Don't Call Me Honey: In 2017, Women Confronted The Deep Roots Of Rock's Boys Club
Last summer I took my daughter to Vans Warped Tour for the first time. She'd been clamoring to go since the first time she'd walked into a Hot Topic store and bought a t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of the band Black Veil Brides; deeply devoted to that band and its sweetly philosophical, doe-eyed singer Andy Biersack, she'd even had their album cover painted on her eleventh birthday cake. By age 13 she'd become utterly versed in current pop-punk and grunge-indebted metal, shouting along to her playlists of Neck Deep and Attila songs in the car. "F*** this s***, you can find me in the mosh pit!" she'd yell, all five feet two inches of her electric with defiance. Rock mom that I am, I identified with her passion — the same green kind I'd directed, as a teen, toward local bands with New Wave names like The Heaters and The Frazz — and wanted to help her live it out, within the limits that my own mom, a Bing Crosby fan, didn't know were necessary.
I got us tickets by volunteering to run a sign-up table for our local feminist rock and roll summer camp. Stationed across from the Reverse Day Care tent, where parents went to enjoy air conditioning and avoid their kids, I shared space with some social conservatives ("All Lives Matter," their t-shirts read) and a few students trying to raise money for refugees. Not too many people stopped to talk with me. My kid took off with a friend, returning occasionally to share her adventures in the crowd. "I got kicked in the face twice," she said, possibly exaggerating. "But I'm okay!"
I can't explain the relief I felt when she said all she'd experienced was some standard pit jostling. I'd texted her frequently that afternoon to make sure she was safe. My mom nerves were based in personal experience. I'd covered Warped Tour for The New York Times in the late 1990s and watched a malignancy sprout inside its rock and roll shenanigans. At first it provided a louder alternative to Lollapalooza, celebrating punk's history just as that subgenre became historical. But five years or so in, it became a wild boys' paradise. Artists like Blink-182 and Kid Rock peppered their sets with jokes about women's body parts; actual women hardly ever appeared onstage. I remember the hordes of young men at those shows, wearing painters' masks to protect themselves from the dust they kicked up in front of the main stage. They were having fun. They were building identities and confronting demons. They were also learning the language of sexual harassment.
Over the past decade, the emo and pop-punk scenes attached to Warped Tour have weathered scandal after scandal involving male performers allegedly assaulting or otherwise exploiting women. Now, as part of 2017's great societal reckoning about sexual violence and predation, it seems that this rock and roll circus is meeting its end. In November, Warped alumnus Jesse Lacey, singer for the band Brand New, publicly apologized for past sexual misconduct with a minor. What in the past might have been a shameful inconvenience for the tour now resonated as part of a larger story. The years of excuses, hastily prepared apologies, legal countersuits and justifications that "after all, this is rock and roll" — chronicled by numerous women connected to the scene, including Jessica Hopper, Maria Sherman, Megan Seling and Jenn Pelly — finally may have just been too much for the boys' preserve in which Warped Tour has played a key role. Although he denied a connection — "that sexual harassment didn't happen on Warped Tour," he told Billboard — founder Kevin Lyman announced just weeks after Lacey's admission that next year's tour will be the last.
Maybe, in his private moments, Lyman has been spending his 2017 listening to women making music. Before the avalanche of women's opened secrets made clear the almost mundane, horrifying omnipresence of sexual violation, some of the year's most notable recordings were circling in on the same truth. "I hope you're somewhere praying," the pop insurgent Kesha sang in the soaring ballad that marked her return after years of legal battles with her allegedly abusive ex-producer, Dr. Luke. Her forgiveness held the edge of a threat: The justice she has not yet received in court is both a gift and a demand she presents in her music. And Kesha's song was just the most obviously topical one of many in which women exposed the power dynamics within sexually driven encounters of relationships, revoking the false liberties offered by music's metaphorical backstage pass.
