Ever heard of the Bechdel Test? It’s a test to see which bits of film and literature contain gender bias. It’s simple really: does the book/film have two named female characters who speak to each other about something other than a man? If the answer is yes, then you have a film without the bias leaning towards the male (i.e. even in female fronted films, they’re usually banging on about getting married, snatching that hot Colin Firth character, etc).
This blog post is my own Bechdel Test for music. Here’s five female musicians that you can easily talk about without having to mention them as either “doing it as well as any man” or “reaching beyond what is expected of female performers” or “redefining how we think of women in music”. They’re artists that you can view as artists. Does that make them apolitical? Not really. I find Lady Gaga or Madonna less helpful in the grander scheme of things than I do Rachel Gosling. But that’s another blog post. This is a celebration! In no particular order, here’s five women in music you should all be checking out.
PS. Please don’t whinge at me for leaving people off the list. It’s not complete, and it is totally personal and not a “greatest women of all time” poll. I know there are people who are notable by their absence, but that’s because I want to keep the list short, they may not be a particular influence to me or they’re someone I am not entirely into at this point in time.
1) Stephanie: Tinsel Teeth
Sounds terrible that I don’t know her second name. There are two reasons: I am new to this band and I am yet to find it anywhere.
I stumbled across the music of Tinsel Teeth when they were suggested as a “you may also like” when I was looking for stuff by John Zorn/Naked City. I can happily say I was knocked back by what I heard and had a genuine mouth-open-what-the-fuck-is-this moment. Although Stephanie is no longer with them, Tinsel Teeth produce a wonderfully sludgy form of something with constant switches in time signature and tempo, all with a particularly horrific Southern drawl/growl over the top. It’s kinda like Tom Waits died and went to hell, then came back and tried to recreate what he saw with Cannibal Corpse as his backing band. Produced by Steve Albini. In a shed. Full of sharp metal and innards. That’s how fucking good it is.
All the footage and photos I’ve seen of Stephanie either have her covered in blood, chewing on guts, rolling around semi naked, attacking the audience, molesting people or wearing a fake penis. I’m not about to give a 6th form Media Student analysis of this: it’s just great, and she’s great. None of this “born this way” shit. Just pure unadulterated nasty.
Listen to: Trash as a Trophy (particularly Libraries are the Cemeteries of Ideas).
2) Elizabeth Fraser: Cocteau Twins
A definite change of gear for this one. Cocteau Twins are one of my favourite bands, mostly because of the guitar work of Robin Guthrie. However, our Rob isn’t know for his versatility and 15 years worth of albums with them and a whole solo career has really only produced variations on a theme. The one thing that did continually shift and change throughout that period was Liz Fraser’s voice. From snarling stabs on the post-punk tinged Garlands, up to the outright pop of Four Calendar Cafe, she was constantly twisting and experimenting. My interest in texture over melody- which features more in my other project Ultimate Grand Supreme- was influenced as much by Fraser’s voice as it was by Kevin Shields’ guitars. On a single song, Fraser would add rambling tongues, rolling and fluttering, grating hoarseness, soulful pop, operatic arias, whatever sounded right. It makes her one of the most adaptive, idiosyncratic and interesting pop musicians to have ever existed.
Listen to: Aikea Guinea EP, Blue Bell Knoll (album), Spanglemaker EP.
3. Mimi Parker: Low.
First of two drummer/vocalists on the list. Mimi took that whole Mo Tucker thing to a new level by adding some of the most necessary backing vocals, sublime lead and beautiful grounding to a whole band. I say that those vocals are necessary because they add a new dimension to what Alan Sparhawk is doing with either his voice or his guitar, as if there would be notes in the scale missing without her. There are moments- often single notes- that hit at just the right pitch and time that can reduce me to a quivering wreck on the verge of tears. I’ve seen live audiences stood as if hypnotised by some of the songs she’s softly released upon us. Touching and full of grace. A definite favourite of mine and definitely one of my idols as a vocalist.
Listen to: Trust (Album), Long Division (Album), and the songs Shame, Laser Beam.
4) Bilinda Butcher: My Bloody Valentine.
I had the joy of seeing these guys twice a couple of years ago and once last week. Anyone who has seen them will tell you how incredibly loud and utterly mesmerising the show is- and part of that is down to Bilinda. There’s something unsettling when you think about raw noise in the form of grinding fuzz or end-of-the-world noise being mingled with the most angelic voice you could wish to hear. Bilinda doesn’t just sing over that noise, she helps to produce it. Even if she doesn’t get the credit that Kevin Shields does for inventing a whole new sound, she is undoubtedly a part of that (I find it hard to believe that Kevin bought her pedals, fixed the settings, set the EQ on the amp and so on for the whole of their career- if anyone knows otherwise, let me know). An absolute icon in the world of alternative music- whatever that is- and definitely someone who has contributed to the way I do things.
Listen to: Isn’t Anything, Loveless (Albums), You Made Me Realise EP.
5) Georgia Hubley: Yo La Tengo
Drummer, vocalist, guitarist, keyboard player, bit of everything in Yo La Tengo; Georgia Hubley is the last woman on my list of influences. Yo La Tengo in general are some of my favourite musicians- producing a wonderful mix of plenty of my other influences to produce something different from any of them. Whether she’s adding to Ira’s vocals or singing her own, strumming an acoustic or bopping away on the drums, Georgia Hubley is an unsung legend and would probably make it into my own supergroup were I ever to make one. And yet another female drummer! The myth is that they can’t do this, but I’d disagree: check out Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House or Autumn Sweater. They might not be Neil Peart in action, but you can help but get your groove on when they’re spinning on the player.
Listen to: The albums I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, Fade.