Please stop telling me how cool it is when ‘chicks’ play guitar

Negative assumptions and stereotypes about female guitar players still persist in guitar culture. And we all have a responsibility to make these harmful and alienating attitudes a thing of the past.

St. Vincent

St. Vincent. Image: Andrew Chin / Getty Images

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It was early on in her career when she had first moved to LA, and was bursting with the kind of hope that you can’t decide is obnoxious or endearing. She walked into the famed music store and marvelled at the array of guitars lining the walls. She ran her fingers over their fretboards, she took her time considering the proper shape and size, she daydreamed about the songs she might write on the seafoam green Tele, the baby Taylor, the vintage Yamaha. And that’s when she heard him, “You lookin’ for a gift for your boyfriend?”

She spun around to see the dweebiest of dweebs leaning over the counter as he spoke. She stared blankly, and managed to mutter, “No… I’m looking for… me.” “Oh, YOU play?”

Alright. I imagine those reading this little sexism vignette fall into a number of different camps. Some of you may see yourself in the woman shopping around for a guitar, caught somewhere between a chuckle of recognition and the sharp pain of its familiarity. I certainly do. Or maybe you relate to the guy behind the counter and are thinking, “Hmm, I’ve never considered how my assumptions and internalised misogyny could be damaging and harmful to others on a routine basis. Maybe I should look into this.” Good. There is hope for you.

Some of you possibly have absolutely no idea what I am talking about, and are wondering why you’ve come to your favourite source for music and guitar news to find a passionately written op-ed on one woman’s experience of misogyny in the music industry. Welcome. You’re mad? I’m mad too. But this is the perfect place to have this conversation. This is, after all, our community and these issues are not distant memories of a bygone era.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Image: Tony Evans / Getty Images

From your run-of-the-mill asshat who thinks he’s just being funny, to the industry gatekeepers who are still steeped in patriarchal beliefs of what a woman should be, to the outright sinister predators who weaponise their power and cause actual bodily, emotional, and mental harm, this is still happening. And they are still getting away with it. We are responsible for bringing the conversation out from the margins of message boards and green room whispers, and into the forefront: stark, naked, uncomfortable and important as hell.

It seems important to stress that this is just a jumping-off point. We won’t scratch the surface of the breadth and complexity of these issues in a 1,500-word article, nor does this remotely get into adequately discussing identity (gender and otherwise) and how deeply that contributes to our vast and varied experiences. This article is not meant to finish a conversation, it is meant to begin one. We may even feel a little unsatisfied by the end, with more questions than we have answers. That’s okay. Let’s keep talking.

Below are just a small series of reflections on some of the experiences that still plague our industry, experiences that have been overstaying their welcome since they walked through the proverbial door. In addition, it is certainly not my intention or desire to speak for other women. Not to mention, as a cis-white woman, my experience in this industry has still been drastically easier, and safer, than many. This collection of thoughts is based on much of my own experience, and years of sharing and stories from countless other women in the industry.

So, recognising that these conversations aren’t easy, that I will do as much stumbling through it as some of you will, please, pull up a chair, take a deep breath, and listen.

Phoebe Bridgers
Phoebe Bridgers

No, I don’t have something “sexier”

You know what’s really, really frustrating? Spending the majority of your life training your voice, practising your instrument, and honing your craft only to have the takeaway from your artist in residency slot be how low-cut your shirt is. There is no HR to take up complaint with when the Front Of House dude tells you that you might get more followers on Instagram if you play up your “assets” a little more. It astounds me how these things, which are not even a little bit important, make their way into our professional conversations on a routine basis.

You know what has nothing to do with how memorable a song is or skilfully somebody handles a fretboard? Whether they are wearing makeup or not, what they decided to do with their hair that day, how tight their shirt is, or how pretty you deem them to be. Nothing.

