The Particular Pain of Being a Woman in Love With a Music Scene That Doesn't Love You Back

It’s heartbreaking; women put as much of themselves into scenes as men, but are confronted with disbelief and incredulity, relegated to fangirls and groupies, or worse.
Publish date:
November 9, 2015
sexism, music, subculture

In August, music critic and Pitchfork editor Jessica Hopper tweeted an open call for women to share their first encounters in their music scenes and the industry at large that suggested they “didn’t count.” Hopper was met with a flood of responses, ranging from tales of casual condescension and sexism to harassment and violence.

The stories touched a very raw nerve. It’s heartbreaking; women put as much of themselves into scenes as men but are confronted with disbelief and incredulity, relegated to fangirls and groupies, or worse. As one responder astutely observed, music scenes function as an alternative to mainstream society, and yet, women often face “more of the same.”

What was particularly striking about Hopper’s timeline was just how many women felt discouraged to the point that they chose to abandon a scene — or not even pursue it in the first place. For them, Hopper’s replies were confirmation they had made the right decision. And that is the real tragedy. As Hopper noted in the midst of the flurry of tweets: “Imagine how many women, queer kids, POC might stick around scenes, industry, journalism if they encountered support not hostility.”

Imagine the music and the communities we’ve missed out on because of the people we’ve turned away at the door.

Yet, there are countless women who — for the sheer love of their favorite artists and the communities they band together — continue on in spite of the constant suggestion they are somehow less than. Below are just three examples.

I. Kate

Memory skews reality, but I like to think Kate and I first bonded over a shared love of Ryan Adams. Or Jenny Lewis. Or both. Whichever came first, Kate took what in your mid-20s feels like a daring plunge — extending her friendship by inviting me to a Sharon Van Etten concert. And almost as soon as we decided to be girls who are friends who like music that falls into the strange, outreaching catchall of "indie and alternative," we were almost immediately told in so many words: One girl at a show is on the in. Two’s a crowd.

In a perfect distance between the stage and bar, Kate and I ran into a mutual friend. He asked us, “So, which one of you likes Sharon Van Etten?” It was innocent enough and surely not ill-intentioned but perplexing all the same. Weren’t we both there? Should the assumption be that we both wanted to be there and not the other way around?

If it’s not the “Which one of you brought the other one?” paradigm, it’s, as Kate says, “Someone older and cooler told me about it, or, ‘What guy are you here with?’”

The latter particularly hits home for Kate, who, during college, dated a musician who garnered significant attention and respect among their peers. Chances are — as Hopper’s timeline indicated back in August — people at shows already assume that women in attendance have tagged along with a man with superior knowledge, if not a member of the band itself. When the answer is, “Yes, I am dating him,” how do you counteract that perception?

Kate, a writer, found her autonomy was largely disregarded at her ex-boyfriend’s shows. To observers, she was “always there as his girlfriend.”

“I couldn’t be there as a fan, as a fellow artist, as a writer,” she says. “But I was there because I wanted to be. I wasn’t there because it was my role as a girl who dates a musician.”

The worry she couldn’t be independently interested in the music followed Kate well after their stormy two-year relationship. When I ask if the gender dynamics in the scene and at shows ever discouraged her from going, for Kate, it all ties back to those two years.

“There are plenty of times when I don’t have someone to go [to a show] with, and I can’t bear to be there alone, because then you’re found out,” she says. “You’re just there ‘cause you’re into it. It’s vulnerable. Especially after my relationship, I was a little embarrassed to go to shows, because if he sees me, he’s gonna know I’m only going ‘cause he showed me this band. I always worried it would be seen as this attempt to be as knowledgeable as him. I never felt an independence in the scene, because he always made me feel like it was such a blessing for him to be into it.”

But it’s not isolated to mind-fuck relationships — it’s a recurring thread between many of the encounters with men in the scene. “Guys want to be the ones to bestow the knowledge upon you: ‘Oh, surely you’ve never heard this unreleased 1999 LP,’” she half-jokes. “It’s a hope that they can prove us wrong and step in as a savior.”

