Day Three's coverage of CMJ seeks to find out where the girls are.
The Rogers Sisters
Three decades after the second wave of American feminism, and things have changed . . . some. Though still small in quantity, women have made inroads into the music business, in fields as diverse as agenting, music supervision, A&R, publicity, and management. Female artists like Madonna and Missy Elliot are moguls unto their own. Take this site, even: our publisher is a woman, and women form the helm of nearly every section.
But three days in to the CMJ festival, and I'd yet to see a woman onstage. Though again, the number of women playing rock music is vastly overshadowed by the volume of men, patriarchy is not entirely to blame for this absence in my music viewing. I completely own up to the fact that I have a proclivity toward boy-based rock. And it seems like the more I learn about music and delve into its history, the greater this imbalance becomes.
Still, can something be said for gender playing a role in this construction of my taste? Once again, the sheer dominance of men in what was championed in rock's early days has something to do with this. Take, for instance, the Stones. Critics hailed the Rolling Stones and not only did they serve as role models for their XY brethren, but their sound became a starting point for many of rock's aspirants, rendering them must-listens for anyone interested in rock's musicology. What's more, the qualities appreciated in their music -- ferocity, rawness, sexual urgency -- were in direct opposition to what was considered bad music -- poppy, simplistic, soft. Distill these qualities, and what do you have: masculine music good, feminine music bad.
Though masculine and feminine used this way may have at one point been analogous to the performers playing the music, this is not necessarily the case any longer. We all know good music can come out of messing with category stereotypes -- a white boy like Eminem rapping, a black artists like Living Color rocking, and so on. And yes, fans have come to enjoy a good musical gender fuck. Boys who play soft, emotionally wrenching or otherwise twee music have gained major inroads and huge fan bases in recent years -- including the Shins, Death Cab for Cutie and Elliiot Smith (may he rest in peace). That said, on Friday I went to check how women performed a masculine genre: what happened when women played brutal, loud, sharp, and unforgiving punk.
King Cobra, a band comprised of Tara Jane O'Neil (guitar), Betsy Kwo (bass), and Rachel Carns (drums, vocals), opened the night of music at the Knitting Factory, but what they offered was anything but introductory. More accurately, it was complex, even confounding, and highly evolved -- like the conclusion to an intricate, multipart, laden-with-symbolism novel. Dense walls of feedbacky guitar and bass shifted, huge and slow, beneath the quaking avalache of Carns' drumming, her vocals skipping between a chirp and a guttural moan. It was anti-melody, a-rhythm, pre-verbal, non-sequitor sound; songs composed of three or four or seven movements, fifteen climaxes, a billion screeches that were maybe words. The band climbed and repelled, while the crowd stood mostly motionless -- maybe with fear. When Carns invited someone up on the last two numbers to improvise on the vocals, no one went. It wasn't so much an insult as it was a testament to the curious, bewildering madness the women were creating themselves onstage.
Following King Cobra was the all boy, all-melody-all-the-time Broke Revue, the absolute antithesis to the band preceding them. Despite the fact that they seemed obsessed with board adjustments that only made them sound tinnier and more overblown, their odd hybrid of southern-fried honky tonk and grating metal noise merged two tastes that never taste great together -- like pickles and chocolate, or Lynyrd Skynyrd doing Pantera. Throughout the set, I kept wishing it would stop. Then they did.
And thankfully, the Rogers Sisters who followed quickly and completely erased any bad, Broke Revue memories. Composed of sisters Laura and Jennifer Rogers, drummer and guitarist/vocalist respectively, and bassist/vocalist Miyuki Furtado, the Rogers Sisters are a highly animated, intelligent post-punk fury. Miyuki Furtado curdles blood with his saucy, Mark E. Smith-ish wail, while Jennifer Rogers has a girlish bark, like a baby doll gone wrong. Onstage, the two of them often face off, moving mechanically against one another and their syncopated, fits-and-spurts rhythms. Laura Rogers plays dirtily, powerfully, confrontationally. Their sometimes childish lyrics ("It's hot in the summer/ it's cold in the winter/ winter is bad") and canned rock gestures (Furtado actually jumps into the splits at one point) are rendered self-conscious, ironic, and enchanting against their exacting musical chaos.
I didn't set out this night to prove (or have it be proven) that "women rock" so much as I wanted to confirm that rock rocks, regardless of who is playing it. Seeing women onstage helps to expand our ideas about who can pick up a guitar (or bass, or drumsticks) but it doesn't change our vernacular for how we articulate good and bad. Women need to continue playing loud music and being praised for it, but men in indie rock need equal reverence when they turn things down.