Rock’s Not Dead, It’s Ruled By Women: The Round-Table Conversation

To document this loose, sprawling scene, which is linked through overlapping musical and political dialogues online and via real-life touring networks, we’ve compiled an extensive but far from comprehensive multimedia package, both in print and online.

We begin with a sharp round table including eight songwriters and frontwomen, whose music ranges from intimate whispers (Vagabon, Soccer Mommy) to invigorating vulnerability (Diet Cig, Sad13, Snail Mail) to radical grit (Downtown Boys, Sheer Mag, War on Women); below are edited excerpts from the conversation. We also spoke with Allison and Katie Crutchfield, the twin singers and bandleaders who’ve been crucial in helping to build this movement. And finally, we present a wide-ranging list of 50 bands and solo artists from this world who are worth your ear, with a song from each so you can hear for yourself what’s been making us so hopeful.

How did you first start making music? Was there a moment when you realized you didn’t just have to be a fan of bands, but that you could be the band?

SADIE DUPUIS, 29 OF SAD13 AND SPEEDY ORTIZ Am I the only person who was very inspired by the “Josie and the Pussycats” movie? It’s sort of telling that the example I use is a fictional band [laughs]. Because I was 13 when that movie came out and I was like, “Oh, cool, a band of all women — I can do this, too; I will learn guitar.” But it wasn’t until I was older that I started thinking about the fact that all the guitar-based music that I was really interested in was primarily made by groups of four white guys.

SHAWNA POTTER, 35, OF WAR ON WOMEN I saw Courtney Love playing guitar on MTV in the “Doll Parts” video, and I immediately was like, “I can do that.” I hadn’t seen any other woman on TV playing music before, so I didn’t even realize it was possible.

CHRISTINA HALLADAY, 32, OF SHEER MAG It takes a long time when you don’t see someone who looks like you doing it. I was trying to get in with the boys I knew who were playing music and I would just hang out when they were practicing, like, “I’m here and I can sing.” But it took forever — until I demanded it.

POTTER Representation really matters — you can’t be what you can’t see.

LAETITIA TAMKO, 24, OF VAGABON The first time that I felt like I could play guitar music was when I saw a guy that I know’s band. It was the first time that I’d seen live music and I was 21, which is very late in life. I was like, “That’s it?” I was always interested, but seeing that you can learn while doing it, instead of just getting into the game and being really good at it [made me feel] like, “Oh, I can totally do this.”

HALLADAY Yeah, you have to suck for a while.

ALEX LUCIANO, 22, OF DIET CIG You have to suck for so long! No one tells you that it’s O.K. to suck. [laughter]

POTTER Just because of your gender, though. There’s millions of completely mediocre to terrible bands with dudes in them.

SOPHIE ALLISON, 20, OF SOCCER MOMMYThey’re learning! They’re getting better!”

How do you think about being a frontperson?

VICTORIA RUIZ, 30 OF DOWNTOWN BOYS It’s frustrating when you don’t play an instrument in the band, you quote-unquote just sing. Because the baseline is to be a dude that can shred on the guitar — that’s what people think of as a good musician.

DUPUIS I’ve learned a lot about like fronting a band just from seeing [Victoria] perform and touring with you, actually, because the things that you say between songs opened my eyes to what you can do with that space and how it can be really galvanizing for the people in the audience. There’s such obvious thought and intention and preparation that goes behind everything you do. I don’t think anyone who had any wits about them would say you’re just a singer.

LUCIANO It’s really scary, the idea of being up there with this responsibility: “I have to mean something to this audience and say things that are funny and smart.”

POTTER I had to deal with that “just a singer” [expletive], and the only thing I kept telling myself was: “No one ever said Robert Plant was just a singer.”

What are some of the most egregious forms of sexism you’ve experienced as a musician?

HALLADAY “Are you the tour manager?”

POTTER “Do you play keyboard? Whose girlfriend are you?”

RUIZ “Doors open in two hours.”

DUPUIS I do really like when that happens when I’m literally standing next to a huge poster of my own face.

