Gender, rock and the ‘Misfit Society’
Mike Donovan | Thursday, November 9, 2017
A girl goes to a garage sale. In the corner, next to a pile of old clothes and a shady-looking blender, she finds her ticket to euphoria — a fantastical vehicle that translates her innermost thoughts for a world that desperately needs them. She buys the CASIO.
Several years later, the CASIO sits among a collection of quirky, vintage keyboards, weaving its unique sonic thread into Jes Kramer’s aural quilt. Kramer stands alone on stage with a sonic presence nothing short of momentous. It envelopes the lean, eager audience at Legends Night Club.
Another girl takes a class on gender and rock in Notre Dame in which she learns a key formula — amplification plus attitude — that illuminates her future. She goes out, purchases an electric guitar with a burly amp to accompany it and writes her first rock anthem.
Several years and two albums later, Julia Steiner (‘14) — now at the helm of Ratboys — unleashes these sounds on a patchwork group of academics. It’s folk with force, storytelling at volume 11, procrastination at its most productive. The message, assertive in its own right, takes a seat among the small, invested crowd at Legends Night Club.
Ostensibly, Kramer and Steiner play to celebrate Notre Dame gender studies and FTT professor Mary Celeste Kearney — whose latest book, “Gender and Rock,” considers the role of gender identity in music’s loudest genre — and raise money for a new girls rock camp in the Michiana area. But, most would agree that the performance serves another purpose — to showcase the transformative power of music in a gender imbalanced world.
Professor Kearney can give us some valuable insights about the intersection of rock and gender, and how it has changed over the last two decades.
“I’ve been teaching a class on gender in rock since 1997,” Kearney says. “I had very few academic studies to go on that time. The culture of the 1990s was so very different from today. Most of my early work had focused on women.”
The musical community, she explains, has been slow to progress — particularly at the mainstream levels.
“When I started, there were four major female centered bands signed to major labels, but [today] I don’t know how many female rock bands are signed to major labels.”
Most of the progress, she explains, has occurred in the underground.
“Within the realm of independent music, there’s much more equality. Well, maybe not equality, but there’s better gender parity than there was 20 years ago.”
That said, Kearney questions whether the parity of independent music translates above ground.
“The Grammys have never been a thing that I’ve gravitated towards in any way, but they are one of the ways in which we mark success in our culture. If you look at the statistics for women in the rock music categories, there are practically none of them. Yes, independent music has been phenomenal, and, yes, Riot Grrrls and Queer musicians have been important to that. But how much has that [indie] world impacted mainstream music culture, at least in terms of major labels, money, etc.?”
Kearney finds hope in technological advances that give artists agency.
“All this shifted as a result of the internet. Bands that never would’ve gotten any attention outside of the few towns they toured have gotten international exposure online.”
“But,” she continues, “that doesn’t level the playing field, especially when you talk about things like economics and who’s making the money and who has cultural credibility. There are all these ways in which hierarchy is created and power is created within rock culture, and I’m not sure those structures have been all that movable.”
“Independent artists,” she says, “have worked outside that system or somewhat exploited the mainstream system.”
Kearney’s reasoning for the gender gap is blunt.
“Sexism. And money. There’s a lot of power, and men have not wanted to give up much of the power and prestige that they have.”
Kearney also warns against a false interpretation of gender parity in the indie rock community.
“There’s all these women. Well, what roles are they playing in the bands? Are they leading the bands? Are they playing lead guitar, or are they the bass player, the singer? Are they there and changing the roles for women in rock, or are they occupying roles that have already been established as legitimate for women?”
For many bands, the answer is a resounding no. Kearney, however, highlights a few who break the mold.
“Someone who really made think a lot about women in rock was Chrissy Hind of The Pretenders. The fact that she could lead a rock band, and lead it in a very rigorous way. She’s always been central to that band. But she was an exception to the rule.”
There are some promising efforts that seek to inspire a new generation of Chrissy Hinds’ — most notably the growth of girls rock camps around the country.
“I’ve been a workshop instructor at a few of them,” Kearney says. “They’re phenomenal at making sure the girls understand that there are a variety of different roles within a rock music. A lot of younger girls, because of the culture that’s been presented to them, just see themselves as the pretty girl that’s on mic — the one who’s belting out the beautiful song. They can be a drummer, be a bassist, be a guitar player, be a lead singer but not the sexually-objectified pretty girl.”
These camps, Kearney explains, offer far more than musical instruction.
“A lot of girls are raised to be perfect in everything they do, in addition to being pretty. A lot more so than boys, we get discouraged from doing things that we may not do very well, so we don’t even try them. I’ve done a study with the women students here in film production classes. The guys are so willing to take risks and screw up. It’s whatever to them. The girls, they get one criticism and they’re like, ‘I’m never editing again. I’m never going to write a screenplay again.’”
As part of her book launch — the concert featuring Kramer and Steiner — Kearney and the musicians solicited donations for a new girl’s rock camp in the Michiana area.
“With the [new] camp, we’re helping to educate girls, not only about music culture, but about how to be a more confident and assertive person,” Kearney says. “I’ve always loved that rock culture is not made up of all the beautiful people — it’s made up of all the losers, the nerds and the geeks. It’s the misfit society.”
Of course, we’re all losers, nerds and misfits in some manner or another. That’s why we should understand the dynamics of our “misfit society,” notice when it perpetrates inequality, and — like Kearney, Steiner and Kramer — fight to make it a safe haven for all.
If you’d like to send a donation in support of a Michiana girl’s rock camp, contact Kearney at [email protected]