The first in a series on the on-campus intersections of gender, race, and music performance
If I could conduct a survey about gender and music performance, it would go something like this:
- How old were you when you began playing music?
- What instrument(s) did you start playing at a young age?
- What instruments did you pick up as you got older?
- When was the last time you performed in public?
My questionable pollster skills notwithstanding, I would guess that the results would look something like this: started playing piano/trombone/oboe at age 6/7/8, picked up guitar/bass/synth at age 15, etc. According to my hypothesis, a gender divide wouldn’t start to show until Question 2–for the lucky ones who got an early start in musical education, our instrument choices would probably follow a gendered pattern: with a few exceptions, boys generally chose saxophones and baritone horns while girls chose flutes and oboes. By the time everyone quit band in high school, many boys got their hands on guitars and drum kits and began performing at school functions and family parties. And the girls learned guitar in their rooms, and never played in public again, unless under the influence of alcohol. The end?
PERSONAL STORYTIME: Alright, alright, so my hypothesis was based on my own experience. I started playing the flute when I was 8, picked up a guitar my senior year of high school, and then came to college with vague dreams of being a rock star packed in with my sheets and towels. In my freshman year, my involvement in music was limited to a cappella and audience-membership. I usually pretended that I didn’t play the guitar, and I had very little knowledge of the politically charged, gendered workings of the insular on-campus music scene. I was only vaguely aware of the controversy surrounding Amy Klein’s (of Titus Andronicus) experience at Wesleyan or of the generally blasé attitude held by many concerning the heterogeneity of the music scene.
My attitude changed my sophomore year when I moved in with some incredibly musical individuals. There were guitars, pianos, ukuleles, drums, harmonicas and trumpets, a working practice room in the living room, complete with a PA system, microphones, speakers, and a drum kit. I was on Cloud 9. I got to experiment with different sounds and styles and really grow as a musician. As I got more experienced and more confident, I began to look for places to perform. I had trouble finding outlets for my sound, though—I wasn’t loud or ironic enough to play the beer-stained stages of Psi U or Eclectic, nor did I have any desire to participate in the WestCo open-mic. Even in my own living room, I found myself sometimes drowned out by a louder, more aggressive, more masculine sound.
One day in the fall of my sophomore year, my house hosted a concert featuring three campus bands. The bands used our living room to practice, and effectively closed off the living room for an entire day. As the day went on and the constant bass and snare began to create a steady throbbing in my head, I began to notice a few problematic aspects of the scene, and I casually voiced them to a female housemate: Why are there only boys playing music in the living room? And why are we, girls who are just as much members of this house as they are, literally relegated to the kitchen while they monopolize a communal space to play music all day?
Bye-bye Mr. Nice Girl. I was pissed. And the more I thought about it the madder I got, especially as I began to consider the Wesleyan music scene as a whole. I vaguely knew that all-male bands dominate performance spaces and that women are a nearly invisible minority in the Wesleyan performance scene—at the time, I could think of only one band with a prominent female performer—but seeing it with my own eyes was maddening, as was the fact that it went completely unquestioned and nobody seemed to care. Even in my own house I felt the oppressive forces of patriarchal performance; in our living room jam sessions at home, I was often the lone woman in a room full of men. It drove me crazy that this was something only I, as a woman, had to consider, and that the boys didn’t give it a second thought. What’s more, I was incensed by the fact that hardly anyone cared or dared to criticize the music scene for its exclusion of nearly everyone but heterosexual, white males.
At that point, I’d had enough. The oppressively gendered system of musical performance had to change. I fueled my anger into a flamingly angry, Riot Grrrl-esque feminist music manifesto, and started spreading the word. I teamed up with some friends to form Das Sexist (which I will address in an upcoming post).
In the process of channeling all that anger I felt, I had to name, discuss, and combat the psychology of the “girl/musician.” After talking with many Wesleyan women who play or would like to play music, I noticed a pattern of timidity and sense of reluctance to participate in music here at all—which, to me, parallels the attitude of defeat with which too many women enter the gendered battlefield of musical performance. There is a startling lack of confidence in female musicians, which manifests in an unwillingness to take credit for their talent and often a refusal to take on the title of “musician.” When I ask other women if they play any instruments or sing, they usually reply with a “Yes, but,” answer: “Yes, but I haven’t played in years! Yes, but I never practice! Yes, but I’m not that good! Yes, but I’m really bad!” With these simple negations of musical ability, these women undermine their self-confidence and forfeit the identity of “musician.”
Call me a social constructionist or a crazy person, but the reasons behind these psychosocial roadblocks to embodying musicianship are deeply embedded in our consciousnesses as women. From a young age, women are told to take up less space, make less noise, be more polite and less forthcoming, and only take part in “gender appropriate” activities. And folks, I am dismayed and frankly disgusted to announce that sadly, music is not one of these “appropriate” activities—especially in the traditions of jazz, rock, and rap. Women in these genres are too often relegated to the roles of backup singer, ingénue, or token girl, and the overwhelming majority are singers. Vocals and instruments that produce soft sounds are traditionally the responsibility of female musicians, while male musicians typically wield loud, powerful instruments (electric guitar or bass, drums, etc.). These “separate spheres” within musical performance reflect a gendered power structure in rock and jazz in particular, which more often than not strips women of the agency to participate in “masculine” music making by the factor of sheer volume.
As it stands, hegemonic musicianship requires creative aggression: in playing music, especially in the presence of others, a musician’s gotta “brag” (improvise, riff, etc.), always appear confident, and engage in a form of sonic wrestling with other musicians—especially in jam-session situations. The jam session, I’ve found, is minefield for a musical feminist. In many ways, jamming is a very masculine activity, at once a space for inclusive musicality and a showcase for musical bravado. The fundamentals of jamming often clash with socialized feminine sensibility: there is little room for meekness, accommodation, or excessive modesty during a jam, and as a result, girls are often shut out. This happens again and again, and turns into a systematic exclusion of women from musical circles, which creates harmful stereotypes about the inferior abilities of female musicians, and a general lack of respect for female performers brave enough to make their voices heard.
Where does this leave us? With a majority male music performance squad, and a small minority of non-dudes fighting for visibility. To be fair, it’s gotten a LOT better since those dark days of my sophomore year; I can now name 6 (SIX!!!) bands off the top of my head that are not exclusively male, and we have the Women’s Music Co-op, too. And that’s thanks to the folks who have stepped up and those that have stepped back in order to create more egalitarian sonic spaces on campus.
So now it’s your turn for Personal Storytime: What have your experiences with music performance on campus been like? I’m talking about a typical Friday night, after 10pm, anywhere other than in the CFA. If you perform, what was it like? Who have you performed with? If you get your kicks as an audience member, what have you seen at concerts on campus? What haven’t you seen? What would you like to see?