Thursday, November 10, 2011

We've come a long way, baby, but there's still so far to go: dancing backwards through the herstory of all-girl bands.

Why do female musicians band together by gender? As a female drummer, you're often the most sought-after puzzle piece of the girl band. You're also quite likely, in 2011, to be accused of using your gender as a marketing tool, and therefore not fully earning any success you achieve. I've played in a succession of all-female rock bands and so naturally am curious about the history of girl groups. Let's start with one-woman mega-corporation Beyonce and work our way backwards through the all-girl band herstory...

Check out this video of Beyonce performing ‘Crazy In Love’ live -- is this an all-girl band? Notice which performers are on the stage, and who is off-stage.

Beyonce does have an all-female backing band, though you wouldn't know it from the 'Crazy In Love' video, as only Beyonce and her dancers are onstage. Here's how her band, the Suga Mamas, got together:

You'll notice Beyonce's sitting behind a table rather than singing with the band in this situation. That's because these are session musicians auditioning for paid work. The band members will get paid per show, and won't typically be involved in writing the songs and music they play. Why do you think Beyonce is only auditioning female musicians in this video? It looks like these auditions are not open to male-identified or genderqueer folks. Being a session player in Beyonce's band is certainly hard work -- Cora Dunham, one of Beyonce's drummers, says the 2011 tour involved eight hours of band practice every day.

Let's go back to the 1990s and 2000s, and check out the "girl power" of the Spice Girls. Here's a live video:

Would you say the Spice Girls are an all-girl band? That's certainly how they market and present themselves, but who plays drums? Bass? Guitar? The Spice Girls use a pool of session musicians for their live band, and the lineup is dude-centric. Is this an all-girl band, when only the singers are female and the instrumentalists are male?

Let's talk about the Billboard chart. In the United States, Billboard makes weekly lists of the 100 recordings which sold the most copies. A "number one" record in the U.S. refers to the highest-selling song or album of the week, according to Billboard. Beyonce's 2011 album '4' went straight in at number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The Spice Girls have had six singles in the top 20 – including ‘Wannabe’ at number 1.

It took a long time for all-girl bands to start having records on the Billboard Hot 100. The Riot Grrrl bands of the early 1990s were extremely influential for future musicians, but even the most successful bands of the Riot Grrrl era did not have hit singles or appear on television like Beyonce or the Spice Girls. Their music was not designed for mainstream success, and many riot grrrls deliberately avoided media coverage for their music. The DIY (do-it-yourself) ethic was a big part of the Riot Grrrl movement, and many bands didn't want mainstream success in the mass musical market.

We have to look back to the 1980s for the first all-female band to reach the top of the Billboard charts with their own original songs played on their own instruments:

The Go-Go’s were an American rock band who got together in 1978. They were a band, not session musicians backing up a singer or dancer. They played their own instruments live on stage and recorded original songs they wrote. Their album was one of the most successful debuts ever, in terms of sales. It spent six weeks at the Billboard number 1 position, selling over 3 million copies.

Going back to the 1970s, we see more women playing in punk bands. The mixed-gender band X-Ray Spex, fronted by the inimitable Poly Styrene, blasted onto the U.K. scene and gave a female voice to aggressive music. The Runaways were an all-girl group playing commercial pop-metal and hard rock. They were commercially successful, however, only some of the Runaways' songs were originally written by the band members. Some of their most successful records were cover versions of existing songs, and new music written for The Runaways by male songwriters who were not in the band.

Back in the 1960s, we find the first all-female rock band with a major-label record contract (and yes, British TV presenters really talked like this in the Sixties):

Goldie & The Gingerbreads were active between 1962 and 1967, and featured the perhaps unusual instrumentation of organ, drums, guitar and vocals/tambourine. From this video, you can tell that this television performance is not live. There are no microphones, the instruments are not plugged in -- the musicians are lip-synching/miming while the recorded version of their song is broadcast. You can see Goldie & The Gingerbreads went for the band-uniform approach to stagewear, as all four women are dressed identically. Why do bands do this?

So we find ourselves back in the "Jazz Age" of the early twentieth century. During the 1930s, "all-girl" jazz bands toured the United States. Check out the Tom Tom Magazine blog 'Grandmothers of Jazz' for some great photos, video and information. Here's an early video of Phil Spitalny and His All-Girl Orchestra playing "All Girl Tiger Rag":

Is this an all girl band? The phrase "all girl" is there in the name of the band, and the name of the song. They really want us to get that that this is an "all girl" band playing "all girl" music. However, the band leader is called Phil. He conducts and leads the band -- according to the phrase "His All-Girl Orchestra," Phil also in some way owns the band. An all-girl band under the leadership or management of a male is a common theme running from the 1930s to the Spice Girls. How "girl-powered" is an all-girl band when they are overseen and managed by a man?

Also from the 1930s, we can find an all-girl jazz band led by a woman. Phew! Here are Ina Ray Hutton and Her Melodears playing "Truckin'":

Check out the instruments -- none of them plug to an electrical outlet. This band is playing acoustic. The drummer is playing a very early drumkit with bass drum, snare and cymbals but no toms. Early drumkits were a collection of percussion instruments -- Chinese toms, woodblocks, percussion effects -- mounted over a bass and snare. Tom toms didn't make a regular appearance on the drumkit until after World War II.

Finally, check out Ina's dancing! Is this the 1930s equivalent of Beyonce's famous "Crazy In Love" dance?

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