For women, the demand to prove they belong—that they’ve earned this space—can be near crippling: all the times we’ve stayed at home just to not “be found out,” as Kate suggests. But then, there’s the overwhelming urge to prove them wrong.

“There’s this desire: Yes, I know what I’m talking about,” Kate says. “I’m smart enough to be here.”

II. Lauren

Lauren and I were in a bridal party together over the summer, and I watched as, at the mere mention she had seen Method Man live weeks prior, a groomsman tested her: Name your favorite Wu-Tang Clan member. Name your favorite song. Name your favorite solo album.

There isn’t anything abjectly wrong with wanting to bond with a like-minded fan over a shared love of an artist, but something was different here.

Lauren said Method Man was her favorite, the groomsman wrote it off — how about Raekwon? ODB? Lauren referenced a lyric to “C.R.E.A.M.” He said it was an obvious song. Then she has to “know every single Wu-Tang solo album in order of release and list them by greatness.”

Lauren is quick to cite a dozen more exchanges just like this one. On a date, Wu-Tang comes up again. He says, “You need to listen to Run the Jewels” — assuming she hasn’t already (she has).

On another occasion, Lauren listened to a stranger at a hot dog stand opine the inferiority of latter-day Kanye West. When she said she likes Yeezus, he generously educated her on Kanye’s progression from The College Dropout to today — assuming she was in need of an education. “I was just trying to get a hot dog.”

Lauren notes these encounters usually take place with new acquaintances — not at shows, but, strangely, as they are just on the precipice of getting to know one another. “He critiques this, I have to defend it,” she says.

And if she passes the test, she achieves the other extreme of an untenable binary. “Then I’m the ‘cool girl,’” she says. “I do what boys like.”

That’s the paradox: Even in the supposedly favorable outcome, this space isn’t hers. She’s an exception; she’s somehow outwitted the system and come out with interests that still, ultimately, belong to men.

It’s those very limited options that attracted Lauren to hip-hop in the first place. “It’s an escape from the box society puts you in,” she says, particularly in regards to those gender norms as well as her experience as a biracial woman. Even while others are keen to dismiss her agency, Lauren takes it back through the music. She cites Run the Jewels’ “Love Again” as an example — a song that is sexually explicit and graphic from both the man and the woman’s perspectives. But no matter which gender is speaking, Lauren finds power in filtering the song through her own voice and experiences.

“I feel so empowered when singing it — all of the verses,” she says. “When you sing from the man’s point of view and then when you sing from the woman’s point of view.” In that moment, she’s unencumbered from those expectations: “You’re restraining yourself all day. Any type of music is an outlet.”

But when faced with those voices challenging her to prove herself and earn her place, Lauren says there are two options.

“You can choose to not engage, but then you have to be okay with an altered perception of yourself,” she says. Lauren’s quick to note that this is not her chosen course of action: “Yeah, other people’s opinions don’t matter, but I want to put you in your fucking place.”

And such was the case with the Wu-Tang-obsessed groomsman. “Why do I need to know this? You don’t know this,” Lauren comments. “You just said Liquid Swords is by RZA; it’s by GZA. And that’s the best solo album, so fuck you.”

III. Hélène

Hélène talks about EDM with a kind of reverence — and she’s quick to air her reservations about the nebulous, all-encompassing term and what she views as negative connotations associated with festival culture and an empty love of beat drop after beat drop after beat drop.

There’s more beneath the surface, and Hélène speaks with care and depth about those nuances, the history. She recalls the first time she heard a Felix da Housecat track on the radio in France (her dad a native, this is where Hélène’s family spent their summers) and how her visceral response was immediate.

Ever since, she’s thrown herself into the scene, which, on the surface, greets those eager fans with a message of PLUR: peace, love, unity and respect.