Some songs, like Big Thief's "Watering," address the subject of rape directly. Others remind listeners that violation takes many forms: the abuse rendered by a lover that's chronicled in Jessica Lea Mayfield's deeply honest album Sorry Is Gone; the coercion leading to codependency detailed in Jhene Aiko's Trip; the state-sanctioned abuse Ibeyi exposes in "Deathless," about a police officer's harassment of a young woman of color. Rhiannon Giddens followed the path of power's abuse back to the beginning of America in songs like "At the Purchaser's Option," a wrenching, defiant recounting of the rape of a young slave. As women demanded these histories and current realities be commemorated, others shouted for change. "I won't light myself on fire to keep you warm," Victoria Ruiz of Downtown Boys snarls in "Promissory Note," a fast blast connecting street harassment to women's overall subjugation. In "Wanna Sip," the opening salvo from her album-length manifesto of feminist lust, Plunge, Karin Dreijer Andersson of Fever Ray makes it clear: "If we do it, it's my way, cuz how you do it when you do it, it's not okay."
This music reflects lived experience. Many women who've carved out lives within the popular music world have been waiting for the current reckoning's avalanche to envelop it. The rumble can now be heard. The screenwriter Jenni Lumet recently accused hip hop pioneer Russell Simmons of rape; he retreated, resigning from his executive positions and vowing to spend his next years listening to women. He may be listening in court. We've been here before, with individual offenders throughout the popular music world accused and sometimes banished from the scene, or somehow eluding final judgment. The deeper question is: Why, when the breach of women's trust is so obviously part of the culture that creates and supports popular music — central, in fact — it is also so difficult to correct?
Let's just talk about rock and roll, which has been so influential since the 1950s that it's become as much a lifestyle as a genre. One strange thing about rock is that it perpetually acknowledges its own transgressions, both incorporating them and critiquing them. Warped Tour was in fact supposed to be an antidote to gnarlier festivals, creating a safe space where kids could grow up into healthy headbangers. Indie rock built a whole world based around (supposedly) progressive values. Both carried on even as rock lost dominance in the larger pop world. Warped was viewed by weird kids as an oasis; many parents embraced it, too, as a kind of summer school of rock. Lyman and his crew took this role seriously; even as the whispers about sexual misconduct built to a roar, the tour sought to up its awareness level, inviting bands like the explicitly feminist War on Women to play some dates and making sure the information tables highlighted self-defense groups and those girls' rock camps.
This mandate — never a factor for other hard rock tours, like Ozzfest — reflects Warped's core connection to indie rock. Indie's history has been uplifted by waves of women making much of its best music and leading its most powerful political movements, from The Breeders to riot grrrl to St. Vincent, now a bona-fide rock star. "Rock's Not Dead, It's Ruled By Women," declared the New YorkTimes in September, citing only indie bands as proof. Indie and pop-punk or emo may seem like separate spheres, but they're more like different life phases. Indie is what many Warped Tour kids graduate into if they continue to be passionate about music after their mall days end. Ask any punk — for example, my daughter's feminist rock camp instructors — what they loved when they were in middle school, and they'll probably say emo and pop-punk.
Yet the fundamental masculine bias of both indie and pop punk has remained difficult to redirect. Punk itself evolved from its birth in the 1970s as a fairly open-minded haven for self-styled freaks — including, centrally, women and queer folk — into the more intensely aggressive and homosocial hardcore and thrash metal scenes. Indie, where women did remain visible as players, nonetheless also nurtured a certain boys' club atmosphere. The biggest stars were either all male, from The Replacements to Nirvana, or ones like Sonic Youth, in which women like bassist Kim Gordon explored and coped with the dominant boy energy in their own bands.
Pop-punk and emo, in fact, seemed to be more welcoming to girls, with it bright hooky hits and sobbing singalong choruses all about broken-down hearts. Just like The Beatles, right? Yet from the beginning — just like The Beatles, in fact — these scenes mostly assigned women one role, the fan role. The listener. "This world is forcing me to hold your hand," Gwen Stefani, one of Warped Tour's rare female repeat performers, famously sang in her band No Doubt's 1995 hit "Just a Girl." She was talking about something bigger than rock — patriarchy, critiqued with a wink for the Top 40 — but also rock itself, where her male bandmates could skateboard along forever while she endured slings and arrows for being too pink, too boopy, too feminine.
