Indie Music’s Women Problem and Retrospective Sexism

I really enjoyed the first and second episodes of ‘Music For Misfits’, a recent BBC documentary tracing the story of indie music. It started with the labels and the cities and scenes they sprang from, Postcard Records in Glasgow, Two Tone in Coventry. In doing this it took ‘indie’ in the sense of independence rather than music style, which complicates the image of indie as white boys with guitars. But something went wrong with the third episode as the story moved into the nineties. While cheering and pointing as friends and people I knew flashed up on the screen, (Bob and Pete from St Etienne looking like babies, ah!). I started to realise that women were almost entirely absent. The only woman talking on screen for the first 55 minutes of the hour-long show was journalist Sian Pattenden. One lone woman’s voice among countless men covering nearly 25 years of indie music history.

It wasn’t just the lack of voices but the choice of stories that were included. No mention was made of the Riot Grrrl movement. Including the story of Riot Grrrl would have easily linked up with the previous programme’s section on fanzines and C86. Riot Grrrl also complicates the idea that British indie was in a stand off with US music. Rather in this scene bodies, music and fanzines travelled across the Atlantic and influenced each other. Also, while in indie music ‘white is the norm’ as Sarah Sahim recently argued, the Riot Grrrl moment in the UK also included bands lead by people of colour such as The Voodoo Queens and Cornershop (who had a number one on the independent Wiija in 1997).

Some major players were also missing. You have to go some lengths to tell the story of Britpop and not mention Elastica, but that’s what happened in the programme. There was a very short clip of them that flashed by. Or Sleeper. They were huge. Or PJ Harvey. Or Lush. Or Echobelly. Or Shampoo.

While Britpop turned into a boring blokefest, what writer Rhian E Jones calls a cultural Clampdown, there were other stories and currents in indie. Lad rock may have won out but it was depressing to see the erasure of women’s voices and stories in this programme.

As a young woman in a band I was patronised by sound men, literally kicked by roadies who saw us sitting down in a corridor and assumed we were groupies when we were locked out of our dressing room at Brixton Academy (The Ramones’ roadies. Joey Ramone came and apologised afterwards. He was a sweetheart). I was laughed at for being ugly in the music press. The NME said they would put our band, Kenickie, (three eighteen year old women and one guy) on the cover if we got naked and painted ourselves gold (‘in a ‘homage’ to The Slits and Manic Street Preachers’). We declined and they didn’t put us on the cover that week. My band was famous for between song chat and response to the audience (mainly from Lauren and Marie who remain two of the funniest cleverest people I have ever met). But this stage act was honed partly in response to getting shouted out to ‘get our tits out’ at gigs. Great things happened too and being in this band changed my life forever. But sexism was everyday and in your face.

I am chronicling these instances because it occurred to me after watching this documentary that as a woman in music you get the day to day sexism at the time and then afterwards you get the retrospective sexism as your stories get cut out. This isn’t about my particular band not being included – we were a very small piece of all of this. But I know women were there because I was there and I saw it and their stories matter too.

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