Dear Jessica Hopper,
Your article, “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t” in the book The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, put into words that icky feeling music gave me when I was a teenager. I grew up in a middle/high school where most of the girls listened to emo, but I couldn’t stand the bands – even if they were called “punk.” I didn’t realize it then, but the music bothered me 1) because it was basically guys bitching about how they didn’t have girlfriends and 2) no other girls in my school were picking up guitars. My town was a world where girls followed their boyfriends around and with my budding sense of feminism, I didn’t yet have the words to express why this bothered me (not to mention I only grudgingly liked boys sometimes).
I began to discover feminism with a chance encounter on the radio (neither of my parents believed in the internet at home) with a ‘90s band. In your generation, you talk about the bands that introduced you to the underground – Bikini Kill, Fugazi and the first Kill Rock Stars Compilation. By the time I was sixteen, these bands and others I’d discovered along the way, fronted by women – Hole, L7, Joan Jett and the Runaways – were in my corner. I was playing guitar and pretty soon, I wanted to be in my own band. The problem was, in small-town world, I couldn’t find other girls to play with or even guys who valued a girl’s voice in music. Most guys had rules about “girls in bands.”
Between the ‘90s and the last couple years was a stagnant gap – a whole period of maybe 15 years where girls weren’t starting bands, and if they were on stage, they were corporate images of what men thought “women in rock” should be. What I had when I was in high school were the bands that had long since broken up in the ‘90s and the knowledge that I didn’t want to add to the smut that was already out there – but the process of finding my own voice and navigating a rock world that’s still filled with misogyny takes a while – I’m still treading with unsteady steps. Where’s the spot in rock n’ roll for girls who don’t fall into the tired “girls-who-sing-about-boys” archetype?
I’m excited about bands that have released records in the last few years – Aye Nako, Speedy Ortiz and especially Bully from Nashville, TN. Alicia is really sweet but is also a brutal presence on stage. At their last show in Chicago, at Lincoln Hall, I saw a girl standing up front, pumping her fist and singing the lyrics like her life depended on it. Bully’s lyrics aren’t singing to the audience – they’re singing with the audience and for the audience. “Been praying for my period all week/And relief that I just can’t see.” This is the everyday of a girl’s life, not us crafting songs in relation to men – i.e. how often is a girl who’s in a band expected to get up on stage and sing about that time she was sexually assaulted? We’re still viewed in our relationship to guys.
I used to think that feminism was girls having the chance to do what the guys do – fuck, smoke, drink, cuss and otherwise be hegemonic, but it’s actually recognizing our right (and everyone’s right) to feel and access that dark, ancient part of ourselves (as Audre Lorde says) that’s been buried under institutional dehumanization. We don’t have to throw out all our records that objectify women –that’s a large chunk of mine, and I’ve spent a lot of time and money on it – but girls need other girls in bands so they’re aware of what’s going on in their music circles. The patriarchy still exists and still sucks.
Girls voices need to be included in music spaces so teenage girls have people other than whiny guys who bitch about not having a girlfriend to look up to. Other girls that say, “you can get up on this fucking stage, too.” We need girls like Didion’s Maria Wyeth (Play it as it Lays) who aren’t saints, aren’t sinners but refuse to shut down when the men in charge would rather not hear her voice.