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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18 thoughts on “Indie Music’s Women Problem and Retrospective Sexism

  1. Spot on. My boo is American and she was puzzled by the lack of women in episode 3 because what she knew about UK indie music in the 90s featured so many female faces. It was a crass omission in order to justify a specious narrative that indie’s main story was becoming anything but independent. I blame Chris Evans, myself.

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  2. You somehow managed to watch the entire series without realizing that it was about labels and not individual bands? Much less how it the focus was on UK labels? (I’m not sitting here screaming about “What, no Sub Pop?!?”.)

    Next time maybe try taking off your “Sexism!” prism glasses before you watch.

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    • Thanks for explaining that to me. I’ll take those glasses off now. Seriously though, yes it was about labels but plenty of musicians were included in that story. In the first two programmes women were included too. Just not in the last one.

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    • I thought the series was about individual people! e.g. “Bill Drummond” rather than “KLF Communications” and not a word about which label Saint Etienne were on. Were we all listening to labels? They got the music out there, and provide the framework for the telling of the tales..

      I wouldn’t say that Elastica were the biggest name on the indie scene, but their story *is* the story of indie/britpop in essence: Bright optimism at first, overshadowed by market pressures, drugs, and so forth. I guess it doesn’t help that none of the band have ever agreed to be interviewed after the events.

      I can’t say much more about episode three, as I’ve only just finished ep2,..

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    • Interesting. Because when they talked about Creation Records they completely omitted Dick Green, co-founder and owner, most likely because he doesn’t seek publicity like Alan McGee. There were plenty of female musicians on many of the labels covered in the show, the show did a bad job of reflecting this.

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  3. Couldn’t agree more: a missed opportunity and a telling omission. I still remember Kenickie verbally taking down a very vocal, sexist douchebag at the Venue in Edinburgh with grace and panache – a memory I’ve shared with my son and nieces.

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  4. The last scene with the fast cuts of a completely white male lineup was really depressing. The programme called Indie at the BBC which followed was more representative, they had Sleeper, Echobelly and Elastica on it, but I was watching the label programme feeling like I didn’t exist! They were my formative years when I was getting into music and forming bands and they were completely unrecognisable to honest. Lost in a Blur vs Oasis wankfest that we all derided AT THE TIME IT WAS HAPPENING!

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  5. i thought the show was way skewed towards men, (i know i was in it, part of the problem huh?) it turned into a sausage fest, and it’s a pity because indie came out of punk, and the great thing about punk was it opened the doors to a creative democracy which i think seeped into many other areas.
    but it all went out the window by the time the industry created ‘britpop’.
    crucially, that kind of homogenisation is boring, and people can smell boring a mile off. so it died out pretty quick, and i think that continues to this day. i mean, that kind of ‘guitar’ music is pretty much dead, right?
    we’re better in a musical world where anything goes..

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  6. Well said, Emma. It was indeed disappointing. Part of the problem, it seemed to me, was that each episode had to have some fairly simple message. Episode 1: the rise of DIY. Episode 2: the rise of the weirdos. Episode 3: the rise of the lads. The end result was to make Pete Doherty appear like the ultimate indie icon, which is pretty silly really. The Libertines may have upset the odd tabloid, but they didn’t exactly challenge any identity types.

    A less political problem with the 3rd episode is that it failed to mention the most influential indie guitar band of the decade: my bloody valentine (despite discussing Creation’s financial problems at length, which were largely caused by the fact Loveless took three years to make). Maybe influence on other bands does not make very exciting television, but it immediately felt like a rewriting of cultural history, again, to suggest that everything was heading inexorably towards Pete Doherty. Maybe the whole thing should have just ended in 1994, as Kurt Cobain exited and Tony Blair entered…
    *stomps off in Trench coat*

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  7. Very good points raised here. I didn’t even bother with the third part because of how much the seamless segue of ‘…and then indie became Britpop’ annoyed me that much. I know they only had an hour to tell every part of the story, but anyone with an interest in it, then or now, would tell you it just didn’t happen that way.

    That they went on to cover Brit Pop with little to no mention of the women present and influential therein is truly shocking. If we’re going to get hung up on record labels, as with one of the comments above, then they could easily have covered the early work of female-positive labels like Kill Rock Stars and the further axis/influence of Kathleen Hanna. I may have to go and watch it now, though I suspect it’ll annoy me.

    A well written and thought out piece, by the way.

    A bloke.

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  8. Pingback: Manchester, myth and music | Rosanne Rabinowitz

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