Chad Batka for The New York Times

How to Talk About Musicians Who Happen to Be Female

In Spring 2015 by Amanda SilberlingLeave a Comment

At Philadelphia’s Trocadero Theatre in October, The Kills walk on stage. Guitarist Jamie Hince adjusts his pedals and greets the crowd. As they cheer, boisterous and enthusiastic, vocalist Alison Mosshart strides to the center of the stage. The cheering intensifies.

“Alison, you’re hot!” shouts a man from the crowd. “Marry me!” another fan calls out. Mosshart ignores their jeers and starts the set, slightly bothered. Hince is unaffected.

This happens all the time. It’s a not-so-subtle form of harassment, but for a female musician, getting cat-called and sexualized is just another part of the gig. When we put so much emphasis on a musician’s gender, we risk asserting the idea that a woman’s career is not about her music; it’s about the fact that she is a woman.

We don’t call The Strokes a male-fronted five-piece, and we don’t call MGMT an all-male psychedelic group. In dialogue about male musicians, there is no need to modify their title with a gendered adjective, implying that music is a man’s profession. But as soon as women come into music, the modifiers roll in. They’re an all-female band. They’re sexy and badass. They’re riot grrrls. They’re estrogen-fueled … The list is endless.

Sleater-Kinney is one of the most influential bands of nineties punk rock. The band also happens to consist of three women who are passionate advocates of feminism. Before going on hiatus in 2006, Sleater-Kinney was considered to be at the forefront of the “riot grrrl” movement, and now that they’ve reunited, feminism continues to be a major concern of the band. On the tour for their new album No Cities To Love, Sleater-Kinney is partnering with Planned Parenthood Action, giving the organization a cut of their merchandise sales. When talking about Sleater-Kinney, it would be wrong not to emphasize their contributions to feminism, but there’s a fine line between praising their efforts in human rights and pigeonholing them to the point that the music is sacrificed.

“There’s a real tendency to put women playing aggressive music in a box,” says Janet Weiss, Sleater-Kinney’s drummer. “We never got Nirvana comparisons, you know? We always got L7.”

For Sleater-Kinney and other bands like Bikini Kill or Girlpool, it’s frustrating to be constantly defined by their gender, even if they are proud of their femininity.

“No one’s ever asked the question, ‘Why did you decide to be in a band with all men?’” says frontwoman Carrie Brownstein.

Janet Weiss agrees. “I feel very strongly about an alternative to the idea about women being a certain way,” she says. And she’s right — it would be ludicrous to try to create an archetype for what a woman in music should be. The pool of female musicians is incredibly diverse, with everyone from Ariana Grande to Grimes touring the world and earning fans.

Talking about female musicians is almost a paradox – Sleater-Kinney would be a different band if it were composed of men and didn’t serve as an ally to feminist causes. Even their music is marked by a vicious frustration with oppression, as in their recent single, “Bury Our Friends,” where Tucker and Brownstein sing, “We’re wild and weary/but we won’t give in.” But there’s a way to appreciate what Sleater-Kinney and their music stand for without trivializing their musical talent and treating them like something in a cheap novelty store.

Music needs to be approached as something that is independent of the artists’ identities until they choose to insert themselves in their work. And in the case of The Kills, a talented garage rock duo composed of a man and a woman, it’s difficult to enjoy their theatrical, captivating performance without noticing how differently the audience treats Hince and Mosshart.

As Sleater-Kinney prepares to embark on their heavily hyped reunion tour, it would be a shame for their shows to be tainted by fans shouting at Corin Tucker that she’s sexy and that they want to marry her.

But then again, One Direction fans are pretty terrifying, too.

Amanda SilberlingHow to Talk About Musicians Who Happen to Be Female

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