Every few years, music fans are asked to mourn rock ‘n’ roll’s death. Apparently the genre is in worse condition than Keith Richards himself. The eulogies often bemoan the so-called lack of great rock bands these days — a scenario Forbes described two years ago as amounting to there being “no Led Zeppelin for the current generation of music fans.”
But when the media asks questions like, “Where have all the rock stars gone?,” what the writer really means is, “Where have all the charismatic, platinum-selling white guys in tight pants gone?”
From where I stand, rock ‘n’ roll is alive and well. It just doesn’t look or act like it used to. From Courtney Barnett to Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis to Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield to Torres’ Mackenzie Scott to Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard, young singer-songwriters who lead their own rock bands have released, or will soon release, some of the year’s best albums. They all also happen to be women.
It pains me to make this into a gender thing, but women must be given credit where credit is due, particularly in the context of a field historically dominated by men. The golden era of indie rock as embodied by four white dudes jamming in a basement, writing songs about their semi-depressed lives, is over, and that point of view no longer has the default relevance it once enjoyed. At long last, a slightly different — more specific, less faux-universal — point of view is being valued in all corners of rock, be it Father John Misty’s hyper-masculine satire or the approaches of any of the women named above.
When you’re a woman working in man’s world, your gender is acknowledged constantly. At times it can feel empowering, this sense of taking up richly deserved space in a man’s world. But at a certain point, gender-defined underdog status and tokenization grows old, even if it’s positioned as a necessary breath of fresh air in the press or among fans.
What’s worse is when — not if — you become categorized as part of a gender-defined genre alongside women whose work shares few qualities with your own. This phenomenon was all too common in the press during rock’s last big matriarchal phase, in the early to mid-’90s. (Tori Amos and Liz Phair play very different music, it turns out.) In 1997, Fiona Apple landed on the cover of SPIN, then the most relevant alternative music magazine, in what it dubbed “The Girl Issue.” That same year, Rolling Stone wrangled together Courtney Love, Madonna, and Tina Turner for one of their “Women of Rock” issues.
Sleater-Kinney’s Janet Weiss, one of rock’s most powerful working drummers of the past two decades, characterized this Catch-22 earlier this year during a live interview with Broad City co-creators Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson: “The all-women’s issue. The women in rock. This ghetto that they put us in. You get the one issue a year. People always compare us to bands with female singers. Not that we don’t love those bands, but it seems so narrow-minded to me.”
The attention, of course, brings more fans to the work. But it’s hard not to feel a little offended, despite knowing that many of these affirmations of your otherness are inadvertent. (When the New York Times is guilty of this, as the paper was when one of its critics described Sleater-Kinney’s bodies earlier this year in the midst of a piece praising S-K’s triumphant No Cities to Love, you know there’s simply an obliviousness about this in the mainstream media.) The “all-girl band” or “best female guitarist” qualifiers help no one; statements like, “Wow, you can really play guitar for a girl,” or, “The drummer is so sexxxxxxy!” (as recently overheard at a Savages show) are downright patronizing.
Last week, it felt like every woman I know who’s involved in rock found herself rolling her eyes at an essay published in the North Carolina alt-weekly IndyWeek, in which a male Sleater-Kinney fan essentially patted himself on the back for liking such a feminist band — a band he framed as being inherently intended for women. The author clearly thought he was paying Sleater-Kinney a compliment when he called them “the best band [he’d] ever heard,” but imagine the never-ending stacks of articles that could be written by female rock fans who love hyper-masculine music in spite of their gender.
“A friend told me about this band she was in where they actually said to her, ‘We were trying to decide who we wanted to be our bass player and we wanted you to do it just ’cause you’re a girl and we wanna have a girl in the band,'” Katie Crutchfield recently told me. “And she was like, ‘What the fuck! Are you serious?’ It’s kind of belligerent actually, just the total oblivion.”
Then again, some of these affronts aren’t actually oblivious. As Jana Hunter — who identifies as gender fluid, and whose band Lower Dens released a great new album last month, Escape From Evil — recently chronicled in a Cosmo essay, male technicians insist on addressing her male bandmates instead of her at sound checks.
And so, a dilemma emerges within those of us who recognize how many accidental sexists are lingering in rock culture: even if your intention is to celebrate women, is it harmful to point out gender at all? It’s what I’m asking myself now, as I write this piece.
It’s true rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t carry the same monolithic weight it once did. Popular music isn’t a monoculture anymore; as a loose genre, in 2015, rock is perhaps the least culturally relevant of the Big Four (pop, hip-hop, and electronic being the others). Subgenres rule the scene(s). This is a positive thing for musicians across minority statuses because it democratizes the playing field. There’s no longer just a handful of ways to be a rock star, which means there’s no longer just a handful of rock gatekeepers. All that matters is that a band finds its people, through whatever means is available.