Women have shouted back at this silencing throughout the history of punk and indie rock. In 2017, women do seem to have broken down a weight-bearing wall. On NPR Music's list of the top 50 albums of the year, only two, The National and The War on Drugs, could be classified as a rock album made only by men. All over the musical spectrum, from the political punk of Priests to the bedroom Big Star-isms of Waxahatchee, from Lorde's indie-leaning pop to Jay Som's homemade intimacies, from Kesha's glossy boogie to Hurray For the Riff Raff's deep inquiry into roots music, women are the ones taking rock's helm, and often, calling out male oppressors and violators.
The future of rock may truly be female. The present sure feels like it — in the self-selected circles of tastemakers and nerds where rock's future is debated, anyway. But talk to a 13-year-old rocker girl about what's happening and you might not get the response you'd expect. I had such a conversation with my daughter in the car the other day. It was about another star, Falling In Reverse signer Ronnie Radke, who over the course of a checkered career has been accused of several crimes, including domestic violence (that charge was dropped in 2012 when he pleaded no contest to disturbing the peace.) My kid loves Falling in Reverse. "Do those stories trouble you?" I asked her. "He said he's sorry," she answered.
Why would a teenage girl — one who identifies as a feminist — defend a man repeatedly accused of violent crimes against women? Often, it's because she loves the music he makes. She loves rock and roll. And something was coded into the DNA of rock and roll at its outset — into the very music culture that women are remaking today: the idea that girls matter, but only because of what they inspire men to do.
Rock and roll emerged as a cultural force in the mid-1950s, different from the rhythm and blues, country and gospel music from which it borrowed because it belonged to teenagers (white teenagers, specifically.) Its particular spin, its prime idea, was that the creativity and charisma of teenage girls is a source of freedom and power — but not in and of itself, only in relationship to the bad boys and grown crazy cases making this earth-shattering music. The music was a tool that rough men, or strange men, or young men with no particular birthright, could use to defeat the hierarchies that would otherwise bar them from success. These men (sometimes almost boys, but always older than the girls who screamed for them) were molded by young adult managers, record label owners and radio DJ's to be the stars who'd teach teens what freedom really feels like. Girls motivated these boys, who built a new musical world in order to seduce them. According to rock and roll's mythology, the girls couldn't help but respond — they were wild fires themselves, best only quickly encountered, contained, or left behind. "That's all right, mama, any way you wanna do," Elvis Presley sang in this first hit in 1954, a cover of an Arthur Crudup song that turned the bluesman's suave forbearance into something a little more joyful but also angrier. He didn't really mean it was all right.
One thing it's easy to forget in our current moment of harsh accusation is that women enjoy sex and want to follow their desires. Female desire has always been difficult for our male-dominated society to recognize. The fact is that throughout the history of rock and roll the girls in the crowd who screamed for the boys on the stage have often genuinely wanted to make it with those boys. Even when they didn't that's how their responses were interpreted, the fact that girls as young as 12 were publicly enacting desire was the real source of rock and roll's convulsions. Chuck Berry, whose genre-crossing pop genius made him one of the few African-Americans allowed in rock and roll's boys' club, described the ideal fan in his song 1958 song "Sweet Little Sixteen": a high school girl with the "grown up blues" whose vast collection of autographs and dance moves makes her an authority, but only in the reflected light of the men onstage making the music that stimulates her. Her power only exists within the limited frame of the rock show, in the bedroom where she retreats to relive her moments of circumscribed glory, and in spaces where men drool over her charms: the dance floor, the star's Cadillac after the show. Otherwise, Sweet Little Sixteen is back at school, her tight dress left behind in her dresser drawer, the patriarchal order she disturbed still in place. After all, the song makes clear, she had to get her Daddy's permission to go out rockin' in the first place.
There were teen boy fans of rock and roll, too, of course, but what they were often buying was their own sexual power, amplified and reflected back — and deceptively packaged, often, as powerlessness. Many teenage boys do not yet fully comprehend their own gendered privilege, and suffer from marginalization for other reasons, including their youth. They may fear becoming their fathers while also longing for approval from them. If there's no daddy in their lives, they might take on that role too quickly, drawn to the domination it offers but unable to assume the responsibility it requires. Then again, some boys just want to stay boys, awash in boy bliss, making grown-up pursuits like sex just another part of their sloppy explorations of the world.