Courtney Love
Courtney Love. Image: C Flanigan / FilmMagic

No, being on a stage does not give you permission to shout that stupid thing at me you’re about to shout

There’s nothing like playing the opening chords to one of the most intimate songs you’ve ever written, while a handful of close family and friends who’ve come to support you look on proudly, when all of a sudden some idiot yells from the back of the venue, “Take it off, baby!”

This humiliation is not ours to bear, it is not our job to over-analyse what we wore to garner unwelcome comments, it is not acceptable that our bodies tense with so much embarrassment, and fear, that our performances are negatively impacted, that we can’t properly do what we came to do.

I hear people make light of this sort of banter, laughing it away as an occupational hazard, and I want to shake them and say, “Do you know what can happen to our bodies when you shout a comment like that while a performer is totally physically and emotionally vulnerable?”

Our vocal cords can constrict causing any sort of healthy vocal technique to go to shit, resulting in a sore throat, a shaky performance, even permanent vocal damage. Our backs tighten in self-protection and we are lucky if it takes under a week to get the knots out. Our hands may shake, our blood pressure might rise… and then, of course, there is what this kind of unwelcome commentary does to our spirits. Don’t let them tell you this behaviour is harmless. It is quite the opposite.

Orianthi. Image: Tim Mosenfelder / Getty Images

No, please, don’t explain the music industry to me

If I had a dollar for every time some bro in a Radiohead shirt tried to explain the music industry to me, I would open a school that trained bros in Radiohead shirts to simply do better. “SO you probably don’t know this but, indie artists actually retain more than those signed to major labels…” or (my favourite) “You should really think about… (insert condescending comments about how to distribute my music that I have been doing for literally the past 10 years).”

I understand that sometimes people are trying to be helpful, but I also understand that most of us are walking around with deeply programmed, unchecked misogyny. The next time you feel inclined to mansplain the industry to another professional artist, pause. Consider. Perhaps rather than tell, ask.

“What have you found to be useful in music distribution?” “What has your experience been like with independent releases?” Or even, “I am really curious to hear about your experience and work as a musician. I’d like to share about my experience too. Would you like to brainstorm and knock some ideas around?” Who knows? You might just learn something.

Emily Kokal of Warpaint
Emily Kokal of Warpaint. Image: Michael Hickey / Getty Images

No, no person should ever feel that their creative success is dependent on what they are willing or unwilling to do with their bodies

This one should go without saying and yet, here we are. It has been depicted time and time again in film and TV: the sleazy agent or director luring the young ingénue into his home or office under the auspices of making her a star. She arrives to find his intentions were far more sinister and faces the conundrum of how to move her career along without doing something she really, really does not want to do. This exchange is all too familiar for many of us.

Sometimes it is blatant and obvious, sometimes it is far more nuanced, an expectation that you should really just go have that drink with that obnoxious but well-connected manager, the pressure to avoid talking about your significant other on the off chance it may make you a less attractive choice for an upcoming recording project.

It is insidious and whether it speaks softly or yells in your ear, it is inexcusable. It is joked about, normalised, and rampant. Sometimes it comes from those you would never expect it from, and sometimes you will blame yourself for not seeing it sooner, for going along with it, for doing what you thought you had to.

Romy Madley Craft of The XX
Romy Madley Craft of The XX. Image: Chris McKay / Getty Images

For anybody who can relate to this last part, it is not, and never was your fault, and it’s about time we acknowledge all of the careers, creative journeys, and brilliant works of art that were cut short because somebody believed their power, or lack thereof, gave them a right to another human being’s body, soul, or creative force. It is imperative that we acknowledge the artists who could have been legends, the songs that would have changed our musical history, the dreams that, still, get prematurely and permanently shelved, because we don’t take care of one another, because we pretend it is just the way things are.

It is not. It is not just the way things are, and boys are not just being boys, it’s not your responsibility to play the game, and no, it is not your job to sit down, sing what’s written, and look pretty. If we have learned anything as musicians on this path it’s to alchemise our experience into sound, to beat our pots and pans in time, to howl in perfect harmony, and to change the paradigm again and again.

And if they tell you you’re too loud, turn the volume up.

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