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Essay:

Daughters, Sisters, Girls:

Feminine Appropriation In Music

words by misha scott

illustration by robyn mclennan

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This essay is taken from Issue 3 of A Music Journal, our new physical publication which is available to buy here

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The Year Of The Woman. These are the words we have chosen for the somewhat dubious honour of months of reckoning centred around #MeToo, culminating in mass protest and upheaval. But there is also another movement, less covered but equally powerful, running parallel in grimy DIY basements and indie blogs across the World Wide Web: The Year(s) Of The Woman In Music. 

I run a small music blog and every day I wake up to an inbox bursting at the seams with the momentum of female revolution. Not only in the music itself, but often in the names by which the musicians call themselves. The last years have brought in bands named Daughters, Single Mothers, Pizza Girl, Sadgirl, Strong Asian Mothers, Problem Daughter, Acid Girls, TV Girl, Sister Wife, Sorority Girls. Suzie. Methyl Ethel. Norma. Greta Van Fleet. It could be said that we are living through The Year(s) Of The Woman Band Name.

To be clear, women have been vitally important to every genre throughout the history of the art form; I do not mean to imply otherwise. But something in the indie-rock scene, in particular, has shifted in recent years; a kind of landslide of female-inclusivity into critical and mainstream spaces that have so often been (at least unofficially) Male Only. This upspringing of female folks runneth over into every far-flung corner of the “indie” tent – big, brash punk bands, quiet tender solo acts, lo-fi DIY, cheeky power pop, vintage garage rock, ambient jazz – but they are united by a story and a lived experience that is powerfully, uniquely female.

When I see these names – the Sisters, the Daughters, the Girls, and so forth – appear in my inbox, I experience an immediate jolt of kinship. It is e l e c t r i f y i n g  to watch in real time as women claim a foothold in the music industry that is finally more proportional to their contributions to it. To hear people who sound like me singing in the language of female experience – not just one or two female experiences, but an increasingly representative multitude. And although my publication’s place in the music world is small, I take it seriously. It is thrilling to imagine that I might be able to participate in turning this moment into an era that then paves the way for a new norm. 

So, when an explicitly female-gendered band name turns out (as every one of the above instances did) to contain not a single non-male member, I am hit with a pang of disappointment. Betrayal, even.

I’ve learned that there are not one, but two all-cis-male bands called Girl, (and one Girls). More disturbing are the race/gender crossovers like Black Girls and Black Pussy with neither black nor female members. And I would be remiss not to include a few of the violent and stomach-churning: Dead Girls Academy, Whores, Skank Bank, Dead When I Found Her.

I’ve read several articles in which all-male bands discuss their rationale for choosing some of the tamer female monikers. Very often the reasoning lies behind an attempt at irony. In an interview with The Establishment, Pete Tijerina of Young Girls explained away their choice as a tipsy late-night joke. “We were sitting around over a few beers and we thought it would be hilarious to call a band Young Girls,” he remembers. In the same article, Asher Katz of Mean Girls carries that thought through to its logical conclusion: “I’ve always been in bands that are very serious and instrumental or ambitious, and this was sort of supposed to be the opposite.” Answers like this expose a dirty secret that the cosy blanket of “irony” attempts to hide: that part of what makes the choice “ironic” is that it articulates the opposite of how these men think of themselves. And what is the opposite of a serious, sharp, talented, ambitious artist?

A girl.

It would be easy to dismiss this trend as hipsterdom gone awry, but I wonder if these bands have ever contemplated the more sinister consequence of their names: that a cis-man or group of men who have never had to fear dismissal or reprisal due to their gender can assume the lingual signifiers of femininity – the words, names, and imagery of a group that has historically been dismissed for the traits that those words denote – and not only go unpenalized for it, but actually reap benefits from classifying themselves as such, because it makes them edgy, or woke, or unexpected. That is the real irony.

We have an increasingly sophisticated language to speak about appropriation when it commodifies the traditions and often traumatic histories of other cultures, but I am unaware of any widespread condemnation of men who use women’s names and pronouns to sell records.

When Madonna dragged voguing into the pop mainstream the story that was told and then repeated forever was that of a cultural phenomenon that gained her fame and fans. The untold story was how the tradition of voguing, a form of modern dance born in Harlem dance halls and pioneered by queer folks of colour, was a tradition rooted in solidarity and resistance. For those communities, voguing was a way of celebrating a marginalized existence that was often met with violence and contempt – not with sold-out stadium tours. Although Madonna hired dancers directly from the dance hall scene in an apparent effort to champion their art rather than co-opt it, the bitter contradiction inherent to her legacy, explains musician and activist Terre Thaemlitz (DJ Sprinkles), is that, “Madonna was taking in tons of money, while the Queen who actually taught her how to vogue sat before me in the club, strung out, depressed, and broke.”

