In this post, I provide plenty of autobiographical anecdotes about being female in a predominantly male rock band. I shall be invoking quite a bit of theory today as a means of better articulating some of my experiences, too. You may wish to fill up your coffee mug!
As I mentioned briefly last week, a key part of the wider ‘gig experience’ was, for me, the construction and development of a stage ‘image’ as both of my bands’ frontwoman. The fact that we were working under our own steam, i.e. on our own independent record labels, was a somewhat ambivalent situation. On one hand, it meant doing without any externally provided financial backing and resources but, on the other, it was extremely liberating when it came to our creative freedoms around decisions about how the bands should sound and look.
Being the only girl in an otherwise all-male band was a great adventure. I acknowledge that my personal experiences in this regard were perhaps not entirely conventional, given that I was married to a fellow (male) band member during my time in Karnataka and again during my subsequent time in The Reasoning. There are a multitude of pros and cons to that arrangement – I’m sure most couples who work together in any context would acknowledge the same – but I have no doubt that it provided me with a certain degree of protection not always available or afforded to female peers in similar situations, and that’s something I didn’t take for granted.
During my later years with Karnataka, I was fortunate to front the band alongside Anne-Marie Helder, which enabled the two of us to be really playful and experimental with our appearance, outfits and onstage antics. As I’ve said of other memories described in previous blog entries… good times, fondly remembered. Photographs and videos from those years document the many chapters of our evolving image, from layers of lace, billowing sleeves, ribbons and (literally) flowers in our hair, to PVC leggings, vinyl miniskirts, leather corsets and New Rock boots. We weren’t afraid to push a few boundaries, and it was highly enjoyable and exciting. I learned some important clothing-related lessons along the way, such as the more unusual uses of gaffer tape, and the hazards of going braless during a set that involved much cavorting around onstage 😊.
I was The Reasoning’s only female for the vast majority of the band’s lifetime, and so I was usually left to my own devices when planning, sourcing and – occasionally the most challenging part of all! – actually getting into and out of my stage outfits; an activity not for the fainthearted. There were plenty of image changes then, too, from silky dresses paired with the aforementioned New Rock boots, a pair of Gucci hot pants, fishnet tights and the feathered black wings, whose image became synonymous with our album ‘Dark Angel’. I also eventually re-discovered the joys of performing barefoot; something that I’ve always liked to do in the studio, because it makes me feel centred and grounded when I sing. Outfit-related lessons learned during those years included remembering to check that both legs of my tights had actual feet in sufficient time to change them before gig time (not kidding), and how to apply stage make-up in the poorly-lit toilets of a strip club next door to the venue. Also not kidding. Such incidents maketh the woman: there’s no question about that! 😊
Plenty has already been written on the topic of female rock musicians and the ways in which they come to inhabit a space that is ‘socially coded’ as male, although much of it takes a feminist perspective. Whilst I fully understand that there still exist serious structural inequalities for women within the music industry – and elsewhere – I choose not to use my blogging space for the purposes of close engagement with wider political debates on that subject. Importantly, I reiterate that I’m only able to write from my own personal experience. I make claim to my own personal story and no-one else’s in doing so.
Theory-wise in this post, I think it’s useful to draw on various understandings of gender identity. This seems relevant to an exploration of what it might mean and, crucially, how it feels to front a rock band comprised mostly of men when you are yourself a woman. I observe that plenty of the material published on this topic, in keeping with its feminist orientation, emphasises the ways in which being that woman could be considered transgressive or controversial, for example by focusing on how women have challenged or subverted music-related practices that are traditionally considered to be male.
Viv Albertine, who I was lucky enough to meet at an author event in Waterstones last year, recently published her memoirs, in which she shares her experiences of being in the all-female punk band The Slits. Both of her books make for fascinating reading and are disarmingly, if not brutally, honest: I highly recommend them! She reflects on many such apparently subversive behaviours; practices that feminist theory might categorise as forms of ‘resistance’,. In this context, resistance is understood as a form of agency – and power – that involves the construction and negotiation of (gendered) subjectivity. Approaches of this kind are often used to explore women’s struggle to resist, subvert or contest patriarchal gender ‘norms’ and inequalities, focusing upon the personal dimensions of political power (e.g. , ). As helpful as these constructionist conceptualisations may be, they leave little room for consideration of our inner worlds, and I’ll come back to that bit later on 😊
There’s also a binary to be observed in the study of female rock (or punk) musicians. By this, I mean that women’s experiences in this context are often understood either as (active) acts of rebellion, or as (passive) feats of endurance against a backdrop of perpetual objectification. Returning visitors to this blog will already be aware that I have an aversion to epistemological bifurcations of this kind (told you I was weird). In my blog entries dated 9.5.2020 and 16.5.2020, I made use of Winnicott’s concept of ‘essential tensions’ to justify my preferred perspective, and he will crop up many times in forthcoming posts, too. In today’s post, I find myself similarly oriented, taking up a position in-between those two opposing subject positions, in which/from which my female/feminine identity is both experienced and performed.
I wrestled with some of these theoretical points in my PhD thesis, which includes a chapter detailing how film viewers are ‘psychosocially gendered’. There, in a (very small) nutshell, I suggested that gender is made meaningful (to us) for complex psychodynamic reasons, and that both postmodernist and psychoanalytic theory have a great deal to offer in exploring this idea, despite often being polarised. From this viewpoint, gender is constructed and experienced within our outer (shared social) and our inner (individual, psychological) worlds. Borrowing again from the field of psychosocial studies, I quote Stephen Frosh, who writes that gender is:
“both a position in discourse, a category of culture to be contested and an intersubjective and intrapsychic element of each individual’s sense of self”.