LUCIANO Yeah, like, “I’m carrying three amps right now.”

LINDSEY JORDAN, 18, OF SNAIL MAIL One time I said I didn’t want to work with someone and they were like, “Do you want to send nudes?” Yeah, thank you — now that I think of it…

DUPUIS I hate dwelling on the misogyny porn. But one of my favorite examples is a sound engineer who was male, he picked me up to move me to get past me. He blew me off and I was like, “Cool, I know who owns this venue,” and I contacted them and he was fired.

How else have you taken control in these situations?

DUPUIS As a headliner obviously you have power. My favorite thing is having the power to hire women to do front of house or tour managing or any kind of crew position.

POTTER I toured with Brooks, our guitar player, just me and him as a duet for a while, and we just started telling people we were brother and sister, so they would stop asking us if we were dating or married.

LUCIANO Oh my God, the dating question.

HALLADAY Heaven forbid we’re just in a band together.

RUIZ It’s hard though, too, because so much of the discussion around sexism in music is so one-dimensional. Because I’m a fat woman of color, no one ever thinks the really hot white guy in my band and I are dating.

TAMKO Yeah, it’s crazy how there are two different experiences and they’re both equally bad. One is where people are just gawking at you as if you’re like this thing to be acquired by them. Or they’re just not even checking for you — like you’re not a factor in this equation at all.

How are listeners handling this shift in power when it comes to gender?

HALLADAY Teenage boys are very upset. [Laughter]

POTTER I think I really like playing in War on Women, because it’s a heavier band, super overtly feminist. Robert Plant — again — he was sexual, right, but he was a sexual subject, not a sexual object. I feel like I can do that and I can also scream about abortion or rape culture and make men, especially, uncomfortable. Maybe they’re attracted to me, maybe they’re also confused or scared or realizing this music isn’t necessarily for them. If I can make them feel all those things, then I don’t mind if they think I’m hot, because I am a fully formed human being with a range of qualities.

DUPUIS A lot of the music that I grew up on was very heteronormative, confessional stories told from a man’s view. The things that are most exciting for me are introducing narrative elements that like aren’t atypical, but just aren’t part of the canon — things that are normal to my experience as a feminine person. So I’m obviously the most psyched when I meet with a 13-year-old girl who reminds me of myself. But it’s also awesome when I see a 45-year-old guy who probably likes Pavement and Sebadoh and Guided by Voices, but is now connecting to a narrative outside of what was the onslaught in rock for so long.

JORDAN Women are expected to write outside of relationships because it’s been deemed as being trivial and dumb. Some sad white boy can get up on the microphone and be like, “I miss my girlfriend” —

POTTER He’s a genius.

JORDAN Yeah, but if a woman gets onto the microphone people are like, ew, that’s whiny. I realized as I started writing songs that I like singing about relationships and women that I like and being a gay person, so it sucks that you feel like you have to exceed expectations to be just as good as someone who doesn’t try half as hard.

ALLISON I didn’t make music until I was about 18. I’d been playing my whole life, but I wasn’t putting it out, because I didn’t feel like people would take it seriously. I thought people would be like, “It’s just like sad girl music — it’s like Taylor Swift.” But it’s really vulnerable to be feeling super broken down by another person or oppressed by people that you love. And I think just expressing that to a wide audience on its own is kind of political because you’re going against everyone who says that you can’t feel that.

Do you see politics as an explicit or implicit part of your songwriting?

TAMKO I think people let [politics] come in way more than I let them come in. It’s in a very sensationalized way with me that I’m still trying to understand, even though I understand why. Because of who I represent and at what time I decided to share this music, it just became this narrative put on me that I was gonna change the world of indie rock. I appreciate that, but I’m really not here to change any world. It’s really limiting to stamp such an intense title on someone just because there really hasn’t been much room allotted for people like me to thrive. Because I’m largely outnumbered, because I’m an anomaly in having a platform like this, it gets met with, “Well, this is what you’re about.”

