The current pop wasteland. Clockwise from upper left: Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, the reinvented Miley Cyrus at the 2013 MTV VMAs and Taylor Swift, before and after.

The current pop wasteland. Clockwise from upper left: Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, the reinvented Miley Cyrus at the 2013 MTV VMAs and Taylor Swift, before and after.

I was inspired by a recent Facebook post by Anna Bulbrook, who plays viola, keyboards and is a vocalist with The Airborne Toxic Event. She posted a link to an article about the rude and demeaning things said to female musicians, and voiced her own frustration with the music industry’s rampant sexism. I’d like to dedicate this to all working musicians out there (and music professionals who support and nurture them) who happen to be women.

Wow, You Actually Know How To Play That?

The object that raised Ms. Bulbrook’s wrath (and started me on my investigative journey) was titled “Infuriating Things People Say to Women Musicians”. It was written by Steph Guthrie, who performs with Toronto-based band Patti Cake. The cringe-worthy comments from male musical instrument store employees, sound engineers, managers and others “in the biz” read like something out of the 1950s, but sadly they’re not. They’re comments that were made in the present day to seasoned and experienced female musicians. Sexism, of course, exists everywhere. Men in the music business still can’t get their heads around the fact that there are plenty of serious women musicians who are proficient with a wide variety of instruments, music composition and recording technology — and this includes the sacred lead guitar, historically the machismo status symbol of the (male) rock god. “Take Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. Only two women, Joni Mitchell and Joan Jett, were honored. In a Washington Post article written in response to Rolling Stone’s list, the writer suggests that as interest in electric guitar was revving up in the ’60s, women weren’t encouraged to step out of their ladylike gender roles, leaving them with an impossible game of catch-up to Jimi Hendrix and Page.” (from The 12 Greatest Female Electric Guitarists – Elle, 2009). I can only assume that this disrespect stems from an inferiority complex, leading men to feel threatened by strong women. Regardless of how far we may think we’ve come in gender equality, clearly we haven’t actually progressed beyond The Flintstones.

Guitar shredder Sarah Negahdari of The Happy Hollows in a rare quiet moment.

Guitar shredder Sarah Negahdari of The Happy Hollows in a rare quiet moment.

The Sophisticated World of Classical Music

You might expect sexism in a musical genre with the catchphrase “Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll,” but certainly in the hallowed halls of classical music, there’s equality and respect? Uh no, not so much. NPR’s article “What is Classical Music’s Women Problem?” is downright depressing. Famous male conductors and composers such as Yuri Temirkanov, Vasily Petrenko and Bruno Mantovani (who is also, unfortunately, the director of the Paris Conservatory) were recently quoted giving their reasons why women could not be conductors. This included 37-year-old Petrenko’s assertion that male conductors “often have less sexual energy and can focus more on the music. A sweet girl on the podium can make one’s thoughts drift towards something else.” Hoo boy. Fortunately for aficionados of classical music, there are plenty of successful woman conductors who have ignored the words of these nouveau neanderthals.

Embracing the Stereotype as a Primer

All too often, women knowingly or unknowingly feed into the music industry’s sexist practices with their dress and behavior. Just as a product has a “brand,” so too does a performer, whether they want to believe it or not. It’s all in what you wear and how you present yourself, and only after that, what you do and what you say. Of course, it’s what is underneath that truly matters, but in our Twitter-poisoned quick glance, first impressions and 5-second-soundbite world, very few people will ever get that far.

For new musicians in the quest for popularity, acceptance and approval, the easy temptation is to model oneself after what has gone immediately before. Emulating one’s pop star idols might seem like the quickest way to stardom, but for women, given their dismal history of social oppression and sexual exploitation, this can be extremely limiting. Sex sells, but relying on it will paint a woman musician into a narrow corner that will be difficult to escape from.

If you Google “female musicians,” you’ll get at the top a list of “music artists frequently mentioned on the web.” In the top 10 are Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Madonna, Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Christina Aguilera. The current top-charting women in pop and rock are Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus. These are some of the most popular mainstream role models for young women beginning their music careers.

The woman we can probably single-handedly blame for these variations on a theme is Madonna. She’s an immensely successful singer-songwriter, actress, author, director, entrepreneur and philanthropist with keenly developed music business savvy and an interest in Eastern mysticism and the Kabbalah. However, casual observers of popular culture probably know her best for this:

Madonna, from the Blond Ambition Tour, 1990

Madonna, from the Blond Ambition Tour, 1990

If you’re a little older, you might remember this instead:

Madonna's legendary performance of 'Like A Virgin' at the 1984 inaugural MTV Video Music Awards

Madonna's legendary performance of 'Like A Virgin' at the 1984 inaugural MTV Video Music Awards

When did sexual exploitation and slutdom become a young girl’s rite of passage into maturity? Is the logical progression from teenage freshness and innocence to crawling around in bondage gear and latex? Is that the only career path open for a woman in the music business? If you want to be a famous mainstream pop star, apparently the answer up until now has been “yes.” But if you go deeper beneath the shallow surface, there are many other options and plenty of positive role models out there.

