Women in music–Its still the same old song?

There is a story from the early 1970s about Suzi Quattro wandering into the Motown studios and picking up a bass and jamming.  According to the tale, James Jamerson was in the control room, hit the speaker button and said… “You’re pretty good..

…For a white chick.”

Now, I could sit back and ponder on this as a tale of “You’ve come a long way baby” but a few weekends ago I was in an impromptu jam session with a few musicians I’ve never played with before.   And not one, but two of the guys (another bass player and a guitarist) pretty much fed me the same line.   Except the backhanded compliment ended with “for a girl..” Since I’m in my early 50s, I hardly think that noun applies to me or my talent as a bass player.

Its International Women’s Day, and in 2014, it still amazes me how little women in the music business have progressed.  I picked up a recent issue of Bass Player Magazine and there were only two women in the issue, both in advertising–Rhonda Smith and Nik West.  You could argue that bass is not a popular instrument for women, but looking through the photos posted on Bass Musician Magazine’s Facebook site,    at least 25 – 30 percent are women.  So where is the disconnect here?  Why the seeming lack of appreciation for the talent and lack of respect as a serious musician?  What gives?

I really don’t know all the answers to that question but I do think we need to address a few issues that are problematic for female musicians.

First, we have to stop seeing our appearance as our main focus/ role  in the band.  I fully realize that in music as in other popular media, sex sells.   I have no qualms about women appreciating their female bodies and showing them off in an empowering way–many of the female rock musicians of the 1970s and the grrl rock scene are great examples.  But when it becomes the primary focus,  the musician behind those leather pants is lost in the equation.  I remember seeing a picture of Charlotte Cooper of the Subways with a Lakland bass and having one of my male friends say..”Wow, that such a gorgeous bass, I almost forgot to drool over how hot Charlotte looks in that photo”.   Point taken.

Second, there is this issue of constructive criticism.   No musician will develop unless they can get the mentoring and yes, constructive criticism of their betters and their peers.   Its really insulting to sit in master classes, band rehearsals etc and hear people constructively criticize male players and then turn to a female player and say something like “that was very good!  I can see you’re trying!”  Or worse, say nothing at all because they don’t want to hurt a female players feelings.  Or even worse, don’t think they are worth the time and effort to assist.   Doing this stunts a person’s growth and in the long run, makes them completely unprepared for the real world of gigging and playing.    My best two mentors are guys that frankly are very nice people but pull no punches when it comes to telling me where I need to improve.   I respect them far more for their critical analysis than the pat on the head I’ve gotten at times from others.

Third,  we need to  stop defining ourselves by the roles that others define for us   Want a list of these?  Just check out Meredith Brooks song “Bitch” and read it ironically.  Every female rock stereotype is pretty much listed in that song.  Be yourself and play your music, your sex doesn’t define you as a musician but is part of that whole package .

Finally, we need to stop being our own worst enemy.   Not everything has to have a feminist or political agenda.   And just because you are female doesn’t automatically equate to the responsibility of loving every female musician out there regardless of personal taste.   People get appalled when I tell them I don’t like Esperanza Spalding.   Sorry, I don’t like her style of Jazz.  And the same goes for Tal Wilkenfeld, who I think could use a bit more space in her bass lines.   However, that shouldn’t make me a traitor to the cause.   I laud the fact that they have made it and are appreciated as talented musicians, but the love ends there.    I love Tina Weymouth, the same way I love Justin Mendal-Johnsen, because they are really great bass players whose style I appreciate and enjoy.   Our focus should be to get our music out there period and not nick pick each other.  We need each other and need to set a strong example for the women coming up behind us.

I hope and pray things are changing for the better and maybe I’m missing something obvious out there.  But sadly, I don’t think we’ve made much progress and the future looks a bit dubious at best.

Categories music

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