An ode to female bassists

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I’ve witnessed a scramble of enticing things in my lifetime, but few have been as commanding as the image of a woman in worn-out, oversized clothing wielding a bass guitar in front of a packed audience. 

It doesn’t actually matter what she’s wearing or how many people she’s playing in front of — to me, female bassists are some of the baddest in the business. There are countless women in music who have helped shape my vision of femininity over the years, but female bass players in particular demonstrate how to properly stand out when you’re in a position that’s often seen as background noise.

Bass players as a whole tend to get passed over when talking about group popularity, overshadowed by suave guitarists, gritty drummers and powerhouse leads. But nearly all of history’s most popular bands would sound desolate and dull without the controlled vibration of a bass to fill the empty spaces.

That is to say, bass players just have some sort of “je ne sais quoi,” like enchanting, musical wizards. 

Jump from genre to genre, era to era, and music tends to be a boys’ club when you look past the lead singer. Why is it so eye-catching and alluring when a band has a female bassist? Because it rarely happens. Women have been working stringed instruments for forever and a day, but it’s especially empowering to see the rules of that onstage boys’ club get broken by someone in a dress. 

Starting this dedication to some of my favorite groove-setters is Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon. Her breathy vocals and sliding bass lines on “Kool Thing” introduced me to the early liberating notes of experimental noise rock and post-punk. Even today, Gordon exudes a coveted self-reliance and spunk, spending interviews talking about the fall of capitalism and quoting Andy Warhol. Gordon wasn’t the only woman to ever play in Sonic Youth, but her impact lasted far beyond the band’s. 

Likewise, dedicated Smashing Pumpkins fans know that the ’90s alternative outfit historically only played with female bassists until about 2014. D’arcy Wretzky, the band’s original bassist until 1999, was one of the driving inspirations for this very conversation. Wretzky wasn’t perfect, but her constantly evolving style, powerful stage glares and bright lipstick helped define the grungy heartbeat of the ’90s music scene. 

That decade of bleached blond hair and overlapping layers of eyeliner thrived with riot grrrl energy. From Kim Deal to Paz Lenchantin, the Pixies has also stuck to female bassists since the band’s inception in 1986. When I saw the legendary group live last year, I couldn’t help but wonder how Lenchantin kept her soft vocal tones while plucking such weighted notes, glancing down at the audience through her thick bangs.

It’s these women, and many more, who paved the way for the female instrumentalists in some of my favorite 2010s groups; Brooke Dickson of the Regrettes and Marisa Saunders, formerly of No Vacation, are just two of my newer inspirations. I spent late hours scraping my Spotify page, digging through playlists and my 453 followed artists, trying to find other fresh bands that included female bassists in their lineups. Unsurprisingly, my search came up short. 

In high school, I played bass in a band with my friends for about two years. I didn’t actually know how to play the bass when the group suddenly needed one, considering that I was mainly a guitarist before, but adjustments needed to be made when our bassist (my cousin) graduated. It wasn’t my primary instrument at the time, but I discovered a kind of power in the bass that I can’t match with a guitar — even now after I’ve been playing for about a decade.  

Learning bass lines to songs by the Arctic Monkeys and the White Stripes made me feel cool: admittedly, much cooler than the girls I knew who were learning Taylor Swift songs on their acoustics — not that I never did that either.

Just the other day, I stumbled upon the song “She Plays Bass” by beabadoobee on YouTube. In the music video, the bassist in question sports doodled-on oversized jeans, chunky sneakers, a stocky graphic T-shirt and muted purple hair. The singer croons over her dream lover’s effortlessly bewitching energy, ending with the lyrics, “Wish I was more like you.”

Sometimes I watch these women perform on YouTube and crave the attitude their personal styles exude; even though they all have their own brands of individuality, they somehow fuse together into a timeless fight-me ensemble. And although I don’t plan on dyeing my hair platinum, getting bangs or hitting up my tattoo artist anytime soon — much to the relief of my patient mother — I will always envy the gravitational pull of these rebel-girl female artists.    

Skylar De Paul is the deputy arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @skylardepaul.