Every summer in high school, I used to go to songwriting camp. I would take the bus from my little suburb into downtown Seattle, guitar strapped to my back and lyric notebook tucked into my purse. I felt like hot shit, oozing cool-girl musician vibes as I strutted down the city sidewalk.
Camp was the best. I collaborated with other teen musician-wannabes, strumming guitars and bellowing into empty hallways throughout the theater we gathered in. I was surrounded by people who loved doing what I loved to do. We all thought we were headed straight to stardom.
But for some reason, all of the teenage alt boys at camp were obsessed with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. One day at camp, a guy asked the girl sitting next to me if she “even knew who played bass in the Chili Peppers.” She stared at him blankly and turned a bright shade of pink. I panicked, knowing this was a test that could make or break me. Frantically, I did a quick Google search on my phone when no one was looking. “It’s Flea!” I blurted out. I was met with a nod of approval. I flushed with relief, knowing I’d saved myself from certain embarrassment in front of a Chill Rocker Dude with Cool Music Taste.
I pretended to like the band again the next summer to win the approval of some boys I met at an open mic. Believe me, I tried to get into the Chili Peppers. I just couldn’t get behind the phenomenon of the “Peppas,” as the dudes liked to refer to them, rolling the word lackadaisically out of their mouths while they plucked out the notes to “Californication” on an acoustic guitar. By the end of the summer, I had watched these boys duet to “Breaking the Girl” so many times I could no longer listen to the song without cringing. But I still smiled and nodded in cheerful agreement whenever they discussed the supposed “musical genius” of the Chili Peppers’ guitar solos.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve pretended to like music that guys listen to just to be accepted as a musician with “legitimate” music taste. I like female musicians. I like electropop. My musical heroes are Lights and Sara Bareilles. But listing guitar-playing males as your influences seems to give you more cred in the sweaty rocker world.
I’m not saying that my taste is better than anyone else’s. Taste is subjective. But if you’re writing off all female musicians just because of their gender, it crosses into “not-OK” territory.
A male friend of mine once told me that he “just doesn’t really like listening to female musicians.” He associated girls with “shitty” pop music and saw Led Zeppelin and Nirvana as musically superior. And it’s true — that in our culture we tend to associate music that predominantly appeals to women as low culture and music that appeals more to men as “good” music.
But who’s to say that Adele’s show-stopping vocals or Taylor Swift’s expertly-crafted pop songs are any less musically valid than the Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd? I’m mad at myself for pretending to like bands I could never get into, no matter how hard I tried, just to win the approval of men. But mostly, I’m mad at the culture that made me feel like I had to in order to be accepted as a legitimate musician.
It wasn’t until later that I went through my Riot Grrrl phase. I wish I’d heard the biting snarl of Kathleen Hanna earlier, raising her middle finger to the patriarchy and all the men that marginalized her in the music industry. “Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill was the leading song of this ‘90s underground feminist punk rock movement, with Hanna yelping, “When she talks, I hear the revolution / In her hips, there’s revolutions.” It was the girl power anthem I really could’ve used back in the days when I pretended to like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It wasn’t just female-fronted punk music that the song legitimized for me, either — it gave me the agency to see the female pop artists I liked as worthy as well.
I’ve decided that I’m done being talked down to by boys about music. My musical influences are just as valid as anyone else’s. Music created by women has no less merit than music created by men. I don’t have to like male-dominated music from the “good ol’ days” to be a true music nerd — I hate classic rock, and I’m not afraid to shout it from the rooftops. And just for good measure: I think the Chili Peppers suck.
Madeline Wells writes the Thursday arts column on trying to make it in the music industry. Contact her at [email protected].