Of all the activities I have thrown myself into over the years, there is one that has dominated an inordinate part of my life.
“As a young woman I had one, and only one, intense and ceaseless pastime …” writes author Claire Vaye Watkins.”I’ve filled my days doing this, spent all my free time and a great amount of time that was not free doing it. That hobby, that interest, that passion was this: watching boys do stuff.”
Watching Boys Do Stuff
And of all the things I’ve watched boys do, by far the one that most completely consumed my imagination was Watching Boys In Bands. Watching them play guitar, or drums, or growl into the microphone was a sight so hegemonic for me as a teenager that for a very long time it surprised me when other girls did the same.
I was not one of those “rrriot girls”, the enlightened females who found solace in The Runaways, Bikini Kill, Patti Smith, and later Hole. I had no cool older girl figures to slip these albums to me during school breaks. Instead my small, angry group of 14-year-old friends internalised the music that trickled down from our older brothers: stuff like Korn, Tool, Metallica, System of a Down, and Chevelle.
And what a collection to internalise. There is nothing sexist at face value about these bands. Except that in the lyrics of Trent Reznor and Jonathan Davis girls like me never saw themselves reflected back. Instead, we had to find ourselves in a world of lyrics that, almost certainly unbeknown to the lyricist, placed maleness front and centre and femaleness as the other. In the realm of rock, we are very much confined to a role of heartbreaker, muse, or slut.
As music critic Jessica Hopper writes: “Our lives, our day-to-day-to-day does not exist, we do not get coloured in. Our actions are portrayed solely through the detailing of neurotic self-entanglement of the boy singer – our region of personal power, simply, is our impact on his romantic life. We’re vessels redeemed in the light of boy-love. On a pedestal, on our backs. Muses at best. Cum rags or invisible at worst.”
That article, by the way, offers slicing insight into the emo scene of 2005: these boys might have acted “like girls”: wearing make-up and skinny jeans and singing about feelings, but by no means were they less sexist than their cock-rock predecessors.
As a teen I followed local bands devotedly, turning up at every gig bedecked in my blackest T-shirts and most pen-scribbled All Stars. The Narrow, Marlowe, Knave, 16 Stitch – I listened to it all feverishly and attempted to go to every gig.
I would stand in the front row and belt the lyrics back at the band, hoping they would see that they had written something that spoke to my 15-year-old heart, that their songs were often what carried me through a miserable time at high school and an at times tense home life.
It was at a gig at Roxy’s (that old rock club in Melville that I doubt still exists), and after a 16 Stitch gig that my friend and I went to the band as they sat huddled around a small steel table knocking back Black Labels (that old local rock scene favourite).
I wanted to tell them how much their music meant to me, how talented I thought they were. I wanted to know what inspired them, what made them special, what I could learn as a writer. I uttered an almost imperceptible “Hi”, and the group turned to us. They looked my friend and I up and down – dismembering our gangly 15-year-old bodies, our emo shirts, our torn jeans, our too dark eyeliner, and I guess found us wanting.
“No groupies, please,” I heard the one guy mumble to the group, and the table packed out in laughter.
And the message stuck: only boys can ask boys about music. Only boys can earnestly care about music. Girls can only ask boys if they want blowjobs.
No Girls Allowed
While the first and sobering of such an occurrence, it wouldn’t be a last. Almost a decade later, I found myself at the table of the mediocre Prime Circle where my friends and I were asked by the (married) members of the band if we’d “like to see their tour bus”.
At a Ramfest metal festival years later, I was in a conversation where it was joked that a female writer only got a backstage interview “because of her tits”.
At the Joburg Red Hot Chili Peppers concert, I had to literally beat a guy on the head after he kept prodding my back while I tried to watch the show. At the end of it, images of the crowd were beamed across big screens and every time the camera landed on a woman in the audience, the crowd brayed for her to show her tits, and then booed when she refused.
In fact, simply being a woman in a large crowd is such an uneasy, threatening experience that I vowed never to go to a concert without a guy accompanying me again.
I saw a Facebook invite the other day for a rock gig called Weird Boner – the poster had a picture of a buxom green female alien with only one boob. As much as I’m sure the organisers didn’t intend it, it gives this weird sort of message: this gig is not for girls, it’s about girls – about their allure and their deception and their bodies and the way they turn us on. Like all gigs in the history of rock, it’s about us and not for us.
