Monday, November 23, 2009

Where we're going.

Though I just claimed to be anti-'decade in music' stuff, I caved and read Tobi Vail's Swagger Like Us: Thoughts on Women in Music, 2000 - 09, posted over at Carrie Brownstein's Monitor Mix.

I have mixed feelings about the article. Tobi writes that while "hipster culture" and its "male-dominated music sites that exert a disproportionate influence over what's trendy" continue to annoy, infuriate, and marginalize us female and feminist musicians, bloggers, and fans, "women have thrived in the past 10 years, and our history is being documented and preserved like never before."

I don't disagree with her, and I'm thrilled at the way women's contributions are finally getting recorded. But I'm worried that I'm too thrilled. Women's musical work is finally getting documented the way it should be -- I should be excited that we're just now getting what we should have gotten all along?

Reading this article made me think the words, "Where have you been? Where are you going?" It's the title of a very popular, and unsettling Joyce Carol Oates story. In case you haven't read it, it's the tale of 15 year old Connie's encounter with an older male predator named Arnold Friend.

Arnold Friend is generally read as the devil. He doesn't take Connie by force; he tells her to come out of her house and get into his car on her own, or else he'll kill her, and then her family when they get home from the barbequeue they're at. Representing evil, he doesn't actually make Connie do anything, he manipulates her and plays on her fears.

My 20th Century American Literature 3 professor had an alternate, feminist reading of the story. He pointed out to us that Connie is an average 15 year old girl who's concerned with her appearance going out with her friends, but she's also sexually active. She's learned to ignore her long-suffering mother and saintly sister's criticisms of her behavior, and to enjoy dates and sexual experiences with boys at the local drive-in.

Less feminist is the end of the story, and how Connie's last weekend at the drive-in results in her being abducted. Connie doesn't fight off Arnold Friend; she's too paralyzed by fear to even run back into her house and try to call for help. She's so afraid that she goes with him, and I can't help but be disturbed by this. It seems like Oates is saying is that no matter what's at our door, scaring us, us girls always get into the car in the end, and ride off with the guy who's going to destroy us.

If you're thinking about this sort of thing at 2 am, like I was, you're bound to start wondering: "Did I get into Arnold Friend's car? Where am I going? Where have I been!?!" I started thinking about what I've done with the last ten years, and more to the point, what I was listening to while I did it.

I've been in school. In the year 2000, I was in high school. I went directly to college, and then graduate school, no breaks. It was an important time for me musically; not only did I study a lot music and instruments in that time, but I also got introduced to a lot of music. I met a lot of people with genuinely eclectic taste, and I made friends with them, and I learned from them.

In the year 2000, I bought and devoured Sleater-Kinney's All Hands on the Bad One. I listened to it and absorbed it because it was by my favorite band. I didn't realize back then that I was imbibing the album's feminist messages about women and their place in the music industry and public life in general. I didn't realize that those ideas would become a huge part of my life.

AHOTBO's ideas have shaped my interactions with music. Because of it, I've become a feminist musician and feminist music critic. Because of it, I've gone out of my way to find bands led by courageous and talented women, as well as bands led by men who are brave enough to support such bands.

This never-ending search for such bands, and the continual rejection of the male-dominated music status quo has been exhausting, but it has paid off: after all, in 9 years, it culminated in my affiliation with Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls. And then it led to me wandering into what might be the most vibrant and brilliant feminist music scene since late '80s Olympia.

The scene part is important, and here's why: my personal journey from Sleater-Kinney to bands like Pretty Girls Make Graves, the Gossip, Rainer Maria, Erase Errata, The Mars Volta, and many others is just that -- personal. It feels really small. It almost even feels isolating, because while those bands were and are fairly well-known, they're still pretty obscure. They and their artistic and political ideas are by no means mainstream.

But how many fans of Sleater-Kinney and other 'post-Riot' bands have I met in the last ten years, or in the last two that I've been involved with Rock Camp? How many breathtakingly good lady musicians have I met in that time, in person or through their blogs and websites? My journey is small, but what if you multiply it by the 100 or so rock camp volunteers I've worked with, or the 200 campers we've coached? What if you multiply that by all the other rock camps that have sprung up across the U.S. and Europe, and all the other aging Riot Grrrls and younger, new generation girl punks, who we can't even count?

When I think about it that way, I think that maybe Tobi Vail is right. Maybe it is a "great time to be a female musician and music fan." Maybe where we're going to is the land of milk, honey, and fairness for women in music, the place we've been trying to get to all along.

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