Those on the outside of EDM, however, Hélène finds don’t share that inclusivity. “People hear EDM and automatically think, ‘Oh, you just like to do a lot of drugs; you just like to party all night and not feel your face,'” she says. “They’re not the people who are willing to understand more refined notions of this music. If you were to play a house track from 1988 Detroit for them, they’d probably roll their eyes.”

But even internally, EDM is fraught with characteristics counter to its motto.

Hélène wagers men outnumber women by a long shot — both among fans and artists. Accordingly, whenever at a show, Hélène is met with reactions that range from pleasant, bemused surprise to stark disbelief. “There’s always a sense of surprise, which never gets less offensive,” she says. “Sometimes when I talk to men about EDM who think they’re big fans of the genre, there’s a sense of, ‘Mmm, I’m gonna try to trick her.”

She recounts a specific instance at a Jeremy Olander show. “I’ve followed [Olander] for three, four years now, since he released Fairfax,” Hélène says. “I went to his show and some guy started talking to me and said, ‘What are your top artists?’ I said, ‘Well, Jeremy’s one of them.’ And he just kind of looked at me like, ‘Is she just saying that because she’s here?’”

“It really bothered me to feel like you have to defend yourself,” she continues. “Your words should be taken at face value.”

But instead, as Hélène points out, it takes a great deal of legwork to convince male fans she knows anything at all. And even if she does, even if she spouts specific trap artists or the difference between tech and progressive house, then and there, she’s faced with the reverse — she risks becoming just another pretentious bitch.

And not only is she confronted with the stereotype that she must be empty-headed, but she must also be lacking in real world experience and responsibilities.

“They think, ‘She must not be serious; she must party all the time; she must not have a job if she’s going to as many shows as she’s saying she goes to,” Hélène says. “But if a dude says he likes going to EDM shows, those assumptions aren’t made.”

So why put up with it at all? Hélène is quick to circle back to her aforementioned reverence. When things have gotten bad, EDM has offered her solace. She names specific shows, festivals, artists that provided a positive escape from whatever was going on in her life at that time.

I ask her to take me to a show in hopes I can see what she sees.

We go to a club that appears to be a virtual manifestation of EDM’s PLUR mantra. Everyone’s wearing toothy grins, packed tight and dancing or hidden away in corners making out, alternately shrouded and illuminated by the strobing lights. Either their movements are in sync with the music or the DJ is in sync with the crowd’s collective pulse. I see the attraction.

“You want to be in that crowd,” Hélène says. “You want to feed off the energy of that crowd and you want to be surprised by the DJ’s choices.”

We make our way to a second club, which is decidedly antithetical to the first. The rooftop is packed on Labor Day weekend with 20- and 30-somethings bidding farewell to summer and screaming at each other over the music in an attempt to make a fleeting connection. It’s difficult to make our way through the crowd, and Hélène and I quickly lose count of the number of guys who — to varying degrees of success — make thinly veiled excuses for touching us, whether it’s just to pass by or what’s always felt like a very backwards way of striking up a conversation.

One tells Hélène and I that we just have to meet his friend — it’s nothing weird, he promises. It turns out, it is very weird. Another man straddles my leg. I still mentally fumble for excuses: Maybe he was pushed there by the crowd — and lingered. I shift away.

But by our third, fourth and fifth encounters, Hélène is losing all patience. A guy approaches her from behind, blatantly pretends to trip and tumble into her, leaving his hand planted on her waist. Hélène, exhausted, yells, “Don’t fucking touch me!” I blink, and he has disappeared back into the crowd.

I can’t help but laugh. Hélène’s response is almost comical — a Seinfeld-esque aversion to the banal social contacts that populate life. But then, I wonder if I’m making more excuses for the behavior as “par for the course,” the kinds of excuses that safeguard the behavior in the first place.

Hélène’s response was the reaction of a girl very much at the end of her rope, and I’m beginning to wonder if we shouldn’t all just start yelling, “Don’t fucking touch me,” in order to just be heard.