Similarly, the issues with white artists appropriating and commodifying historically Black fashion, musical styles, dance, and vernacular have been well documented. The problems stem not so much from expressing admiration through imitation, but from the ways in which appropriation strips cultural signifiers of their context and renders them commodities ready to be bought and sold by the oppressive class, free of the baggage they accrued when wielded by the oppressed.

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“Imitation is not the same as allyship”

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In the 1990s, for instance, grills and gold chains were coded “criminal” and became part of a complex symbology used to brand rap music as dangerous and unwholesome. Twenty years later the same accessories in Miley Cyrus’s videos become edgy, fun, and ultimately unthreatening – a valuable part of an extremely lucrative brand. In this way, the same things that must be overcome by an oppressed group in order to achieve success or critical respect are effortlessly transformed, as if by magic, into an asset for the non-marginalized. Imitation is not the same as allyship when it only serves to further highlight the ways that the rules for differently privileged groups are not the same.

Cultural appropriation is so insidious because it allows the things for which one group of people is denigrated, the same things used to justify their oppression, to be capitalized upon by the dominant culture without the same penalties. The framework behind taking feminine names for a non-female project is remarkably similar.

When male bands use our names, pronouns, and images, what they are really claiming are the things those words have come to represent. In art, femininity is used to stand in for softness, sex, domesticity, vulnerability, beauty, tenderness, and sometimes all of the above; it is meant to make a statement about that artist and their body of work. Often it is used to define an artist in opposition to, or at least at a distance from, traditional masculinity.

It takes a step further what many in the emo and pop-punk scene of the early 2000s did when they swiped on eyeliner and shimmied into women’s jeans in order to signify a departure from the hypermasculinity of suburban-male cliques – all while sneakily perpetuating misogyny in the content of their music. In those songs, pop-punk boys played the part of the hapless romantic, The Nice Guy, the one who really deserved the girl, but who somehow always got stuck singing a song about (ever so subtly) hating women while the objects of their affection rode into the sunset with an asshole.

There’s an uncomfortable sense of deja vu when bands with a “girly” name ask us to associate them with the trappings of femininity – gentleness, care, compassion, etc. – and to support them on the merits of those qualities, without first proving that they actually embody any of them.

Meanwhile, when real-life women appear on stage in their own skinny jeans and eyeliner and female-presenting band names, they s t r u g g l e to be taken seriously in the same space with their feminine-costumed cis-male counterparts. The kicker is that they struggle for the very same reasons that those men wish to be celebrated. Women in bands are plagued by everything from complaints about the pitch of their voices, scepticism about their musical proficiency, harassment of their bodies, and lower pay for their skills. Our softness is not seen as a business asset (unless of course it is sexualized). Our compassion is typically taken as a liability.

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“Our softness is not seen as a business asset”

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When I’m feeling cynical, I wonder whether this surge in boy-bands-with-girl-names in the indie world is due in part to the rising social capital of feminism (and the corresponding plummeting stock value of masculinity writ large) in the kinds of circles in which indie bands hope to sell their music. In this era of reckoning for the crimes of the patriarchy, it would be patently insane for any band to make traditional masculinity central to their identity (the inexplicable exception of Justin Timberlake notwithstanding).

I wonder if the female-named-band hopes (in an unvocalized and possibly subconscious way) that some percentage of their audience will show up to a gig because they thought they would be supporting women in music, or because they were looking forward to seeing someone who looked like them up on stage. I feel the disappointment of those fans; it is also my disappointment.

When I’m feeling less cynical, I imagine that the men in these bands really embody the gender-bucking persona their name evokes. After all, toxic masculinity hurts men as well as women, and it is vital to feminism that we work together to erase the rigid lines between “man” and “woman”, “girl” and “boy”, and so forth. Perhaps these bands are making a valuable statement about how arbitrary gender is as a tool for categorization.

But at the end of the day, I always arrive at the same inescapable reality: regardless of intention, allowing the bodies, shapes, and names of women to do the work of identity-making, usually without any strings attached to real-life behaviour is not just lazy, it’s exploitative. It takes what for us is endangered and uses it to Start A Conversation about a man’s art – and, ultimately, to sell it.

