Notes On Why Playing Music As A Woman Is Still Fucked Up: BUST True Story

by Lily Robert-Foley

So, I know what you’re going to say: you’re a sore loser.  You knew the rules when you signed up, and you have no right to complain about them.  So maybe you’re right.  But sometimes, as much as we may try to tailor our expectations to fit the stupidity of the system, our frustration does not always decrease in just proportion.

My band The Very Rich Hours and I recently took part in Emergenza, an international battle of the bands type festival for unsigned acts. We made it to round two of the Paris leg. Emergenza contestants win or lose based on a tally of raised hands, “calculated” at the end of each performance.  Tickets to Emergenza are 10 euros (first round) or 11 euros (second round), for early sale tickets, and 15 euros at the door. In other words, you win based on how many of your “fans” (for unsigned bands this is often synonymous with “friends” or “family members”) you are willing to exploit into coming to vote for you. 

Obviously, this system leads to a whole host of inanities, none of which bother me any more than say, an unnecessary trip to the DMV.  As I mentioned, the rules of the game were not hidden from me. That the Emergenza festival is about scamming musicians (and those who support them) to make a buck is in no way obfuscated.  You agree to it when you sign up.  Still, among those who defeated us were groups of teenagers who could barely play their instruments, who rallied the support of their entire high school to move through the ranks (with at least a little help from well-to-do Parisian parents, I’m willing to bank), as well as a group of old white dudes playing covers of rock hits from the 60’s-90’s.  When your wives, your ex-wives, your girlfriends, your ex-girlfriends, your children, your children’s friends, your friends, and your friends’ children show up to vote for your band in Emergenza… well, you can play “hot blooded” like clowns on rohypnol, and you’ll still win. On a more positive note, a group of young rappers, R.A.W., who, in spite of kind of sucking, were not totally devoid of talent, took second place in the second round, thanks to a rather sizable entourage. 

Here, I feel I have to make a point about the gender inequality of the music scene in general, but in particular in Paris.  I feel that many Americans have a hard time imagining the misogyny that governs French and Parisian life—it took me a couple years of living in Paris to really start to unravel its violence and intricacies (I have been living in France for six years now).  Without even needing to go beyond the context of the Emergenza festival, the remark may be made that in both rounds, our band (three women, one man, and featuring here one drag performer) constituted over half of the women present in the entire evening—out of eight bands. In the first round we were joined by one female solo artist (Fanny Hill, who did not make it to the second round), and a female bassist in another band that also did not make it to the second round.  In the second round, only one other band had any women in it whatsoever, a charming if sort of old-fashioned group, with six members, a couple of male guitarists, a male lead singer, a dude on percussion, accessorized with a female back up singer and violinist.  The violinist does not appear in their online videos ,however, and in some of these videos, neither does the female backup singer.

celui ci

The first round was hosted at The Backstage in Paris, where the green room does not have a toilet for women, only a urinal and shower.  Of course, we pissed in the shower. 

At the second round, hosted at the Gibus, we received a number of amusing comments, such as, “So is your band supposed to be ironic?” (Because women playing rock music is “funny”? In what way does it imply the opposite of its appearance?). A male member of another group we played with removed my female bandmate’s hat without her permission, adding the comment, “You know, why don’t you take your hat off, you’re actually kind of cute.”  That women cannot be successful as musicians if they’re not attractive is well known. Women do not write music, they shake their asses. Sometimes they adorably write a song that a man turns into a piece of music for them to shake their asses to: “It is obvious that Vincent” (the only male member of our group) “is actually the mastermind of the music.”

(An aside: although it is true that the above comment is absurd, the last thing I want to do in citing it here is undervalue Vincent’s role in the music, which is enormous—he writes most of the guitar riffs and about half of the chord progressions and does all of the electronic component, including the beats, and is a first rate guitar player.  Should I have to be worried about coming across like a “diva” if I occasionally remind people that I actually write most of the songs?  In other words, are we doomed to inhabit a world where women are divas and men are masterminds?)

Okay, okay, so none of this is actually new or unique to the Emergenza festival, so whence the sudden outbreak of ire?  It comes from a cherry on the cake called the Casablanca Drivers. On their Facebook page, they list their hometown as Ajaccio in Corsica. I have no idea if any of them are actually Moroccan, but if not, that would make them, among other things, pretty fucking racist if my reading of their name is correct: i.e. that they are crazy and out of control like Moroccan drivers. I suppose Ajaccien Drivers just doesn’t have the same ring…It was thanks to them that I came to the realization that Emergenza is not solely a popularity contest between absurdly young and absurdly old people competing to sell the most lemonades, but also doubles as a marketing front for the launch of “unsigned” bands. Although Emergenza proclaims to be devoted to unsigned bands, I couldn’t help a sneaking suspicion that the Casablanca Drivers probably do have a label, or at least a manager.  I have absolutely no proof for this, but if I’m wrong, my sincere hats off to whoever it is in the band (or uncredited band slave?) who doubles as a mad marketing genius (perhaps the mysterious Genevieve in their hit song?).

