Ali Koehler (Upset, Vivian Girls)
I know how to handle assholes. I have no problem with confrontation. In fact, I like to think I’m pretty good at it. What I wasn’t entirely prepared for was anonymous assholes. The ones who weren’t brazen enough to say something to my face, but took joy in picking me apart online.
That’s not to say my relationship with music was perfect before anonymous comments. I started drumming when I was 10 years old. I took pride in the fact that I was the only girl on the drums in my school band. My mom asked, “Couldn’t you play something nice like flute or piano?” I couldn’t. I was always an anxious kid, and being able to hit something was a release. I started taking private lessons, always with older men. Something about the intimacy of playing music in a small room as a 10 year old girl alone with a strange older man always felt odd and vulnerable, but it was a weirdness I refused to let deter me.
In middle school, I made it into the highest ranking band at my school. The band leader, Mr. Mobley, had it out for me. I wore earplugs when I drummed to protect my hearing, which according to Mr. Mobley, was not something “real musicians” do. Luckily, I’ve always been a tenacious bitch, and even at 12 years old I knew this guy was an asshole. He made me take a hearing test at the nurse’s office to prove I had sensitive hearing. I told my dad and he called the school with a few choice words. That was the end of the earplug fight. Mobley retaliated by only letting me play auxiliary percussion like the triangle. He almost successfully turned me off of drumming, and I quit band before high school.
As I moved through 9th grade, I settled in with my own group of weirdos and discovered bands like Bikini Kill and the White Stripes. I listened to Meg White and Tobi Vail and thought, “I could definitely at least do this,” so I started a band with my friend Ryan. Come to think of it, most of my courage in music has come from that mentality, which proves the importance of all musicians, not just Guitar Center dinosaurs.
When I got to college I met Katy Goodman. Katy and I had a new band every month, and in one of them we and everyone at our shows would strip down to our underwear. As someone who’s picked my body apart since 4th grade, it was strangely liberating in a way that only made sense as a teenage punk. I could get drunk, play drums in my underwear, and get out of my own way.
Vivian Girls quickly became bigger than our safe little open-minded basement scene.
When I eventually replaced Frankie Rose as their drummer, I felt the need to warn Katy and Cassie.
“Frankie is prettier than me. People are going to say I’m fat.”
They were incredulous, but I knew enough to know that I would be teased for my appearance. I’d been on enough message boards. My first show with them was opening for Tilly and the Wall at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. I picked out what I thought was my most slimming outfit. As a drummer, at least I had something to hide behind. Maybe no one would notice me. Of course the show was covered by Brooklyn Vegan, and I woke up to the comments…
It felt like every show we played or song we released was met with personal, vitriolic attacks. I think of a particular Buddyhead quote about myself every time I see Haagen Dazs. To this day I’ve never eaten it, just to “prove him wrong.” I remember my dad telling me he signed on to some anonymous comment section to rattle the trolls. I told him it was no use and not to engage them. I pretended I was above it, but I secretly googled all possible spellings of my name and read every nasty word. “Don’t read the comments” is incredibly easy in theory, but nearly impossible when you know people are talking about you. I hated myself and every mean thing said about me just validated my belief that I was ugly, untalented, and worthless. These feelings were compounded by photo shoots in which stylists awkwardly tried to dress my audacious size 16 body.
While I was touring I was dealing with a pretty tumultuous family situation. My brother had an ongoing struggle with addiction for as long as I could remember, and it really came to a head during those years. Every time I came home from tour there was some fresh heartbreak. I tried to ease my parents’ pain in between tours and then eased mine with drink tickets and candy on the road.
I remember opening for Deerhunter in Boston. I was alone backstage and lifted my shirt in front of a mirror. I had new stretch marks on my stomach. My mind was so disconnected from my body because it had to be in order to cope with my mounting anxiety and depression. I was in denial about my overeating and binge drinking as I juggled all of my anxieties with beer, sugar, and Xanax. When I was on stage I was either sober, miserable, and in my head or I was drunk, unaware, and playing sloppily. Eventually I left Vivian Girls and joined Best Coast, which was a brand new bumpy trip through the hype machine. This ascent was on even larger scale. Before Best Coast played on Letterman, I went shopping for something to wear by myself. I bought my first pair of Spanx and a new dress from h&m. I thought I looked beautiful. YouTube commenters disagreed.
I can’t believe how much money I spent on new outfits and makeup trying to be happy with myself.
Before playing on Jimmy Fallon, I told the makeup artist I felt like a fraud, like I wasn’t good enough to be there. She said “of course you are honey, they wouldn’t ask you to play if you weren’t any good.” I didn’t believe her.
I’ve never felt so simultaneously scrutinized and invisible as I did when I was playing in successful bands. It was exhausting. People can’t seem to accept that a woman who isn’t an angelic sprite with perfect pitch and a degree from Juilliard could succeed at music. And maybe that’s not the consensus, but the negative voices sure are loud.
There were of course moments I was happy and proud of myself during this time, but it’s all such a blur compared to the self-loathing that so easily comes into focus. Any pride I felt in my accomplishments felt undeserved and was quickly snuffed out.
It didn’t seem like it was such a personal battle for my male peers. No one seemed to give a shit about how much King Khan and BBQ Show weighed. Their looks didn’t get ranked on a scale from 1-10 when they released a song. No one talked about what it would be like to fuck them when they opened for one of their idols.
After Best Coast, I took some time off. I decided the only way I would be willing to put myself through all of this is again is if it was for songs I had written. That’s when I started Upset (and in hindsight, what an appropriate name). Before we released our first album I got wrapped up in this idea that I needed to lose weight if Upset were to succeed. That’s when I realized my relationship with food and my body was a symptom of something larger, and it’s still a work in progress.
The fact I even still bother doing this is an act of resistance. I refuse to let some toxic ideas keep me from doing something that ultimately brings me joy, and I think this is a battle that so many young women are fighting. If you’re listening, know this: Your freedom to create is worth fighting for. Your body is your ally, not your enemy. Be fiercely and relentlessly loving.
Keep on livin.
-All the love, Ali