Clip: Garage Grrls
The women of garage rock struggle for visibility
Neva Chonin, Chronicle Pop Music Critic Thursday, October 31, 2002
When the Strokes released their debut album last year, the uproar was
deafening. The media declared a new musical era, in which tired
arena-rappers would crumble before an onslaught of younger, more exciting
But are the Strokes, who play the Bill Graham Auditorium tonight, really as
fresh as all that? True, their blend of retro influences is flawless, and
their innovative energy welcome after five years of sluggish, cookie-cutter
But for female rockers and their fans, there's something distinctly old
school about New York's finest quintet and other rising garage bands, such
as the Hives and the Vines. With the exception of Detroit's White Stripes,
they feature all-male lineups.
Boys with guitars are par for the course in mainstream music. But the
garage movement's roots lie in the rock underground, where bands have been
blurring gender lines for decades. When Nirvana broke in the early '90s,
the ensuing grunge era included numerous high-profile, women-led groups,
from Hole and L7 to riot grrrl originators Bikini Kill and Bratmobile.
There are indeed girls in the new garage -- they're just not getting the
same sound-du-jour push as their male counterparts. Besides White Stripes
drummer Meg White (and genre forerunners like the Donnas and the Gossip),
the female garage roster includes Sweden's Sahara Hotnights, who score well
on college radio but are often reduced to an adjunct of fellow Swedes the
Hives; England's Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who boast a formidable female singer and
have generated a modest buzz stateside; and Detroit underground acts the
Von Bondies, the Gore Gore Girls, the Come Ons, the Detroit Cobras and Ko
and the Knockouts.
So why no equal hype for equal work? Blame the Britney Spears syndrome. The
pop epoch conditioned labels, press and public to view women solely as eye-
candy vocalists, not musicians.
CO-OPTING THE ANGER
"All-girl acts are seen as novelties taught to play songs written by men,"
says Gore Gore Girls guitarist Amy Surdu. "Women are not accepted as the
creators or directors of talent, just the cute things that act out what men
want them to."
Rockrgrl magazine Publisher Carla DeSantis holds what she calls "the Lilith
Fair backlash" equally responsible.
"After Lilith, it seemed that suddenly all the 'angry young women' once
ascribed to riot grrrl were co-opted into folk music by the media. It was
as if all the girls playing loud guitars had vanished; suddenly it was all
Sheryl Crow. Media likes trends, and 'women playing fill-in-the-blank' is
always a trend."
CHEESECAKE FACTOR REMAINS
Ko of Ko and the Knockouts, a one-woman, two-man garage band that released
its debut LP on the Sympathy for the Record Industry label this year, adds,
"You're always going to be perceived as a gimmick. The girl bass player,
the girl drummer. I know Meg White has felt a certain amount of self-doubt
"But when I toured with the White Stripes, I noticed that both sexes
responded to her. The guys loved her, but the girls loved her, too, because
she's what they want to be -- a beautiful woman who's strong and confident
in what she's doing."
That crossover appeal cuts both ways. It shows that rocker girls attract
both male and female fans, but it also lets rock magazines like Rolling
Stone have their cheesecake and eat it, too.
"Women buy these magazines for articles about women, and men buy them to
look at pictures of women," DeSantis sighs. "That's why you're not going to
see pierced, tattooed, in-your-face girls on the covers."
Soft-porn-style magazine covers aside, coverage of female musicians, garage
and otherwise, is often unconsciously "lame and sexist," notes Erin Smith
of Bratmobile. "Every article on the Sahara Hotnights talks about how one
of them dates the Hives' singer, and they're called the female version of
the Hives. It drives me nuts."
Yet Smith, for one, remains optimistic that changes set in motion by the
garage-rock revival will eventually be a boon to female musicians. The
Strokes might be steeped in tradition, but they're revolutionizing rock
culture the way Nirvana did a decade ago. And revolutions are good for
"The Strokes have launched a new era that's really opened up the market,"
Smith says. "It's a different climate: There are more girls in indie rock
now and a whole new scene of people in their early 20s. The underground is
cool again, and ultimately that's going to help everyone who's on the