It’s a late July evening in Seoul. On a scale of one to ten of sweaty discomfort, summer in South Korea ranks about eleven. But despite my clinging shirt and the fuzz of hair plastered to my greasy forehead, I am happy. Why? I am standing in a queue to see St. Vincent play on her Digital Witness tour. I’m a guitarist and singer. To say she is an inspiration is something of an understatement.
I’m with a small group, all of us musicians. One guy leans forward from his place behind us and speaks to the friend I’m standing beside. "I heard she can really shred," he says. I can hear the italics in his voice. St Vincent can shred, so the jaunty vocal italics are about as natural and welcome as his intrusion. My friend responds: "Yeah, she can really shred." They laugh. I don’t get it.
Inside, there’s the usual pre-show buzz. The line at the bar is three-people-deep, and there’s already a healthy knot of fans in front of the stage. The promise of an ice-cold beer dwindles, and any chances of getting near the front are very slim; points of some consternation to my 5’ 2” Irish self.
Suddenly, the growing crowd surges to the left. Security has opened a fire door to the mezzanine and we’re swept out and up the stairs to where I secure a tidy position against the railing. Prime location for some slack-jawed ogling.
The lights dim and the first stuttering notes of "Rattlesnake" bounce out across Seoul’s MUV hall. And then, she’s there. Black dress, silver hair, futuristic space alien stance. She’s all angles and sweeping, measuring eyes. The crowd are in a fit, arms reaching, smart phones recording. Awe and adulation and surrender all over the faces of the people watching her. And something happens to me.
I start to cry.
It’s not the first time I’ve seen an artist I love. And it’s not the first time I’ve seen a female artist I love. At first I don’t understand what it is that has me crying full, hot tears at a rock concert. But then I get it. St Vincent isn’t sitting alone with an acoustic guitar like Martha Wainwright. She isn’t a lone voice with a microphone while a male band plays behind her like Roísín Murphy. She is an honest-to-goodness rock star, plugged in, with grown-ups screaming in the front row. 30-year-old me has never seen anything like it and I’m handling it like a nine-year-old who’s just been told, "Surprise! We got you a pony for Christmas!"
Wainwright and Murphy are also heroes of mine. I adore them. But they occupy a safe zone, a kind of playpen for women who enter the big boy’s world of music. It’s like an infinitely more infuriating version of the sorting hat: Female singer-songwriter? Yes, good-good. Female on synth? Okay. Females on lead and bass? Into the fire with them! Definitely can’t have more than one woman in this here roadhouse band.
I see it time and time again in my own bands. Our keyboard player gets a pass while our drummer’s ability is pored over and questioned like the future of rock and roll depended on it. They’re both women. But one has the pink stamp of "girl job" while the other breaks the seventh seal of hell. (The sixth seal is the moon cup, in case you’re interested.)
We’ll never know what the obscure "she can really shred" line from our friend in the queue meant, but I imagine it was born out of this same confusion. But if Koko the Gorilla can jam with Flea, why can’t we say St. Vincent shreds with a straight face? This is a serious question I’ve just written in 2016.
St Vincent isn’t alone in female shredder-dom. And she isn’t the first. But she was my first. For men, there’s a lengthy parade of stars about whom it’s said, "I saw them play and knew I had to start a band." But for women, our stars are sometimes harder found; obscured by the neon glare of man after man after man doing the things we don’t even know we’re allowed to love.
After the first song, my friend sees my blotchy, tear-streaked face. "Why are you crying?" he asks. I say, "Where was she when I was a little kid watching my brother and his friends learn guitar?" He shrugs. "I don’t get it," he says.
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