Does rock hate me?
So how can a genre that I cut my teeth on, a genre that I fell into like a soft and seductive blanket not have a space for me?
The pure hegemony of men in rock means that, often unintentionally, women’s experiences inevitably get nudged out. And when that happens, sexism seems to edge in.
Like when the IQ-impaired Fred Durst sings: “Hey you, Mrs too-good-to-look-my-way … I want you, ain’t nothing wrong with wanting you, ‘cause I’m a man and I can think what the hell I want, you got that straight?” in Eat You Alive.
Like when The Beastie Boys list all the chores they’d like us to do in Girls.
Or when the Rolling Stones triumph about bringing a woman into line in Under My Thumb: “It’s down to me, yes it is/ The way she does just what she’s told/ Down to me, the change has come/ She’s under my thumb/ Ah, ah, say it’s alright”.
Or when Tenacious D performs Fuck Her Gently and I must tell myself over and over again that this is Seriously Funny Satire and Not Problematic At All:
For Alice Cooper we’re Poison, for Blink182 we’re The Girl At The Rock Show, for Type-O-Negative we’re a Druidess, and then there’s the obsession with women as sexy corpses, a trend picked up by the fashion industry that has been a black/extreme metal music staple for years.
And they say hip-hop is the only genre with a misogyny problem.
It’s not that I’m painting every band and every song with the same brush. Pearl Jam’s performances are littered with pro-choice and women’s liberation messaging.
But perhaps more powerfully, their songs have lyrics that speak to women and have a certain awareness of their privilege as white men.
Kurt Cobain had clarity on the inequality of women that was ahead of his time: “I would like to get rid of the homophobes, sexists, and racists in our audience. I know they’re out there and it really bothers me,” he famously said.
And, if we’re going to get literal with it, while The Offspring’s Why Don’t You Get A Job? opens with “My friend’s got a girlfriend/ Man he hates that bitch”, they even the condemnation later with “My friend’s got a boyfriend, man she hates that dick.”
Then there are those songs that are more complicated to box.
While Trent Reznor belts “I want to fuck you like an animal” in Closer, it presents a juicy and taboo sort of sexual liberation for any gender. Trust me, go into any rock club and you’ll see women dancing harder to that song than any guy.
And then there’s Placebo’s Pure Morning: “A friend in need’s a friend indeed/ A friend who bleeds is better/ A friend with breasts and all the rest/ A friend who’s dressed in leather.”
Perhaps it’s the slightly androgynous sensitivity of Brian Molko that makes the track anthemic rather than degrading.
Have I found myself in metal? Undoubtedly. I have identified more with the lyrics of male rock artists than many of the females in the industry. And that’s the reason why it hurts.
Where the girls at?
Perhaps we can put it down to the Watching Boys Do Things phenomenon, but there just aren’t enough women picking up guitars and doing it for themselves.
We Need More Girls In Bands. Girls like my teenagehood friends Claire Lewis and Nicole von St Ange, who picked up guitars and kept playing. With talent; devotion; and, more than anything, love for the genre, they took it upon themselves to create music of their own.
We need artists like Grimes, the pint-sized, green-haired producer who’s women-centric songs stand almost alone against an entire monolith of men-dominated electronic music.
We need to stop labelling women who marry rock stars as gold diggers, Yoko Onos, star fuckers, or (in the case of Courtney Love) murderers.
We need to stop with the bullshit of thinking of women fans as posers, somehow less knowledgeable about music and less valuable as fans.
And in the case of groupies, we need to condemn the morality of the rockstar who takes advantage of a fan’s idolatry as much as we seem to condemn the women involved.
We need more women music critics, producers, and festival organisers. We need to become the “cool older girls” for a generation of teenagers to come. Fill their playlists with 3rd Eye Girl and M.I.A and St Vincent, give them a metal music library filled with women icons. Show them that they deserve music that cares about them, that sees them as more than tits and dark eyeliner, that their presence at metal festivals like Season’s Wither needn’t just be confined to doing burlesque shows in lingerie.
In short, we need to stop watching boys do things and do them for ourselves.
The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, by Jessica Hopper
The Lost Girls, by Jason Cherkis
Illustration: Walt Viviers