The Rock n Roll Hall of Dames: Ladies Who Rock Out and What I Got Out Of It

white flag performing on stage at coachella
INDIO, CA – APRIL 15: (L-R) Musicians Mary Timony, Janet Weiss and Carrie Brownstein of the band Wild Flag perform during Day 3 of the 2012 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival.

Thanks to my parents, youthful curiosity, and Guitar Hero, I found my way to rock music fairly early growing up. Falling heavily into the music of the Doors, Sabbath, and their contemporaries, I latched onto one song in particular:

Heart’s “Barracuda”

Its iconic riff was a big reason why I decided to pick a guitar up…

… and when I learned of the band being fronted by women, I began to wonder how many of the bands I’d heard of had women in their lineups as well. When you read about artists in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, the gender imbalance is painfully obvious, something that doesn’t seem to bother most, but maybe it should. This disparity was not due to skill, evident by talents like Carol Kaye and Jennifer Batten who could shred with the best of them, but because of the genre’s commitment to keeping their identity male-centered.

my bloody valentine lead singer
Photo of Bilinda Butcher with her band, My Bloody Valentine

I’ve noticed myself diving further into the vastness of Spotify during this quarantine like I’m sure most are, and listening to lots of 90s bands for some reason, like shoegazers MBV, boundary-pushers Sonic Youth, and power trio Sleater-Kinney. Showing some of the curiosity I once had, I realized that my own idea of a girl’s role in a band had typically only been as a vocalist, something that was only reinforced by the music journalist’s habit of talking about women in bands as if they were a rarity or token. As I’d come to find, nothing could be further from that notion.

It’s strange to think I’d only just thought of how women are so interwoven in every scene imaginable these days, yet count Beach House, Men I Trust, and Warpaint among my top played artists. This assumption seems to have lingered over most genres’ female musicians forever, with the first line of any article feature always mentioning the fact. Bands like The Runaways or The Go-Gos shouldn’t be impressive to you because they’re girl groups. They’re impressive because of their talent, and it’s weird to me that that has to be said/written.

carol kaye and bill pittman playing guitar
LOS ANGELES: Carol Kaye and Bill Pittman playing guitar in a Los Angeles recording studio, early 1960’s. (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)

Rolling Stone’s 100 greatest guitarists had just 2 women in it, which, after reading that the contributors were almost all featured in the list themselves, is only more disappointing. They gave a vote to Tom Delonge for fuck’s sake…they can give one to Patti Smith too. Or Carol Kaye, or Nancy Wilson. Rock’s emphasis on keeping its identity overtly male has negatively impacted too many bands over the years, so we’re gonna talk about some artists that are due for the spotlight, not just for having girls leading their bands, but because they flat out rip.

The Women of the Hour

angel olsen at union chapel in london
LONDON, ENGLAND – APRIL 30: Angel Olsen performs at the Union Chapel on April 30, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Lorne Thomson/Redferns)

Angel Olsen’s All Mirrors feels less like a typical rock album and more in the same vein as Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds: it’s filled with brooding and inventive tunes, beautifully fleshed out with orchestral arrangements, some synth, and occasional 60’s drums; a healthy helping of reverb and, of course, Olsen’s powerful lyrics. Although some may miss the Patti Smith-channeling “Shut Up, Kiss Me” era of Angel’s career, her growth as a musician is still so cool to see. Along with Phoebe Bridgers, Sharon Van Etten, and HAIM to name a few, the future of Indie music can’t be written without the help of these women, and the genre is so much better with them in it.

courtney barnett at clusterfest in san francisco 2019
Courtney Barnett performs onstage at the 2019 Clusterfest on June 22, 2019 in San Francisco, California. Photo by Leslie Hampton/TheOwlMag.com

When I first heard Courtney Barnett’s “Tell Me How You Really Feel” it really struck a chord with me. A record that feels at home next to Pavement and Nirvana albums, Barnett’s riffing ranges from loud and chaotic to relaxed and nonchalant, keeping her cool as she progresses through songs that you’ll be humming long after the headphones are off. When I saw her and her band’s show on a sunny day in Nor-Cal, they could do no wrong. Courtney was a natural on-stage with her charismatic presence and charming tunes, strumming catchy riff after catchy riff on her cherry-red Jaguar. We had such a great time that, if not for the other bands, the crowd probably would’ve let them play all afternoon.

brittany howard and paul mccartney at lollapalooza
CHICAGO, IL – JULY 31: Brittany Howard (L) joins Paul McCartney (C) on stage at the 2015 Lollapalooza music festival at Grant Park on July 31, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Josh Brasted/FilmMagic,)

You’d have a hard time talking about women in the music world without mentioning Brittany Howard,. Not only did she bring her stunning vocals to the band Alabama Shakes, but she also brings soulful, expressive guitar playing into the fold. Her Gibson SG is a sight in itself, but in her hands that guitar wails with the same soul that she sings with, turning every song into a duet. She has a tireless approach to music that’s resulted in multiple different side-projects, and she recently dropped her awesome solo debut, Jaime. If anyone is performing alongside Sir Paul McCartney so early in their career, they deserve a bit of respect on their name. Well…she’s done just that, and it doesn’t seem like she’ll stop there.

kim gordon and sonic youth performing live
UNITED STATES – FEBRUARY 04: MADISON SQUARE GARDEN Photo of Kim GORDON and SONIC YOUTH, Kim Gordon performing live onstage (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

There are far too many women to name that have been essential to the music world, and some, like Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth, are deserving of full articles themselves. But to keep from droning on, I’ll leave that to someone else. The main takeaway I hope you get from this as a reader is to consciously grow from the stereotypes you may have been conditioned to in music–not just in Rock music and in bands, but in Rap music, Electronic, etc. Talent isn’t defined by gender, it’s defined by passion, commitment, and love of music. And if you still believe in those outdated stereotypes in 2020, you’re missing out on a whole lot.

If you liked this piece, be sure to check out: “The True Story of Rock and Roll: How Whitewashing Let Down the Black Voice”