Published Mar 01, 2006This just in: women can play guitars. And we're not talking about those folksy acoustic guitars either. Women are tearing up fret boards with bleeding fingers while hammering out insane solos and blowing their amplifiers with crushingly heavy riffs. Further reports state that women have been heard growling, screaming, and hissing into microphones; eyewitnesses shockingly report women seen behind drum kits instead of Casio keyboards or back-up singer microphone lines.
It might not always be so overt, but the media has habitually portrayed women in punk, hardcore and other forms of aggressive music as a gimmick. Consider for a moment asking a pretty boy in a hardcore band what it's like to be an attractive man in the music industry; just imagine treating a man differently based on the size of his cup or the length of his pants.
Of course, the focus on women is sometimes done with good intentions. The growth of a female presence in hardcore is a relatively new trend, and the inherent challenges faced by entering a hitherto boys-only arena are worth examining, to a point. Yet there's also a danger in giving in to these "good intentions." The reality is, gender and music is irrelevant and by its very nature, an article focusing on women in hardcore or any genre for that matter plays a role in ghettoising women.
So why write a story about women in hardcore at all? Because for the first time, the momentum of women entering the scene has become steady after a long, slow process that saw women get pushed to the sidelines as punk deviated into hardcore. And now that women are staking out some ground for themselves, a story like this can help end the view of women as a novelty.
Although hardcore's inception wasn't inherently male-dominated, some have blamed its straightedge tendencies for the shift. As the music abandoned its "drunk punk" roots and eschewed drugs and alcohol arguably attracting a more health-conscious, athletic audience the scene in many ways slid into muscle-bound machismo. Enter the jock. Add to that several hardcore artists that embraced misogynist ideals, stepping up the level of testosterone.
Despite hardcore having descended from punk which saw many female artists emerge from its inception into the early '80s the integration of a female presence in hardcore didn't happen. Where traditional gender barriers were trampled on during the birth of punk, hardcore later reasserted male-dominance in aggressive music.
In Steven Blush's book American Hardcore: A Tribal History, photographer Cynthia Connelly says: "I hated going to shows when it became so violent and insane. As it got more and more hardcore I got more and more disinterested."
Not just in hardcore, but in other realms of aggressive music, social and cultural barriers have given women the sense that they're not welcome: the goregrind scene offers up a band called Misogynist Pussyslasher; grindcore has provided us with Anal Cunt (aka A.C.), a band that refer to women as "nature's punching bag"; in metal, consider any lyrics by Cannibal Corpse (involving entrails being ripped out of a woman's body).
But the face of hardcore is transforming. Women have become more attuned to the scene's aggression; instead of being intimidated by it, they're embracing it.
The Reluctant Role Model
For reasons that have nothing to do with music, tracking down women in hardcore bands is not an easy task. Just type any combination of "female," "women," "hardcore," "guitar player," and "fronted" into a search engine and you'll get hit with more porn than you thought imaginable.
You're also likely to dig up a few posts on punk forums asking if there are any women in hardcore bands.
The answer is, of course, yes. Canada has reared Fuck the Facts, Kilbourne, and As Astraea Falls, to name a few. Across the border we've seen the Vice Dolls, All or Nothing, F-Minus and Most Precious Blood.
Late 1998 saw the inception of Walls of Jericho, one of hardcore's success stories. Fronted by Candace Kucsulain, this Detroit-based quintet quickly developed a strong following thanks to their heavy-hitting approach. Kucsulain, who has since become known for songs like "There's No I' in Fuck You" and for playing a set with a broken nose after being punched in the face, has often been looked to as hardcore's role model for female fans, a title she hesitates to adopt.
"I don't feel that it's necessary for me to take that from somebody," she says. "You can have a role model all day long, but it's you who steps up and does it yourself. The fact that any women stood up is just amazing, you've gotta give them the credit for it. For me, it wasn't something I had to think about. I just did it because I have every right to and because I wanted to. And I imagine that's why most women did, too."
So who, exactly, were those women? Kucsulain says it's something that started outside of the music scene, a "chain reaction in the world." Its male-dominated component and misogynist tendencies were around when she immersed herself in it during the mid-90s as a self-proclaimed "hardcore girl that would kick your ass in the pit and sing along and jump over your head to try to grab the mic." But women were also starting to come on the scene, and not just because hardcore was changing, but because everything was changing.