When it comes to theory, I favour this kind of cross-disciplinary approach because it opens up a space for exploring some of those really tricky and slippery ideas. Psychosocial frameworks help to challenge some of the binary ways in which gender is sometimes conceptualised, e.g. active-male/passive-female. Additionally, from a psychosocial point of view, it’s possible to think about how we ‘invest in’ certain gendered subject positions and, importantly, how these investments are motivated not only by heteronormative ideologies, but also by the unconscious anxieties, conflicts and phantasies that inform our own individual biographies. Such investments come to form part of our cultural ideologies of self and, drawing on a cross-disciplinary range of theoretical concepts, valuable ideas are to be found in poststructuralism – check out Judith Butler and the alarmingly ever-present Michel Foucault -, J.L Austin on the philosophy of language, the field of discursive psychology and, of course, psychoanalysis (various, depending on your personal alignment!).
Again: why does this matter, who cares, and how is it relevant here?
Well. Back to that thing about being the frontwoman of an otherwise predominantly male band, working in a music genre (rock/progressive rock) that, despite the recent-ish and very welcome rise of female fronted acts in said genres, remains largely male-dominated, both on the stage and in the audience.
As I’ve mentioned before, I acknowledge that my personal experiences were shaped by an important fact, i.e. that my status as wife-of-a-fellow-band-member was openly disclosed and therefore known to our followers and audiences from the start. Whilst this certainly served to ‘protect’ me in some ways, it also brought with it extra complications in terms of knowing how, when and to what extent it was appropriate to invest in and perform certain gendered subject positions as a frontwoman, especially as these related to my own sexuality. The wider debate about how and when such displays are ever ‘appropriate’ (or, indeed, acceptable) for women is too vast and politically charged to invoke in my tiny little blog, but it needs acknowledging, lest it become an unwelcome elephant here. More about elephants in future posts, as well!
I am of course very fortunate in that I never felt obliged to do anything that I wasn’t comfortable with in terms of image or performance. It was always important to us all – in both bands – that the music we created was strong and well-crafted enough to appeal to listeners in its own right, and we worked very hard to ensure that our live performances were comprehensively rehearsed and professionally delivered. Is it even possible, though – particularly in today’s image and media saturated world – to claim that image shouldn’t matter, and that it ought to have no bearing whatsoever on an artist’s success (or lack of it)? I don’t think so. It matters a hell of a lot and needs to be carefully considered as part of a band’s identity. Especially, I would argue, when you’re the girl (or one of them) who’s at the ‘front’.
Some artists and performers speak of invoking a different ‘persona’ onstage, as an actor might do in performing a role in a play or a film. It was never like that for me: my stage self has always been an extension of what I consider to be just me, and live shows were an exciting space in which I could play with that dimension of my identity and enjoy doing so.
To be continued… 😊
“Open me up, set me free / bring out the woman in me…”
 The Reasoning, Dark Angel. Comet Music 2008
 Frith, S. and McRobbie, A. (1990) ‘Rock and Sexuality’. In S. Frith and A. Goodwin (Eds.) On Record: Rock, Pop and the Written Word. Routledge pp 371–89
 I acknowledge that the categories ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are today recognised as identity positions not necessarily determined by one’s past or present biological sex. I’m nearly 50 years old, and so much of my autobiographical material is based on experiences from a time of far narrower thinking and ideas.
 Albertine, V. (2015) Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys. Faber & Faber
 Albertine, V. (2018) To Throw Away Unopened. Faber & Faber
 McNay, L. (1999) ‘Subject, Psyche and Agency’. In: V. Bell (Ed.) Performativity and Belonging. London: Sage, pp175-193
 de Lauretis, T. (2007) Figures of Resistance: Essays in Feminist Theory. Illinois: University of Illinois Press
 Lloyd, S.A., Few, A.L. and Allen, K.R. (Eds.) (2009) Handbook of Feminist Family Studies. New Delhi, London, California and Singapore: Sage
 Kowaleski Wallace, E. (Ed.) (2009) Encyclopaedia of Feminist Literary Theory. Abingdon and New York: Routledge
 Cohen, R. (2012) Cinematic Constructions of the Female Serial Killer: A Psychosocial Audience Study. [Online] Available at: http://orca.cf.ac.uk/46698/1/2013cohenrphd.pdf
 Frosh, S. (1994: 1) Sexual Difference: Masculinity and Psychoanalysis. New York and London: Routledge
 I acknowledge that a shift towards greater gender fluidity is beginning to challenge some such conceptualisations in a broader structural sense, also.
 E.g. Hollway, W. and Jefferson, T. (2000) ‘Narrative, Discourse and the Unconscious: The Case of Tommy’. In M. Andrews, S. Day Sclater, M. Rustin, C. Squire and A. Treacher (Eds.) Lines of Narrative: Psychosocial Perspectives. London and New York: Routledge, pp136-149
 Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge
 E.g. Ramazanoglu, C. (Ed.) (1993) Up Against Foucault: Explorations of Some Tensions Between Foucault and Feminism. London and New York: Routledge
 Austin, J.L. (1975) How to Do Things With Words. Harvard University Press
 E.g. Wetherell, M. and Edley, N. (1999) Negotiating Hegemonic Masculinity: Imaginary Positions and Psycho-Discursive Practices. Feminism and Psychology 9(3): 335–356
 Karnataka ‘Woman in Me’, from the album Karnataka. Immrama Records, 1998