Does the internet make it easier to be a female music fan?

The other day I got an email from a female music fan who (in reference to this post in which I laid how the qualities of the internet that have most impacted music fandom) asked:

With the internet transcending time, space, social distance, its permanence and searchability, how do think these aspects affect female music fans? I wonder whether the internet allows female fans to express themselves more openly about the music they like without being perceived as a groupie?

A great question and I’m of mixed minds about it. Can we express ourselves more openly and find more likeminded souls? Definitely. Are we still assumed to be hot for the boys? Definitely.

One of the great early hopes for the internet was that it would erase sexism. Once we couldn’t see gender, we’d be judged on the quality of our ideas and not our sex. And now huge sectors of the internet are porn sites and games where female avatars look like porn stars with fantasy metal bits instead of genitalia. And that’s only where it’s smack-you-over-the-head obvious how fully sexism thrives online. Sexism may well be worse online.

Meanwhile, music on and offline is as much of a boy’s club as it’s ever been. When I worked in a record store (the only woman who worked at that store), almost all of our customers were male, and all of the ones who came in and dropped tons of cash on large stacks of records and later CDs were. Women in bands are expected more than ever to be sex objects as well as singers (have a look at coverage of the most recent American Idol if you doubt that). But few and far between as women in bands are, fewer and further between are women behind the counters at record stores, working at record labels, acting as managers (let alone producers or engineers), and working behind the scenes at “Music 2.0” sites. We can’t expect the internet to overcome a playing field that unlevel to begin with.

As background, let me just say that I set aside my own youthful plans for a career in the music business (I dreamed of band management, not musicianship) because it became apparent to me that if I went that route I would spend far too much of my life saying “no, I work for them, I don’t sleep with them” and I knew I deserved better. This revelation came to me when I was hanging out with R.E.M. As soon as they started to get big, that assumption was always there from the men (and some of the women) who didn’t know me. In one of those R.E.M. books, the one that’s an oral history done in interview quotations, my friends and I show up and the quote about us is from a label rep and goes something like “they were really cool, wherever we went in the Midwest, they were there. You could never tell whether they were sleeping with the band.”

So I know the assumption that female fan = groupie of which she speaks. Whether it’s there or not, they’re looking for it.

But I also want to say that rock and roll is meant to be sexy. And a lot of women who love rock and roll do think boys in bands are as hot as boys come. I’ve loved a lot more music than I have boys in bands, but I’d be lying if I said I’d never lusted for any of the men whose careers I followed, though that lust always followed a deep love and appreciation of what they were doing musically. So for me it’s not just a question of proving that we can be every bit as into the arcane details and the music itself as the boys are (that ought to be a given), it’s also about asserting our right to claim our sexual response to it and admit when it turns us on without being stigmatized for it.

Not too long ago in a band’s fan forum I said that their music is phenomenally sexy. It is. It’s the best aphrodisiac I’ve found. (Does that mean I want to sleep with the band? Not at all, they’re way too young and funny looking. And besides, I have a serious thing for my husband.) Some other women on the board chimed in that they too had this response to the music. We got into a discussion of which songs were sexiest. The boys on the board snickered and hypothesized that come morning we would have all come to our senses and deleted our messages. How patronizing is that? Like I need boys young enough to be my sons telling me I’m irrational and giddy when I talk about what’s obvious to half the band’s fans.

I also want to point out that aside from having to say “no, I’m not a groupie, I don’t want to sleep with boys in bands” way too many times and dealing with incidents like the ones I’ve described, I have always been able to be a highly successful music fan and I know many other women who have as well. I’ve been respected and befriended for my musical expertise since my early teenage years, and ultimately I have never found my sex to be a barrier to that. In some cases, I think it’s worked to my advantage. So I think women have been pulling off being expert music fans for a long time, and they still do online. I think it still intimidates some men, but I think other men think it’s really cool to meet a woman who can talk about the subtle variations between live and recorded versions of an obscure b-side, especially men in bands.

But all that being said, at this point, almost everyone I connect with online to focus on music (on and on mailing lists, my 2 main music-activities online) is male. I get on just fine, but I am usually aware of being female, and that is often a latent issue. It has not disappeared on account of the internet, and I don’t think it’s going to any time soon.

