Thursday, July 30, 2009

What a Girl Wants.

Though I've technically been on 'vacation' with my family for the last week, I'm still thinking about Rock Camp, and about the songs the campers wrote and performed for us. You wouldn't really describe all of them as 'rock'. Even though it's technically a Rock Camp, there is no stylistic standard or rule at WMRC. The campers are exposed to a lot different artists over the course of the week, and they get to hear recent popular music of various genres and subgenres. The result is that you can hear a lot of different influences in the songs the campers' bands write. At the last session's showcase, you could hear the girls perform songs tinged with rhythm and blues, new wave, soul, alt country, and even jam band type songs.

The songs are lyrically diverse as well. You can hear all kinds of points of view, a range of moods and tones, and tons of different themes and topics. Some of the songs are super serious, and some of them are really funny, like Sugar Collazo's "Female Llama Empowerment" (a mid-tempo "Dark Side of the Moon" style rocker about a gypsy girl whose best friend is a very progressive llama), and The Oxymoron's untitled number (a synth heavy Doors-esque stomp about an unconventional couple's non-traditional wedding and post-matrimonial adventures).

Most of the songs are a bit less fantastical. Most of the songs revolve around one or both of two themes: summertime freedom and self-discovery. Both themes frequently get tied to rock'n'roll, along with images and expressions of destruction, as in the shedding of old skins and the revelation of new ones.

Summer is a fun topic for the girls, they write about eating candy, going to carnivals and beach boardwalks, staying up late, and spending time with their friends. Underneath the frivolity is a childish sincerity. There's something almost sad about the campers' collective love of the season, and their group rejection of the way school can confine, overschedule, exhaust, and even terrify and bore kids.

The campers' songs about self-discovery are even more complex, and diverse. Their declarations of themselves and their empowerment can sound angry or jubilant. Their rejections of the status quo, their formerly conventional selves, can sound anywhere from joyous like, LOL's "Total Teenage Drama" --

to deadpan, like The Geeks --

to melancholy and introspective, like The Perfectionists:

My favorite example of a camper band writing about self-discovery is the song written last summer by Psychedelic Pink. They opened the August showcase with an untitled song, where they nervously sang that "Everyone thinks I'm a totally conventional/do I have to mention a /regular goody two-shoes school girl", but that there's "a rockstar inside of me that wants to get out/I really wanna let her out but I threw away the key".

One can't help -- and I'm almost certain that I speak for all of the volunteers when I say this -- but marvel at the depth and poignancy of what the campers have to say. I think almost all of us can relate to their lyrics about struggling to empower yourself, and then struggling to come to terms with who you are after you realize that there's a rockstar inside of you, in the words of Psychedelic Pink. And I think we can agree that hearing so many distinct and unique girls' voices, all saying similar things, makes you realize just how infrequently you really hear girls' voices. I've said it before in this blog, and I'll say it again: I believe that young girls, especially teenage girls, are the most misunderstood and maligned sector of society.

I know it isn't for lack of trying; it seems to me like a lot of corporations put a lot of energy into trying to figure out what girls want -- or, what they want to buy, at least. If these folks really listened to girls, the way we try to really listen to them at Rock Camp, they'd know that girls don't want to buy anything. They just want to be able to sing their songs of freedom. Because for "rock'n'roll girls" like us, songs of freedom are all we ever had.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Hump Day Treat, Rock Camp 2009 Edition!

Here's a little known fact about Rock Camp: at every session, some brave souls form a volunteer cover band. The Volunteer Cover Band has the important job of doing the sound check before the showcase begins. They have the even more important job of amusing the campers before they go onstage, and hopefully distracting the girls from any nerves they might have.

This week's hump day treat features the 2009 Volunteer Cover Band, known for the week as Thrill-Hers, and their performance of Michael Jackson's "Beat It". I know it's long, but be sure to watch the to end, the last few minutes are, in a way, the very best part.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Not quite all of us, not anymore.

Back in May I went to see my faves, Mortals, and before their set I was talking to guitarist Elizabeth, and she made a provocative statement: "Honestly," she sighed, "I think all girls are self-taught."

I'm a mostly self-taught guitarist, because as Elizabeth and I discussed, it's hard, as a 12 year old girl, to find a guitar teacher. Most of them are men, and most of them are young-ish guys who know a lot about playing the guitar, but don't know much about how to interact with a shy student. I explained it to Elizabeth as she folded and arranged Mortals t-shirts, "I didn't think I'd be able to find a teacher that wasn't some douchebag with a ponytail who doesn't want to play anything but Metallica...." "Ugh, and they're really all like that," she said, shaking her head and piling up a set of medium tees.

While I admit that my process of learning how to play the guitar by ear and out of books had many pitfalls, I've always been nothing but proud of all the time and effort I put into teaching myself. Or I was, until I saw my co-teacher at work during Rock Camp this year.

My feelings crystallized in one very specific moment. Rebecca, my co-teacher, had our students pair up, and had them work together on playing rhythm and leads. The rhythm guitarist was the play 12 bar blues, and the lead guitarist was to play the appropriate pentatonic scale over it. This way everyone got to learn more about 12 bar blues, and everyone got to improvise, and everyone got to play in front of everyone else.