I want to be clear: this is not to say that there isn’t room for men to explore their feminine side in their art. I was, for instance, drawn to Rhye’s 2013 album, Woman, a lush, passionate pop record which features a sensual black and white photo of the curvature of a slender neck on its cover. The singles for the album are accompanied by similarly seductive shots of the human body – a sloping shoulder, the hint of a hip. But the album art, while suggestive of the feminine form, are never explicitly female. They are elusive. This, in combination with the album title and singer Mike Milosh’s enchanting soprano, leads to conversations about what men are “supposed” to sound like, and the blurring lines between the masculine and feminine.

When undertaken thoughtfully, male artists’ projects can make powerful statements about gender, sexuality, and the norms surrounding them. This, however, is markedly different from choosing a band name with the word ‘girl’ in it late at night after three PBRs because someone thought it would be funny. It is very different from performing femaleness in order to be perceived as edgy and different. Femaleness does not exist to separate your band from the unsigned masses.

It occurs to me that if you are a cis-male band with a female name reading this you might feel attacked. This is not my aim. I am glad to accept a whole host of entirely innocent motivations for your choice of band name. But it is important to consider which names are yours to take, and what the ramifications might be when you take a name that doesn’t belong to you. Who benefits? Who gets hurt?

Women have made important but still fragile inroads in the world of indie rock. We are being heard and taken seriously in spaces to which we were previously denied entry. You may remember that in 2017 The New York Times ran a much-lauded piece with the headline, “Rock’s Not Dead, It’s Ruled By Women,” introducing the rest of their readership to a concept that most in the music community had known for some time. The article celebrated a roundtable of incredible women rockers like Vagabon, Snail Mail, Diet Cig, and many inspiring others.

It’s tempting to conclude from the very existence of articles like that one that the gatekeepers have disappeared. But they haven’t. The attitudes that tipped the scales in favour of men for indie music’s entire history still live on, just a little quieter and less comfortably articulated. Every day I go on Twitter and read stories from tired female musicians who walk into a venue with all their instruments in tow only to have the owner assume they are there to sell merch for the (presumed male) band. Or who struggle with how to respond to wide-eyed male fans who say they’ve never heard a girl play guitar so well. Or who find themselves playing on the same bill, sharing the same green room, with a male artist who is a known abuser – sometimes one with whom they have their own personal traumatic experience.

Being a female musician still means something precarious in 2019. Getting up on stage while embodying femininity is a risk for us. When a cis-male band casually capitalizes on the things that make us unsafe it makes a mockery of that struggle. It is a sleight of hand trick. While the audience watches a man pull femaleness out of a hat, the real problem disappears.

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 “Being a female musician still means something precarious in 2019. Getting up on stage while embodying femininity is a risk for us.”

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The final irony (in what I know has been a long string of them) is that one of my favorite records from last year was the EP of Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, and Lucy Dacus’ supergroup – an all-female trio with the male-gendered band name, boygenius.

Around the same time I was writing this piece, I read an interview with boygenius in The Daily Beast and was struck by the difference between the shruggy justifications given by male artists for their feminine band names and the quiet fire behind Lucy Dacus’ explanation for the boygenius moniker:

 “We were talking about men in our lives who’ve been told that they were geniuses since they were born, essentially, and the freedom that has allowed them as creative people to be more innovative and willing to explore,” she remembers. “We were laughing about it and then getting angry about it. Like, ’why wasn’t that how we were raised?’ and then we realized, ’you know what, let’s just harness that energy.’”

That fire gives boygenius the subversive quality that perhaps the cis-male bands in question hope to infuse into their act with a gender-swapping name of their own. But what these men mistake for revolutionary cannot be any more than garden-variety appropriation without genuine solidarity.

If cis-male artists want to show real solidarity with women (and I believe that many of them do) then it cannot be in name only. If cis-male artists want to show solidarity with women they need to give female artists space to flourish and succeed, not plaster their own space with signifiers of femininity in order to make an all-cis-male brand more appealing. Tour with women, collaborate with women, play gigs with women, hire women to produce and engineer and mix your records. Practice inclusivity until it becomes a habit. Until it becomes the norm.

If cis-male bands want to be seen at a distance from their toxic-masculine counterparts, there can be no shortcut. Act with compassion, with softness, with vulnerability. Help to normalize healthy expression of the full emotional spectrum. Go all the way. Don’t settle for commodifying the female identity.

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Misha Scott is a music writer who runs the site: hullabalootunes.com

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References:

The Establishment (2016) | Are Mis-Gendered Band Names ‘Ironic’ or Sexist?

DJ Sprinkles “ball’r (madonna-free zone)” Liner Notes (2014)

The Daily Beast (2018) | Boygenius: How Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and Julien Baker Formed Rock’s Best Supergroup

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