Mish Way (White Lung)
Four years ago, I published a piece for VICE called, “I Am Not A Rock Chick”. The flimsily argued essay was my attempt to silence journalists on the “girl band” question. I figured that if I declared my opinion, they would never have to ask again, because there it was cemented in writing. However, it did the exact opposite. For the next few years, that essay followed me around like a hungry dog. I should have known better, but I was still green.
In the piece, I made the argument that most women in rock do when they get sick of being asked what it’s like to be a woman in rock. “You want to know what it’s like? That’s what it’s like,” I wrote. “The only difference about being a girl who plays “punk” music is that people ask you that stupid question.”
This is, of course, not entirely true. But I didn’t want to believe that at the time.
I just got home from touring Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. During the trip I did a lot of radio press, varying degrees of stations from mainstream to college, and every DJ who interviewed me was a woman. Sure enough, in each interview, gender, not music, was the primal focus. I can’t complain about this. I have been writing publicly about gender for almost seven years. If anything, it just proves that these hosts did their homework.
However, women do the perpetuating when talking gender and music with one another. It’s like our brains are on autopilot and we can’t stop the thought from escaping our mouths. We’ll say things such as, “I don’t want to focus on gender, but…” or “I know this is a stupid question, but why is it poor form to ask a woman what it’s like to be a woman in a band?” I’m guilty of it too. When I hosted an on-camera interview with British rock band, Savages, last year, I kicked off the conversation with this exact question. The same one I never wanted asked of me.
Like Wendy Lesser wrote at the beginning of her book, “His Other Half: Men Looking At Women Through Art”, I am saying that gender both does and does not matter. I’m allowing the contradiction to live. Discerning women, especially those in the public eye, will always toy with the politicization of their gender. It’s become a focus because our curiosity of self-perception has let it. The “woman question” won’t disappear if we keep acknowledging it. I don’t think it would even if we didn’t. That being said, there is nothing wrong with being asked what it’s like being a woman performing music. My gender is a vital part of not only how I move through out the world, but specifically how I interact with my audience from the cadence of my voice, to the lyrics I write and the way I physically present myself. I get off on my version of femininity. I like straddling the line between subversion and conformity because that line is always changing. It’s all perception. In The Divided Self, author R.D. Laing wrote, “Self-consciousness, as the term ordinarily used, implies two things: an awareness of oneself by oneself, and an awareness of oneself as an object of someone else’s observation.” My push-up bra is a chosen part of my stage look. No one put a gun to my head and forced me to present my cleavage. That was a decision I made for numerous reasons. I’m a fan of my boobs and I want you to be too.
I understand that it becomes taxing to be asked over and over what it’s like to be a woman playing music, because as Brody Dalle-Homme famously said, “I don’t play the guitar with my fucking vagina, so what difference does it make?” However, her predecessor Courtney Love also noted, “Women are different than men. I think they have a different sort of rhythm, actually. It’s a dorkier, but cooler way of playing and writing.” It’s up to the performer to dictate how gender interacts with her music and performance. Lesser offered a solution: “One way out of the dilemma might be to say that gender matters for the creator but not for the reader or viewer, that the artist inevitably produces work from within [her] own sex, while we, in absorbing it, can cross boundaries and become either male or female. But this certainly isn’t true in all cases.”
Feminine presentation is alluring. I often prefer it. The public obsession with the feminine, dress, style and body is second nature. Like a bird, I am also attracted to shiny, glittering things. When I watch a woman on stage, I am drawn to her unique and individual power, fashion, talent and sex appeal. Think of Chan Marshall circa 2004 performing selects from The Greatest on Jools Holland in blue jeans and six inch heels, or Gladys Knight in 1970 singing, “If I Were Your Woman”, belting her heart out in a fringed red evening gown, as a troupe of male back-up singers stands behind her like wedding cake statues. Think of Kelly Johnson of Girlschool with her shaggy mop, swiveling her nonexistent hips as she tears apart her guitar. Or Tammy Wynette in the sixties sporting a sparkling black blouse and fake eyelashes so heavy you can barely see her retinas, as she stands frigidly and her booming, sultry voice takes over the room. I could go on about iconoclastic women for days. My bias leans feminine and always has, especially today when every other all-male rock band has become so milquetoast – tight jeans, shaggy haircuts and Letterman jackets – women and trans performers are the only ones providing some visual stimulation. Walk on stage in a sparkling mini dress, platform leather boots with wild hair, and people take notice. Humans always have, and will continue to be, impressed and intrigued by beauty.
When my band, White Lung, first started we toured in the punk circuit, which meant we often played with boys. I dressed down. I wore jeans, t-shirts, and rarely bothered with my hair and make-up. I remember one basement show where I actually played in my fucking pajamas. I suppressed my femininity and I’m not really sure why. Probably because I was broke and lazy, or maybe it was because I wasn’t confident enough in my femininity to really take hold of it. I was in my early twenties, which meant both financial and emotional limbo. For the record, I love getting older. Aging gracefully is something I look forward to.
There’s this great thing that’s been happening to me as I age. I’ve stopped fighting with my gender and accepted contradiction. I’ve seen the holes in my own theories and become much more willing to explore what I once perceived as the opposition. It feels good to relinquish some anger about things I can not change. More over, to realize that I don’t think I want them to. The woman question will always be one I am asked because I have brought attention to it through the fault of identity politics. I wrote about it, I politicized it, I wrestled with it and integrated it into a part of my public persona.
Being a woman plays a role in my communication with the world, but not my capabilities when it comes to the music itself. Gender does and does not matter. And for now, that discrepancy somehow is keeping me sane.