What The Commitments taught me about playing music
Like most women musicians, I’ve experienced a fair amount of sexism while playing in a band.
It can be insidious. Bands with women in often find they are more likely to put on stage earlier in the night, and paid less than other bands, regardless of skill, experience or size of following.
Other times, it’s entirely explicit. Like when men have shouted GET YOUR TITS OUT while I’m setting up on stage, or RAPE while we’re playing.
Sometimes, I downplay the impact of sexism in music, to focus on the positives. But it always gets to me – that sense that live music is for men and boys, that sense that it’s not for women and girls, that sense that we’re not really welcome – unless we are willing to be objectified and treated less seriously as performers.
I saw The Commitments musical with colleagues during its December 2022 run in Glasgow. After a difficult semester, I looked forward to being at the theatre with new friends from work, and enjoying a night of brilliant soul classics.
The Commitments is about a group of young (white) Irish people who form a soul covers band in the late 1980s. The musical depicts disparate personalities coming together, arguing a lot, playing a handful of gigs, and then going their separate ways. Most of the songs are performed by the cast on stage, although the production also used either off-stage musicians or a backing track.
The Commitments lived up to its billing as a jukebox musical. The band (on stage and off) were great. It was exciting to hear a series of well-known tunes re-arranged for the show, and performed with gusto. The architecture of the stage set was gorgeous, variously depicting a Dublin neighbourhood, small family houses, pubs, and bingo halls. The plot and characters were paper thin at best, but this didn’t detract from the overall experience – or wouldn’t have done, if it weren’t for the treatment of the handful of women on stage.
There were three women in the band. They were portrayed as backing singers, although often they actually performed lead vocals. They were collectively referred to as the “Commit-tits”.
Most of the male characters benefited from some basic level of characterisation: e.g. the drunk “prick” of a lead singer with a great voice, the older guy who claimed to have played in various famous bands, the manager with a grand vision. By contrast, only one woman had a character trait; she was the “hot one”. Literally every male character in the band made various objectifying comments about her. The other two women were implicitly pitted against her, and one another; the randy older guy had sex with all three, eventually resulting in a brief fight where they jealously pulled each another’s hair.
During the first half of the musical, the band members changed into stage wear, which they remained in for most of the rest of the play. The eight male performers wore smart white shirts, black suits and ties. The three women wore sexy black mini dresses.
Their characters were objectified in every sense, existing seemingly only as objects of desire and the butt of every misogynist joke. Meanwhile, I was surrounded in the theatre by the joy and laughter of an audience who enthusiastically clapped and sang along with the (genuinely excellent) music. The cognitive dissonance was wild.
Through the second half of the play, I felt increasingly physically sick.
Once the night was over, I reflect on why I experienced such a visceral reaction to the sexism of The Commitments. None of the musical’s misogyny was extraordinary or spectacular. On the contrary, it was low-key, continual, and passed off as normal: just like the everyday sexism women experience in our everyday lives. This makes it hard to identify as a problem, and hard to address in practice.
When I spoke about my feelings on social media, several people who had seen the 1991 movie told me that I misunderstood The Commitments. They told me this was a story of white working class experience in 1980s Dublin, that the characters’ behaviour was reflective of attitudes at the time, that the characters were represented honestly within a social realist narrative.
My issue is, however, is not with a film I haven’t watched. What I saw in the theatre was not social realism, but a jukebox musical where the story worked to loosely link one song to another. The setting was broad; the characters were one note at best.
The narrative of the play had nothing to say about the constant sexism to which women were subject. It was simply present in the actions and words of every male character. In this way, it was normalised, and legitimised.
The very structure of the play itself perpetuated sexist stereotypes about the roles of men and women within storytelling, within society, and within music. The male characters expressed desires and interests, organised events, played musical instruments, and provided commentary on one another’s decisions. The women sang nicely, looked pretty, and were a device for the characters development among the men who leered at them. That is what women are for. That is what women do.
The everyday sexism of The Commitments also reflected a wider failure of the musical to grapple with the political issues it hinted at. An apparently all-white cast performed music historically written and performed by Black women and men, for an overwhelmingly white audience. The musical’s only nod to this were some vague references to worker’s rights and the assertion by one character that “the Irish are the Blacks of Europe, and Dubliners are the Blacks of Ireland”. While I imagine the play was attempting to comment on class solidarity and the historical contingency of whiteness, the clumsy claim of comparative oppression treated the existence of actual Black Irish people as an impossibility (an assumption made all the more bizarre by a later brief reference to the Thin Lizzy version of “Whisky in the Jar”).
