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Women in Rock music – why is there still a stigma?

“I think music has gotten very girly,” stated 57 year old Dublin man Paul Hewson in a recent interview with The Guardian. Now, thankfully in 2018, I feel the majority of us treat quips like this as utter nonsense. Hewson, for those of you who are blissfully unaware, is more commonly known as Bono, the outspoken “charitable” front person of U2. Outdated, misinformed statements like Hewson’s belittle and neglect the achievements made by women in the history of rock music. For decades now women have been tearing down barriers, breaking boundaries and inspiring countless young people, regardless of gender. You’ve simply got to ask the questions: what gives this ageing musician the right to define what is girly & what is not, and what does that even mean? It’s completely laughable.

Music hasn’t gotten “very girly” – ‘girly music’ is a convenient box constructed by pundits, writers and people within the industry, where they can lazily give out about a member of the female sex reaching the pinnacle in a male dominated industry. Music is a tool for expression, an outlet, and Hewson’s frankly irresponsible comments do nothing but demean his peers, those who came before him, and the future generations.

In 1970s Los Angeles, an all-girl group called The Runaways came to be one of the most influential punk-rock bands of the late 70’s American Punk explosion. Frontperson and lead guitarist Lita Ford was accompanied by the dynamic and industrious Joan Jett on rhythm guitar. Ford, Jett and Co would go on to conquer Japan with smash hit single ‘Cherry Bomb’ in 1976, whilst garnering a large degree of fanfare at home in The States. The band were truly revolutionary as they almost single handedly fought the fight against what was then an uber-seedy, completely male-dominated rock industry. Meanwhile on the East Coast of the US, the Debbie Harry fronted outfit Blondie were cutting their teeth in the NYC club scene. As the band rose to prominence in 1979, they launched the “Blondie is a group” button campaign – a combative effort against members of the press and public who would erroneously refer to Harry herself as Blondie. As far back as the 70’s, this infuriating brand of lazy sexism poisoned the burgeoning new-wave scene; Harry, alongside Chris Stein and the rest of her Blondie cohorts, again broke walls. Blondie are one of the most influential guitar-based groups of all time, led by the blonde haired enigma herself.

Speaking of pioneering blonde haired enigma’s, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon was one of the leading lights of the post-punk, alt-rock age of the mid-to-late 80’s. Gordon’s absolutely guttural vocals and generally harsh lines are historic. 1990’s ‘Goo’ is one of the bands finest records, and the Gordon-led ‘Kool Thing’ proved to be one of the bands biggest chart successes. Kurt Cobain lists Gordon as one of his idols, and when Nirvana were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, the Sonic Youth bass player took over the vocal reigns in Cobain’s absence, performing the grungy classic ‘Aneurysm’. As the 90’s rolled by, we were treated to a slew of violent, powerful female performances. The Smashing Pumpkins took the world by storm with their raw, fervent sound complimented by the punchy basslines of D’arcy Wretzky, while a few years prior the Pixies had constructed the blueprint, and conquered the globe with Doolittle. Bass player Kim Deal’s stripped back playing style (see ‘Hey’ as an example) and now famous backing vocals genuinely are the secret ingredient to that iconic Pixies sound. In 1991 the Courtney Love-fronted Hole released their frenetic debut LP ‘Pretty on the Inside’, a record produced by the aforementioned Kim Gordon. Love’s combative and pugnacious vocal style led to a beautifully confrontational, raw and emotionally charged record – one that drew heavy inspiration from the original punk stylings of The Runaways et al. ‘Teenage Whore’ is adversarial and antagonistic in nature, and triggered a near tidal wave of youngsters donning the flannel and ‘fuck you’ attitude, arguably to the same degree as Love’s husband Cobain did throughout the following decade. It can be debated that Hole, with Patty Schemel on drums and Kristen Pfaff on bass (later replaced by Melissa Auf Der Maur), are more important in music history than the likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam etc. in grunge history. Personal attitudes towards Courtney Love aside, she played a major role in revolutionizing the music industry. At the time, even in this country, we had the absolute revelation that was Dolores O’Riordan tackling the outmoded status quo of Catholic Ireland by leading her band to dizzying heights. The Cranberries’ second album, ‘No Need to Argue’, was released in 1994, and is one of the finest alt-rock albums of all time. Ode To My Family, Zombie, I Can’t Be With You, Dreaming My Dreams are undoubtedly some of the finest tracks to ever emerge from this island. Women like O’Riordan, Gordon, Love and so many more had this chip on their shoulder, that they unfortunately had to work so much harder to be respected and appreciated in a completely biased work environment. For me the alt-rock, post-punk, grungy sound of the 90’s is embodied by the stellar performances put forward by the women of that generation.

These icons blazed a trail, and Hewson’s idiotic claims are even more ludicrous when you examine the amount of female bands dominating the scene today, with more attitude, charisma and aggression than ‘Bono’ has had in his entire career.

For well over a decade alt-emo heroes Paramore, fronted by the effervescent Hayley Williams,  have been selling out arenas globally. From their hedonistic, frantic early albums ‘All We Know is Falling’ and ‘Riot’, to their latest post-pop release ‘After Laughter’, the group hailing from Tennessee have been inspiring a whole heft of kids – they’re one of the reasons I even picked up a guitar in the first place. London outfit Wolf Alice have similarly lit up the scene, with guitarist/vocalist Ellie Rowsell at the helm, throwing Bono into the middle of a pit during the bands encore ‘Giant Peach’ and asking him then if music is too girly. The sheer amount of young bands releasing brilliant music is astounding, bands like The Big Moon, Sunflower Bean and Bleached to name but a few. These are not girl bands, these are bands. There is no such thing as a ‘girl band’ – that term is beyond archaic. Rock and Roll music is alive, very much so, and thankfully in 2018 women are very much so at the fore. In Ireland at the moment we have a number of young, alternative bands coming through the ranks, one of which is Bitch Falcon with the exceptional Lizzie Fitzpatrick on guitar/vox. The work is not done however, as evidenced by Hewson’s obsolete ideas. Hopefully people will begin to realise that gender should be left out of music; it’s all-inclusive, gender-less and, as much as dinosaurs like Hewson try to define it as such, rock music is most definitely NOT just a boy’s club.