When I travelled around the US last year, I had grand intentions of keeping a tour diary. Thanks to a combination of jetlag and sheer overwhelming enthusiasm for everything else I was doing, what I ended up with was more a tour scrapbook: ticket stubs, phone numbers, and hastily scrawled notes to myself, all stuffed in a CD wallet to be sorted through at a later date. It may make for an iconic photograph some day, but I’ve long since abandoned the idea that I’ll write in great detail about that time now. The memories are all worn down at the edges, and fit comfortably in their own space in my head. You need to remember the sharp corners too, if you’re going to tell an honest story.
What struck me most – so much so that I scribbled the question down on a scrap of paper towards the end of the trip – is that one question kept cropping up, over and over. In every state, in every city, girls would come up to me at the end of every show and ask a variation of the same question: ‘So, what does it feel like to be a strong female role model?’
I was… amused, is probably the best word for it, the first few times I was asked. I would grin and shrug ‘I don’t know, I’ll tell you if I ever am one’ – and not knowing what else I could possibly say on the point, change the subject. But after six or seven iterations of the same question, I started to wonder, not if they had a point, but what on earth was prompting the sentiment?
All the guitarists I admired, growing up, were men. Though I’m not sure it occurred to me to notice, to be honest. It didn’t matter to me what gender someone was, as long as I felt they had something to say. When I started playing tentative gigs in Dublin in the early 2000s though, I was often the only girl in a line-up of five or six bands. I hid my relationship with someone else in that band for years because back then, if you were in your boyfriend’s band, your boyfriend was the reason you were in the band. But surely this was years ago, I pondered from the comfort of the white sand beaches of California. Were girls so stuck in the assumption of a predominantly male industry, that they hadn’t noticed how many of their own kind were about now?
There are, when you get down to it, a wealth of women musicians. Interesting,smart and extraordinarily talented women, playing music that makes its way straight to the soles of your feet. The problem is, they aren’t in the mainstream. Bands like Metric, women like Amanda Palmer, even more established artists like Ani DiFranco have hard-earned respect in certain circles – and yet they just aren’t easily accessible in the mainstream market. And while I’m sure they’re not crying into their breakfast cereal about the fact, we should be sad for the girls who don’t know to seek them out.
Sadder still are the women that seem to have sacrificed some part of themselves to attain pop cult status. While the nineties held great potential, with Beyoncé belting out pop anthems about being a Survivor, it now looks like perhaps Kelly Roland was the feminist powerhouse behind the Destiny’s Child throne. These days it seems Beyoncé’s happier encouraging young girls to shake their ass, pout to camera and to believe that if someone likes them, they need to put a ring on their finger to prove it.
Pop music is, at its best, a tricky area to dissect. Because to criticise the women who do get up on stage, in very little clothing, and shake their maracas in every direction is a dangerous thing to do. It’s criticising someone for being sexual, and there’s nothing wrong with anyone – male or female – standing up and saying ‘I too, am a sexual creature’. It’s only human. But when it’s sexuality at the expense of message… I mean, do we really want or expect teenage girls to believe half of what they’re singing back at these pop starlets?
I hesitated for a long time, before writing this. I don’t want to be misconstrued. I’m not setting myself up to be any sort of example. I’m not standing on a soapbox – I’m… expressing sadness, really. And most importantly, I don’t want this post to appear to diminish the women who are out there, playing their hearts out on stage. It’s just that, when you get down to it, most of the ones who achieve massive mainstream success, aren’t really giving young girls anything great to aspire too.
Life is brutal. Love can be unkind. Pop music is, I think, the 4 minute equivalent of Sleepless in Seattle. If you examine it too closely, it’s a little creepy, and Meg Ryan is little more than a doe-eyed stalker… but it’s warm, and fuzzy and is a lot more comforting than curling up by an open fire and watching say, Schindler’s List. But there needs to be some balance. For every glistening, writhing woman with only tactically placed glitter to retain her modesty, there needs to be another standing tall with a Fender Strat, trying to sing about something honest.
So the next time someone asks me how I feel about being a strong female role model, I think my answer is going to have to be that, well, it saddens me. I’m a relative unknown in the music industry. People shouldn’t need to be pointing to me as a model of anything, let alone asking me how it feels. Because I feel that girls out there should be spoilt for choice. They should be inspired by an industry that tells them it’s not about how good your legs look in that skirt, it’s not about the size of your breasts, or about wanting people to desire you. It’s about being genuine, about having something to say, and it’s about knowing that when you say it, there’s a large audience of young girls out there who want, and maybe even need, to hear what all the fuss is about.