As we went around the room, I felt relieved at how well it was going, and how enthusiastic the girls seemed about it. I watched Rebecca as she lead the activity, and it occurred to me that she's probably done the same activity in her guitar classes. I took a single guitar class in college, and we never did anything like this. I stood there, wondering: So is this how you're supposed to learn how to play lead?

In that moment, I didn't feel proud of how I'd taught myself to play. Instead I felt ashamed of everything I don't know yet about the guitar. And I felt annoyed, at how I'd missed out on taking lessons when I was younger just because I was scared. The established modes and methods of guitar instruction didn't work for me then, and unfortunately, even my parents, who were very supportive, didn't know how to help me find a teacher who would help me. (Though this was partly because I couldn't articulate what I was afraid of to them. I couldn't even entirely articulate it to myself.)

Being "self-taught" isn't a bad thing, and in a sense, all musicians are self-taught in that they have to be self-motivated when it comes to really getting good at playing, maintaining your skills, and most of all when it comes to developing your own sound and/or style. But "self-taught" becomes a problem as a matter of principle. No girl, or other intimidated student, should have to teach herself. And not every girl has the resources to do so. I was able to come home from school every day and play my guitar for three hours before doing my homework when I was 13. I learned all my open chords, my 7s and 9ths, from learning Beatle and Oasis songs. But how many girls haven't learned to play because they didn't have the time for that? I also had my father, who taught me my first chords, and he was some help to me. How many girls want to play the guitar, but don't have a relative or friend to help them get into it?

Fortunately, it seems that things are changing. None of the girls in our guitar class at camp were "self-taught". Some of them shared with us that they had trouble finding that right guitar teacher, and told us that they'd been intimidated, nervous, and even scared at first of taking lessons. But they all managed to get over it, and after a few years, now they're all fantastic young musicians.

It's important for girls to go forth into this frightening territory. We need insiders, like our students, and like Rebecca, to open up doors for us into schools of music both big and small. It's the only way we'll achieve parity, by proving to ourselves and to our teachers that we're capable. It's also the only way we'll be able to influence how music is taught, and the only way we'll be able to start accomodating any student who wants to learn in new and different ways.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Rock Camp Run Down, 2009: There's a first time for everything

I'm happy to report, dear readers, that I'm recovered from an exhausting, but super-successful week at the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls! In five days, my fellow volunteers and I helped 80 girls to form 16 ass-kicking bands, write 16 smart, funny, and often poignant songs, learn about body image, self-defense, music history, and music merchandising, and make an untold number of shirts, buttons, and zines.

As for myself, in addition to teaching guitar and helping our campers to use and understand their gear, I'm happy to report that I spoke to a number of volunteers, off the record of course, about their bands and projects. Many of our volunteers are working musicians and artists, and last week I got to hear the latest news on what their bands are up to, and about their experiences as musicians.

In many of these conversations the younger lady volunteers admitted to never having played with other female musicians before. It seems that none of them have played exclusively with men by choice -- all of the volunteers I spoke to about this told me that they'd never found other girls to play with. For many new volunteers, last week was their first real experience with a community of women musicians. My guitar co-teacher, Rebecca, for example, told us that she signed up to volunteer with Rock Camp because she'd never played with other women.

Rebecca is a songwriting and guitar performance student at a certain very prestigious conservatory. She's in what she told us was the biggest popular music program in the world, an apparently unique course of study offered by no other school of music. She is frequently the only female in her classes. When some of us guitar instructors pressed her to tell us more, she told us that she's witnessed and experienced all sorts of discrimination and condescension. She told us that she took on a guitar performance major in part because songwriting students are looked down on. Songwriting is assumed to be easy, while performance studies, which involve rigorous training in technique, is assumed to be one of the most difficult majors. Rebecca described these assumptions as 'totally gendered'.

I found this totally depressing. The upside is that based on the sexism she's encountered, Rebecca was able to facilitate what turned out to be a great in-class discussion on this topic with our students. We asked them to talk about being female guitarists and working with other female musicians. Like the volunteers, most of our guitar students hadn't played with other girls before coming to Rock Camp. Some of our students told us that they'd struggled to find teachers who didn't make them feel uncomfortable, and that they had issues with music groups at their middle and high schools: some of them afraid to audition because there weren't any other girls in the group, some of them were already in a school-based group but felt isolated and lonely in them.

Rebecca and I couldn't do much to actually help the girls with these issues. The best we could do was share our experiences, and encourage them to find solutions to these problems, to keep searching for the right teacher, to keep working until they feel confident enough to audition for groups, to keep looking for girls to play with and to support and keep in touch with each other as they get older. Rebecca talked about her program, and I admitted to the campers that I never really took guitar lessons, because I was too scared to even look for one that didn't intimidate or condescend to me. I told them that I was lucky to have played with other girls in my high school and college orchestras, and that I was fortunate enough to find a true mentor in my high school conductor.