The Casablanca Drivers are like a surgery carried out under anesthesia:  expertly performed, but leaving absolutely no impression whatsoever on the memory.  That is to say, I will be the first to admit that they are more professional than we are, and I’ll concede that their overall musicianship is probably better than ours. I’m not pretending that The Very Rich Hours is anything other than it is, which is to say, a group of early career academic researchers (in literature, and physics—and yes the disciplines fall along gendered lines) playing music on the weekend. However, given this, I believe what RuPaul might call our Charisma Uniqueness Nerve and Talent (C.U.N.T.) is at least equal to and probably greater than that of the Casablanca Drivers.  

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So what do the Casablanca Drivers have that we don’t?  Besides a manager (or perhaps even, if my conspiracy theories have any merit, a secret label?), and nothing else to do with their lives besides practice some actually interesting guitar riffs, bang chicks and try to look cool?  (Yes, I am bitter, thank you very much, and I’m not afraid to admit it.)

They have the music mafia: the masonic temple, the elks’ lodge, or a rose by any other name: its a boys’ club. They look the part. They also had sound engineering.  In the second round, The Very Rich Hours had the misfortune of going on just before the Casablanca Drivers, who were the last band of the night, headlining a show that is not supposed to have any predetermined winners.  From the moment we got to the Gibus, the white rabbit began yelling at us, we’re late, we’re late, for the very important Casablanca Drivers! 

The sound “guy” was an utter dick, during sound check and then later during the show. We prepared (academics playing rock music, as you do) two pristine sheets explaining point by point in detail every aspect of our sound configuration, song by song, which he not only did not look at but told us he was not going to look at, “I prefer the human element thank you” (he also did not actually listen to us). I had to ask him twice during the show to turn up the vocals on my monitors (repeating what I had already repeated three times during sound check which was that I felt like I was singing into a black hole).  But maybe I should be more forgiving: our band is very confusing to sound “guys.” First of all, that’s a lot of women.  Second of all, we have no lead singer, so the three vocal lines need to be balanced out with the guitars, keyboard and mac.  If our sound engineer allies among our audience members are to be believed, all you could hear from the audience was Vincent’s acoustic guitar and mac. (Then again, he is actually the mastermind of the music.) The vocals were garbled and distant and god forbid someone should actually hear a lyric. In other words, the sound engineer had more or less set the levels for the Casablanca Drivers before the show even began and couldn’t be bothered to change them very much. Basically, your show sucks or sounds okay according to how similar your set up is to that of the Casablanca Drivers, which, is actually really interesting since they have two guitars and a keyboard…!  Curiously, they were also the only band that had any lighting effects.  Which seemed a bit strange considering they are five relatively immobile dudes on stage, following a group of three weirdly dressed girls who fall on the floor among other things, and in the fifth song invite a guest drag performer on stage. But the Casablanca Drivers looked and sounded awesome. I mean, their music—although good—is not exceptionally awesome. But they sounded awesome anyway.

They were also the only band to be exempt from the law of popularity, tying (with “equal votes”) for last place in both rounds. I have occasionally been accused of being a delusional diva bitch by both friends and enemies, so take this with as much truth value as you like, but my count on both occasions leveled out to about 25-30 votes for the Casablanca Drivers.  To give you an idea, in the first round, the top bands won with over a hundred votes.  We had 65 votes in the first round and 39 in the second. I’m obviously a biased observer, but looking out at the hands after our show and after the Casablanca Drivers, I would bet good money that we had more votes both times, although we “tied” with them on the first round and lost to them on the second.


tous ensemble

At the end of the show, sore losing aside, I was trying my best to be diplomatic.  I tried to catch an eye to congratulate some of the members of the Casablanca Drivers, to whom I was absolutely invisible. Like cat puke on the carpet that you just try to pretend isn’t there. In my experience with dudes like that (considerable), if you’re a woman who is not “hot,” you’re either their mother, their schoolteacher, or you do not exist at all. Still, the system is stupid, duh, so what has that got to do with me? No point in getting upset about things you can’t change.

As we got rammed into the flotsam and jetsam of the exiting crowds, I stumbled across a girl with a guitar on her back.  For a moment, my heart quickened.  Had there been a female composer among the ranks, an amazon in arms, that I had missed?  I asked her, “Did you perform tonight?  What’s your act’s name?  I think I missed you!”  “Oh no no!” (blush, I mean, how ironic would that be) “I’m just carrying my boyfriend’s guitar.” Her boyfriend sniggered behind her, unburdened by fetters both tangible and intangible.  And with that I reared back my diva bitch head, and howled. 

This article does not necessarily represent the feelings, beliefs or impressions of my band mates!
Images courtesy Lily Robert-Foley

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