In closing, this is probably an appropriate point at which to plug the “fanboy/fangirl détente” series Henry Jenkins is running on his blog. He’s got male/female pairs of fandom scholars interviewing one another every Thursday and Friday through early fall in a combined effort to bring wider attention to many fandom scholars and to address gender issues that arose on Kristina Busse’s blog following a recent conference. I’m up in early August. And I have to say I feel really weird about it because unlike Kristina’s experience, if there’s one place I have not felt sexism, it’s in the response to my research. Maybe that’s because I compare my scholarly experience to my music fandom experience?

Comments (6) to “Does the internet make it easier to be a female music fan?”

  1. Great post Nancy…..

  2. That’s a very interesting post, and has angles that I’d never thought of, even as a female music fan. As a female musician I almost take it for granted now that people are going to assume I’m “just” somebody’s girlfriend/wife (well, I am married, but not to a musician). This bothered me at first, and gradually I came to realize that if I was going to be serious about being in the music industry, I’d have to get over it. Now I enjoy surprising people when I appear on the stage with my bass, and I’ve noticed that I get a lot more nods and eye contacts from the other musicians after I’ve played a set than I did before. I suppose that means I’ll continually have to prove myself, but right now I’m enjoying that.

    Sadly, I’m not immune to sexism – I’ve found myself making the same assumptions about other female musicians. Sometimes before a show I’ve seen a girl hanging around and assumed she was there to work at the merch table – then she appeared on stage playing keyboards.

    Ultimately, it’s human nature to generalize, and when most of the music industry is solidly male, it’s easy to make these assumptions. But I’d never thought of it in association with fandom, and the implications of being a female music fan. I guess I’ve never been close enough to a band to have anyone think I was a groupie. Maybe good-natured jokes, but guys make the same jokes about female musicians that THEY like, so I might not have noticed the difference.

    Anyway, thanks for the food for thought.

  3. I’m not sure in which of the three possible venues to respond to this ;-), so I’ll go for here. Not so much a response, because of my current minimal brain functioning, but a few resources of old, most of which you may have already read. Some about fans, some about other women and girls in music, some about both. None about the internet, but about all the other stuff. So just in case…

    Sue Steward & Sheryl Garratt, _Signed, Sealed and Delivered: True Life Stories of Women in Pop._ Boston: South End Press, 1984.

    Mavis Bayton, “How Women Become Musicians.” In Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin (eds.), _On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word_. New York: Pantheon, 1991. (And reprinted Routledge, 2000.)

    Gina Rumsey and Hilary Little, “Women and Pop: A Series of Lost Encounters.” In Angela McRobbie (ed.), _Zoot Suites and Second-Hand Dresses: An Anthology of Fashion and Music_. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1988.

    Angela McRobbie and Jenny Garber. “Girls and Subcultures.” In _Resistance Through Rituals. Eds. Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson. London: Hutchinson, 1976.

    And, with great trepidation, I might add, FWIW:

    My section on gender in indie music in _Site and Sound_, pp. 138-144.

    Me, “Gender.” _Popular Music and Culture: New Essays on Key Terms._ Eds. Bruce Horner and Thomas Swiss. New York: Blackwell, 1999.

    Me, “Abandoning the absolute: Transcendence and gender in popular music discourse.” In _Pop Music and the Press_. Ed. Steve Jones. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002.

  4. In the spirit of being perhaps a teeny bit more helpful, I’ll note that my (Holly Kruse :-) book chapters use what I saw as the most relevant parts of the earlier sources I cited, but YMMV. Mostly not about fans, but some about them. The Steward and Garratt book has a nice section at the end on girl fans called “Teenage Dreams.” All validate the good and sometimes different from men/boys ways that women/girls engage with pop and rock music.

  5. Very interesting points.

    A few years ago I realized that the majority of musicians I have met in New York (mostly through our freelance day jobs) are women. Generally around 30, playing in bar bands; from what I can tell, they’re not seriously dreaming of making it big, but more keeping some freedom and rock ‘n’ roll in their lives.

    However, the majority of musicians I have gone to see, without having a personal connection to the band–in other words, the successful ones–are men. Still, I hope the situation is gradually improving. There is the Willie Mae Rock Camp.

  6. I’m strictly a fan, not a musician, and have been on a number of forums since the late-nineties. I can say with certainty that I’m treated equally as long as I don’t make my gender known. Actually, if I go in with a gender ambiguous user name, I’m usually assumed to be male. (This could be because most of the artists I follow tend to have male-heavy fanbases.)

    The sexism is subtle, though, a lot of the time. Mostly I feel as though I’m not taken as seriously, or ignored.