Wednesday, May 27, 2009

"Dirty, filthy, rotten girls": My role in rock culture

This past weekend I attended a concert in Rockford, Illinois. Wing Ding is an annual rock concert in the Rockford area that brings together several bands for a day-long event. This year's event is rumored to be the last Wing Ding ever.

Since my freshman year in high school, I have really been into rock music of all kinds, and have been to nearly thirty concerts since I was fourteen years old. I have seen bands like System of a Down, Korn, Rage Against the Machine, Alice in Chains, and Sevendust.

Each show seems to bring a unique crowd. Some create a sense of united purpose, usually fueled by a shared passion for the music. At these kinds of shows, I have been able to get to know the people around me, talk to them, share a good time with them. But other shows have tended toward the opposite.

At these other shows, I have felt very much like an outsider as a woman in a mostly-male space. That's the thing about rock music: liking it as a woman is inherently challenging to the feminine/masculine dichotomy we are taught to abide by. Rock music, with its hard-hitting guitar riffs, the sharp drum beat, and the powerful vocals, is not associated with being a female. The overwhelming power (and often brutality) of this kind of music is something that women are not supposed to possess or utilize. That means that when women do show up at these kinds of concerts, where this power and brutality reign above all else, they are often treated as outsiders and are reduced to objects (typically breasts) for the pleasure of the men in the crowd. I have heard "Show your titties!" enough at the concerts I've been to to last me a lifetime.

At Wing Ding last Sunday, I saw Powerman 5000 perform, and at one point during their set, the vocalist said that he was going to dedicate a song to all the "dirty, filthy, rotten girls" in the audience. With those words, he effectively turned the women in the crowd into fetishized "naughty girls." As I stood in the crowd, I could feel the implied sexuality dripping from his words, and I didn't feel at all like they were aimed at women, but were aimed instead at the men listening. They made me cringe, but still I stayed there for the remainder of the set.

Without going into many more examples, I will say that I'm still trying to get my head around this. I have taken part of rock show culture that doesn't treat women as full human beings. I still like bands that make these sorts of attitudes possible. It took me too long to realize that I was part of the problem, and I still can't say I want to give it all up. The brutality inherent in most rock music, especially metal, is something I can relate to and can easily connect with. There's a lot to be pissed off about in this world, and sometimes it feels good to be able to connect with music and other listeners who are tapped into that same sentiment. But the fact that most of the music I seem to be interested in attending concerts for comes with this troubling atmosphere makes me feel uncomfortable.

How can I be a good feminist while I'm cheering for a band that attracts the kind of crowd that yells, "Show your tits!" and cheers when women pull up their shirts? It wasn't until last Sunday that I really starting thinking about these things, despite the several shows I have been to since I started identifying as a feminist. I'm still trying to figure out exactly what it is about hearing this kind of music live that I can't seem to give up. If it's the atmosphere, how can I justify it when often times its so blatantly sexist? I'm not quite sure.


yellowpansy15 said...

"At these other shows, I have felt very much like an outsider as a woman in a mostly-male space. "

I disagree. I have never felt like an outsider at any rock show. I have never considered it a male space, and I really don't think that rock music was made for men.

You can't help what kind of music you like.

Amelia said...

Well, first of all, I do think that most rock music does tend to be made for heterosexual men. If you think about it, how many rock songs have lyrics that are about a woman, or heterosexual sex with a woman? That's a basic level. But at most of the concerts I have been to, a) I have been one of a minority of women (especially at shows that I have seen like Primus and System of a Down where the music was especially heavy or dark) and b) It's not that I necessarily think of rock shows as male spaces, because I don't believe that at all. But I feel like the men who attend them expect them to be male spaces, as if they believe that women truly can't appreciate that kind of music because of its power, and therefore they often treat them accordingly.

But that is not even the case for all shows. When I saw Alice in Chains, the crowd was seemed to excited about seeing a band that we had thought wouldn't get back together (the lead singer overdosed), that the atmosphere was very welcoming.

Ellie said...

My two cents: as a feminist, you're going to find things that frustrate you in all genres of music. For example, I recently realized that one of the most "soft", "beautiful" folk songs I own is about coercing a woman into sex.

You could choose to avoid an entire genre of music because of it (as I tend to avoid *mainstream* hip-hop and country, which frustrate me most).

What usually I do is enjoy this frustrating music for its sound and try not to pay attention to the lyrics much. I can't help liking it, and if I only listened to music I agreed and identified with, I'd be shit outta luck most of the time.