Elvis Presley, who now seems like a ghost of explosive moments past, was the ungrown father figure the mainstream presented to boys and girls when rock and roll took over. If Warped Tour had been around in 1956, he would have been on it. In performance, as many have noticed, Elvis was a blur — a deep, manly voice with a soft North Mississippi accent; cherub lips and a sharp chin; shaded eyes (often enhanced by makeup) beneath a flop of hair that looked like it was full of auto grease. In life, however — a life observed in detail by the fans who read accounts of his every movement in the press — he was a solid Southerner, a young good ol' boy. The arc of his early relationships with women, in private and in public, reflects how rock and roll made a particular place for girls and then hemmed most into it. Pre-fame, Presley had many female friends whom he treated as sisterly confidantes, but once his star rose, he surrounded himself with an almost exclusively male "posse" of cronies, and women mostly became fleeting companions. His wife, Priscilla, was 14 when they met. "I'll give you Elvis's relationship with Priscilla in a nutshell," his friend Lamar Fike told biographer Alanna Nash. "You create a statue. And then you get tired of looking at it."
Just like the men who would later apply guyliner and headline Warped Tour, Elvis loved and related to girlishness. From his first flush of fame onward, he surrounded himself with his female fans, trying to get as close to them as possible — engaging in kissing sessions with groups of them backstage, selecting a few to accompany him at his state fair shows, and regularly hosting "slumber parties" where he'd paint their nails and wash their hair, though as a religious, V.D.-fearing mama's boy, he apparently stopped himself from having intercourse with them. Elvis's fascination with teenage girls, his playacting as one of them, intermingled with a desire to control them. "You get 'em young, and you can mold 'em and raise them the way you want 'em to be," one of his close friends reported him saying.
Capitalism ultimately favors what works, and what Elvis had — his unique blend of softness and prowling desire, love-me-tender vulnerability and masculine entitlement — worked. After his rise, rock and roll forever favored mannish boys who reinforced the genre's emerging patriarchal order with a wink. In the 1960s it was Mick Jagger; in the 1970s, Robert Plant; then it was Bruce Springsteen, who brought noblesse oblige to the role but nonetheless had his biggest success yelling at women to get into his car. A fleeting moment of masculine self-doubt in the 1990s, still ensconced within the almost entirely male grunge scene, quickly gave way to revivalist swaggerers like The Strokes in the early 2000s. From "Baby, Let's Play House" to "Under My Thumb" to "Last Night," women in rock's fundamental texts are either creatures who need capturing or disruptors who need to be controlled. "When I feel like this, and I want to kiss you baby, don't say don't," Elvis moans in "Don't," the 1958 Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller ballad that, today, conjures disturbing associations with date rape. So much of early rock and roll treads this line between persuasion and menace.
Why did teenage girls embrace the men aggressively crossing lines it was in their interest to preserve? Any attempt to comprehend the legacy of rock, and its ongoing influence, must grapple with this question. The simple answer is that these boys were a way out, and girls didn't see that what lay beyond was also a trap. The wild boys or rock and roll treated power like a toy instead of a weapon; they laughed off the responsibility that shackled women in the 1950s, too. They weren't marriage material — to many girls, they represented a respite from the stultifying confines of the domestic. A 1958 survey revealed that post-World War II, young men were seeking to marry at a younger age than they had since the 1880s. Girls were expected to start dating at 14. Though most in the middle class wanted to go to college, the pressure to marry — to don the mantle of the housewifely Feminine Mystique that Betty Friedan would expose as poisonous in her 1963 bestseller — was greater than ever before. Rock and roll was a way out. It took a while, long enough for the template to be set, for girls to realize it was only a temporary one.
