The Issue of X and Y
Perspectives on gender from Amy Millan, New Buffalo, and a couple of boys, too
Last night, my friend Eleanor and I watched Fast Citizens at The Whig.
She looked at me and said, "I feel like I'm at a men's club."
I had never noticed the male/female ratio, even though I've been there on too many nights. They have a good jukebox with selections like Desmond Dekker and the Broken Flowers soundtrack, and I like how frequenting the place is the same tribe of early twenty-somethings who appreciate antique bohemian touches, such as etymology prints on the wall. The Whig is the only haunt I like in this town — and occasionally, we get to see shows.
“There are girls here,” I say to Eleanor.
“Yeah, but none of them are paying attention to the music.”
“None of them are musicians, either.”
I check out the tables full of guys smoking and leaning into the music. It makes me think of an old-fashioned cigar room where men would go to talk about guns, politics, and war and drink liquor out of highball glasses.
I learned a lot about being a girl from The Little Mermaid and being kicked out of a tree by my idiot brothers. Then I kind of threw up that apple of knowledge in San Francisco, where I became acquainted with transsexuals, gender benders, sex workers, and naked yoga. I even liked the city fashions -- tapered pants on men and Vans and BCs on women.
Then I came back to South Carolina. Culture shock, much? I started wondering about how gender operates within young music communities. Is there a way in which the boys and girls cross the front that divides us? Is it dangerous work?
AMY MILLAN THINKS MY ARTICLE IS STUPID.
"What's it like being a female in the music industry?" I ask.
"You see a lot of goatees," she says, dry as toast.
"You know, goatees, backstage. I'm starting to get goatee envy."
My hands begin to sweat.
"What's it like to be constantly surrounded by men? I mean, are you?"
"I don't really feel that way. Feist is a really great friend of mine; Emily Haines is a really great friend of mine. Maybe more men are musicians, but I have a lot of women in my life. So many times it feels very weird and competitive with women.”
I want to tell her about the vicious feminine rivalry I've encountered in the South. Earlier this summer, a girl attacked me for hanging out with her boyfriend. She weighed about 35 pounds, and I sat on her.
“I go to these folk festivals, and it feels very inclusive and exciting,” she says. “But still, there are more men. Maybe there's this idea that guys can just drop everything and rock it with the guitar. But looking at the sexes is dangerous in being so specific. If there's a woman playing the piano she's going to be compared to, you know, Tori Amos, and why not Neil Young? People should just be looked at as musicians. I feel like at the end of the day people are kind of scared of women. If you aren't using sexual innuendo and you're just straight up, there's no room to play games."
"What do you think is the source of that fear?"
"I don't know. Maybe they're all afraid of their mothers."
Then she says something I've heard from my own mother, about getting older.
"You become much less apologetic. You're not afraid of your own confidence. Once you grasp that pair of shoes it's so exciting. People think I'm three feet taller than I am — and it's not because of my shoes."
THIS IS THE PART ABOUT SEX.
Last summer, I went to see Editors and Cold War Kids with my friend Jessie. Jessie being Jessie, she had heard from little birds about the after party. We went to the merch table, smiled, lingered, she flirted subtly, I flirted shamelessly, and we were soon escorted upstairs. Three hours later on the tour bus, we didn't feel obligated to fool around with any of those fine English gents... but there was certainly a subtext, a possibility.
I do have platonic bonds with a lot of men who participate in music culture, based on good conversation and camaraderie and, you know, just liking each other. John Frattalone, manager of the SLIP and the Meowskers, is one of them. He's very business and very New York — I can even call him that now since during our last conversation he was moving boxes into his new Brooklyn apartment. "I'd say at least half the people I work with are women," he said, shooting off a list. He is right. There are plenty of dresses on the playground.
But there are also plenty of boys trying to look up those dresses. I have probably had a thousand men hit on me in a dozen years. They buy me drinks and speak silently to me with their big insecure eyes. They get my number and do not call it. They ask inappropriate questions about whether writing for TMT actually pays (Um, hello! A lady never tells). But what I usually want from them is just to be their friend and have us sleep together with all of our clothing on and go out for tofu scramble in the morning. Is that stupid?
I use to think girls covered up so much in San Francisco because of all the creeps in public: the pimps, addicts, derelicts, homeless, and the criminally insane. I stopped wearing heels after my stalker experience. This old, fat man from around the neighborhood started wearing a trench coat, dark sunglass and a bob-like wig of a Victorian style that suspiciously mirrored the boutique hotel where I worked. This lasted for a few weeks and ended in a violent showdown with the cops — true story. And anyway, I'm not a very good fiction writer.
But I've started wondering whether certain styles manifest this yearning to overstep gender assignments. Maybe radical redefinition helps to, um... define us.
Ethan Young, a graphic artist and animal activist told me once, "All style comes from mistakes.”
You know, like how deviating from the generic helps form a creative trademark. So, when I see these metro men and these boyishly-dressed women out here in the scene, are they trying to say something with their styles -- their deviations -- about how they don't want to be sexualized? That is, about how they're trying to escape the politics, to return to a place of innocence? I wonder.
ASK AN AUSTRALIAN.
Sally Seltman, a.k.a. New Buffalo, is on Arts & Crafts like Millan.
She speaks much more softly, and yeah, she doesn't scare me as much.
"When I was younger, I use to play in wild rock bands and I got sick of feeling like I was trying to be a man," she says. “I felt like I needed to try and be really tough or something. Now I embrace who I am — and I'm not really all that tough.
"Maybe in the industry there are more males working. It would be interesting seeing whether there's something to do with our genes or the male psyche that means they're more likely to be in bands. I think more and more, though, there are more girls playing in bands and doing solo projects and that sort of thing."
WE FIGHT BATTLES EVERY DAY OF OUR LIVES.
Maybe Millan is right. Maybe my article is stupid. If someone approached me in the context of being a woman writer, I'd probably also make combative statements about how my community is healthy and balanced and just fine, thank you. But I can't shake this thing off so easily. When I mention to my friend Josh at The Whig about most musicians being men, he scowls at me and tells me to do something about it, then. And sitting next to him, Eleanor says all jazzy-cool with that wild hair she has and a glass of bourbon held limp in her hand,
“Honey, we live in a man's world.”
But hold on, let's not play victim here. Cinderella is so 20 years ago. I have this correspondence with a musician who travels a lot and makes music that seems to say he's lonely maybe the way that I'm lonely. The e-mails are cryptic and playful, sometimes mildly flirtatious, yet generally lacking agenda. Last month I wrote him,
Let's get drunk one night
and sleep under the stars
and we'll wake up with bug bites
and thirsty as god and we
won't even care at all.
That sounds way better than an interview or just about anything else, he wrote back.
So, here's this successful and talented fellow with plenty of attention from women who get hot off musicians and industry players who hear dollar signs in the strum of his guitar, with the burden of fans who need him to help make them cool so that they can feel like a part of a community. I think of something else Millan said. “In the music industry, there are a lot of sharks and you have to stick to your instincts.” Perhaps I want to urge my peers engaged in this scene to be careful about exploiting and labeling one another, whether that has to do with our body parts or any of the other parts we play. And maybe I'm not being a very good journalist, giving advice instead of simply reporting — but hey, did I ever claim to be one at all?