have enough to complain about already?

Though some more disdainful folk may throw this potentially indulgent pondering of terminology into the same boat as the herstoric bid to reclaim language and expel it of its masculine leanings, the old “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” argument is possibly more offensive than the terms itself. Shouldn’t the party who is most liable to take offense be the party in charge of declaring that something is indeed broken?

There’s never an easy solution when half the girls in rock are calling empowerment and the other half are calling bullshit. Is it sexism? Maybe the verdict is still out, but if a tree falls down in the Sleater-Kinney’s The Woods, yeah, it still makes a sound. At the end of the day, it comes down to the simple fact that ‘almost equal’ should never be good enough, right? When stuck for an answer, it’s probably best to ask ourselves, “What Would Bikini Kill Do?”  In which case, it’s probably time to riot, grrrls!

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9 Responses to The problem with ‘Girl Bands’

  1. Princess Stomper March 8, 2011 at 11:27 pm

    – The problem with ‘Girl Bands’ …
    – Oh, I know! The Spice Girls are rubbish!
    – No, no, I meant Warpaint and The Like.
    – Warpaint have got a bloke in them.
    – No, they have a female drummer now.
    – Oh. Well, then they’d be an “all-female band”, as well as an “art rock band”, “LA band”, “Rough Trade band …”
    – How do you usually think of them?
    – A band whose ex-drummer was thingy from that film.
    – So you think the only interesting thing about them is that their ex-drummer is a semi-famous actress?
    – Well, I’ve only heard one tune by them that I liked, so yeah. I did really like that song, though.
    – Don’t you also get annoyed about people referencing how they look in interviews?
    – Any interview with anyone is automatically 100% more interesting if it references personal information about the subject, including how they look. Example: I learnt from the Guardian’s interview with Jonny Greenwood that his Converse trainers squeak and he has a flappy fringe. I learnt from The Independent that Patrick Wolf wears red and dyes his hair.
    – So you don’t have any kind of problem with the ‘Girl Bands’ tag?
    – Oh, I do.
    – What’s wrong with it, then?
    – Ask me who my favourite ‘girl band’ is, I’d probably say The Ronettes. If you file Kittie under the same category, I’ll set the Trade Descriptions people after you!

  2. DC March 9, 2011 at 7:01 am

    So, to clarify, Kings Of Leon are most definitely not a girl band?

  3. Erika M March 9, 2011 at 8:01 am

    “How do they get dinner on the table if they’re also busy being so awesome?” To me, this is actually a valid question, which is why I was very intrigued when Courtney Love sang, “I don’t do the dishes – I throw them in the crib.” I think being “female” can’t really be reduced to possessing a “vagina.”

    Anyway, I don’t like the term “girl band” either, because “girl” implies “child” which in turn implies a lot of things that don’t fit all women. People don’t usually call a male over the age of 25 a “boy.” But the fact is that being a female in a rock or pop band is still interesting and different enough to catch people’s attention, and even if any particular girl or woman thinks it’s “no big deal” for her, it doesn’t make it “no big deal” for everyone. It becomes even more interesting when a band is made entirely of women. For some, it’s a novelty, like dressing up a monkey and teaching it to smoke. For others, it’s inspirational, “hey, look at them rocking it! I can do that too!”

    I’ve tried to put together all-female bands and found it very difficult to pull off. Putting together any band (and keeping it together) is difficult, but if you are limiting yourself to women, you’ve cut your options. If you have crazy self-confident music-loving girlfriends, it can click, but it seems to be very hard to go out and MAKE it happen. I could go on for a long time about WHY I think all-female bands are different… But the fact that it is different makes it interesting, and the fact that it is interesting makes it a marketing point. So of course you are going to play up the all-female aspect of your band if it’s going to bring in listeners, help you sell records, maybe get you signed to Kill Rock Stars.

    Meanwhile, some will always see the “girl band” as a “non-serious” novelty act, and … well, you just roll your eyes, yanno… and stomp and sing and smile to yourself. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NNpKjmNaJpQ

  4. Nate M March 16, 2011 at 8:17 am

    Hmmm, not exactly the article I was expecting. Maybe a more accurate title would be “The Problem with the label ‘Girl Band'”, although the last paragraph starts to parse the issues I was expecting to see discussed, i.e. Girl Bands as marketing ploy, current evaluation of the pathway to genuine musical gender equality, etc.