Good Music Is Serious Business

There are serious women musicians with expertise in every instrument imaginable (and a lot of multi-instrumentalists). See the lists at the bottom of this article for names you should know. Here are a few personal favorites among rock’s royalty of talented, amazing women.

Tough, strong, talented and beautiful -- some of my musical heroines. Clockwise from upper left: Patti Smith (Doug Anderson), Kate Bush (Rex Features), Tracy Chapman, Joni Mitchell and Chrissie Hynde.

Tough, strong, talented and beautiful -- some of my musical heroines. Clockwise from upper left: Patti Smith (Doug Anderson), Kate Bush (Rex Features), Tracy Chapman, Joni Mitchell and Chrissie Hynde.

Kate Bush – Musician (vocals, piano, keyboards, bass guitar, guitar, violin), singer-songwriter, record producer (1975-present) – official site | wiki

Joni Mitchell – Musician (vocals, guitar, piano, dulcimer, ukulele, auto-harp), singer-songwriter, painter (1967-2009; retired from the music biz, still paints and speaks about environmental issues) – official site | wiki

Tracy Chapman – Musician (vocals, guitar, harmonica), singer-songwriter, activist (1986-present) – official site | wiki

Chrissie Hynde – Musician (vocals, guitar), animal rights activist (1975-present) – official site | wiki

Patti Smith – Musician (vocals, guitar, clarinet), singer-songwriter, poet, artist, activist (1971-present) – official site | wiki

Lorde: Our Best and Brightest Hope? We’ll See

If you follow mainstream music and entertainment news, you might have heard about Lorde. A singer-songwriter from New Zealand, her style is an artsy, minimalist electropop, with lyrics that examine the hypocrisies and emptiness of popular culture and her generation’s place in it. She has a literary background (her mother is a prize-winning poet) which comes through in her writing. She only just released her debut album Pure Heroine in September, and already she’s a worldwide sensation. Like many other 17-year-olds, she has a tumblr page. Unlike other 17-year-olds, she writes like this:

“i don’t even know what i’m trying to say, just attempting to reflect on what’s going on right now. i’m already thinking about the next project, about reinvention, and personae, and theatricality and subtlety, and simplicity and complexity. and strength. today’s weird time blip is a day off (kind of), so i’m going to wrap up warm and walk around the city listening to stevie nicks and broken social scene, feeling all seventeen, hugging myself against the cold. if you see me, and i’m whispering to myself all crazy, don’t worry. it’s just a happy mantra of thanks for the way things are.”

It remains to be seen if she can keep her keen and cynical observer’s eye “pure” throughout the wild ride of massive success — or if she, too, ends up writhing around on the stage of some awards show in S&M gear and latex. For now, read an interview that she did with The Guardian and learn about her from her Wiki page.

Start ’em Right, Start ’em Young: Girls Rock Camp Alliance

The Girls Rock Camp Alliance is an organization that supports young women as they navigate their way through the scary jungle of today’s music business. Their mission statement is as follows:

“Girls Rock Camps help girls build self-esteem and find their voices through unique programming that combines music education and performance; empowerment and social justice workshops; positive role models, and collaboration and leadership skill building. The Girls Rock Camp Alliance supports camps around the world in this mission.”

There are Girls Rock Camps all over the place. Here’s the Boston chapter. Read about this wonderful movement and support them in any way you can.

My parting words for young women interested in a music career and more established musicians looking to carve out a unique place for themselves within the existing maelstrom? Have the courage to be a leader rather than a follower, even if you have to forge your own way. Be true to yourself and listen to your inner voice. Be strong in the face of outside pressures to conform to someone else’s expectations, whether it be a manager, publicist, fellow band members or even your audience. If something feels wrong, don’t do it. In the end, the best advice will always be your own.


Some Inspiration for Budding (Women) Musicians

The 12 Greatest Female Electric Guitarists – Elle, 2009
The Top 5 Female Guitarists In The World Right Now – Guitar Planet Magazine, 2011

List of Female Keyboard Players
There are obviously many more great keyboardists not on this list — Lisa Coleman (The Revolution – Prince’s band, Wendy & Lisa), Candida Doyle (Pulp), Tori Amos, Laetitia Sadier and the late Mary Hansen (Stereolab), Kate Pierson (B-52s), Fiona Apple, Regina Spektor, Enya…

10 Badass Lady Drummers – Flavorwire, 2011
Wiki List of Female Drummers

10 Great Female Rock Bass Players – Gibson.com
The Eleven Best Female Rock Bassists Of All Time – Houston Press
Wiki List of Female Bass Guitarists

10 Female Electronic Music Pioneers – Flavorwire

Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Seven Baddest Chicks – Miami New Times
Siouxsie Sioux, Fiona Apple, Karen O. (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders), Debbie Harry (Blondie), Kim Deal (Pixies, the Breeders), Peaches

Billboard’s 2012 Women in Music Honorees (music business professionals)

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