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Empowerment or sexism? Women in the rock music scene

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Women have been present in rock since it’s beginning, with musicians such as Big Mama Thornton, Janis Joplin, and Grace Slick fronting well known bands.

Since then, the rise of women in rock has only increased. Stevie Nicks, Pat Benatar, Joan Jett, Suzi Quattro, Patti Smith, and Nancy and Ann Wilson of Heart, are all women who have continually defied the notion that Rock ‘n’ Roll is a male-centric genre.

The medium of punk, and rock, was a way for many early feminists to gain ground in voicing their societal woes. Bands like The Slits and The Raincoats challenged the patriarchal dominancy of punk-rock as well as the expectation of how women should behave.

These were the early years of the second wave of Feminism; birth control was finally a thing, and women were taking their futures into their own hands. The common narrative of women finding a man, getting married, having children and becoming a serene housewife was transforming into a generation of young women who had liberated themselves.

The tide has only gained strength since women entered the rock scene, with modern day rockers like Taylor Momsen of the Pretty Reckless, Evanescence, Emily Haines of Metric, and Paramore vocalist Hayley Williams belting it out.

All-girl bands have become common as well, with acts like Warpaint and Tegan and Sara.

Women have proved that their musical merit and talent exceeds any gender biases in the music industry. The terminology surrounding women in the music scene has been scrutinized as problematic by some, who view tags like “all-girl band” and “female-fronted” as distinctions that male rock musicians do not experience. Why is gender a significant factor that must be pointed out?

Some argue that to acknowledge women in rock as an entity is empowering, while other view it as blatant sexism, believing that women should be viewed as equal members in the rock scene whose gender is irrelevant.

This is an important dialogue that has taken place; many courses at Trent such as Music and Society and Early Punk in England encourages debate on the topic, as do Women’s Studies courses focusing on the presence of women in public spaces.

If music is used as a vehicle to discuss feminist issues by women in rock, then gender is a relevant factor. Yet, many women simply want to play an instrument, or sing about topics completely disengaged from gender-politics, so where does that leave them in this labeling of women in rock as a feminist occurrence?

An issue that is certainly identifiable concerning women in rock is the “gimmick.” As an involved member of the local music scene, I can’t count how many times I’ve come across male musicians actively seeking a female vocalist or instrumentalist to boost their image. “Chicks in bands are a rare thing, man. It makes you stand out,” is a common thing I hear.

I spoke to Sara Ostrowska, frontwoman of Peterborough band Television Rd, to gain some insight. She shared her thoughts.

“My band was actively seeking a female vocalist but I never felt like a gimmick,” she said. “They were influenced by female musicians and thought the songs could only be sung by a girl. And I agree. Diversity shakes up a band. If a bunch of guys want a girl in their band, I think it’s a good thing. Because they recognize that their music is missing a different perspective. I think that girls are better singers anyway. When I read that there is a girl singer in a band, I think that band is better than a band without a girl. So the ‘all-girl’ or ‘female fronted’ genres just mean to me: ‘the best kind of bands’ genre. Girls rule!”

I also spoke to Natalie Paproski-Rubianes, the vocalist and bassist of Watershed Hour, a Peterborough punk/garage-rock duo comprised of two women. She provided some perspective.

“I feel like there are too many ‘all-girl rock!’ shows. It’s as if female musicians are a genre; especially female vocalists. People will like a band or promote a band because they’re girls, and shows will be based around girl bands. My gender doesn’t dictate my bands sound or genre. Laura [the band’s drummer] and I rarely fit in with other ‘girl bands’ but we constantly get grouped in with that theme. I feel that it delegitimizes females in bands; it’s total backwards affirmative action,” she said.

“Furthermore, neither Laura nor I actually buy into gender, and neither of us feel like girls. So it’s frustrating that people try and use us as selling points or gimmicks to say “look at these two chicks jamming out!!’ because our gender doesn’t matter.”

There are varying views and vast avenues of discussion concerning women in rock, and music in general. Through music, women found a stage to scream out their challenge to a gender stereotyped culture, so at one point, it was undeniably a feminist and political phenomenon. Ultimately, as this debate rages on, women simply want to play their music, and they want to play it well.

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