By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
This story should never be written again.
You're probably sick of hearing about it. Riot Grrls. Angry young women. Lilith Fair. Girl power!
It's been written a thousand times, particularly during the recent glut of female artists finally cracking the popular charts in droves. Rolling Stone nearly spent its entire 30th anniversary edition looking at women in music. Seven books have been published in the last three years about women in music, most of it rock. Friday even sees the release of “Spiceworld,'' the Spice Girls' much-ballyhooed feature film — noteworthy if only for the fact that you're probably hard-pressed to name another widely released feature film about an all-female music group.
Women, women everywhere. This is news?
But the reason this story, by all rights, should be the last one of its kind is that the issue of women in music has finally become a moot point. It's not a story anymore. The presence of women on the radio is no longer the novelty it once was to the male-dominated music and media industries.
Granted, here I am — Mr. Conner — practically pronouncing women free of their former bondage. Well, I wouldn't presume that, but I will say this much: in music, gender cannot be called a genre.
Oh, I tried. I assembled 10 female musicians last weekend in a conference room here at the Tulsa World and intended to probe the woes of sexism and restraint. But these artists complained less about what their chromosomes held back from them and more about the danger of the media's distractions and the struggle to make it in Tulsa playing original music.
So the story here is that there is no story — that women are now being heard more as individual voices than as unwilling spokespeople for the feminist movement, and that while sexism still rears its bony head, all the talk about women in music has simmered down to little more than a marketing ploy. And we know how long those hold up.
The following musicians were gathered for this discussion: jazz vocalist Pam Van Dyke, rock and standards singer Lori Duke, pop singer Jennifer Gee (from the Pedestrians), rock songwriter Sarah Wagner, rock-country singer Tex Montana (head of Tex Montana's Fireball Four), pop-rock singer Shawna (formerly from Daisy Strange), rock singer Angie DeVore (from Outside In), jazz singer Jennifer Miller, pop-dance diva Melodie Lee (from Degage) and solo rocker Holly Vassaur.
Here's the nut of the conversation we had, and the poignant insights it generated:
The Fixation on `Women in Music'
Wagner: It's the big trend now because you see more women in music, and not only that — they're making big hits.
Duke: You don't have to have the curves to get people's attention anymore.
DeVore: Yeah, that beauty-pageant mentality that dominated the industry for so many years is gone. Women are being successful, so the media writes the story of that ... More women are breaking now. They've always been out there, but more now are having really big success.
Shawna: A lot of the people who think in those ways about women being second best to men — well, this is blunt — they're dying off. A younger generation is stepping up and saying that women are as talented as men, if not more talented. As a result, women are focused on as a gimmick.
Wagner: It cuts both ways, too, because sometimes the focus on women in music hurts the guys. Back in the days of (my original band) Food Chain, we always had a guy in the group. We'd roll into some town, though, and there'd be a poster saying, `All-girl band!' I kind of felt sorry for the guys there.
Different Approaches Within the Media
Shawna: Radio listens for the talent and whether or not someone has the chops to attract an audience. The press looks for the story to tell, something worthwhile to share about the artist. TV only worries about who looks good, and since TV is such a dominant medium, that's what's hurt us more than anything over the years. But I think people are starting to get beyond that now.
Why Women Are Making It
Miller: The cost of making a CD and doing things has come down within the grasp of most beginning artists, many of whom are women. It's affordable now to get into the business. That changes the whole face of doing things.
DeVore: For $30,000, you can build a studio that's equal to the $3 million ones of yesterday.
Wagner: And what about the audience? Look at the people working in offices now. You have more women in the workplace, more women with purchasing power and business presence. What market do they want to hear? Some guy wailing on a guitar or stomping on a nail? No — there are more women in the audience wanting to hear what appeals to women.
Two Steps Forward, One Back
Miller: Still, even though my name is on the bill, when someone in the business approaches us at a show to talk to us, they'll almost always first go to the guitar player or the drummer, thinking someone else must be in charge besides the woman.
Montana: Here's how far things have come. Two months ago we played a happening spot here in Tulsa, and a happening band played after us. Afterward, I went up to the guitar player — who had fully seen me playing guitar earlier — and said, `That's a really cool guitar,' and he said, `It's a ... Les ... Paul,' like I wouldn't have any idea what a Les Paul guitar was.
Duke: We were watching a band a while back out of Nashville called the Wild Rose Band — all women. A guy I was with said there was no way they could be playing all the instruments, that surely they had session players — men — come in to play the parts and the women just sang.
Vassaur: I worked at a music store here, and the reason I quit was because a sales job came open and they hired a guy who had zero experience and barely knew about music.
Wagner: Someone told me once that a woman's place is in the audience. That was actually a lot of what inspired me to pick up a guitar and prove him wrong.
The Curse of the Angry Young Woman
Vassaur: Women are always going to be angry at men. There's always going to be that element of bitterness.
Miller: Heck, Motown's been trashing men for decades ... It didn't seem like that with most of the early jazz singers who were women, but they weren't usually writing their material. Jazz, too, emphasizes the music more than the words and the message.
Van Dyke: Someone like Billie Holiday, though, wrote some of her own songs, and they were pretty dark.
DeVore: Alanis (Morissette) did a lot to open doors for women, but there were a lot of pioneers before her.
Working With Female or Male Musicians
Wagner: You work with whoever can play the part. Men, women — it doesn't matter.
Montana: Yeah, but then who carries your gear around?
Montana: I am a woman. That's all I know. The life experiences I'm writing about are a woman's experiences ... It's a lot easier for a woman to go out and sing a pretty song about something that's pretty inane — that's easier than going out and displaying your anger and jumping around and trying to be a guy among the guys. That's pretty difficult, I think.
Duke: Gus Hardin came to me years ago, when I was about 21, and said, `You sing real good, but one day you're going to get rid of all this stuff, and you're going to have some emotions come to you, and then you'll have something to sing about.' Your perspective changes with experience, and you have to be ready to drop the facade and give yourself to the performance — guys or women.
Miller: You write about what you're going through at that time, at that moment. You write for yourself. I write for me — a woman ... But there are some basic emotions — love, fear, happiness — for which it doesn't matter who you are.
Wagner: Audiences and critics are so much more critical about women's performances. I'm sorry, but Johnny Rotten couldn't sing a note, so why are we getting all over Courtney Love? She yells just as good as he did.
Montana: There's a part of you that's always a ham if you do this. Part of you is going, `Look how high I can kick while playing guitar!'
Gee: It's easier for women to get started in music, and it's easier to move ahead. People don't give you weird looks as much when you tell them you're in a band.
Lee: I don't tell people I'm in a band. I don't want people to say I'm cool just because I'm in a band — and they do. People find out and turn to me, going, `Melodie, you're really cool!'
How Tulsa Measures Up
Miller: I'm from the East Coast originally, and I've noticed much more of the good-ol' boy mentality here. It's a totally different mindset here than in Europe or on both coasts. It's more critical of women.
Sarah: If you play standards, you can land a five-nights-a-week gig, but if you play original music in this town — let me tell you, honey — you won't get a thing.
DeVore: If we didn't have some covers worked up, we wouldn't get most of the gigs here.
Montana: You take a man and a woman, and when kids come into the picture it's real easy for the man to walk himself right over and keep playing in a band and keep doing what he wants. Women can't do that. Most of us don't let ourselves, anyway. In that respect, we don't have the same opportunities as men.
In a Nutshell
Van Dyke: Women are simply very interesting — across the board. For a long time, a woman's place was not in public, and the women who did make into fields like music and acting had to get over their reputation. Now the barriers are broken down, and people realize how great we all really are.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.