When we think of music, we most often think of the most glamorized parts of it—the exuberant crowds, the packed venues, the musicians gliding on stage dressed to the nines. But while this is a very real aspect of the music industry, let us not forget that the work does not end here. Musicians are often expected to constantly “perform:” to play their music on stage, to network, to interact with the media and their audiences, and for a lot of local DIY bands, to self-manage their bands and book their own shows. I can’t even begin to imagine how much physical and emotional energy it takes to do it all.
So that’s how this article came to be.
While the role of the musician is often one involving the intricate processes of creation and self-expression, it can also be socially and emotionally exhausting—especially for womxn*. Don’t get me wrong, I have so much love for the music scene, and all of the beautiful things it has to offer to both musicians and audiences alike—a safe space, a purpose, an outlet for creative outpour and a community of people who just get you. But as a fellow onlooker myself, who feeds off of the exuberant performances and talents of musicians, its incredibly important for us to remember that music takes a lot of emotional and physical labor. While its so easy for me to enjoy the surface of it all—the products of creative labor—I also have to know that the work takes a lot of energy from the performers, and this shouldn’t be taken for granted.
From thinking about this for quite some time, I’ve built growing curiosity to know how musicians, specifically womxn-identifying musicians, deal with balancing this creative liberation and systemic pressure all at once. I found myself wondering if womxn in music carry not only the weight of performing, but also intensive emotional labor and social energy, just like womxn are often expected to in society.
Since I cannot speak from experience, as a mere onlooker/admirer of it all, I am so thrilled to have been able to chat with some amazing womxn in the music scene, whom I look up to so much, to ask them about their experiences as women in music, how they practice self-care, and how the find a balance between being a performer and musician with understanding when to put their own personal needs first. I was able to chat with Miro and Marika Justad of dream pop trio, Tangerine, and Lydia Lund of Seattle’s bad*ass all-female group, Chastity Belt. While they were all so kind to share their personal experiences with me, it’s important to note that each person can have a completely different experience of this, especially depending on the identities and privileges that one carries. These are merely just some of many experiences of womxn in music.
I don’t think it’s hard to say that, in society, men and womxn are often socialized to look, act, and be treated a certain way, and music is definitely no exception.
“I think there are different social expectations for men and women in society in general, so that definitely spills over into the entertainment world,” explains Marika, vocals and guitarist of Tangerine.
Courtesy of Tangerine
“I think there are definitely different social expectations for men and women in the music depending on the specific scene. In some instances, I feel like women are constantly having to prove that they deserve to be on stage skill-wise because expectations are low,” says Miro, the drummer of Tangerine. “In other instances women are put on a special platform where almost anything they play is received really well because people are just excited that it is not another group of men.”
While talking on the phone with Lydia, she shared one specific experience she had recently while she was on tour at SXSW. “This guy who created this app for finding shows that are in your town approached us and asked, ‘Oh, are you in an all-female band as a marketing scheme?’”
“That was insane to hear, but I felt like no one has said that to us overtly,” she continues. “He went on to say some pretty s****y things including like, ‘let’s not make this about gender,’ and ‘What if some people are just better at things than others?’”
She continues, “That was pretty depressing because for the most part the scene that I’m in—there aren’t necessarily different expectations and it does feel like an even playing field, and I feel really supporter in Seattle and in the DIY community. But being around more mainstream kind of like music business people, I feel that’s where you are treated differently and there are different expectations of you.”
Courtesy of Conor Lyons
I’ve always assumed that there would be identity-based issues in music, but it was still incredibly upsetting to hear that they actually exist. It’s so easy for us to think that womxn in music live exciting, fast-paced uncomplicated lives. But the reality is that even with the beauty that comes with being in music, there’s a whole system of inequality in all aspects of society, music included. So with all of the pressure and social expectations put on musicians—specifically womxn musicians—how do they balance it all? While all three of these women expressed their love for performing and creating music, they all also expressed the need and want for time for self-care. This, of course, comes in different forms for different people, but with the common understanding that doing this one thing centers you and allows you to rejuvenate your energy.
For Marika, she finds self-care is most effective when she engages in her passion for books. “Submerging yourself in someone else’s world, someone else’s problems, can be such a relief.”
Miro says a “huge part of self-care as a musician/human being to me is to constantly be learning new skills and hobbies.” Whether it’s jamming with strangers or playing West-African drums, Miro says that, “it keeps the joy of music very alive in me because it is something I do just to have plain fun, there are no major consequences in what I’m playing, and that is liberating.”
Courtest of Tangerine
For Lydia, whose just come back from touring, her version of self-care is taking time for herself, whether that’s going on a walk or just sitting and thinking in the van on the way to their next venue. Regardless of what she does, Lydia expresses that “when I go on tour its almost like my personal growth has sped up and amplified everything because your dealing with being in close quarters with people and near a lot of people, you have to know what your needs are.”
Lydia continues, “I think [self-care] is important because performing is taxing, especially because you are genuinely putting yourself out there… and you are just being yourself so intimately for so many people and being vulnerable and that takes a lot of energy.”
“Even when I play music, I watch the crowd a lot and know that if I didn’t watch the crowd, it would be a different experience. I could be preserving the energy. But I’d rather feel like it’s an interactive thing, and not just me doing something and ignoring what’s happening outside.”