Since that discussion, I find myself wondering about these issues. I find myself wondering why these problems existed ten years ago, when I was in grade school, and why they still exist. How can we change things? How can we start to make music and music instruction less sexist? Is this even possible? The more I thought about it, the less possible it seemed, and the more discouraged I felt.

Cut to the volunteer afterparty, held on Saturday in a beautiful Brooklyn backyard. I am exhausted from my week at camp and my brain is tired from mulling over rock's gender issues. I'm sitting at a picnic table, watching as my fellow volunteers chat, joke, sing, and tell stories about this camp session, and I'm sort of eavesdropping, even though this is totally wrong. I overhear my co-teacher talking to one of the other volunteers, and they're talking about playing jazz and about popular music studies, and they're talking about the sexism they've encountered in their music programs at school, and at clubs and bars and music stores. I overhear them planning to get together at some point and form an all-girl jazz combo.

At that moment, I stopped feeling discouraged. I no longer felt like it would impossible to come up with a way to deal with sexism in music, because I knew that just by being at camp, I was already dealing with it. I looked at my fellow volunteers, I thought about all the ladies I'd talked to that week, and all the loose plans we'd made to play together, and all the bands that had been formed because of Rock Camp, and that would be formed there in the future. This, I thought to myself, is why we do what we do at camp. And I didn't feel discouraged anymore, I just felt proud.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

It takes a village.

My extended family spent the last week and a half planning our Fourth of July celebration, i.e., deciding on where to have our annual barbecue, the logistics of how to get there, when to travel, what to cook, and who would bring what. I barely noticed, because I was too busy anticipating Rock Camp. That's right, it's finally that time of year: The first session of Girls' Camp at the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, in Brooklyn, NY, is upon us!

This week, I will be one of the lucky volunteers who gets to watch as almost 100 girls, aged 8 -18, learn what girls like me, who have been inspired by rock'n'roll, already know -- that loud isn't so much about volume as it is an attitude, and that that attitude can carry you way beyond the practice room, class room, and stage. For five whole days, our staff and volunteers will listen, watch, guide, mentor, and cheer as our campers learn how to play instruments, form bands, write songs together, participate in workshops about music, art, and women, and then perform the songs they've written for an audience of proud and supportive family members and friends.

If Rock Camp is sounding unique, special, and perhaps even, dare I say it, magical, that's because it is -- for a few reasons. It's not just that girls are learning how to play instruments and write songs, but it's how they're learning about music, who they're learning from, and the environment in which all of this takes place.

***Rock Camp is about letting girls learn in the way that suits them. We work really hard to make sure that each camper gets the individual attention she needs, and that she gets to have some say over what she learns. Instead of telling campers what they are to be taught, we ask campers what they want to learn, and what will help them become better musicians and performers.

***Rock Camp's volunteers are a diverse and wonderfully obnoxious, inclusive group of women. Most of us are working musicians, and many of us are students and teachers, who want to pass on our skills to campers, and share skills with each other. We teach and mentor in teams as often as possible, and we work hard to model cooperation and positive female leadership for the girls.

***Together, as volunteers, we do our best to create a safe space for the campers. Our goal is to make every camper as comfortable as she can be, and give them a place where they can learn about themselves both as musicians and as people. We especially reject oppressive and offensive gender, race, class, size, sexuality and body stereotypes and myths that might hold back or bother our campers. Even for myself, as a volunteer, camp feels like a tiny utopian society that is surprisingly free of such negative and harmful ideas.

While camp is certainly about the camper, and her experience, I often feel as though volunteers might actually get more out of it. As volunteers, we both get to enjoy working with our campers, and we get to enjoy working with each other not only as volunteers, but also as musicians and as peers. While each girl who comes to camp has the potential to be moved, transformed, and empowered, and to share this with the other girl, the volunteers get an altogether different satisfaction out of it. We get the satisfaction of knowing that we're working together on something that we know is much bigger than we are.

We work to help these girls to discover their voices, and we hope that they'll use them not just to make music, but to do whatever it is that these girls are meant to do when they grow up. And we work together to remind ourselves of our own potential, and the change we can affect both as individuals, and as a group, both within the music industry and beyond -- or at least, I do.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Hump Day Treat, 'In Memoriam' edition

Three years ago on this past Saturday, critically acclaimed punk trio Sleater-Kinney announced that they were going on 'indefinite hiatus'. Rock and the Single Girl pays tribute with by presenting four videos from one of their last overseas performances.

All four songs are from their final album, 2005's The Woods. A meditation on disenchantment, disorientation, growth, and growing apart, the songs are moody, contemplative, and treat love, sex, and partnership with a certain amount of cynicism. This was a major departure from positive and self-righteous denunciations of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars found on the band's previous album, One Beat (2003).

But fans were probably more shocked by the sonic changes found on this record. In retrospect, one can hear strains of classic rock swagger and grandiosity on both One Beat and All Hands On the Bad One (2000). But upon its release, Sleater-Kinney's new super distorted, aggressive, pseudo-1970s confounded longtime listeners, while attracting and challenging new fans. It seems like this is exactly the response the band wanted. Watch the videos below to see the spectacular and ferocious sounds of confrontation found on The Woods on this long Hump Day.