In junior high I joined the school band because I wanted to play the drums. I had several years of piano lessons under my belt, which made me qualified to play instruments like the marimba or anything with a keyboard layout, but I had my heart set on the drums. I wanted to learn how to pound on them and make loud noises like a wild thing. Learning how to grip the sticks and play triplets and cross-stick on the snare drum was just as exciting and satisfying as I had hoped it would be.
Unfortunately, my first trip to the music store to buy my percussion kit with the little snare drum pad and tiny set of bells to practice on at home was a huge disappointment. Just after I announced that I was there to buy, but before I could say what instrument, the salesman asked me if I would be playing the clarinet. The clarinet, flute, and French horn (the last is inexplicable to me still) were considered the most girl-friendly instruments, judging by the urgings of the band instructors. In fact, those sections of the band were 99 percent female. Only one other girl and I made the cut for drums that year. And, fittingly, percussion was taught by the only male teacher in the music department.
I was irritated at being immediately pigeonholed as a clarinet player by the daft but well-meaning music store clerk. He didn’t know it, but I was not and would never be the kind of girl who would play a woodwind instrument. I didn’t want to blow into anything, I wanted to hit things. But girls aren’t supposed to be aggressive. We’re meant to look cute, get manicures, and daydream about weddings. I managed to obsess on all those things and still have a deep, burning desire to bang drums. Hard. And it bugged me that the guy in the music store wanted to girly me up from the get-go.
So I’ve always empathized with women who want to play in a band, and I’m doubly impressed by ladies who manage to pull together an all-girl band. It sounds simple, but practically speaking, it means finding a group of women who’ve braved the music-store guys who tend to think any female who wanders in is looking for a clarinet or is just someone’s girlfriend,* women who possess the drive and wherewithal to pursue the very unglamorous lifestyle of a touring musician, women who have a passion for music that is so all-consuming that they want to make it their life in spite of having very few female role models for inspiration. Oh, and then once they form a band, they all have to get along. And they’ll have to confound the expectations of their male road crew, who will assume they can’t play.
When I was a young girl growing up in small-town Texas with a pack of boy cousins for playmates and little better to do on hot summer days than watch MTV, the Go-Go’s had a huge impact on me. I had no interest in the underground at that age, but I loved pop music, and the video for “Our Lips Are Sealed” was one of my favorites. I didn’t know that the Go-Go’s were originally a dirty punk band who had gotten all shined up for MTV, but the ways they were different from the other female pop stars of the day weren’t lost on me. I loved that in their video they were a little bit goofy, instead of posing sexily all the time like Pat Benatar or Debbie Harry. I loved that they each had their own distinct style. And there wasn’t a guy in sight — a big deal to me at the time. Most of my days were spent with an army of male relatives who insisted I go fishing and watch their Little League games (both boring). In my preteen years, having the Go-Go’s and the Bangles around solidified the idea that an all-girl band wasn’t a big deal. It was something I and any girls I knew could do. Later I developed a teenage obsession with Hole and Belly, while Garbage, the Cranberries, and No Doubt loomed large on my radar. But the idea of girls’ having their own bands started, for me, with the Go-Go’s. But as fundamental and significant as the Go-Go’s were in the history of girl bands, they were far from the first. There was a long line of girl groups who came before, paving the way for their success.
If you read about the history of girl bands, you’ll find an overwhelming number of references to the men who discovered them, validated them, promoted them, or in some way svengalied them. It’s as if no girl group could exist in the minds of music historians without the endorsement of a few major male figures to prove they
weren’t just another publicity stunt.
Take, for instance, Goldie & the Gingerbreads, the first girl rock band signed to a major label in the early 1960s. Considering that rock and roll only took off in the 1950s, the band’s existence was pretty impressive. The road to equality has historically been a long one: remember, it wasn’t until 1920 that women earned the right to vote in the United States. Given that fewer women worked outside the home in the ’50s, and most female musicians were singers, an all-girl band strikes me as extremely progressive for 1962. They weren’t entirely without precedent, having the all-girl jazz orchestras of the Prohibition era for musical inspiration, but these groups were largely viewed as pinup gimmicks and rarely granted their due respect as musicians.
Courtney Smith has more than a decade of experience working in the music industry. She recently left MTV after spending 8 years as a music programmer and manager of label relations, where she was one of the executives who decided which videos went into rotation on all of MTV’s 20 music platforms. She specialized in grooming upcoming bands and has worked closely with Death Cab for Cutie, the Shins, and Vampire Weekend, among others.