As a female from a multicultural, minority background, I learned from early on how to deal with stigmatization: to internalize polemic issues, to disregard certain offensive behaviors, and how to generally cope with the clash of ideals in the scheme of society. Unfortunately, inequality is entrenched in virtually every domain and realm of waking life. However there are proclaimed “safe spaces.” For instance, the Berlin music scene, which explicitly prides itself on egalitarian principles and progressive tendencies; a place where, perhaps, the landscape is a bit better manicured.
Wondering if other musicians faced similar frustrations and labelling remorse, I asked female identifying members from Berlin bands Bechamel, Gym Tonic, HEKLA, and Lalume to share their takes on feminism and how they confront the subcultural politics of gender roles. Below, I’ve outlined the major themes that came up during our interviews.
But first, let’s get to know the ladies and their bands. From Bechamel we have Alice (drums) and Josi (bass) offering their perspective: they describe their bandas “Europunk,” which for them implies a strong modernity.They gather melodies and influences from all over, validating a modern take on the transnational habits of Berlin.
With a similarly cosmopolitan view, Stephanie (main vocals and lead guitar) considers the inter- national crew of GymTonic the embodiment of a Franco-Canadian love for synth-punk and Devo.
As Swedish performers, music has always been a large part of Teresia’s (vocals and keys) and Elsa’s (vocals and synth) national identity. Riding the freshest doom-pop psych wave called HEKLA, these two cousins learned the important role of storytelling in song from a young age. Their lyrics have no real gender, just like the Swedish language. Many songs also have a strong matriarchal influence, stemming from the powerful women in their family lives.
Auri describes Lalume as an unusual mix of ethereal dreams and classical vocals, laid across synth-experimental beats. Besides writing all of the lyrics, she also plays the guitar, the auto-harp, and an OP-1 synth, all while singing into a tricked-out vintage telephone.
THEME 1 – The “Girl Band” Reduction
We have the same amount of men as women making music on stage and still we are called a “girlband.” I believe that being placed under this label just makes our marketing more fluid, but at the expense that females have always faced. – Elsa | HEKLA
Using women to sell things is just a given in advertising and commercial industry. Why would music be any different? – Teresia | HEKLA
Being a girl in the band is probably just as great as being a guy in band. Even more importantly, I am an Alice in the band, being Alice is more than anything! – Alice | Bechamel
Three of our four members are female, and we wear Boy Scout uniforms [not Girl Scout] uniforms when we perform. I don’t think of us as a girl band, but because we are invited to a lot of feminist festivals I think others think we are. – Stephanie | GymTonic
Someone asked me “Do you think Bechamel would be just as popular if there were no women in the band?“ – implying the band is only getting attention because two of us are female. Who the fuck knows, maybe we would be more successful if there were no women or if we were exclusively women, but why does it matter? Can’t we just focus on music for once? Would the Beatles have been more successful if they were female? What if they weren’t white? – Josi | Bechamel
THEME II – Gender Roles and Multiple Identities on Stage
Everyone in our band respects each other and no one takes bullshit!… No one is treated differently due to their gender; it makes no sense to any of us. It shouldn’t be called progressive – it’s just normal. – Josi | Bechamel
We’ve been asked to play a few events which de ne themselves as “queer” and “feminist.” On stage during those events, I was more conscious of being a female and I didn’t like this feeling. It’s like I’ve been put on the spot for being a female drummer more than a drummer.. – Alice | Bechamel
We are a duo with one guy and one girl. We play with our gender roles and in one of our music videos, you can find Ola tied up in bondage ropes, reversing the gender stereotype that women are submissive. – Auri | Lalume
Wearing Boy Scout costumes as females, playing with this idea, was not a gender conscious decision, but rather an accident found at Humana [a local second-hand shop] that kept on developing as we found more patches online. –Stephanie | GymTonic
I feel like the constellation of personalities, talents, and ambition affects the different roles in our band.This includes gender, but not exclusively. – Alice | Bechamel
When you’re a woman playing music, you don’t have the privilege of just playing music.You will be constantly reminded that you are a woman playing music. – Josi | Bechamel
THEME III – Our Appearance
I once toured as a vocalist for a big, all male jazz band and we played in a very famous jazz club where the owner said “you’re too pretty to be a jazz singer”. I have also been told “You’re too attractive to be taken seriously as an artist”. I imagine that kind of thing happens to female artists all the time. I don’t think men are judged as harshly by their appearance.