The limits of the freedom the music and its culture offered came sharply into view in the form of female objectification, harassment and even violation within the very scenes where girls sought liberation. The major scandals that plagued rock and rollers in the 1950s frequently involved sex with a minor. By the 1960s, women artists had been effectively marginalized within rock. This was still the music business, where few women rose to power, and female upstarts broke the rhythm of the boys' game. Janis Martin, briefly known as "The Female Elvis" for her hip shaking performances, recalled an encounter with country star Porter Wagoner, who shared stages with many male rockers during the 1950s. Sharing a touring bill with him in 1956, she wowed the crowd one night just before he was to take the stage. "[They] just kept yellin', 'Janis, Janis, Janis, we want Janis.' After the show I went to get in Porter's car, he told me I'd have to find my way to the next town, and that was that. I had to call my daddy up, and he had to drive over 100 miles to come and get me and take me to the other towns booked on that tour." Unwelcome as she was among music's power players, it's no wonder that Martin returned to Virginia in 1959 to focus on raising a family.
Rock and roll changed popular music in many positive ways: It gave greater voice to youth and disrupted a pop system that favored sometimes bland polish over enterprising energy. But it didn't enact a revolution in social mores. Its emergence reinforced rather than mitigated racial segregation within the music business. And it set women artists back. According to Billboard, women performed a quarter to a half of the top 20 songs of the year between 1950 and 1956, the year when Elvis claimed a quarter of the chart. In 1957 and 1958, only one woman did. Rock and roll had changed everything, all right: It made women visible and audible in pop music's crowd while it virtually excluded them from both the stage and most of the rooms where its business took place. After rock and roll the history of popular music becomes one of male assertions of power interrupted by multi-gendered, multiracial, sexually diverse interruptions in that pattern. Women attracted to rock, like me, loved it in part because it was a challenge. We had to fight, sneak, be extra clever to fit within it.
Women continually did so, as they have in 2017. In the early 1960s, female songwriters (and their sympathetic male collaborators) working with teenage girls in groups like The Marvelettes and The Shirelles staged a kind of intervention. Girl group songs pointed toward the responsibilities and risks of romance and openly acknowledged women's vulnerability. This surge of empowerment was broken, in part, by the presence on the scene of abusers like the producer Phil Spector, who often kept his wife and musical protégé, Ronnie, locked inside their mansion even as her group the Ronettes became international superstars. Soon enough, the boys came crashing back, anyway.
Girl groups were a direct source for boy rock's second wave, led by The Beatles, who covered their songs on their early albums and enlisted Ronnie as a tour guide when they first came to New York. But despite their open love for their female peers, The Beatles put girls firmly back in the audience — at first, their screaming fans were as much a media sensation as was the band itself. Along with their more menacing cousins The Rolling Stones, The Beatles established the sound of what would come to be known as "classic rock": driven, exploratory, alternately romantic and predatory toward women, and made almost exclusively by groups of men. Classic rock also gave African-Americans a final push out of the genre. They created parallel worlds like soul, which, though still male-dominated, generally made much more room for women.
In white America, classic rock reigned into the 1970s, when it morphed into arena rock — a cartoon realm that openly celebrated women's objectification. Album covers, ad campaigns and images published in the rock press of the time overflowed with images of women's body parts; men, too, were often shirtless and even naked, ready for sex at all times (but not with each other; though a homoerotic frisson has always wafted through classic rock, actual expressions of same-sex love remained verboten outside the freaky subdivision of glam). The arena rock touring circuit devised strict and very limited roles for women — they were publicists, wives or groupies, sustaining the ecosystem that allowed men to remain on the road in military-style sieges of the heartland, but barely ever wielding any true authority. The problem of female pleasure was solved, at least on the surface, by the figure of the groupie — a woman who existed for sex, and loved sex (often sincerely), but never threatened the status quo.
And so the pattern has continued. In the late 1970s punk arose in protest against classic rock's excesses, and for a time lent power to feminist women and queer liberationists. But then punk became hardcore, a stringent, macho realm where women had no place, and indie rock, an umbrella term for many small scenes that did welcome women, but favored ones who played down their femininity. In the rock mainstream, heavy metal ruled in two forms: the puritan male reformism of thrash bands like Metallica, and the ass-slapping buffoonery of hair metal bands. The 1990s brought questions of sexism to the forefront again within the expressly feminist subcultures of riot grrrl and the Lilith Fair, but that strong moment for women in rock didn't last. Within a couple of years, one of the fiercest backlashes against women moving into the rock sphere took place as hybridizing white rappers like Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock led huge audiences in chants of "show us your tits!" before performing songs with choruses declaring, "I did it all for the nookie!" In 1999, four women were raped at a festival celebrating the 30-year anniversary of the classic-rock watershed event Woodstock. This was the world in which Warped Tour was born, and where its confusing legacy resides.
