Making a noise about women's musical history

Hayley Foster da Silva thought she knew a lot about women musicians, but when she read Women Make Noise, a new book edited by Julia Downes, she was pleased to discover that there was still a lot to learn and plenty of all-female musical talent to uncover

Hayley Foster da Silva, 11 November 2012

As a radio presenter of a female fronted music radio show and an all round enthusiast of female fronted music, I've read quite a few books on the subject over the years. Everything from Madonna biographies as a young girl, via books about the history of women in music, to books specifically about the riot grrrl genre. So when I got the opportunity to read Women Make Noise, a book about female music which begins in the 1920s and concludes in 2012, it was an offer I just couldn't refuse.

What I didn't first realise and what got me even more excited about this book was the fact that it would be only about all-female bands, not female fronted bands. Despite all the books I've read about female music, I can't recall one that only mentioned all-female bands. This would be an interesting read. There are plenty of all-female bands that have been and gone, and plenty that are making fantastic, inspiring music today, but where musical history and legacy is concerned, just how many of these all-female bands are talked about in the mainstream media? This book opened me up to music that I hadn't even heard about (ever) - despite my extensive reading and research on the subject.

It is fascinating how people find all-girl bands just as threatening as riot grrrl was

Martha Reeves.jpg

The book is handily organised in chronological order and by genre starting with country music in the 1920s up to the 1940s and finishing with a chapter on riot grrrl from the 1990s and girls rock camps which are happening now. What makes the book even more interesting is that every chapter is written by a woman with the experience and knowledge to create fascinating insights into her chosen subject. For example, the first chapter, about country music, is written by Victoria Yeulet, a music historian who specialises in women in music and also has a MA in Gender and Culture. The book has been edited by Julia Downes, who herself has fascinating roots into both female music and feminist activism - she has been a drummer for several bands, been involved in Ladyfests and even lectured on feminist cultural activism.

The history of all-female music is a fascinating read and introduced me to more bands to add to my ever growing library of music, but another aspect of the book that both fascinated and angered me was the experiences of sexism that were relayed many times through the book. It is shocking although not surprising to read that when in the year 2000 the music channel VH1 broadcast a program called 'VH1's Greatest Artists of Hard Rock', the first woman to be mentioned in this list was Janis Joplin, who came in at number 48. Apart from Joplin, only five other women made it to the list - so a measly total of six women out of the whole 100. The story is told in the chapter about riot grrrl and Girls Rock Camps, which has been written by Sarah Dougher, a former musician and now teaches the history of women at Portland state university, and Elizabeth K Keenan, a musician and a Ladyfest volunteer as the latter also help young girls to learn about the female musical role models that mainstream media such as VH1 so often miss out.

Janis Joplin tribute.jpg

This is only a fairly mild example of the sexism discussed in the book. The chapter about Prog Rock recounts how an all female band Mother Superior experienced a lot of criticism simply for the fact they were female. At one packed out gig, an A&R man from Sony turned up. Despite the fact the band played so well that they were called back for several encores, he insisted he could not see an audience for this band. He felt that girls wouldn't like them and that they wouldn't want their boyfriends to like them either. They also later experienced new management that wanted them to write 'hits' and dress more sexy: otherwise they threatened to take away their instruments, which the girls owned themselves.

It is really important to stress the continuous presence of all-girl bands and women's collective music making throughout history. It is not a recent phenomenon

The book covers different genres very thoroughly and is right up to date even with a chapter from Deborah Withers who is currently touring her Women and Liberation exhibition.

I had a chat with Julia Downes about the book and her views on feminism and music.

Q: What made you want to do a book specifically about all female bands, and not a mix with female fronted bands? Why do you think this was necessary?

The series editor Rebecca Gillerion and I have both been in all-girl bands (Wetdog, Fake Tan, Vile Vile Creatures) so the peculiar absence of all-girl bands in popular music books intrigued us. Academically I have researched all-girl cultural activism - I did my PhD on British riot grrrl culture and contemporary queer feminist music cultures at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies (University of Leeds) - and I became interested in the public hysteria that politicised girl culture attract. It was also super worrying how paranoid Daily Mail's accounts of riot grrrl as violent gangs of deluded girls who made "terrible" music were going down as the dominant story.

The experience of travelling the country and hearing oral histories from the people who were involved in riot grrrl revealed such inspiring, diverse and rich stories. It is fascinating how people find all-girl bands just as threatening as riot grrrl was. Typical reactions can range from complaints about all-girl bands being more popular and having it easy, to being career-oriented, untalented, lesbian man-haters who cannot write their own songs. I was interested in excavating more diverse and complicated experiences of the all-girl band and challenge their erasure. We could not find a book on all-girl bands, which made the book even more necessary.

Q: Who are your personal favourite all female bands and why?

Hard question, I like a lot of all-girl bands, in no particular order...

Explode into Colors: really interesting rhythmic band from Portland, USA who broke up in May 2010. Features one of my all-time favourite drummers Lisa Schonberg who is now in a band with STS called STLS. Explode into Colors released Quilts, a record of all their singles on M'Lady's records.

Purple Rhinestone Eagle: a heavy psychedelic prog rock three piece band from Portland, USA. I saw them play live and they have so much energy.

Woolf: punk band from London, always a joy to watch and their LP The Right Way to Play is awesome.

Trash Kit: super interesting melodic band from London. They have a self-titled album out on Upset the Rhythm records. The side projects of Trash Kit are also worth checking out, e.g. Sacred Paws: great two piece, one Golden Grrrl and one Trash Kit, who then found out their name is also the name of a pet cemetery. They have demo tracks up on bandcamp.