DUPUIS I think so many narratives get applied to any musician who doesn’t like look like the infinite line of cisgendered white men. There hasn’t been a rock generation that’s had so many women and non-binary people fronting bands before. Maybe in five years we won’t have to deal with those kinds of editorial impositions.

HALLADAY I think a lot of us are inherently political by just being front people in a band.

TAMKO Which is cool if they didn’t make us talk about it. [laughter]

HALLADAY It’s something that everyone has to choose for themselves, and a lot of pressure is put on women, and especially women of color, to be a role model, and that’s really unfair. I am fine with it — like, “Sure, sign me up” — but that’s a choice that someone has to make. And it’s always put on women more so than men, just because there’s fewer voices.

DUPUIS Whether a song is particularly, explicitly political, I feel like the actions that a lot of us have taken on tour are very conscious towards giving back to the few resources that we’ve gotten and trying to make space for more of us. The tour that Victoria and I went on together, we gave all the proceeds to the Girls Rock Camp Foundation. And we all experience horrible [expletive] at venues, even when we’re only attending the concert. So Speedy Ortiz started a hotline where you can text if you’re experiencing harassment or something’s wrong at the venue and our crew will get that.

Who’s your ideal listener?

RUIZ Beyoncé. [laughter]

ALLISON My ideal listener is young women, especially in the scene that I’m from [in Nashville]. I’ve had so many young girls come up to me after a show and say, “How do I start putting my music on Bandcamp?” or “I used to play music, but I don’t anymore and I really want to start writing again.” That’s just the most amazing feeling. I think that’s the goal, politically, for me — not to put it in my music necessarily, just because I feel like I express it more in real life.

RUIZ I think the ideal listener understands the contradiction of being able to talk about what it’s like to take power [while] we’re also often the least powerful in situations and have to deal with all the emotional labor of the people we travel with, who are in our bands. To simultaneously think about how to front the band and then also be behind the band holding it, it’s just a completely contradictory role. And I think that the listener who gets that is going to help us push towards freedom and justice much more than anyone who’s trying to put us into a box.

LUCIANO The role of handling everyone else’s emotional labor has so often fallen on women in bands. Your tourmates are relying on this and you have to go out and perform and gush out all of this emotion to a crowd of people who like might like it and might not, and then go back after and be emotionally supportive outside of the band and on the internet. People expect you to be your most open self and sometimes I just don’t want to talk to anyone about anything. Women have to deal with this burden, which can be really overwhelming.

ALLISON It’s really draining. It’s like you can’t have a bad day.

DUPUIS I’ll have a bad day. I’ll have a [expletive] bad day. [laughter]

What role has the internet played?

JORDAN I definitely started on Bandcamp. I was 15 and I posted four or five songs that I recorded in my room on Garageband, just for fun. That’s pretty much how I got the opportunity to play our first show. I was in high school, just hanging out in my room all the time. So it was really cool to just to record songs and then be able to play with my favorite bands like a week later.

ALLISON Yeah, I was totally a Bandcamp person.

DUPUIS I was in grad school when I started Speedy Ortiz, similarly with Bandcamp. I was like, “Cool, I am now my own booking agent, publicist and unpaid intern.” Despite the fact that I’m teaching two classes a day and taking a class a day, I need to also send like 100 emails every day.

TAMKO There’s a grind to it. And I don’t romanticize the grind, but it’s just there. I was a double engineering major in college — the hardest thing that I’ve ever done in my life. And I just decided that I’m gonna put these demos up. Bandcamp is the reason I play music.

POTTER I’m just showing my age, but we were banging on doors: “Please let us play first, and of course we don’t need money, and of course we don’t have a demo yet!”

JORDAN I think Bandcamp and the D.I.Y. route are really cool, because it allows people who may not be able to afford guitar lessons or maybe come from different financial backgrounds to like put their stuff out and not necessarily pay a million dollars for studio time. Everybody gets a chance.

POTTER I’m just glad that things like Bandcamp exist, so that if you actually care about music and you want to find music, you can. It’s so much more positive than on YouTube. And if you just like want to comment and be [expletive], you can do it over there away from my music.

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