But female role models emerging from hardcore were less obvious. Kucsulain stops herself to ask if there were women fronting hardcore bands during that time. She can't remember any.
To get to the root of this diminished visibility, you have go back to its early days. Ian MacKaye, of Minor Threat, Fugazi, and the Evens, recalls that it happened during a time when mainstream media portrayed punks as violent and nihilistic. He admits that while there were some brawls in the punk scene when he was involved in it during the late '70s and early '80s, it was more that he was targeted for brutality. A mohawk or coloured hair was enough to have a young punk dodging fists. MacKaye remembers acting out in self-defence, although that's not how the rest of the world interpreted it, and the media was convinced that violence was as an inherent part of punk. Soon, people who identified with that violence were coming onto the scene.
"The more reasonable people moved away from the stage, and eventually they moved out the door. They left the building," he says. "In my experience in Washington, I witnessed a diverse crowd of boys and girls, and I saw it was becoming more boys in the front, more boys in the front, until you had a room that was almost nothing but boys. What became attractive to a lot of the people was macho posturing, it was tough guy stuff."
MacKaye likes to think that music in the early '90s like the riot grrrl movement helped to kill a lot of the gender barriers, but when it comes to hardcore he admits only to progress having been made, not to a problem solved.
"In that specific strain, that's a battlefront, but [women are] going to win. I feel like in this generation and in this kind of music there's a vanguard. And I think they're gonna change the rules, which is nice. But it's a
battle that we can never stop fighting."
Kucsulain also factors in the influence of women infiltrating the music industry in the early '90s. Punk's popularity was breaking new ground, and, just like in the '70s, women were taking a hold of the microphone. Hardcore's boys-only club was no more.
But from experience, Kucsulain knows that being on the vanguard is a tough fight. "It is a little bit harder, knowing you have to prove yourself," she says. "You always have to be one step above everybody and it was just lucky for me that I liked that challenge. I did feel like I had to prove myself, but that's pretty much how life is. Now I feel like I've moved past that. I'm still proving myself in a certain way; it's definitely not getting easier for me because I am growing as a woman. I'm 25 years old. I don't want to wear baggy pants anymore. I don't want to act like a boy."
Kucsulain says criticism today often stems from the audience not approving of her "girlie" clothes or the way she dances on stage, which might not always fit into traditional hardcore poses. But in true Kucsulain fashion, she doesn't care.
"I'm allowed to express myself however I want to and if they don't like it they can fucking go away. I'm not leaving and I'm going to do what I do because that's what it's about."
Giggling about a story involving a dead rat in a sock being flung around at a hardcore show, sisters Trezzy and Fran Lanz speculate on why there is less pressure for men to impress within music scenes than women.
"Whenever I think of tough guy hardcore, I think of the rat in the sock. I'd like to think, for all our faults, [women] don't swing rats in socks," Trezzy points out.
Breaking down people's expectations is something Calgary's Kilbourne know all too well, especially when faced with heavy criticism under expectations of mediocrity while men who are average musicians escape relatively unscathed. The four-piece, founded by Trezzy and Fran, and including Stefani MacKichan on drums and guitarist Dan Bronson, have heard their fair share of surprised comments.
"The polite ones say they definitely weren't expecting it, the less-polite ones say: You didn't suck. I'm impressed,'" Fran says.
Despite Kilbourne having warmed the hearts of critics since last year's debut Measure of Health, they, like Kucsulain, feel there is more pressure for female musicians in aggressive genres, though they joke that it's easier to get by when the bar is set so low.
"I think that when it comes to women's participation in rock music the barriers are absolutely cultural," Trezzy says. "In classical music there are women virtuosos and nobody thinks anything of it. I actually got one of the rudest MySpace messages unintentionally rude. It was, I used to think girls couldn't/shouldn't play guitar in bands but you guys have changed my mind.' That's not a compliment. You're a fucking moron. If a woman can be a piano virtuoso why can't a woman shred on a rock guitar? There's no reason. It's all social."
Although Kilbourne deviate into post-hardcore leanings, the band keep close ties with the hardcore community and others in the music scene, and despite still detouring around cultural roadblocks, Fran says she has sensed an improvement over time.
"I'll say that within the music community it's definitely changing," she says. "I can even tell from seven years ago, I feel that I'm treated more as a peer than before and whether that's because my skills have improved in seven years I don't know."