– Auri | Lalume
Before we both started playing instruments in addition to the vocals we always have done, we had a rough time with sound engineers. It seems like guys always want to explain how a monitor works, like I haven’t been singing for over a decade. – Elsa & Teresia | HEKLA
Guys always seem to be overly impressed that I can play my guitar better than they do, especially while wearing a skirt. Yes, I practiced hard, for hours, so I could play this solo. I just wish that this would be more common and not out of the ordinary. What I do think is interesting is how in the 80’s glam-trend, men did try to look like women… – Stephanie | GymTonic
THEME IV – Coping and Internalization
We are not really treated differently in music scene than any place else. We are simply dealing with everyday harassment that we receive as being women. When you are on stage, you can’t really focus on it because you are performing and you have other priorities that night.
– Teresia | HEKLA
The rock scene in general is very misogynist and women tend to not be the main focus (at least musically) when you see music videos, or out and about. I guess it’s expected to just grunt and bear it. – Stephanie | GymTonic
Guys never have to deal with half the stuff we do.There are some things that happen to guys that would never happen to us and stuff that would happen to us that never happens to them. Sadly, the tendency for females to be treated differently amounts to verbal abuse. You get hurt and upset. Is asking if you are wearing any panties an okay thing to ask? NO! – Elsa | HEKLA
It used to really upset me and make me want to hide my femininity in an attempt to be taken seriously as an artist. I don’t bother with that anymore. I am generally quite a kind and forgiving person but I have been known to rip someone to shreds if they’ve overstepped the line. – Auri | Lalume
It just gets annoying some days, especially when you’re musicality is judged according to your gender, and when you have to live up to certain expectations that simply don’t apply to most guys. – Josi | Bechamel
I would love it if gender equality was not even a “thing” to be discussed anymore because there was no longer a reason to discuss it. – Auri | Lalume
I talk back at them or laugh in their sad little faces. But mostly I feel sorry for people whose brains are so underdeveloped that they feel entitled and can’t handle someone who doesn’t t the same demographic categories as they do, doing something like playing loud distorted guitars. – Josi | Bechamel
THEME V – Berlin’s Landscape
I feel like Berlin is quite the bubble when it comes to situations. People are generally very open and progressive… although it does depend on [which] scene you roam.
– Josi | Bechamel
After shows, we always hear comments from the audience. It’s great to get compliments about our sound, our performance, and hopefully influence people in the crowd, young women, to start making their own music. – Teresia | HEKLA
I feel safer in Berlin clubs than anywhere else in the world and I think that is largely thanks to the gay scene. – Auri | Lalume
Everyone is fascinated by rarities and the uncommon in life. It’s a diversion from the norm. We are used to patterns, comfortable. When something sticks out, you naturally are curious. Luckily, Berlin has a lot of different patterns. – Elsa | HEKLA
Overall, the representation of females who play rock music is lacking. In general, women are more present in a band than management and female bookers are. Female sound engineers are rare.These are roles that have the largest impact on our sound and how we are represented. – Teresia & Elsa | HEKLA
I feel like Berlin is a 100% safe and open-minded scene.The only problem for me is that it can feel too small sometimes.There are moments that are quite stagnant and I wish more bands existed always and in general. – Stephanie | GymTonic
All in all, I really hope that this dialogue shows the scope of progress and values from the Berlin underground and will solicit more conscious behavior between everyone. Ideally, it should effectuate a refocus on the kind of human relationships and interaction we desire on stage, in the crowd, as fans, and as our friends in the scene. I wish that instead of ambivalence, everyone was more aware, more active and true agents of our potential.
My experience of playing violin in an orchestra and bass in various punk bands, although pursuing the same passion, still exists in parallel universes, with different conditions and assumptions of privilege. We all have a number of ways to describe ourselves, and our behavior evolves from these de nitions to form our practical identities; it gives a rise to reason and value. Nearly all feminist accounts of personal identity have focused on the way persons are formed in relation to others and sustained in a social context, be it music, school, or the workplace. Its all about power: the social patterns that are widespread across (sub)cultures and history that systematically distributes power asymmetrically to favor men over women. /TM