    Kurt’s words were definitely taken as gospel back when I was an impressionable 14yr. old and two decades later, I think progress has definitely been made, plenty of worthy alternatives to phallic testosterone party rock these days (of course, there’s a time and place for everything).
    Maybe monoculture really is becoming a thing of the past, at least, that is, way down below the McDonald’s/Wal-Mart strata.

    Would like to see a follow-up or continuation article sometime soon, until then, cheers.

  5. Han March 16, 2011 at 10:31 am

    Hello. I just love girl bands, especially grrl bands. I make music and I am a female. I am independent. My music is original and great.
    I am a feminist because I am equal to men. But I am also smallish so I am not equal in strength to some men… or some women for that matter. We’re all different, but I dismiss the prejudice- anyone who tried to put me down for being female knows about it. It all comes down to men’s Provider instinct (on a par with female Maternal instinct)- people have these things to varying degrees, but the genders do have differences whether we wanna acknowledge that or not. So if this particular type of guy wants to reduce a female musician’s status to ‘girl’ instead of woman, then to me it’s clearly an expression of him trying to badly assert some masculinity and still feel like he could be a provider to these women- thus maintaining his sense of self. Sad but true.
    But that doesn’t have a single thing to do with women rocking! Zilch.
    Plenty of men have a fetish for strong women with guitars. That’s hot. Men comment on what they find attractive- it’s part of the design, tough shit… (but I quite like that about them)
    So I think we shouldn’t be attacking or looking at men for the explanation- on this one, I think we should be looking at women and asking them why there are so few of them making rock music and forming bands- that is in my opinion the real question. While women are in the minority, they will be labelled as Girl bands (and thank God- at least this helps me track down the good ones!) So until the amount of female rock musicians is equal to men, we can’t exactly complain about the label.
    That is no excuse for using it to describe a genre though. But it doesn’t really.
    I disagree about the Spice Girls being called a ‘band’ or causing confusion of the term or whatever- only people who buy the top10 singles and copies of NOW compilations and party mix albums would use that phrase- namely people who only have a passive interest in music.
    Anyway, I have always been proud to use the term girl band. Whenever I’d been in them I used to call them girl bands- even if we had one guy in them. The guy never minded (there was more than one over the years), so I don’t see the problem. Handy for getting people to bother to show up to your gig. Not handy for being taken seriously… but I’m gonna bet on Warpaint (for example) that they won’t be having that problem. It’s not the tits or faces of Warpaint anyone remembers (their hair covers most of the member’s shoegazing faces a lot anyway), it’s definitely the music. When I heard them on the radio I didn’t know they were all girls, I was just buzzing off the music. When I found out they were a girl band, that made me really happy.
    The real question is why don’t more girls play guitars and form bands. I know the answer already: they don’t need to. Men have the advantage in motivation here as they can be so unattractive as teens that they want to hide their spotty faces behind their bedroom doors… plenty of time alone to dream about getting laid… and how does the minger get laid? Guitars. Simple. For women it’s more complex, female teens can almost always get laid- in fact the issue at that stage is trying your hardest not to if anything… for me I was so seriously pissed off with the world when I was a teen that it was ‘make riot grrl music’ or get violent… I went with the music, though I did go through a regrettably violent phase too… luckily I ended up on a drumkit and things worked out fine.

  6. Cardiffwoman March 17, 2011 at 8:59 am

    I get sick of the word girl being used to describe women, but men are men not boys. I’m 40 and someone called be girl though I had a go. It seems so silly to call them girl bands. Women don’t help themselves though, Rhianna Only Girl in the World but described him as a man.

  7. Danny April 1, 2014 at 6:35 pm

    This differentiation only exists because of the lack of women in the rock and roll community. Aside from female lead singers there just aren’t that many female rock musicians. I wish I knew why.

  8. Pingback: Tacocat Want to Keep the Feminist Conversation Going on Third LP | SPIN

  9. Renita October 8, 2015 at 5:17 am

    I am a women( guitar/ singer / songwriter) who has hooked up with lots of bands to play in , all male musicians
    where are the women??
    Last one i was kicked out of, male guitar player was a control freak
    Eureka moment came, see If I can find some women to play with
    Yes it happened!!!!
    Now I have just started my own original band with female drummer and bass player… Excited for the future:)

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