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?
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At this point in time, one would hope that the idea of an all-female concert would be as outdated as those "No Fat Chicks" shirts riot grrrls reclaimed in the Nineties.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."
Ray celebrates Ladyfest's commitment to remaining anti-corporate and independent. "I'm realizing that it's hard to get people to change their biases without being exposed to something in a mainstream way," she admits. "When I'm down at the diner, sitting next to my neighbor who has a Confederate flag hanging outside his house, and I want to know how to bridge the gap between us, he says something like, 'Well, I think that Ellen DeGeneres is all right.' And I think, television! TV is what makes him not want to burn me and other lesbians at the stake!...But when there's no access for women at all in the mainstream--in the power-hungry, homogenized media and music industry--you really have to build smaller coalitions among the people who are left out of that system. And that's what Ladyfest is trying to do."
Does that mean Ladyfest is working within the separatist spirit of punk rock? "For me, punk is a philosophy, not an aesthetic," Ray explains. "The idea behind punk is, that music is a community of people who don't have a voice in society, and yet these people can come together to hear their voice through music."
And throughout Ladyfest, one can hear any number of voices that are separate--many by choice--from the mainstream. Over the course of the festival, I exchange business advice with the editor of Venus (a smart Chicago zine about women in indie rock that still struggles to achieve more widespread distribution), chant along with the Pirate Cheerleaders (a group of feminist pom-pom girls who bring it on like Kirsten Dunst never could), and listen in as two sex educators teach a workshop on sex toys ("Be sure to peel the microwaved cucumber before you use it, or you can get some nasty pesticides!").
Some of the best Ladyfest Midwest acts are also the most obscure. Oakland electronic duo Blechtum From Blechdom perform at the Fireside Bowl, a ramshackle bowling alley, in shirts with matching twin flames on the bust and pants that sew the two artists together at the rump with a two-foot swath of musical-noted fabric. "There's a Boob-B-Q in here. My tits are on fire!" they sing while plunking out a beginner's ditty on a synthesizer. Amid cheesy orgasmic-moaning loops, Nintendo-style jingles, and a Muzak version of "Private Dancer," they sing about the difficulties of coupling with an extraterrestrial, turning the male anatomy into a raver's glow stick, and singing the praises of "bad, bad music everywhere." This is what a feminist looks like: Siamese twins with a sense of humor who teach themselves how to mix their own loops while conjoined at their bottoms.
And speaking of bottoms, performance artist and cult hero Cynthia Plaster Caster gives a short lecture on musicians' lower halves at the Empty Bottle bar. Her subject? The art of making plaster molds of penises and breasts. The artist proudly displays her casts of Jon Langford and Sally Timms (both of the Mekons, both well-endowed). Catching up to Cynthia after the show, I ask her whom at Ladyfest she would like to use as her next model.
"I would love to do [Le Tigre frontwoman] Kathleen [Hanna]," she gushes. "But, well, I don't have a lot of plaster left!"
"Then you'd better not try getting Kathleen," I say. "You definitely won't have enough."
"Yeah, you're right," she replies. "Maybe I'll get [exploitation filmmaker] Doris [Wishman] to do it. She's a single-cup-of-plaster kinda gal."
This is what a feminist looks like: an entrepreneurial sculptor who creates her own phallus and commemorates flat-chested women.
The following night at the Congress Theater, South Bronx hip-hop/house/
soul/funk group ESG--an influential group of the late-Seventies and early-Eighties underground whose songs have been sampled by countless artists from the Wu-Tang Clan to Unrest--put on a show that may stand as the highlight of the festival. Drummer Valerie Scroggins and her sister, singer Renee Scroggins (who once shared a single bill with both the Clash and Grandmaster Flash!) bring their daughters along to play bass and guitar. The younger ESGers are definitely not professional musicians. But when their mothers started out playing their bouncy polyrhythms, they weren't either. The ESG performance centers upon community and celebration: Renee's rousing gospel and Valerie's soulful beats buoy their daughters' efforts through dance-floor classics like "You're No Good" and "UFO." The daughters look on with an "I can't BELIEVE Mom is famous!" expression. In return, the audience--who had heretofore observed acts like Mary Timony and the Need with clinical stillness--erupt into dancing and singing. This is what a feminist looks like: a generation of independent women, all grown-up, passing their knowledge and power on to their children.
Maybe some day we won't need Ladyfest's punk spirit to be our voice. But for now, if we rely upon feminist musicians to enter into the mainstream and embrace its ideals along with its album sales, we'll be in danger of accepting token efforts like Spin's "The Girl Issue" or the disingenuous Women of Rock edition of Rolling Stone for support. (In a 1997 Chicago Reader article, cited at a Women in Rock Journalism panel at Ladyfest, Monica Kendrick asked skeptically, "Can [Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner's] transgressions be redeemed by hot-pink pages that list self-mutilation, Christina Ricci, and Kurt Cobain as defining aspects of 'Girl Culture'?"). By increasing the visibility of female artists from around the country, providing a forum for discussing contemporary feminist issues, and developing a woman-organized, woman-supported festival and larger community, Ladyfest manages to educate both its male and female attendees on a variety of issues. At the same time, it doesn't define women's music in a narrow way that would circumscribe its message in gender-neutral forums.
So what do feminists look like now? None of the Ladyfest artists are likely to espouse the beliefs of an archetypal Woman in Rock or tell a Disney-like fairy tale of Lady and the Amp. But they can tell you that this is what gender politics looks like: two sisters and their daughters blasting your eardrums with DIY funkadelic. And this is what breaking traditional sex roles looks like: an artist coming toward a man with a vat of gummy liquid, asking him to drop his pants. And this is what forming a community of women rockers looks like: two musicians bound together by musical fabric. Feminist rock seems to classify itself by its very existence.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.