Rockrgrl Music Conference 2000

at the Renaissance Madison Hotel, Seattle, November 2-4

By Kate Darling

The phrase “women in rock” always pisses me off. It’s a blazing cop-out to characterize any art solely based on the gender of its creators, and the result of the designation is often an insidious suggestion that being a woman in rock is the only alternative to not being in rock at all. The flip side of the earnest year-of-the-woman proclamations of 1997 was the implication that other years were not of the woman–so too bad for female musicians not fortunate enough to peak at the duly appointed hour.

The phenomenon is ultimately ghettoizing, and the only clear way out of the ghetto is for legions of actual women in rock to burn it down, to sharpen their talents and their business acumen, to succeed in spite of the hype instead of because of it. This, of course, is quite a tall order in the enduring boys’ club of popular music. It does not, however, appear entirely impossible.

Since 1995, the Washington-based Rockrgrl Magazine, helmed by disenfranchised bassist Carla DeSantis, has been on a mission to take women in bands seriously and provide them with tools useful in the navigation of the music industry’s shark-infested waters. Subtitled “No Beauty Tips or Guilt Trips,” the thin, mostly black-and-white bimonthly runs regular profiles of working musicians–from Kathleen Hanna to Kid Rock drummer Stefanie Eulinberg–and think pieces about trends that are of particular interest to women, like pimp rock’s hostility toward its female audience as evidenced at Woodstock ’99. The magazine, like many of the better-known artists who have historically characterized “women in rock,” compensates for its occasionally spotty technique with an energy and charisma that is distinctly female.

The Rockrgrl Music Conference 2000, the magazine’s first attempt at a summit, purported to address “the evolving role of women in popular music” in three days of panel discussions, speeches, and showcases featuring more than 200 bands, along with the usual conference hoo-ha–an awards dinner, a trade show, the inevitable goodie bag. When I signed up to go I hoped for the best, but harbored secret reservations that the concept would somehow be diluted by self-congratulatory discussions of Lilith Fair or the subtle but deadly influence of sponsoring corporations eager to harvest yet another niche market.

On the plane to Seattle, I paged through a Rolling Stone, where I came across a bad omen: the latest entry in the Shure “It’s Your Sound” ad campaign, which features images of musicians singing into Shure microphones as some visual representation of their sound flows across the page. In other ads from this series, flames stream from a tattooed metalhead’s mouth and a country singer pukes cowboy boots and lariats across the austere white backdrop. This ad featured a pouty Lolita in a hot pink top and vinyl pants, provocatively holding a Shure an inch from her bee-stung lips. When Lolita sings, the sound that comes out is butterflies. Pretty, colorful, nonthreatening, infantile butterflies.

Arriving at my hotel, I am comforted slightly by the sight of a stream of rocker chicks exiting the drab facade of the Renaissance Madison Hotel. The bellman’s face is studiously blase as they clomp past him on enormous platform shoes, pink dreadlocks flopping over black leather, battered instrument cases banging against knees.

I pass on the “Women of Valor” dinner honoring Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, and instead spend the first night’s dinner hour where all conventions truly begin: in the hotel bar. There I am greeted with a crazy mixed bag of women–the aforementioned Hollywood rockers, middle-aged moms with guitar cases, skinhead dykes, goths, innocuous looking folkies, east-coast artsies in obligatory black, midwestern metalheads, and most points in between. The sole evident commonality is, of course, gender–any one woman’s music is guaranteed to be considered pure crap by at least ten other people in the room. But the vibe is overwhelmingly positive as they chat one another up and exchange flyers.

A flip through the program for the weekend reveals a long list of nuts-and-bolts panels and workshops on more and less gender-specific issues, including finding management, securing gear endorsements and distribution, raising children on the road, and self-defense and dealing with stalkers. There are also guitar, drum, and production clinics, discussions about antiwoman sentiments in mainstream pop culture and, in a bizarre twist, a panel on groupies moderated by reformed cocksucker Pamela Des Barres. The advice givers are as diverse as the content, ranging from Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls to Soundgarden and Alice in Chains manager Susan Silver to New York Times critic Ann Powers to rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson.

That night I ride the wave of gin and tonics to the intimate I-Spy, where the New York-based trio Hissyfits deliver a pleasing and concise set of full-on guitar rock punctuated by staccato punk drumming and droning, singsongy, sometimes harmonic vocals reminiscent of Kim Gordon at her most distant. The women in the band are beautiful, but they don’t seem to be thinking about their appearance. They do appear to be concentrating on playing their instruments and listening to one another, and this lends their occasional snarl a jolting authenticity.

Next, in jarring contrast, come the LA four-piece Switchblade Kittens, who preface their set by festooning the stage with signs promoting their Web site and quoting pseudoriot witticisms such as “Eminem and Fred Durst Gave Me Head.” Then they actually dig into their repertoire of poorly written and abysmally executed three-chord poppity punk, which is supposed to be distinguished by the substitution of a second bass guitar for a regular guitar. Vocalist “Drama” awkwardly runs through poses 12 through 376 of the Rock Star’s Official Pose Handbook. Pose number 217: Foot on monitor. Point. Pose number 47: Roll on floor. Stare at ceiling. Repeat.

