She Bop

From panel discussions to boobs aflame, feminism and punk rock form a holy union at Chicago's Ladyfest

Sometimes wearing a button on your T-shirt can say a lot more about a person than "I'm dressed for the lunch shift at Bennigan's." Years ago, at a conference about women's rights, I saw a riot grrrl hanging out with someone who was wearing a small red button with the words "This is what a feminist looks like" written across the front. It was a trendy accessory. It was an ideological declaration. It was pinned upon the bib of a wailing baby boy.

Which gets me thinking: What happens when riot grrrls (and their angsty brood) grow up? Back in our teenage years, we wanted to free ourselves from inequalities and traditional gender roles, start punk bands, create a music scene outside of the culture that could not or would not represent us. (Having the option of dating both girls and boys who wore barrettes was just a perk.) We wanted to make our own zines, we wanted to organize our own rallies, we wanted to add extra r's to everrry word in our own personal manifestas. And in the process, we celebrated the musical separatism of the riot-grrrl movement through bands like Bikini Kill, Huggy Bear, and Bratmobile, who broke the rocker-boy mold without having to break into the rocker-boy club. If our mothers' anthem was "Respect," then ours was "Suck My Left One."

But that was the Nineties. In this decade we have Peaches, Chicks on Speed, and Le Tigre. We have Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards's book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. We're making it clear more than ever that we don't just want to play music; we want to do sound production, fix one another's guitars, start our own record labels. So what does a feminist "look like" now?

Don't call it cock rock: Cynthia Plaster Caster at Ladyfest
Melissa Maerz
Don't call it cock rock: Cynthia Plaster Caster at Ladyfest

More than likely, she looks like any one of the thousands of women (and a much smaller contingent of men) who came from as close as an apartment building down the street and as far away as Russia and Korea to attend Ladyfest Midwest--a Chicago festival of women's music, workshops, films, and performances that went on from August 16 to 19. (Ladyfest Scotland, an upcoming Ladyfest East, and Ladyfest Midwest have spread the gospel of the original Ladyfest Olympia.)

At this point in time, one would hope that the idea of an all-female concert would be as outdated as those "No Fat Chicks" shirts riot grrrls reclaimed in the Nineties. We would expect that gathering a bunch of female musicians to play together would be no different from any other summer festival aiming to coerce young people to shell out their allowances in exchange for a few solid performances and an overpriced T-shirt. In a recent Chicago Sun-Times article, pop music critic Jim DeRogatis even asked of Ladyfest, "Is an event like this truly celebrating diversity, or is it contributing to further marginalization by setting female artists apart?"

DeRogatis asks an important question. Certainly Ladyfest could use a great deal more diversity. White indie-rock acts--a good number of whom compare themselves to the Raincoats in their Ladyfest pamphlet descriptions--dominate most of the lineup, although two of the festival's highlights include art-funk ensemble ESG and hip-hop/R&B artist Mystic, who, before performing a moving rendition of "Fatherless Child," muses aloud, "I'm not quite sure where I fit in here." (As two petite drag kings packing a little something extra in their drawers attempt to dance with Mystic's none-too-amused, massive male entourage backstage, I wonder who does fit in at this festival.)

But a brief survey of this summer's festivals suggests that regardless of the musical and racial diversity of which DeRogatis speaks, female artists of all kinds are already set apart. Search the Vans Warped Tour (Henry Rollins and Blink-182 compare bench presses!), Area:One (Incubus tries to pump up their limp bizkits!), Ozzfest (teased-coiffed metal fans wonder how an overabundance of testosterone can possibly make you lose your hair!), and Even Furthur (where are the female electronica artists?), and you'll find very few skirts among them. (That is, unless Rollins decides to revamp his drag-queen nun shtick from his "Liar" days.) To those of you who are still insisting that Lilith Fair was an effective feminist event: I would remind you that, however well-intentioned it was, the creativity-challenged, corporate-dominated, rock-lite fiasco became the creepy, crystal-deodorant-wearing aunt in the family of riot grrrldom. It may have been momentous at the time, but now it just seems like an ad campaign for cruelty-free cosmetics with a worse soundtrack.

By contrast, Ladyfest Midwest--featuring Slumber Party, DJ Minx, the Butchies, shannonwright, Sally Timms, the puta-pons, the Hissyfits, Bratmobile, and Minneapolis's own Effloresce (see "Road Trip," right)--is a significant, though perhaps small, step in honoring and supporting women in rock. The four-day festival kicks off with high-profile performances by agit-pop punk-rappers-cum-Spin favorites Le Tigre and former Indigo Girl/rockabilly queercore mama Amy Ray.

Speaking by telephone before the start of Ladyfest, Ray expresses her enthusiasm for the event, especially in comparison to sister Lilith. "I felt really out of place at Lilith," she says. "There was a lot of hidden homophobia, and just a general lack of diversity. All of the straight white artists would be standing in the middle of the dressing room, and there was always the lesbian artist and the black artist grouped together on the far wing. It was like a sad microcosm of society."

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