It’s thrilling to see female-led groups like The Beaches claim space in rock culture at Junos 2024 and elsewhere

It’s thrilling to see female-led groups like The Beaches claim space in rock culture at Junos 2024 and elsewhere

What a thrill, for a feminist scholar of popular music, to see Toronto band The Beaches close out Canada’s 2024 Juno awards! They had just won both Rock Album of the Year and Group of the Year. The only other all-female group ever to have won the coveted Group of the Year was Tegan and Sara, 10 years ago.

Rock Album of the Year has gone to all-male bands 31/34 times since 1991. The Beaches themselves won it in 2022, JJ Wilde won the previous year, and Alanis Morissette won in 1995.

Can it be that a girl takeover of rock culture is actually upon us?

Two people in formal suits, one holding an award statue and one holding an award.
Tegan and Sara accept the humanitarian award at the Juno awards, in honour of their work supporting the 2SLGBTQ+ community, in Halifax, March 24, 2024.

Rock’s origins, shifting forms

Rock (nowadays often called “classic rock”) solidified as a style in the mid-1960s, alongside the emergence of rock criticism. It drew on the youthful energy and sounds of rock ’n’ roll to attempt more serious artistic expression.

Rock has been the dominant style of mainstream popular music for my whole life. It is notoriously centred around white men with guitars, to the near exclusion of everyone else. So totalizing is this view that fans sometimes have to be reminded of rock’s origins in African American music.

Read more:
The 1950s queer black performers who inspired Little Richard

The most common shape for a rock band is a quartet of electric bass, drums, rhythm guitar and lead guitar, with vocals either by instrumentalists doing double-duty, or assigned to a standalone singer.

The rock quartet The Beaches performs at the 2024 Juno awards in Halifax.

The classic four-piece band is an efficient unit that can produce a rich sound, and it is an easy fit for a group of friends.

The logistics of band life, from co-writing songs to sharing hotel rooms on tour, have been simpler for men of similar background.

Black women pioneer guitarists

A woman seen holding guitar smiling.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, guitar-playing American gospel singer, gives an inpromptu performance in a lounge at London Airport, following her arrival from New York, in 1957.
(AP Photo, File)

The more this all-male version of rock band was seen, the more fans and musicians came to accept it as the right — or only — version.

No real surprise, then, that rock culture became male dominated, and that the music became part of the performance of manhood.

In the late 20th century, the electric guitar so central to rock actually became a symbol of swaggering masculinity, even though many early practitioners were Black women.

In its most sexist moments, rock culture has treated girls and women with contempt and hostility, both as listeners and as artists.

Female aficionados, tastemakers

In rock culture of the 1960s and 70s, girls and women tended to be limited to the roles of fans or girlfriends. Some female fans were given a special name, “groupie,” that reduced them to their sex appeal and sexual appetites. The fact that many groupies were passionate aficionados and tastemakers of rock was obscured.

To participate in rock as a musician in a band has been even more difficult. Solo artists like Janis Joplin or Alanis Morissette have achieved great success as rock singer/songwriters, of course. But the story of the founder of legendary punk bands the Slits and the Raincoats, Palmolive, is revealing.

Documentary on The Slits: ‘Here to Be Heard.’

As a Spanish teenager on her own in London’s developing punk scene, she happily joined a band and agreed to play drums (the only role still available). When the band’s leader Sid Vicious made a pass, she rejected him — and then found herself kicked out of the group.

This experience inspired her to form an all-girl band, where she wouldn’t be subject to male egos and unwanted sexual advances. Indeed, few rock bands of the 1970s included women and men working together, and some famous examples offer cautionary tales of how mixed gender bands can implode.

Riot grrrl movement

Girls and women growing up in the rock era could turn to other mainstream genres, like pop, to find music that spoke to and for them, of course. But in 1980s and 90s’ hierarchies of taste, some of this female-led pop music was often derided as distinctly uncool. Even an icon like Madonna was once dismissed as a pretty “pop tart” that serious music critics shouldn’t waste time on.

So when a group of women at Evergreen College in the state of Washington wanted to enter their local punk scene in the 90s, they carefully planned shows that excluded media and brought girls to the front. That group included Kathleen Hanna of legendary band Bikini Kill, a pioneer in the deliberately underground riot grrrl movement.

PBS profile of Kathleen Hanna and Bikini Kill.

The riot grrrl movement built space for female musicians to experiment and build a sound, without the pressure of being held to mainstream standards. Their legacy is seen in rock camps for girls and the creation of electric guitars built to fit a girl’s frame and hands.

Rushed the stage

The Beaches, with their classic four-piece lineup, cheeky rock swagger, and catchy breakup anthem “Blame Brett,” are both a breath of fresh air and also heirs to a long, proud tradition. Girls and women have rushed the stage and claimed their spot at the centre of rock culture, and fan response shows that the music scene is all the better for it.

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