FALL ARTS: Fall is here, and women are ruling the Bay Area rock scene
FALL ARTS/MUSIC When I last looked at the state of all-female bands in 2006, Sleater-Kinney, Destiny's Child, and Le Tigre had hung up their guitars, mics, and samplers. Since then, the Bay Area has produced a motherlode of female-dominated rock outfits — including Grass Widow, the Splinters, Brilliant Colors, the Twinks, the Sandwitches, the Sarees, the Glassines, and Shannon and the Clams — while frontperson Dee Dee (née Kristin Gundred) of the Dum Dum Girls has moved back to SF, where she grew up.
Is there a girl band revolution on the horizon? Mainstream charts don't reflect a change, despite the rising national profiles of the Dum Dum Girls, Vivian Girls, Frankie Rose and the Outs, and the all-female band backing Beyonce during her last tour. Yet since 2007, waves of all-female bands have been breaking locally — outfits often informed by girl groups, as well as garage rock and generations of punk. Jess Scott of Brilliant Colors told me she recently broached this subject with riot grrrl vet Layla Gibbon, editor of Maximum Rocknroll: "I think people are writing about the music itself, which is exciting. I'm always for new music, and I'm doubly for girls in music."
But just because girl bands are becoming more of a norm doesn't mean that sexism has evaporated, much like the election of Barack Obama hasn't dispelled racism. "When we go on tour in the South or Midwest or anywhere else, you realize how different it is," says Lillian Maring of Grass Widow. "You're loading into the venue and hearing, 'Where's the band?' 'Heh-heh, it's us — we're the band.' 'You're traveling by yourselves?'" She looks flabbergasted. "Are you fucking kidding me?"
Intriguingly, the very idea of foregrounding gender, above music, chafes against some musicians. "There's definitely a history of women being objectified in all kinds of visual culture," says Grass Widow's Hannah Lew. "We're thoughtful people who work hard at writing songs and are trying to challenge that whole system of objectification, so it would kind of be an oxymoron if we were to capitalize on the idea of being a girl group. Our gender is an element of what we do, but the first thing is our thoughts and our music."
Still, others see gender as an inextricable part of writing music, often collaboratively, about their own experiences. "I think it's a powerful thing to be a troupe of women together writing music," says the Splinters' Lauren Stern. "The lyrics are totally different, and there are certain things that a woman writer conveys differently." Her bandmate Caroline Partamian believes the popularity of all-female combos like the Vivian Girls may be "subconsciously giving girl bands more power to keep writing songs and keep playing shows."
The Girlschool class of 2010, would probably agree that a new paradigm is in order. Scott, for instance, confesses she'd rather align herself with politically like-minded labels like Make a Mess than simply other all-female bands that "want the same old things tons of guy bands have wanted." The same old won't get you a passing grade.
MEAT THE BAND: GRASS WIDOW
The dilemma of so many women's bands — to be on the CD or LP cover, or not to be — is beside the point when it comes to SF's Grass Widow, hunkering down over burgers and shakes in the belly of a former meatpacking building at 16th and Mission streets, in a onetime-meat locker-now-practice space jammed with drum kits, amps, and gear.
"I think it's annoying to try and sensationalize girl groups, but at the same token maybe it's cool because it might normalize, a bit, the idea of gender," says bassist-vocalist Hannah Lew. "But it's definitely the thing we don't like to talk about first. I almost don't want to use our image in anything. People are automatically, 'They're hot! Omigod, that one is hot!'"