I felt sick watching The Commitments because I saw myself – the expectations placed on me as a woman, the possibilities available to me as a woman, the everyday impact of everyday sexism on me as a woman – in the experiences of those women on stage.
I felt sick watching The Commitments because I saw how my non-white friends are so often treated, especially women of colour – their creative endeavours diminished or appropriated, their experiences of racism ignored and erased.
As a bassist and singer, I saw the norms that have led to male musicians shouting stuff at me and my bandmates when we are playing, demanding to examine my fingers for calluses, and assuming that I am at a gig accompanying a man. I saw the hidden structures that made it hard for me and many of my friends to pick up an instrument in the first place. I saw how and why it is constantly so difficult for women and people of colour to simply turn up and play music in so many settings.
I felt sick watching The Commitments because I was witnessing the operation of power.
The stage musical version of The Commitments debuted in 2013: the same year myself and a couple of friends were organising Revolt, a feminist club night in Coventry which prioritised women and trans performers. We did this in reaction to male dominated line-ups, which perhaps had a token woman singing or (at a certain kind of indie rock show) playing bass guitar. We knew that having numerous women from a range of backgrounds on stage does something important. It undermines the assumption that women musicians can or should only play second fiddle to men, and builds a sense of possibility for women in the audience: that music is for us.
We can be more; we will be more; we are more. Creating space for many types of people on stage changes people’s worlds.
In doing so it threatens white male power, which can sometimes feel threatening for white men.
That is why certain promoters and musicians and audience members make life difficult for others in music, through intentional bigotry or unthinking bias. For women, it doesn’t matter how good we are, how we dress, or how we behave on stage. We are so often an alien presence in a space supposedly for men, not obeying the unspoken rules: shut up, don’t speak out, and don’t take up a male musician’s space on stage unless you’re prepared to be compliant and sexually available.
What does matter is context. I reflected on this, wondering why the clothing the women wore in The Commitments bothered me so much. I’ve worn very similar outfits on stage myself. Men have shouted RAPE at me when I’ve done so. But they’ve also shouted GET YOUR TITS OUT at me when I was wearing jeans, trainers, and a loose black band t-shirt. It’s not about what we’re wearing – it’s never about what we’re wearing. It’s about how male desire, male prejudice, and male power is projected onto us.
I realised my problem with The Commitments was that the women characters’ sexuality doesn’t belong to them. Within the context of the plot, they were only ever given the opportunity to be attractive for the men around them, not for themselves. Sex without power.
The Commitments musical wants women in the audience to enjoy the music while sucking up the sexism and ignoring the depth of anti-racist histories. By contrast, at Revolt we sought to build power for women – all women – on and off stage. We sought to bring into being a world in which we can dress how we want, and dance, and sing, and listen, and play, and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do to diminish us for having and creating a great time. It wasn’t perfect, but it was ours.
I love a good feminist space, but separatism won’t save us. If we want women musicians to prosper, we need an actual commitment to promoting respect in every context.
The biggest onus is on event organisers, writers, and musicians – especially those in a position of relative power. There is no excuse for endless all-male and all-white line-ups at events, for casual sexism or racism in lyrics, in event promotion, or in the lines of a jukebox musical. How many people involved in putting on The Commitments looked at the script or the choreography and thought, “hang on a moment”, but didn’t speak out? How many white men (or women) who put on gigs or tour in bands even bother to think about whether or not there are women or people of colour on stage?
Simply having women or people of colour in the room is also not enough. We deserve to be present without having to worry about discrimination or abuse. Campaigns such as Good Night Out and the Healthy Music Audiences project have loads of resources available oncreating safer spaces for musicians and audience members alike.
Ultimately, everyone can play a part in changing the world – that’s how cultural change happens. You can support minoritized musicians by taking us seriously and helping us to build power. Attend our shows, listen to our music, share it with other people, and have a great time. That, really, is what it’s all about.
There have been more than few occasions when I have auditioned for an MD post and have known that I have been the best candidate, both technically and musically, but have not been appointed. I have often wondered is it because I am woman, or is it because I am trans. As an orchestral musician I was conducted by more women in a single WOW concert than in the rest of my 50 plus years of playing.
It’s sometimes difficult to tell, huh?? Which particular form of discrimination is winning out this time (or is it both)?