“Girl bands” don’t want to be called “girl bands”, and it utterly perplexes me.
Last December, I put out an open casting call for a “girl band” of my own. I posted self-made flyers around my uni’s music building. My desperation to create a band came in A4-paper form: “BASSIST LOOKING TO FORM ALL-FEMALE GARAGE-PUNK BAND.”
I was delighted when I got my first text from a potential bandmate asking to meet at our local. Alex was their name. I was excited. This was my time. We would be headlining the Village Underground in a year and we’d score an 8.0 on Pitchfork with our debut. Alex said they were a guitarist who grew up on the Velvet Underground. Alex could sing, too.
I’d been sitting in the Marquis when a young lad came and stood over me. I looked at him in a sort of “Can I help you?” way before he stretched his hand out and introduced himself as Alex. Alex, who happened to be a self-identifying male. The very Alex who responded to my flyer advertising for an ALL-FEMALE band specifically. I was furious. Why must men do this. This white male entitlement had to stop.
I had decided to form a band with only females for a reason. I never feel as empowered watching male bands as I do watching female bands. It took me twenty years, three months and two days to watch my very first all-female band play (though it really shouldn’t have taken that long)– Hinds – and that was the moment that I’d wanted to stop being “just” a spectator of music and be wholly immersed in it. As my formative years were spent obsessing over the generic, male-led guitar music of the mid-’00’s, watching an all-female rock band play was refreshing, mesmerising. Me, a girl, watched them, all girls, and thought: “I can do this, too.”
I’d become obsessed with feminism through a musical lens by reading female musician autobiographies. These women with incredible stories who still get marginalised in today’s music industry are tales that are common, and I’d wanted to challenge the patriarchy through my own band. After I watched Hinds, I made a playlist of all the female-fronted bands I could think of. Listening to them was empowering. Listening to them altered my whole scope of music from a feminist perspective. I thought all girl bands were amazing. Girl bands were inspiring.
But don’t ever call “girl bands” a “girl band”.
It’s a mantra echoed by bands with female musicians. California sisters HAIM have rejected the label, London-based punk trio Dream Wife vehemently oppose being called such, and LA rock band Bleached never want to hear the words “girl band” ever again. Bleached’s adamance to be taken as a punk band and not just a girl band bleeds into their songwriting. In their latest release ‘Can You Deal’, they ask: “Yeah I’m a girl and I play in a band, can you deal?” As in, “Can you deal with the fact that these women know how to play guitar?”
But in today’s music industry where misogyny is still deeply rooted and the gender divide is still prominent, the term “girl band” is needed more than ever.
The negative connotations of the “girl band” label are understandable. Because female-fronted acts don’t get the same attention as their male counterparts, the mainstream media use the “girl band” term as an umbrella genre to describe any band with a guitar and a woman. This isn’t right – a girl band isn’t a genre, and should never be one. A “girl band” can also refer to the overly-glossed nature of the Spice Girls – females in a group who don’t write their own music, or have their own autonomy of artistry.
“There’s this assumption that ‘girl bands’ are manufactured,” says Dream Wife’s Alice Go.
“Girl bands and boy bands of the late ‘90s were of a very specific and important time in our pop culture, so using that term, which was part of that era, isn’t appropriate,” adds vocalist Rakel Mjoll. “The male equivalents of our band would never be described as a ‘boy band’.”
But the term “girl band” doesn’t have to be solely associated with the Spice Girls. It’s a given that a band with females deserves to be referred to as a “band” and not a “girl band”. A “girl band” is a potentially unnecessarily gendered term that undercuts the quality of the band and focuses on the sex of its members – something that shouldn’t have to be relevant. But in today’s music industry, the term “girl band” – however problematic – is necessary.
Music shouldn’t have to be so gendered, but it unfortunately still is. It’s an achingly difficult balance to strike, not wanting to call attention to a band just because they’re female, but also wanting to highlight the gender divide in the music industry by showcasing and spotlighting as many female-fronted bands as possible. I think it’s better to acknowledge what you are fighting for and to fight alongside it, calling to attention the important sexist matters at hand. I will refer to bands as female-fronted or all-female, because that is what they are. They need to get as much attention and coverage as their male counterparts, as that would be only the first step in leveling out the gender playing field in music.
“The term ‘female-fronted’ has both a front and a back to it,” states Haley Shea, frontwoman of Norwegian punk band SLOTFACE. “I wish that we didn’t have to be called female-fronted, and that we could just be a band. That it isn’t anything special that we’re a band with a female. But on the other hand, it’s important for other girls to see themselves represented. I’d rather female-fronted bands make a point out of it, if that would help other girls to start rock bands.”
Speaking about your experiences as a “woman in music” is also vital. No, it isn’t easy to be a female musician. Patronising sound engineers who sneer at your pedalboard and male fans who yell “SHOW US YOUR TITS” make sure of that. It isn’t easy, and female musicians making it a point to say: “Our journey was hard as fuck, but it’s doable, and because we did it, there’s no reason you shouldn’t,” would resonate widely. Juliette Jackson of London band The Big Moon put out a call-to-arms to form a “girl gang”, and yet the group have stated that they don’t want their gender to be taken into account.
“We want to make it no big deal that we’re women in a band,” bassist Celia Archer said in an interview with i-D. “I’m really conscious of not wanting to put off young girls who are considering being in a band. I don’t want them to read things and think, ‘It sounds awful, I don’t want to do it.’ So it’s important to talk about gender inequality, but we also want to make it no big deal that we’re women in a band.”
But surely, if you’ve fought hard to get somewhere, you are a living, viable success stories for others who want to follow the same path. Call attention to your own labours, and assure others that they, too, can do the same.
Micayla Grace, the bassist of Bleached, says: “I know we will referred to as a ‘girl band’ or ‘female fronted’ because right now it’s a thrilling place to be; in the centre of a revolution.”
It is a big deal being a woman in a band. No, a “girl band” is not a genre. A “girl band” is a revolution.