The Soul of Sexism

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. 

New single: “something pretty” by wormboys

Yesterday we released the latest wormboys single, and the first song from our forthcoming EP (coming soon etc). It’s a stomping disco-punk tune which celebrates the healing power of queer hedonism!

You can stream something pretty from all major platforms, or listen for free (and/or buy a digital copy) from the wormboys Bandcamp page.

Plus! We made a lyric video from old cartoon clips – assembling them into a silly story about aliens, dancing, and uh, friendship.

wormboys wanderings October-November 2022

I’m super excited to say we have a whole bunch of wormboys gigs coming up! We’ll be playing Sheffield and Bristol this weekend, then Dundee, Wakefield, and Leeds in coming weeks.

You can buy tickets for all our gigs from our Linktree.

Since the dreaded rona is back on the rise, please take care of yourself and others if you’re coming to see us – I’d encourage you to wear a mask, and definitely test beforehand.

wormboys gigs in Leeds: Aug and Nov 2022

We have a couple of super awesome upcoming support slots in Leeds!

30 August 2022 – Hyde Park Book Club
Doors 7pm, tickets £10
Supporting the epic Oceanator

18 November 2022 – Wharf Chambers
Doors 7:30pm, tickets £9
Playing with Lande Hekt and Shane

I will, as ever, be bouncing around with a bass. If you live in or near Leeds, you should totally come and see us. If not, watch this space – we have a few other gigs coming up around around the UK, and some new music on the way…

So much to see! wormboys tour Midlands

I’m playing Leamington, Coventry, and Derby with wormboys this week!

I kept back posting about this after contracting a nasty bout of covid, but since I am now (mercifully!) better, our mini-tour is going ahead.

The dates are:

14th July – St Patrick’s Irish Club, Leamington. Doors 8pm.
15th July – Tin Music and Arts, Coventry. Doors 7:30pm. Advance tickets here.
16th July – Dubrek Studios, Derby.

We’d love it if you came to share the joy of noisy pop music with us! However, there is still a global pandemic on (no matter what the assorted mess of Conservative leadership candidates might like us to think) – so if you’re coming, please look after each other by testing before the gig and wearing a mask.

New single! “weird” by wormboys

I’m dead excited today that my band wormboys have a new song out. If you fancy a bit more grungy noise-pop in your life – and let’s be fair, you do – you can listen to and/or buy “weird” on all the good streaming platforms (and all the bad ones). I play bass guitar on the record.

You can also watch the video we made for all your terrifying agro-industrial needs.

This is our first release since the start of the pandemic, but never fear, there’s more on the way – we are planning to return to the studio later this month to work on a new collection of tunes.

Four people stand and sit around a music practice room with guitars, a drumkit, and amplifiers.

Come to our wormboys gig on Sat 19!

I’m more excited than I can possibly say to be playing an Actual Live Show this very weekend, with my bosum pals in wormboys. We will be tearing up the stage at the Boileroom in Guildford as part of their Pride month series.

The event will be livestreamed from 7pm UK time so you can come along and have a little dance from wherever you are! There are also a very small number of tickets available for a socially distanced in-person audience.

GET YER TICKETS HERE!
(pay what you can)

Photograph of four people playing rock music enthusiastically.

We will be supported by the fabulous electropop artist ZOZËY. Other events in the Boileroom’s Pride Month series include a full band show from Annabel Allum on Friday 18th June, and a creative showcase with Andriah Arrindell, Harley Mary, and Simone Catellitto on Sunday 20th June.

Womxn in Music: Friday 5 March

Promotional image for the Womxn in Music event hosted by the Boileroom. It features Lesley-Anne O'Brian playing guitar, Ruth Pearce singing and pointing, and Nuha Ruby Ra looking moody and intense.

I am speaking on a panel on Womxn in Music this coming Friday! The event is being streamed by Guildford venue The Boileroom as part of a super cool series in the runup to International Women’s Day. I expect to be speaking a bit about DIY culture, my research on queer and trans politics within punk scenes, and experiences of playing in bands and running events.

I’ll be in conversation with Nuha Ruby Ra, who will also be performing a live set, plus Lesley-Anne O’Brien of Lockjaw Records and Midwich Cuckoos.

You can book tickets for free here (or for a donation to the venue – which definitely helps in Covid times!)

QUEERPOCALYPSE

QUEERPOCALYPSE

Today is Trans Day of Visibility, apparently. I have felt very strange about this day since it became a Thing over the last decade, as visibility is double-edged sword for many of us. With visibility comes community, and increased access to trans and queer arts, culture, politics, ideas. But in the last few years this has met with a cultural and ideological backlash. We are more visible to those who hate us, those who fear us, those who would cause us harm.

Last year I wrote some lyrics about this dichotomy, which are now part of a new song from noise/punk band Dispute Settlement Mechanism. It’s called Queerpocalypse.

 

One of the great things about being in a band is that the process of creation is always  collaborative. I like that this enables us to express ourselves, be that as queer, as trans, as woman, as people, in different ways that come together as a whole. Communicating through riffs and percussion which tell their own stories alongside lyrics and vocal performance.

This, at least as much as my research and formal writing, is the visibility that matters to me in 2020.

I fear your hate inside
I fear the turning tide
I fear your time will come
I fear you think you’ve won

moral panic
moral panic
moral panic
moral panic

you fear with desperate pride
you fear the turning tide
you fear our time will come
you fear that we have won

well guess what?

this world is ours
this world is ours
this world is ours
this world
is ours

Queerpocalypse is available as part of the compilation album Songs From The Vaults. All proceeds from digital sales of the album (available from £5) go towards supporting important Coventry venue and community centre The Tin Music and Arts through the COVID-19 crisis.