It’s pretty well-known that the world of rock is male-dominated. It was for this reason when I first heard Orianthi blasting from my friend’s stereo, I assumed the guitarist was a man. My friend tapped something into her phone before throwing it to me.
I stared into Orianthi’s face, all blonde locks and heavy eyeliner. Another friend before her had introduced me to the husky tones and slide guitar of Bonnie Raitt. Obviously, women have been playing rock music for decades. When the genre was still a jazz baby, groups like The Ingenues were touring the world. By the 50s, Carol Kaye was prolific. Women like Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin and Tina Turner were – and continue to be – some of the world’s most revered musicians. Yet, that day at my friend’s place, I’d forgotten again that women could ‘shred the axe’.
A couple weeks later, spearheaded by Raitt, I tagged along with a musician friend to a guitar shop. As he fussed with strings, I admired a powder-blue bass.
“There’s nothing hotter than a chick playing bass,” he joked from across the room.
I picked the instrument up, heavy with importance and alderwood. Seeing an employee lingering nearby, I put the bass back down.
Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon allegedly said women are attracted to the bass because it’s a ‘nurturing role.’ Curious, I asked Madame So for her thoughts on women in rock. A Paris-born, London-based artist, Madame So’s punk-rock sound packs a raw punch.
“I’ve come across all kinds of condescending comments from dudes,” Madame So said, “such as ‘I need to play something a bit more aggressive’ or ‘I’m a heavier drummer than this’. I feel boys always need to pinpoint the immediacy of one’s songwriting, negating it as ‘too simple’. All the while, they’ll happily strum a three-chord song with tonnes of reverb and distortion, and a pedal board even bigger than their ego.”
“Overall, many girls feel musically alienated by men,” she continued. “Hence all these girl groups forming – a lot of them bad, it must be said. Some even nurture themselves being shit on the grounds that they’re girls as if to defy the perfection so sought after by ‘males’ in rock music. I don’t want to have to play the gender card. I want to make music with, and be inclusive of men by choice – but I also want them to get their humility in check when it comes to being creative.”
I asked Rosina Orcharde the same question. Rosina is a vocalist – and the only woman – of reggae band, Revelation Roots. “We all love each other,” Rosina said, “but I’ve noticed they pay extra attention when looking out for me. I’m treated like a younger sister. I don’t find this patronising at all – in fact, I find it very reassuring. I’m thankful to be surrounded by people who always support and protect me – and, most importantly, respect me.”
Yet, recalling her past in jazz ensembles, Rosina said, “There’ve been times when my opinion – whether regarding a song, or the way things were run – were not taken seriously. At first, I thought it was a prejudice towards vocalists. Then I started noticing how the same people listened to the male vocalists. I was brushed off as a ‘hormonal diva’.”
As with most things, the world of music is studded with stereotypes. ‘Diva’ is one. ‘Rock chick’ is another. “Those girls are under the binary, aesthetical assemblage of the femme fatale or the Lolita,” Madame So explained, “with almost predictably recurring elements – hair dyed blonde or raven-black, fringes and red lips.”
And how does Madame So fit into all this? “I guess I don’t at all,” she said, “and I’ve learnt not to care about it.”
As well as gender, race is a pertinent topic when discussing rock. In 2015, Madame So released ‘Black is Beautiful’ (the lead track for her EP, ‘It’s Not Even A Colour’). In the music video, she wears a tongue-in-cheek t-shirt with ‘ANGRY BLACK WOMAN’ written on it.
“The press interested in featuring me wanted me to emphasise that aspect,” Madame So said. “I recently did an interview, and the journalist insisted I wear the t-shirt. He didn’t fail to mention this several times in his interview as if that was the sole appeal of my music! And, of course, ‘Black is Beautiful’ got turned down by several outlets. It must be a hard pill to swallow – 4 minutes and 9 seconds of that slogan – for a mainly white scene.”
On a similar note, Rosina said, “the way black female artists are perceived needs to change. There are very few dark-skinned black female artists who enjoy long-lived success. Grace Jones is one of the very few exceptions and was significantly outnumbered by lighter-skinned artists in the height of her career. People are interested in women who are exotic, but not too exotic, so as to fit western ideals of beauty. Having dreadlocks, light brown skin and mixed features, I feel I tick the box for this ‘safe’ type of exotic. I’m not comfortable with the idea that my success might be partly down to my aesthetic, but I don’t let it frustrate me too much. I simply embrace what I have as an individual, and hope that who I am as an artist shines through.”
“On a more general note about female artists,” Rosina continued, “their image seems to be just as important – and in some cases, more important – than their actual music. While women tend to promote their music by presenting themselves in striking ways, it seems the music itself is enough for men to sell themselves. I’m generalising here, though – David Bowie and Boy George don’t fall under that category!”
For award-winning singer-songwriter Yazzy Chamberlain, gender has never been a major issue. “However, I’ve noticed that for boys – especially of a similar age – it seems easier to get people to support you on social media because of the term ‘fangirling’. It’s probably harder for girls to make it – but if we turn that around, I’m probably more relatable to young girls because I am one myself. All musicians have to work really, really hard. I hope I never find myself, or any of my musician friends, in a situation where gender does affect our progress.”
Devon-based musician Georgia Palmer agrees. “I think those restrictions are a thing of the past. I would get a lot of male attention when I was playing in a band, being the only female on stage. It was never in a bad way though – people are always very encouraging.”
So, what’s the bottom line for women rockers? Hope is not – and never was – lost. Maybe we should do as Madame So suggests: “let’s start talking about something other than being oppressed by men’s expectations. I realise it’s easier said than done, but I have faith we have it in ourselves.”
As for me, I’m picking up a powder-blue bass.