The Slits: Very inspirational all-girl punk band. It was a pleasure to support them at Ladyfest Manchester 2008 when I drummed for Vile Vile Creatures.

Electrelane: I remember watching them at my first Ladyfest in Glasgow back in 2001. They made me rethink music and each album is a beautiful collection of emotions, memories and growing pains.

Le Tigre: Seeing them perform at Josephs Well in Leeds in 2002 made me wake up, start building local feminist and queer community and pick up those drumsticks.

Muscles of Joy: Great experimental noise art collective based in Glasgow, their self-titled record out on Watts of Goodwill is one of my favourite records of 2011. I really want to get them to come and play in Newcastle.

Silver Fox: A hidden gem of a local all-girl band in Newcastle upon Tyne. It has been amazing watching them grow in confidence. They now have records out on M'Lady's and Milk records.

Some men in Leeds also decided to put on a Manfest after we put on Ladyfest - awareness of their privilege was completely lost on them

Q: Do you think all female bands are becoming more mainstream now, or do you still think we have a long way to go?

It is really important to stress the continuous presence of all-girl bands and women's collective music making throughout history. It is not a recent phenomenon. However I think all-girl bands become visible in particular ways and at particular moments not entirely of their choosing. It helps if you fit narrow standards that circulate in popular culture i. e. you are conventionally feminine, not too political or opinionated, heterosexual (or at least responsive to male sexual attention), talented but not too talented etc. It's a difficult balancing act.

Beth Ditto.jpg

Repetitive announcements that we are witnessing the "new era of all-girl bands" or "year of women in rock" are symptomatic of a music industry that still struggles to find a way to talk about women's and girls' music making in a respectful and interesting way. It usually returns to (men's) music as 'normal' relatively quickly. There only seems to be space for one or two all-girl bands to achieve mainstream success at any one time. Weird. There are so many amazing all-girl bands and this book hopes to orientate readers to some of them.

Q: Feminist issues arise in a lot of chapters in the book, do you think that female bands naturally identify as feminist?

No. You don't have to identify as a woman or girl to be a feminist. The absence of men is not a political statement in itself. As bell hooks puts it so well in her book Feminism is for Everybody, the target of feminism is sexist thinking and this is entrenched in everyday actions and common sense. It is the responsibility of everyone to identify, challenge and ridicule sexist thinking. It is not the sole burden of women and girls in bands.

Q: Is there anything you would like/hope to achieve by publishing this book?

I would like to provoke others to explore all-girl bands in history and their local scenes. The book could not cover every all-girl band so I would love it if more people documented their favourite all-girl bands. I would love it if readers felt inspired to start their own all-girl band or think about all-girl bands differently and support local all-girl bands. I wanted something to throw at the jock who tells me that there have never been any "great" all-girl bands.

Q: You play in some bands yourself - what issues have you personally come across by being in a female band? What advice would you give to women who want to start/be in all female band?

I have definitely experienced sexism while playing in bands. It ranges from the classic "you're good... for a girl", being mistaken for some man's girlfriend, the pseudo-compliment "wow, you hit those drums reeeeeally hard", unwanted advice to act more "punk" on stage and the plain creepy "I'd like you to bang on my drum." Some men in Leeds also decided to put on a Manfest after we put on Ladyfest - awareness of their privilege was completely lost on them.

My advice to others would be to find others to share your experiences with and figure out ways to resist, ridicule and challenge sexism. I am a fan of the tumblr dick party (http://dickparty.tumblr.com) for this, it invites people to post their experiences of sexism in music. Do not tolerate sexist thinking and think it is normal or okay to be treated this way. Make music with and for people who respect you. Raise your expectations and hone your verbal smackdowns.

Speech Debelle.jpg

Q: What do you think of artists like Lady Gaga and Rhianna? Strong, positive female role models or not and why?

I think you would need to ask the girls and women who are fans of Lady Gaga and Rhianna to see why they are important or empowering to them. Personally I think they open up a little space in terms of the narrow tropes of femininity in popular culture, especially in the case of Lady Gaga whose radical interruptions of gender (e.g. her use of drag and Jo Calderone persona) are interesting tactics to critique the public controversy around her own gender and sexual identity. However I think the radical potential of Lady Gaga and Rhianna can be lost when they are packaged as heterosexual feminine women and their radicalism becomes a temporary escape, a moment of the exotic, which soon returns to business as usual.

Women Make Noise is out this month. Please click here for details of the book's London book launch event.

First image is of Martha Reeves performing live in 2010. It was taken by Randy G. Photography, and is deployed thanks to a flickr creative commons licence

Second image is Toby Otter's tribute to Janis Joplin. The text underneath the image of Janis reads: "Janis Joplin: Always on that search for Happiness but never finding it. Hopefully, she found the Peace and Love she wanted." This tribute is included thanks to a flickr creative commons licence.

Third image is of Beth Ditto performing live in October 2012. It is by gaisler/gigriders.com and is used thanks to a flickr creative commons licence

Fourth image is of Speech Debelle performing live in 2010. This image is by cch44 and it is featured thanks to a flickr creative commons licence

Video commentaries: To read the video commentaries for the seven videos featured in this review, please click on the link below
Video commentaries for Making a noise about women.doc

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About the author

Hayley Foster da Silva

Hayley is a feminist vegan activist, writer and radio presenter of ARFM's 'Pigtails and Army Boots' an all female fronted show- recently she has been enjoying the sounds of the new albums from Amanda Palmer and Gossip. You can hear the show every Thursday at 9pm on ARFM.

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