Date: April 2003
Author: Jo Read
Publication: Gender Agenda, Issue 5 Easter 2003
Headline: This Business of Women: The Public/Private Divide for Women in Music
'It's music for Gods' sakes! Who wants to come to see music? 'I do, I do!'; pay your money, come inside, stand in the front, scream, be excited, go home.' - Jo Read meets Tegan and Sara
As summer fast approaches, here comes another season of women's festivals. Cue boycotts, demonstrations, slanging matches, and another round of debates on what constitutes a woman, all to be eagerly reported in the liberal press. It's difficult to remember amidst all these highly charged political agenda's that at the root of it all, stands some women who like to play music. In 1999, Tegan and Sara Quin became 'Tegan and Sara' with the re-release of 'Under Feet Like Ours', closely followed by 'This Business of Art' , and 'If It Was You' . The pair have risen to note in the Canadian music community, and have spent this year expanding their presence in the U.S. and starting in on Europe. The duo serves as an interesting case study of women in music today. The plight of women not looking to be Britney, consistently reported in the liberal press, as ever, remains an uphill struggle. But what we don't hear of is what exactly bands such as this actually want to do. We assume, whilst buying our tickets for Ladyfest [and if we're brave - Michigan] that female artists relish this opportunity to perform to an open and supportive audience. We congratulate ourselves for providing such a platform so that artists such as these can speak about the really important events in politics that MTV just doesn't give them a chance to do. However, with the barrage of recent objections to women's festivals swilling through the arts scene, not just from our old arch-enemy 'patriarchal society', but from members of our own community voicing legitimate complaints, it's high time we began to face up to the reality of women's festivals and what we want from the 'women in music' scene. If we were truly supportive, wouldn't we be lobbying for a greater diversity of sounds and inclusion of bands representative of the whole spectrum of the community [read: not just white women in their twenties], rather than attending in hope of a summer romance, with intervals of watching the eye candy on stage?
Sara makes a good point as she illuminates her own reality of women's festivals, and being treated as a mouthpiece for the women's movement. In 2000, 'Varsity Arts & Culture' magazine reported that 90% of the band's performances in the U.S. revolved around political events, e.g., Take Back the Night, Girlapalooza, Rock for Choice. However, instead of a tributary, 'we couldn't have cracked the U.S. without the women's festivals', she talks about the salience of performing in front of someone else's banner. "We've chosen to make our music about music and not about politics. We want to make sure that when we're standing up on that stage with a UNICEF banner behind us or a 'Rock for Choice' banner behind us, that we mean it." Tegan elaborates, "You have to feel it inside of yourself to be able to support those people and I can't just buy their stories, I can't just sit down with someone and them just tell me something that is completely foreign to me and just get it and just do it. It takes time and... I think our priorities are different to. I don't want to go and preach to the converted either."
The idea that artists we would expect to see at women's festivals may not support the event in principle is something we certainly have heard very little of. Support for such festivals is usually divided up into women who go, and women who don't, usually with minimal -if any -debate. It seems, however, that whilst all of our attention has been focused on trans participation in these events, we need to look back to why many women don't attend, and stop thinking of those performing as voiceless oracles of the women's movement. As Sara puts it, "I'd rather get on a stage with six boy-rock bands and hold my own, than get on stage with six girl-bands and feel like we're taking over the world. It's a personal challenge for myself to get up and face those kind of things. It's a personal challenge for myself to look at a completely mixed crowd and know that Justin Timberlake and Nickelback are before and after me - that is a challenge."
The 'women's music' corner of the women's scene is valued by consumers for a variety of reasons. Whether you appreciate the political message you get from certain groups that aren't backed in the mainstream, simply wish to support the genre, or seek refuge from the constant barrage of male -produced and -orientated music in the mainstream. It is easy to see the allure of women's festivals: self-education, safe spaces, and a supportive environment. There is none of the fist-fights to be found in the mosh-pit of 'Beastie Boys' concerts, recent problems such as the rapes that occurred during the Woodstock 2000 festival are not a concern. What we didn't consider, however, was that many female artists do not buy into this, just as many consumers do not.
At the end of the day, to expect a group who do not include political messages in their music to perform in a politicised arena, to assume that the absence of politics in their music comes from the dictation of the record company or mainstream music scene, is just insulting to the intelligence of these musicians. Whilst we so regularly scorn pop-culture icons who take a stand on political issues, dismissing 'Blue' and 'Westlife' with a disdainful 'what do they know?', we seem to forget that when it comes to women, we expect them to speak for the women's movement, regardless of their knowledge or involvement. "I'm not an overly political, religious person in my music. From the way that I was raised, because I have a mouth, because I can talk about it constantly, I don't feel like I have to do it in my music, I'm not inspired to do it in my music... we've chosen to make our music about music and not about politics. Maybe music isn't the place that we have to empower people, maybe it's something on a larger scale." - Sara. None of this means to say that artists cannot be involved in politics, or that those who do not wish to participate in events with 'political messages' do not have a personal politics. "There's nothing attractive about cluttering up my songs with all that stuff. You write a song and it symbolises a moment in time, like whereas, with politics and women's rights, and all that stuff, I want to go every day and try to do something about that." - Tegan.
The point is, quite ironically, that the personal does not have to be public. Whilst feminism has told us during the past decades that 'the personal is political' that does not take away the existence of a grey area. Not supporting every cause does not take away your right to support a cause in the future, nor for that matter, should those who take a political stance be valued solely by this - perhaps they make good music too, despite the fact that Bob Geldoff didn't. Whilst bands have to worry about keeping their record companies happy, keep the public buying, encourage their fan-base and keep making music, one can believe there is little time to worry about the politics of your politics. "I think we would maybe lose a lot of our demographic if we were like 'well this is the way we are' and preaching, and like, 'we only do this, and we believe in this cause'. We didn't get into this to preach our politics... I just know that it would close a lot of doors. We have to attain a certain amount of power before you can start preaching at everybody." - Tegan. It appears, then, that women such as Tegan and Sara can teach us something that the LadyFest workshops didn't: we need to value women in the business of art, rather than confining them to the business of being women.