The tradeoff is that the cult of personality has become more important than ever in rock ‘n’ roll. When music is as simultaneously overcrowded and easy to make as it is in this moment, the people who shout are the ones who get heard. This is the main quality shared by the musicians I named earlier: Courtney Barnett, Sadie Dupuis, Katie Crutchfield, Mackenzie Scott, and Brittany Howard all have something important to say.
Is what they’re saying related to their gender at all? In some cases, I believe it is; Crutchfield and Dupuis acknowledge the sexism they’ve faced with strong retorts (see: Speedy Ortiz’s “Raising the Skate,” Waxahatchee’s “<”). But for the most part, this is not feminist empowerment rock. On the flip side, the musicians I’ve mentioned here are not the types to perform their sexuality on stage, either. And their followings reflect both of those attributes.
When Courtney Barnett urges a young boy not to jump off his roof in her new album’s opening track, “Elevator Operator,” her sophisticated (and catchy) #ItGetsBetter message is one that outsiders of all stripes can relate to. Both Barnett and Speedy Ortiz, whose new album Foil Deer was released this week, navigate some of the most well-trodden territory in current rock ‘n’ roll: indie rock in the ’90s tradition, when punkish feedback found the yin to its yang in popish hooks. But both do so in a way that revitalizes the sound through deliberate bursts of experimentation and, more importantly, their ability to express themselves with impressive lyrical precision. Barnett’s style is more akin to a funny friend telling you about her day in great detail, while Sadie Dupuis — an educated poet — is at her best when she’s playing with metaphor.
In fact, much of rock’s current boom revolves around this combination: hyper-articulate personal storytelling atop a reframing of musical traditions, be it ’90s alternative (Speedy, Barnett, and Torres), ’60s psychedelia and soul (Alabama Shakes), or ’80s college rock and lo-fi (Waxahatchee). What we’re seeing is the history of rock ‘n’ roll if women had been invited to the party in the first place. This is especially true for Alabama Shakes, who thankfully avoid cutesy retro revivalism on their unfettered sophomore album, Sound & Color, out this week. The quartet bridges the gap between white rock ‘n’ rollers and the black R&B players who influenced them in the genre’s early days, with Howard’s once-in-a-lifetime howl leading the pack.
On her forthcoming second album, Sprinter (out May 5), Torres’ Mackenzie Scott details her personal journey to autonomy, after a deeply religious upbringing down South. In listening to the raw album marked by warped distortion, it should not be a woman’s voice we hear. It should be the voice of someone fearing exile from the only family she’s ever known, but who speaks up regardless.
Likewise, Crutchfield made an album that looks for answers to the many questions brought to light by the mere act of growing up (her Philly scenemates Girlpool also have a similarly excellent album on this topic, Before the World Was Big, coming out in June). Waxahatchee’s third album (released earlier this month), Ivy Tripp, epitomizes the sour and sweet dichotomy; for every ferocious, fuzzy rock song, there’s an upbeat, fizzy pop song.
I hate to say it, but maybe the emotional complexity that has been used against women throughout history is actually working in their favor right now, as more women than ever find their place in rock. Or maybe it’s mere coincidence that all of these albums have at least one moment that recalls the relief of discovering a complicated feeling given a proper name in another language.
Yes, our experiences with gender can greatly affect our worldviews — particularly if we’ve had negative experiences — but the sense that female voices are exclusively for female fans is patently wrong. This is the sound of rock ‘n’ roll right now, and it’s as strong as it’s ever been.
In my own creative life, I’ve seen the power of a room of one (gender’s) own, filled with like-minded women who’ve experienced similar struggles. But in current popular culture — where it’s been established that sexism is a problem worth the continued fight, despite the tremendous changes of the last few decades — I worry that we silo ourselves too much, that we imply, “This art is for this kind of person.” In order for rock ‘n’ roll to maintain its relevance for a generation that increasingly blurs the boundaries between male and female, and claims identities outside that binary, it’s going to need to become a more post-gender experience. At the same time, the rock community needs to be aware that it’s going to take a lot of work to achieve true equality. The fact that rock ‘n’ roll is so fragmented these days will only make this more difficult.
That said, change takes time. The 1990s’ bevy of women rock stars — both those whose female experiences were at the center of their art (Courtney Love, Liz Phair) and those who wrote from gender-specific perspectives less often (PJ Harvey, The Breeders) — fought against rock’s accidental sexism while still doing what they needed to in order to reach wide audiences. And rock ‘n’ roll is better for it. There are more women in the game than ever before, infusing rock with perspectives outside the white male default. More importantly, they’re flooding rock with great songs — for everyone.