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Where Are the Women In Rock And Roll?

And why is the genre so… male?

By Fawzia Khan  June 7th, 2021

The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who… it’s the photos of these greats that grace the covers of Rock playlists and dominate critical conversations about rock and roll. A cursory scroll through forums that attempt a deep dive into why rock music is so male-dominated brings to light how casually misogynistic listeners can be. Comments like “…because men are, quite simply, better at it”, and “without sounded (sic) sexist, it’s because right now they’re better at it and have been for a long time, with a few exceptions” abound freely on the internet, and more so in people’s minds. So, why is rock and roll so male-centric? “I think it’s because of the general idea fed to people that rock is about sex, drugs and rock and roll,” says Pratika Prabhune, who started her rock and metal career in a Mumbai classroom, at the age of thirteen, playing the bass guitar. Now she plays regularly at rock festivals (pre-pandemic, of course). “I feel like more people should really take the time to understand rock and metal music, why the genre sounds the way it does.


Image credit: Pinterest (Joni Mitchell)

Much of the blame for this genre-coding is also on how it was spoken about. In the 1960s, the most popular time for the genre, music critics were male, who only wrote about white males making rock music. These bands (mentioned above) became the gold standard for rock. It’s absurd that the genre is as male-centric as it is considered, especially since women have been in the very eye of the proverbial rock and roll storm – Bessie Smith set the fierce tone for blues and popular music back in the early 1900s, with her songs about the working class, black problems, sexual relationships, love and poverty, not just contextually but also with her sound. Sister Rosetta Tharpe fearlessly toted her electric guitar and sang songs of wartime in a new gospel rock style, slept in tour buses (at the height of racial apartheid), and toured the world with her queer partner – unheard of in the 1940s and truly revolutionary. What gets more rock and roll than that? Willie Mae Thornton, better known as Big Mama Thornton, originally recorded Hound Dog, a full three years before Elvis did, but received little to no recognition (or profits) for the rock vocals she had pioneered. She was also the writer and singer of Ball and Chain, later made popular by Janis Joplin’s popular cover. Thornton did get to open for Joplin, but whether Thornton received royalties is unclear.


Image credits: Pinterest (Willie Mae Thorton)

The media plays a key role in hardwiring the music into a masculine one. There is a marked exclusion of women from the main role: they’re often less than the supporting cast. If a rock musician, who happens to be a woman, is making good music, she’s an exception and nowhere near as ‘authentic’ as the seemingly ‘real’ thing – man rock. This culture has made it near impossible for women to enjoy the heights of success their male counterparts have in the rock industry. Critically acclaimed rock artists like Mitski have often played to scattered, disinterested crowds in arenas. ‘Woman’ is the genre they will be forever lumped into first, rarely enjoying the greatness of just being a good musician. 


Image credits: Pinterest (Stevie Nicks)

Rock has also been gendered, right down to the instruments. Guitars and drums are manly devices to be held by men, and when girls don’t see other girls with a guitar slung across their chests, screaming into a mic – they won’t ever imagine making music with it themselves. The gender appropriation of a drum set makes it normal for boys to get it as a present and near impossible for a little girl. Shattering the rock ceiling becomes even more difficult, especially in the Indian context. Music shows happen late in the night, in crowded venues with alcohol – safety becomes a concern. Women aren’t traditionally expected to rock out on a stage late at night, and the proximity to inebriated crowds and having a stage presence means opening oneself to unsolicited judgements made on character and upbringing. The desire to rock dies in an environment so hostile to its women.

Image credits: Pinterest (Sister Rosetta Tharpe)

A look at festival lineups offers a glimpse into how male-dominated not just rock but the entire music industry is. As recently as 2016, Australian festival Strawberry Fields received intense flak for releasing an all-male lineup. “When it comes to lineups in festivals,” says Desiree Saldanha, Head of Artist Management at Third Culture Entertainment, “sometimes women are included just to check a box and for agencies to seem woke. There is no genuine intention for betterment.” To give impetus to women artists, they need to see others like them on the big stage. The lack of representation continues to the business side of music: “Even in artist management, as a woman, there’s a small chance that I will get to interact with another woman artist manager. Music conferences, too, are sometimes just a bunch of men cheering on other men. I’m hugely privileged to have the resources to be able to follow my dream in music, as are other women musicians I represent, but someone who doesn’t have those resources can’t even think of it as a viable career option.”

Women who do achieve that elusive rocker status have a lot more to contend with after that. Female rockers are subject to uncomfortably laser-like scrutiny by audiences that men escape – What are they wearing? Is that music even rock? How can they be so rock and roll? Their attitude isn’t rock enough! There is no quick-fix solution to a problem that hasn’t been solved in decades, but reversing the bias in our minds is a good place to start. Actively seeking out female and female-identifying rock musicians, giving them your coin (by listening to their music and going to their ticketed shows) and unlearning, then relearning what rock music can look and sound like should be top of the agenda for lovers of the genre. Rock can sound sad, look hard, be soft, stay badass. Rock is genderless.

Joan Jett 

American singer-songwriter and guitarist Joan Jett, backstage in New York, 1981. (Photo by Mark Weiss/Getty Images)

A certified rock icon, Jett needs no introduction. Her familiar snarl and defiant three-chord rock and roll inspired countless female rockers after her. When she embarked on a solo career after her stint with The Runaways, no label wanted to sign the musician, which led to her self-releasing an album, which later came to be known as Bad Reputation.

We Recommend: Bad Reputation

Fame Sangma

Hailing from Meghalaya, Fame Sangma leads Fame the Band, which churns out soothing alt-rock tunes. Don’t let Fame’s diminutive figure fool you – the singer belts out beautifully measured vocals that stand their ground within the arena-worthy guitar and drum-heavy rhythms. 

We Recommend: Don’t Save Me

Mitski

Japanese indie rocker Mitski Miyawaki really makes you feel those oddly specific emotions you didn’t think others felt too. Her pleading lyrics drip with sadness as she bashes her guitar, and her voice soars lyrics about how she can’t pay rent, how she just wants one good movie kiss, and how she won’t be what her dad wants her to be. Gut-wrenching, but fun.

We recommend: Townie

Janis Joplin

Our fondest member of the 27 Club had a set of lungs on her, and she used them well. The blues-inspired rocker was a rebel from early on in her life, and her path-breaking music was reflective of her refusal to follow the norm. Joplin was as rock and roll as it gets: neat bourbon, smashing bottles on Jim Morrison’s head, heroin and all. 

We recommend: Piece of My Heart

Haim

Freewheeling trio Este, Danielle, and Alana create music laced with rock, RnB, hip-hop and pop. Their slick-sounding songs tackle sadness, vulnerability, heartbreak, and ill health, but with the swagger and paradoxical (or not) softness of true rock stars. The sisters also put on a mean live show, with measured vocals and cheer-worthy headbanging. 

We recommend: The Steps

Pratika Prabhune

Genre-fluid Pratika aces rock, rap, metal, and hip-hop with ease. She sings, plays bass, and songwriters. Inspired to ‘growl’ and ‘scream’ by her metal inspiration Angela Gossow, her music is a breath of fresh air on the Indian music scene. 

We recommend: Survival

Courtney Barnett

Watching Barnett strum at the electric, dispelling guitar riffs into the air that will most definitely become your next earworm is pure joy. Her devil may care lyrics, with an undercurrent of self-awareness and -deprecation, juxtaposed with almost lackadaisical- sounding alt-rock rhythms throw a punch at your gut, which lands just a few seconds later.

We recommend: Avant Gardener

Images: Getty / Shutterstock / Instagram