I find myself feeling terrible for them. They’re trying so damn hard, what with their signs and their cute cartoon kitten logo, their pink glittery duds and rainbow Manic Panic hair and matching bass guitars. But whatever ersatz empowerment can be gleaned from songs like “All Cheerleaders Die” is subverted by the intrinsic banality of the subject. These girls (and one guy, who’s dressed like an extra from Singles) can barely play, and they are leaning on prefabricated notions of feminine rebellion to carry them. It’s impossible to hit the bricks quickly enough when they implore the audience to “Put your paws in the air!” This is like Daria meets My Pretty Pony. I am appalled later to learn that Switchblade Kittens are heavily featured on a prominent and well-funded Web site actively targeting teen and preteen girls. If the Kittens were all guys, they would be playing where they belong–at high school dances.

Such is the curse of the “women in rock” label: it’s possible to hang a career on it, but to do so is to allow the “women” to take precedence over the “rock.” As DeSantis puts it, “I would just like to see the day when that phrase goes away–if people can get over having women doctors and women lawyers in the mainstream, they should finally learn to deal with women as musicians.”

But even at RMC there are subtle encouragements for musicians to buy into the trap, and as the conference continues, the tension increases between the necessity of women working together to beat the system and the fact that by banding together they make it easier for the system to swoop in and co-opt them. A flyer in the goodie bag promoted Girl Guitars by Daisy Rock, specially designed atrocities such as the “Junior Miss,” a small-scale acoustic in sky blue or yellow with (you guessed it) butterfly decals and daisy-shaped fret markers. Our little girls already have Barbie backpacks and school supplies and computer software and God knows what else–did we really want to give them Barbie guitars too?

One of the most heavily attended panels is the one headed by Des Barres, where former groupies legitimize their old hobby to a packed room by repeating endlessly that they’re “just fans.” Des Barres recounts stories of receiving Jimmy Page’s hand-me-down clothes with puzzling confidence and pride, while Penny Lane reveals that the only monetary support she ever received from a musician was in subsidy of a short-lived groupie school where women were trained on bananas to give head for the general benefit of the rock ‘n’ roll community. The question of whether groupies contribute to the marginalization of women in rock culture or are merely symptomatic of it is left completely unaddressed. So are the intrinsic dangers of the lifestyle–the shark story from Hammer of the Gods is quickly skimmed over here, and no mention is made of the deaf groupie Marilyn Manson brags about pissing on in his autobiography.

The groupies are addressed for the most part with deep respect by the audience simply because they were there, a reaction that brings the role of sexuality (as opposed to gender) to the forefront. To suggest that sex has no place in rock would be unforgivably ignorant and oppressive, but if sex is our sole means of access to rock, then we are relegated to the status of ornaments or spoils of war. Not surprisingly, when a tall, striking, self-professed lesbian bassist in a cowboy hat asks not what it was like to be a groupie but whether the panel has any tips for bands on getting groupies, the panel is stumped.

On the final day of the conference, signs appear announcing a Q and A with the artist who perhaps best personifies all of the contradictions inherent to the issues at hand: Courtney Love. Participants pack the ballroom for her speech, and a line of women still snakes into the hallway as the doors are pulled shut. After a few cautionary words from DeSantis about respect and appropriate behavior, Love emerges to thunderous applause. Though Versace thin, she appears relaxed and in good health and settles herself into a seat at the front of the room with languid assurance.

A noise from outside cuts through the applause, and Love gestures for quiet, a hand cocked behind one ear. Through the formidable doors, a chant is clearly audible: “Let them in! Let them in! Let the rocker girls in!!” The room erupts in laughter as Love signals for the doors to be opened and another 50-odd women come pouring in. All efforts at order in the name of security have gone to hell in a handbasket–women sit on the floor, on tables, anywhere their asses will fit.

For nearly two hours, Love answers questions about the rock life in great detail and apparent candor. She dispenses excellent business advice (never sell your publishing rights), dispels naivete (“Women get used for your youth and beauty at major labels. You get hired as an assistant and it ends there”), and dishes dirt (“I went into his medicine cabinet,” she said of one powerful label head, “and that explains a lot”). The women scribble notes, whisper, point, and in more than a few cases, simply sit slack-jawed in the presence of their idol.

Love’s command of the audience and her intelligent observations come as no surprise. What is surprising is that she does not appear to be positioning, promoting, or defending anything. She has no record or movie to shill, and openly admits that she’s having trouble finding a new bassist for Hole. She makes very clear that she wants no press in the room, with the exception of her professed friend Ann Powers. She’s not even wearing makeup. She is here, she says, because what is occurring in this room is “the pure thing.” She is here, she says, because “There’s riches to be had. To play in front of 100,000 people…it’s divine.”

Say what you will about Love, but for this audience of a few hundred struggling female musicians the experience is priceless. Love has manipulated her femininity with a sharp intelligence that has catapulted her to an undeniable position of influence, where she enjoys the freedom to call her own shots. And, in a consummate act of rebellion, she is telling these women as clearly and specifically as possible how to do the same thing. It’s a complicated transaction, and one not without contradiction, since Love has publicly embraced the “women in rock” label. But the bottom line is that Love is here disseminating power. What if every woman in this room rose to the stature and success of Courtney Love?

One thing is for sure: they wouldn’t all fit on one magazine cover.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jessica Abel.