Trezzy adds that there is room for improvement, but concedes that things have changed for them as musicians and as a band. "I feel like people are starting to get us now. And it's a long, tough fight but we're fighting it and I think there will always be young women to fight it."
"In the past few years I've definitely seen more of a visible uprising of females in hardcore and I think it's awesome," says I Object singer Barb, who goes by her first name.
Barb was first attracted to hardcore for its "acceptance of everything" and its "strange collection of people"; as both a fan and an artist, she feels she's been treated as an equal in the community. Known for sticking to DIY ethics and hammering out well-crafted `80s-inspired thrash, Rochester, New York's I Object have toured extensively since the band's inception in 2003, which has widened Barb's perspective on how the scene has evolved. On the road in support of a full-length album due out this month, Barb talks about how the scene has reinvented itself.
"I think the thing that probably pushed it to be more equal, gender-wise, was definitely girls saying they weren't going to stop going to shows, stop playing in bands, that they're going to scream louder, talk more, and have more involvement."
Raising the volume and getting out there is exactly what's happening, and in Canada, it has meant success for bands like Ottawa's grindcore phenoms Fuck the Facts. The band are leading in hardcore and aggressive scenes alike with their all-or-nothing screaming and slashing guitars. The guttural vocals belong to Mel Mongeon, and are something that she says surprises some fans that come out to shows but haven't connected the voice on the band's albums with a woman.
Mongeon first started screaming into a microphone in '99 when a friend asked her to join his band. Her affair with aggressive music started at a younger age when she immersed herself in punk and hardcore.
"There's an energy in that music, a vibe," she says, adding that as time passed, her music tastes often craved something heavier and heavier because "your ears get used to it," and she went to see as many bands as she could.
"It never bothered me that it was male-dominated. It's not that I close my eyes to it. If everyone takes their place and does what they have to do and what they want to do, I think the scene will be less male-dominated. And I think that's what is happening now, slowly. It's hard to tell because when a movement is strongly in place and you can notice it that's because there've already been years and years of slow work. Maybe right now we're in a change but we'll be able to point to it and realise it in a few years."
Mongeon, who has been fronting FTF for four years, says that perception plays a major role in gender issues in music. She also sees herself as an individual and doesn't analyse people's reactions.
Unfortunately, there are still plenty of people who see gender before they see an artist. Topon Das, guitarist and founder of Fuck the Facts, says bringing Mongeon into the band was based on the fact that they all loved her vocal style. But he knows that some men have other motives.
"I always try to force the point that Mel's not here because she's a girl," he says. "I see it from some certain bands where it'd become this big promotional device where it's like, Here's our girl singer. Come and see our girl singer, she's hot,' and all this shit. But it's not something that we really think about. Sometimes we'll go play a show somewhere and we see the flyer and it's like Fuck the Facts, female-fronted grindcore,' and we're just like fuck.' That's our big selling point? It's a bit discouraging in a way when you think people might be going to see you just because they want to see your singer."
Mongeon agrees that artists should be judged by their work, not gender. Half jokingly, she says that the only drawback she has is that she can't carry heavy equipment like her band-mates. But she adds that women should be careful in being defensive about how they're perceived.
"Sometimes I think about it and I would maybe be surprised if I saw a woman that looked really quiet and then got on stage," she says. "It's not because it's misogynist, it's just because there are fewer women so they don't expect it. I read someone saying I'm pissed because they always think I'm the merch girl.' We shouldn't be mad because the majority of the time it's true. The girl is often not in the band but the merch girl. We shouldn't be mad because people are assuming things. It's still a male-dominated scene."
Of course, there are women out there who would take this beyond just being seen as the merch girl and interpret this topic as tired, irrelevant, and detrimental to the progress that has already been made. But in discussing it, the state of women's involvement in hardcore is still at varying stages. For Barb, hardcore is already an open community. For Kucsulain and the Lanz sisters, it can be a more volatile place still in transition. Das's insights also show a discouraging side of the scene, although he concedes there have been many positive changes as well.
It is because of all of these perspectives that Mongeon has no problem taking a stance against anyone who would argue that this is a dead issue. "There are still weird individuals that have a state of mind that is really misogynistic and that shouldn't be tolerated in the scene anymore and it still is. This subject is not done yet."