Be sure to find a good couple of awesome bands with beautiful, inspiring, non-sexist, queer-positive lyrics to throw into your mix (like the Indigo Girls!). Find women artists you like (like Joni Mitchell). Also find some fun music made by women (Tegan and Sara, Feist, Metric and Regina Spektor are examples of fun, sometimes silly ones.) For your electric guitar fix, try Magneta Lane.

PS: I have solved this issue of love songs using female pronouns by becoming a lesbian! Sweet!

Amelia said...

Thanks so much for the music suggestions, Ellie. Can't wait to give them a listen!

wondering said...

I know exactly what you mean.

And lyrics are my nemesis. So often I love, love that hard, driving music but really, really don't want to understand the words.

I don't want to support sexist bullshit, but I don't want to give up that sound either. :-(

Amelia said...


Ellie's suggestion of enjoying the music and not listening to the lyrics is what I have found myself doing the past few years, although sometimes that's easier than others.

It's not wrong enjoying the sounds of a certain kind of music, even if it does come with sexist lyrics. We can't really help what sounds we connect with. I just think for me personally, it has been an experience of being able to identify all the troubling aspects of some of my favorite music - not just lyrics, but the concerts, etc. - and becoming an active listener, instead of a passive one that blindly supports everything rock entails without being critical of it at all.

Ashley said...

Well, I think I mentioned this to you before, but I listen to symphonic metal and all the bands are headed by women. That means even though they still have metal elements, the lyrics are about religion, Iraq, etc. I don't think hard rock or metal music has to be about killing people or yourself or whatever. I've never been to a concert, but I have a feeling that since the band is nothing without the woman, she wouldn't tolerate outright objectification like that.

Placebogirl said...

I can recommend Placebo for relatively driving sound that isn't about rape or other misogynistic practices. I love love love their music, and I've never found myself ideologically frustrated listening to it (except for the copious drug references in some of their earlier stuff which I found a little gratuitous).

Anonymous said...

Great post! I found you from Feministe...

This was exactly my experience for so long, and also has a lot to do with what lead me into making music myself. I feel like it's so important for women who love music to pick up an instrument and start playing it. We can create our own communities, we can start our own bands, we can do away with this behavior!

lindsay said...

In high school, I always went to indie rock shows at the local cafe and felt somewhat out of place. I went with my brother and some of his friends (read: male). I wasn't a girlfriend and I wasn't stereotypically feminine. I was there for the music and for me, that meant subconsciously distancing myself from the other girls there who were just tagging along. I'm sure some of them really loved the music too, but at the time my mind worked in dichotomies. In order to do that, my clothing often was more gender-neutral (read: male) than women's clothing. Looking back, I feel I blurred gender boundaries in a way I didn't realize at the time.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I felt out of place as a woman and in reaction to that, I unconsciously engaged in gender-bending.

RMJ said...

Amelia, I go to a lot of male-oriented rock shows (a lot of them southern rock), but I almost never feel uncomfortable. I think that the difference is that I'm with my partner (a southern man) and am thus marked as ineligible for harassment. As I have literally never been to a concert without him, I don't know what it would be like to be vulnerable in that way - I've only gotten brief glimpses.

Loved this post! I will link it at mine later today and may respond to it as well (particularly the last paragraph.

Pharaoh Katt said...

I tend to avoid concerts except for bands I *really* like for just this reason. I tend to go to showswith my girlfriends and ideally hate feeling like something on display.

As far as decent music without misogyny goes, I reccommend Amanda Palmer and The Dresden Dolls. Her music has always felt passionate to me, as well as feminist with her recent album Who Killed Amanda Palmer (check out the song Ampersand).

Trinity said...

I wrote a post on this, because although I've definitely heard of this happening a lot to women I've never felt that way myself, and I'm wondering why.

So... for whatever it's worth

post on music

Amelia said...

@Pharoah Katt: Thanks for the suggestion! I'll have to check out that music.

@Trinity: Thanks for the link! I can't wait to read your post (but it will have to wait a while because we have guests at my place currently and being a host is time-consuming). But I really do look forward to hearing what you have to say.

Eluneth said...

(came over here from feministing)

@OP: Thank you for this post! You describe the reasons why I have stopped going to hard rock / heavy metal concerts. I only knew my discomfort - now I will be able to put it into words.
@wondering, Amelia: I agree on the lyrics. The cover designs often are as bad or even worse, but at least I can turn them around or cover them up. Although I hate to buy music with these kind of sexist words and images and support this with my money.
So the music suggestions are greatly appreciated.