Throughout rock and roll's history, women have protested this status quo even as they've found a way to feel free within it. Every generation has seen those who fight to raise each other's' consciousness and imagine a new reality. Right now, feminist punk is a powerful force, as it was in the 1990s and, before the word "punk" had been coined within music circles, in the softer-sounding but equally radical women's music movement of the 1970s. But think of all that's been forgiven over the past century-plus. Little Richard was a voyeur who, in his own memoir, claims masturbatory behavior very similar to that of the now shamed Louis C.K. John Lennon admitted that the notorious lyrics in "Getting Better All the Time" — "I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved" — were autobiographical. Heavy metal bands from Led Zeppelin to Def Leppard used groupies and discarded them to the delight of the rock press. These incidents and many more are rock lore, the foundation of the music's mythology. It's not something a feminist, male or female, can erase with individual actions.
To understand the hold masculine dominance maintains on rock and its antecedents, it's necessary to not simply celebrate how individuals or groups of women have overcome or sidestepped it, but to examine the ways in which messages and behaviors are reinforced, and how even those who suffer under their say want to be part of the world they generate. That means confronting the givens of rock and roll: the emotional dynamics presented in the music as natural and fundamental, the roles different players can occupy both within fantasy scenarios and in real life, the rationalizations and reinforcements that have allowed those roles and customs to survive. It's important to consider how women have survived within rock's priapic playground for so long: sometimes through compromise, often through subversion and resistance. There has to be a way for girls to find themselves in the mosh pit, and on the stage, without fearing abuse. Change will only truly come as the playing field shifts, with more women in the lead and men able to accept that.
If a best-albums list dominated by women is to be more than an aberration, the rock world, such as it is in a larger pop universe where R&B often feels more experimental and hip-hop more universally relevant, has to change from the center to the edge. I see that change happening, sometimes explosively, sometimes in increments. I heard it happening when Katie Crutchfield, fronting a version of Waxahatchee that's nearly all women and which includes her sister Allison, called out a male heckler during a set — and the entire crowd was on her side. I followed its path along the fretboard of Adrianne Lenker's guitar as she led her band — no doubt about who was leading — through her complicated, beautiful songs about power and erasure, memory and survival. I wept at what it uncovered, listening to the histories reconstructed within the old and finally honest American tales of Rhiannon Giddens and Hurray for the Riff Raff's Alynda Segarra. I was awed by it, watching Perfume Genius openly express queer joy and desire — because dismantling the myth of heteronormativity is part of this transformation, too.
I witnessed it when Jason Isbell stood onstage with his wife and creative partner Amanda Shires and explained that a female artist would open every night of their six-night Ryman Auditorium run, because women make the Nashville sound as surely as any man does. And I danced to it, alongside my daughter, when pop's brightest rock star, Kesha, played that same mother church of music — reclaiming her story after years of struggling for it.
There is much more to do. Kesha lost in court against Dr. Luke, even if she won in popular opinion. The year's top-selling rock acts are still all-male bands. Rock needs to remake itself in new shapes, within new communities, if it is to thrive as a space of genuine equality and freedom. More women need to lead, not just as the faces and voices of rock and roll, but as its producers, it engineers, its tour managers, its architects. Girls not just to the front, but everywhere! And so I have a proposal: not a blanket solution, but a step. Kevin Lyman is retiring Warped Tour one year shy of its 25th anniversary. He could give it one more run, with women, LGBTQ and gender non-binary folk in the headlining spots, and behind the soundboards, managing the artists, on any available seat on the bus. Let's dream of a new lineup, a new paradigm, the true end of the boys' club. Men can still participate. How about they stand in the crowd and scream?
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