Madonna's Blond Ambition Tour bustier, 1990, on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's "Women Who Rock" exhibit.
Somewhere in the nether regions of my inbox lies a press release I've been expecting for months. It's from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and it's telling me why I should make the trip from Toronto to Cleveland for the "Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power" exhibit this spring. I'll admit that I've always wanted to make this pilgrimage, even if I am of the opinion that shmoozy functions with red carpets and exquisite meals spit in the face of everything rock (and folk, and punk, and hip-hop) culture claims to stand for. I'm usually content to stomach a little bit of this hypocrisy in exchange for free wine and a bountiful swag bag, but as thousands of people head for Ohio to raise a glass to the women of rock, I can't help but feel ill.
Since its inaugural induction ceremony in 1986, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has allowed 296 chosen ones into its privileged clubhouse of decorated rock stars. Fifty-six of them were women. This means that 81 percent of the inductees are men, an astonishingly high number that also reflects the committee that conducts the selection process. (One could argue that the ratio of men to women in rock music is also off balance. This still wouldn't explain why it took until 1995 for Janis Joplin to be inducted.)
The contributions women have made to rock music have scarcely appeared in the Hall of Fame's annual exhibits, the exception being this one, which focuses directly on them. And while I hate to rain on everyone's "Hey Look, Women Can Be Rock Stars Too!" parade, the reality is this: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will put these women on display, drool over the risqué outfits they've worn over the years and applaud the music they just so happen to have made, but rarely will it invite them to sit among their male counterparts, play on its stages and ask them to join the list of legendary musicians who deserve recognition.
As the obligatory—albeit well-intentioned—“women in music” lists begin to appear in magazines and music blogs in preparation for "Women Who Rock's" May 13 opening, I can't help but be reminded of the time a journalist at MuchMusic asked Metric’s Emily Haines what it was like to be a girl in a band, back in 2005. Annoyed at the condescension of the question—moments prior, she had been complimented on her shoes and pressed for details about the dress she was wearing—Haines replied that being a girl in a band wasn't all that difficult. Being asked questions about what it was like to be a girl in a band was the only hard thing about it.
I posed the same question (tongue in cheek, of course) to Edna Snyder, lead singer of Waterloo's on-the-brink-of-stardom electro-pop band, Kidstreet. She, like Emily Haines, is at the helm of an otherwise all-male band, although the men she shares the stage with are her siblings. "I do feel a bit of pressure to come off a certain way," she said. "I've noticed that when I'm speaking into the mic between songs, that the pitch of my voice rises. It's a lot cuter. I don't know when I started doing that but I know that I get a better reaction from the audience when I act like a cute little girl on stage."
Being cute is not a sin. But it is the criterion used in websites and magazines to evaluate the musical career of a woman. GQ currently has readers voting between Kim Gordon and Tina Turner in its "Sexiest Women in Rock" poll, and Spinner's recent "25 Women Who Rock Right Now" list manages to mention the looks of nearly every musician on it, right down to Alice Glass' eyeliner and the the Dum Dum Girls' lipstick shade of choice. These are musicians, not models. Their careers aren't built upon their looks, so why do we insist upon discussing them?
Sara Marcus, author of Girls To The Front: The True Story of The Riot Grrrl Revolution, has a suggestion. "For better or for worse—mostly for worse—men really like to decide how hot they think a woman is. That means polls and that means slideshows, and that means anything having to do with sex or hotness."
"Women Who Rock" is meant to chronicle the history of women in music and highlight the contributions women have made to rock n' roll. As it should. But while this exhibit, and exhibits and articles like it, mean well, they ultimately just point out the sad, sexist truth: that we haven't come as far as we think. Women play music. This fact has been established, it just hasn't been accepted. If it had, there would be no such exhibit, especially not one put on by the very people who tokenize women musicians in the first place. Among the artifacts that will be on display at "Women Who Rock": Madonna's cone-shaped bra, the short fringe dress Grace Slick wore at Woodstock and the seafoam bodysuit Lady Gaga wore at last year's Grammy Awards. These items aren't totally irrelevant, but let's not forget that Lady Gaga sat at a grand piano whilst she wore that bodysuit.
The quality of a person's music has little to do with gender. We need to stop drawing distinctions as if it does. Out of the eight musicians inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last March, only one was a woman. If the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame really wants to honour women in music, it should simply induct them.
"I'd rather that exhibit exist than not," says Marcus, pointing out that celebration and recognition of women musicians is, at this point, a positive thing. "Not that it's a place that we want to rest in or be content with for the next fifty years as cultural history."
Nicole Villeneuve, Punk editor at Exclaim Magazine, says sexism in music journalism is something she's very aware of. "I'm conscious of it, absolutely. If there were four dudes [in a band], you wouldn't say ‘the four men in the band,’ you would just say ‘the four band members.’ Women are still really novelized in creative fields." So, to the music magazines that are planning to publish articles about the "Women Who Rock" exhibit, why not consider celebrating these musicians by having the courtesy to not mention their lipstick shade or skirt length? “I get older and still hear people say 'she's pretty good for a girl.’ That's fucking harsh,” says Villeneuve.
Will women musicians ever be evaluated in a way that doesn't include what they're wearing and how hot they are? Not until we stop letting these offensive trifles dominate the discussion, and not as long as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame remains a boys' club. Until then, a girl can dream.
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