Women Talking About Women in Music: War Stories From a Male-Dominated Industry
A couple weeks ago, I headed down to Austin, Texas to attend the South by Southwest Music Festival to participate in a panel discussion called Women Write Women's Experiences in Music. We discussed the representation of women music journalists and the experiences we have had interviewing musicians, going on tour with bands and navigating our way in a male-dominated environment. While there are certainly more women journalists now than when I was a kid reading Circus or Hit Parader magazines, the lack of representation still brings out the sexism and misogyny within the industry.
I was accompanied by some very talented music journalists. Jessica Hopper writes about music for The Chicago Reader; she released her first book, The Girls Guide to Rocking, last year. Amanda Petrusich wrote It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways and the Search for the Next American Music. Moderator Holly George-Warren has written countless book on musicians and the music industry. Jaan Uhelszki was one of the founding editors of Creem magazine; she's now editor-at-large for Relix.
The panel served two purposes: to share experiences and encourage young women to get involved in music journalism, and to showcase our own work as writers. I was there doing some pre-promotional hype for my upcoming book, What Are You Doing Here? Black Women in the Metal, Hardcore and Punk Scenes.
The afternoon started with a pre-panel discussion where we introduced ourselves and discussed our various projects. Legendary singer/songwriter Country Joe McDonald sat with us as we prepared and spouted a few profanities when we regaled him with some of our horror stories -- such as the male musician who sat down to be interviewed in nothing but a loosely-tied towel ... with his legs spread.
The panel was pretty successful, I think (outside of one woman who laughed when Holly read out the title of my book). People seemed to enjoy the discussion, and most important for me, I learned some very interesting things about how to talk about issues affecting women at a male-dominated music festival. This topic seems like an interesting and common issue (don't women make up at least 50% of the population?) -- but if not handled well, it can lose the interest of the audience.
Don't whine: Any discussion surrounding women in an industry that primarily consists of males is vulnerable to being dismissed -- despite the real validity of openly discussing war stories that usually center on sexual discrimination, harassment, or not being treated with the credibility that a male journalist usually gets. But if you point out a problem, back it up with a solution. Jaan encouraged women in editorial positions to hire women –- with more in the music industry, perhaps these issues will disappear.
Tell an interesting story: Good stories capture your audience. Some of the stories told in this panel were extremely difficult. We heard about sexually inappropriate behaviour and physical threats of violence by angry musicians over an unfavourable review. I told about getting my life threatened at a metal festival and heard Jessica's horrific account of a nightmarish interview with a hip-hop artist that resulted in a lawsuit (she won). Sometimes the line between encouraging and deterring women musicians into getting into music journalism and the industry seemed very thin, but it's important to let the newbies know what they are getting into. The fact that we all seemed to get past through the difficulties seemed to leave the audience with a positive feeling rather than a somber one.
Be truthful: I felt a bit weird about how many of the challenges we discussed focused on our male colleagues or the male musicians we had interviewed. For me, the challenges writing about metal have been rarely been focused on men. Even though the people who had threatened physical harm were men, the most hurtful situations I've found myself in involved women. I felt that I could easily dismiss sexist behaviour because it just seemed so juvenile; what concerns me more is the physical aggressiveness I experience with other women at shows, primarily when I am present in a professional manner as a photographer and/or with a press pass.
But how do you critically discuss the interactions between women in the music scene at a panel that's supposed to promote the work of women? We have to talk about these gray areas, such as: Not all women are our friends because we share the same genitalia.
We also have to talk about race and the differing experiences as to how we are perceived as women in relation to our ethnicity. There was a distinct difference in the experiences I have had, as a black woman metal journalist, versus those of the other women on the panel. While I've been hit on, what has been more troubling is the physical threats I've experienced in the scene -- some of which have been at the hands of women.
I told the panel about a festival a couple of years ago, that was a difficult experience to endure -- it made me wonder if I was really cut out for being one of the only black women in a male-dominated music scene. I dropped the N-word (which I was called at the festival I was discussing), and was pretty harsh in my observations about the scene. I walked away thinking that, while the panel was successful, based on the looks on some of the faces in the crowd, there were people who didn't know how to react to my comments. But if you are not truthful, that will also be conveyed in the audience's reactions.
Later on that evening (actually it was three in the morning of the next day), I bumped into a woman in the elevator of the hotel I was staying at. She said she loved the panel, and congratulated me on being so "honest" (I swore a lot -– not good, but I warned them beforehand). I thanked her and said, "I hope I wasn't too honest" and made eye contact with her boyfriend. Judging by the disturbed look on his face, maybe I had been a bit too honest. Oh, well...
Contributing Editor -- Race, Ethnicity & Culture
Blog: Writing is Fighting:
Aggressive Tendencies - Exclaim!: www.exclaim.ca