These conversations just reinforced my admiration for these womxn, as they reminded me that strong womxn will thrive in all situations you put them in. They have learned to adapt in an industry that may not always be in their favor. And if and when it ever feels like they’ve exhausted their energy, they’ve taken to self-care, to take the time to do whatever they need to do for themselves, and then get back out there and do what they love day in and day out. In demanding industries such as music, self-care is not a diversion, but a necessity.
“In the beginning, I wanted to please everyone—every venue, every sound guy, every person in the audience. I got over that though,” Marika shares. “Being an artist is about so much more than just pleasing people. So, I try to ask for what I need and not apologize for it. Women apologizing for no reason is such a thing…I know I do it all the time. But I’m getting better at not doing it so much…sorry!”
Miro adds, “Self care is something that I find myself having to practice mostly when Tangerine is performing. Before or after I go on stage I am generally in a delicate mood; negativity can throw me off. I have had to teach myself to not let these moments affect how awesome performing is or how much I love what I do. It could be the usual patronizing conversation with a sound man or someone in the crowd yelling something sexist out of the blue that makes me feel uneasy or frustrated. I brush it off, but I am not going to sugar coat what I say to men in these situations; I am so done with being super flexible with their attitudes/views.”
What else helps? Other womxn, of course! Womxn in music also inspire other womxn in music to keep doing what they do best. These three womxn named others like the womxn of Hinds, Lorde, Jillian of Ian Sweet and Jay Som. “All of these cool ladies doing their thing!” says Lydia. “Especially when they are able to be so much of themselves, that’s always the most inspiring to me.”
However, even with the burden of dealing with this inequality, Lydia, Miro and Marika want to encourage women to not fear being a part of the music industry. Music is without a doubt a beautiful platform that we should not shy away from just because it may not be perfect. Because in the end, what industry is perfect? There is always progress to be made, my friends. And choosing to be a part of a system that may still treat womxn and men differently within itself simply because you love it enough to believe that its worth it is an act of resilience, don’t you think?
So to all of you current and aspiring musicians, listen up. “Don’t feel like there’s only one “right” way to be a feminist in the music world,” says Marika. “If you wanna wear a short skirt and lipstick, f*****g doing it. If you want to wear a big baggy t shirt and never brush your hair, do that too. It’s 2017 and we should be able to be whoever we want.”
Lydia says, “personally I’ve found that with my creative expression, when I’m trying to be anything other than who I am, it doesn’t sound as good so its really important to give yourself room to express yourself in whatever way comes most naturally.” She continues, “And I do think its important to learn songs from your favorite artists and maybe try to write a song like them, but I know for me whenever I feel like whenever I’m in a creative rut, its always when I’m trying to sound like something that doesn’t come naturally to me. Whatever comes naturally to you is good and beautiful and not everyone has to like it.”
To thrive in the music industry, especially as a womxn, means to do what you do best, and do it with absolute love and authenticity. Looking back at my thoughts prior to these interviews, it’s pretty wild to imagine that I found myself so caught up with the glamour and romanticized portrayal of the music scene, trying to convince myself that what I saw on stage was truly it. It’s easy to ignore the issues, right? But if I’m really being honest with myself, it’s so much more than that. There are issues in music, in society and in all aspects of life. But does that mean that music isn’t worth it? Will that stop womxn from thriving in this industry? Absolutely not. In fact, this just proves just how essential womxn are to music. Because they are the ones who can change it.
So to put it simply, there is still work to be done. Music is glamour. Music is creation. Music is a lot of the romanticized things we’re told it is. But we can’t forget that it’s also a damn whole lot of work—emotional work, physical work, social work, and mental work. It’s more than the average onlooker will ever truly know. So if a womxn musician chooses to spend their time post-show in the greenroom, or if they don’t answer the questions you ask them while they’re on stage, please know that it’s not necessarily coming from a place of unkindness, but mostly likely from having to care for their own personal needs after having to exert a lot of it in the process of being expected to constantly “perform.”
Although there are still gender and identity-related barricades in the music industry, we see many examples of womxn grinding away in music simply because their love and belief in the power of music is more than enough to keep going. They’ve taught me that even through the daily battles of emotional and physical labor, you should not be afraid or apologetic for putting your needs first, or for taking time to do what’s best for you. They’ve taught me to not feel like a burden for stating my personal needs. They’ve taught me that caring for you is an absolute necessity. To balance the expectation to constantly “perform” with your own personal needs is an act of power itself.
And through it all—through the expectations, the emotional and physical labor, and the social energy it takes to be a musician—these womxn thrive.
Artwork by April Jingco
Remember that womxn are absolute forces. Womxn in music are absolute forces. They will not let challenges or barricades hinder them from doing what they do best, in the most unapologetic, authentic way they can. That, to me, is magic.
APRIL JINGCO | Feelin’ so inspired by womxn in music, y’all! | KXSU Digital Media Director
*Womxn is a term that is used to be inclusive to all who identify with the struggles and joys of womxnhood. The ‘e’ is replaced with an ‘x,’ as the hope is to discard the idea that womxn are extensions of men, even in the written sense. The ‘x’ is inclusive to all intersectional identities—to womxn-born-womxn, trans-womxn, womxn of color, and other integral identities.