A band of sisters

› kimberly@sfbg.com
Cast your eyes on the Billboard chart and it seems like summer 2006 will go down in history as the season of the Latin diva, with Nelly Furtado doffing a soft-focus folkie-cutie image by declaring herself “Promiscuous” and Shakira holding on to the promise of, well, that crazy, sexy, but not quite cool chest move she’s close to trademarked via “Hips Don’t Lie.” Rihanna and Christina Aguilera brought up the rear of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart last week — solo singers all. But with the on-again, off-again slow fade of Destiny’s Child, the imminent demise of the explicitly feminist Sleater-Kinney, and the earlier evaporation of the even more didactic le Tigre, one has to wonder, what has happened to all-girl groups?
Was it a gimmick? Did Newsweek and Seventeen leach riot grrrl’s genuine grassroots movement of its “authenticity” and power? Was Sarah McLachlan lame? Was Courtney Love insane? Perhaps the answer is on today’s pop charts, where the sole “girl group” — if you don’t count the manly guest MC appearances — is the frankly faux Pussycat Dolls, a sorry excuse for women’s empowerment if there ever was one. Their ’90s counterparts the Spice Girls baldly appropriated “girl power” as their own marketing slogan, but at least they gave 30-second-commercial-break lip service to the notion.
The scarcity of all-female bands — particularly the variety whose women do more than simply lip-synch on video — has perhaps spread to supposedly more progressive spheres. Erase Errata bassist-vocalist Ellie Erickson notes that when the band recently played Chicago’s Intonation Music Festival, she was shocked to discover that their all-female trio made up almost half the total number of women performing among about 50 artists. Even at a more down-low, underground gathering like last month’s End Times Festival in Minneapolis, where Bay Area bands dominated, only one all-girl band, T.I.T.S., made the cut, observes the band’s guitarist, Kim West. “When we were in Minneapolis there were so many girls who came up to us and were, like, ‘This is so awesome! There are no all-girl bands here and it’s so rare to see this,’” she recalls.
Girl groups do persist: the news-making, stand-taking, chops-wielding Dixie Chicks among them. But for every Chicks there’s a Donnas, now off Atlantic after the Bay Area–bred band’s second major-label release stumbled at takeoff. Is Dixie Chicks credibility forthcoming for commercial girl bands like Lillix, the Like, and Kittie? Some might argue that feminism’s gains in the ’70s and ’80s — which led to the blossoming of all-female groups from TLC to Babes in Toyland, Vanity 6 to L7, and Fannypack to Bikini Kill — have led to a postfeminist moment in which strongly female-identified artists are ghettoized or otherwise relegated to the zone of erotic fantasy (e.g., Pussycat Dolls). Gone are the days when Rolling Stone touted the “Women of Rock” in their 1997 30th anniversary issue and Lilith Fair brought female singer-songwriters to every cranny of the nation.
“I think that with the demise of Sleater-Kinney and Le Tigre, it’s a very sad time for girl groups,” e-mails Evelyn McDonnell, Miami Herald pop culture writer and coauthor of Rock She Wrote. “It seems like the end of the ’90s women in rock era, an era that unfortunately left fewer marks than we hoped it would 15 years ago.”
Radio’s known resistance to women-dominated bands hasn’t helped. Le Tigre’s Kathleen Hanna told me last year that despite the best efforts of her label, Universal, to get her feminist trio’s first major-label release, This Island, out to the masses, “MTV didn’t play our video and radio didn’t play our single either. Some of that is that we’re women and they’ve already got Gwen Stefani. So we just have to wait till she stops making music or something like that.” She was told that a group of three women was less likely to get play than a band of men fronted by a female vocalist.
Perhaps feminism is simply not in vogue, speculates Erase Errata vocalist-guitarist Jenny Hoyston. “I think any woman who’s a musician is going to have people say she’s only getting attention because she’s a woman,” she says. “It’s gonna be assumed that they don’t know how to work their gear, that they don’t necessarily play as well. That kind of typical stuff…. A lot of people aren’t taken seriously, especially if they get too queer or too gay in their songwriting, and I think that people get judged a lot for being too feminist, for sure, and I think there’s a major backlash against feminism in scenes that I’ve been a part of in this country. I think people are cooler about it in the UK definitely and in some other countries in Europe.”
But how does one explain the strong presence of all-female (or female-dominated) bands in the Bay Area such as Erase Errata, T.I.T.S., 16 Bitch Pileup, Blectum from Blechdom, Boyskout, Vervein, and Von Iva? “I think San Francisco is a big hub for women bands,” offers West, a veteran of Crack: We Are Rock and Death Sentence! Panda. With a provocative name and costumes (“It’s sexy from afar — and scary once you get closer,” West says), the band — including guitarist-vocalist Mary Elizabeth Yarborough, guitarist-vocalist Abbey Kerins, and Condor drummer Wendy Farina — reflects a kind of decentralized, cooperative approach to music making. “There’s no lead,” West explains. “I think that’s a really big element. We all sing together and we all come up with lyrics together. We each write a sentence or a word or a verse and put it in a hat and pull it out and that becomes a song. No one has more writing power than anyone else — it’s all even. I think girls are more likely to like some idea like that than guys.”
And there’s power in their female numbers, West believes, discussing T.I.T.S.’s June UK tour: “It’s funny because it was the first time I’d ever been on tour with all four girls. When I’d go on tour with Crack, guys would be hitting on us, and with T.I.T.S., guys were a little more intimidated because I think we were like a gang. We had that tightness in our group, so it’s harder to approach four girls than one girl or two girls, especially when we’re laughing and having a good time.”
In the end, McDonnell is optimistic that feminism could make a comeback. “I see a revival of progressive ideas in general in culture, largely in reaction to war and Bush…. The Dixie Chicks are arguably the most important group in popular music, and they’re fantastically outspoken as women’s liberationists,” she writes, also praising the Gossip, Peaches, and Chicks on Speed. “And the decentralization of the music industry should open avenues to women, making success less dependent on cruelly, ridiculously chauvinist radio.”
Ever the less-optimistic outsider, I’m less given to believing file sharing and self-released music can dispel the sexism embedded in the music industry — or stem the tide of social conservatism in this country. But that kind of spirit — as well as going with the urge to make music and art with other women, from our own jokes, horrors, and everyday existences — is a start. SFBG