I grew up on Riot Grrl music — bands like Bikini Kill, Sleater Kinney and Team Dresch. They didn’t just talk about how women are marginalized and sexualized in rock music; they made it central to what they sang about, how they performed and what their politics were.
Sex appeal is still capital for female bands these days — in ways that seem to both help and hurt. And nowhere have I seen two sides of the same coin play out more interestingly than at the Bro Fest in Dallas, of all places, where Providence’s Tinsel Teeth and Los Angeles’ Dum Dum Girls both played.
The front woman of Tinsel Teeth takes the Iggy Pop shock approach. The band’s thrash metal would not nearly have the following were it not for their antics — and the shirtless girl covered in beer, sweat, and fake blood that is known to don a harness and dildo is certainly a huge part of the attraction. She’s known for grabbing the crowd, writhing on the floor and jumping off furniture. It’s hard to tell if you’re attracted or grossed out, but you can’t help but watch, as the sea of camera phones.
Immediately following Tinsel Teeth’s performance where the Dum Dum Girls, a four-piece band that exudes a cool, collected sexiness and style that is somewhere between the ’60s and ’80s. Their songwriting is genius, their vocal harmonies stunning — so there is no question that they deserve the attention and shows they get.
But you can’t help notice that the two guitarists and bassist are all legs, with short skirts and tights with long stripes.
A few nights later I saw Golden Triangle, another Brooklyn band with a similar sound that has thee frontwomen — all sporting the same leggy outfits.
Does this matter? Are we in some kind of post-feminist moment where it women in rock can entitled to be as sexy and flashy as they want — more power to them? Or is this yet another example of how independent music has become a miror of mainstream culture, rather than offering some kind of alternative? Do all these sexy bands mean that girls have to be sexy in bands to be noticed?
But the rising female stars in independent rock music certainly demonstrate the ways that women are both rewarded and punished for sex appeal. People want it on one had, but they also use it as an excuse to belittle or dismiss bands. I’ve overheard a lot of conversations at SXSW, for example, about how the Vivian Girls wouldn’t be where they are now if they weren’t cute. (Although for the most part, I’d say the Vivian Girls do not foreground their sex appeal.)
I like that female bands aren’t ghettoized the same way that they were during the Riot Grrrl days — where female bands became a genre of music. But there is something I miss about the days where we were forced to confront the way we sexualize women in bands and then somehow use it against them. Sleater Kinney seems to be one of the few bands that grew out of the Riot Grrrl era and established themselves as one of the best rock bands of the ’90s and 2000s on their own terms. Who is following in their footsteps?