There’s No Such Thing as ‘Female-Fronted’ Music
by Emma Cownley
You’ll never catch me listening to a female-fronted band. Why? Because there’s no such thing. You probably already know that ‘male-fronted’ bands don’t exist—it’s rare to see male artists being defined by their gender, so why have people latched onto the idea that a band can be female-fronted?
Evidence of gender-specific genres can be seen as far back as the 70s, beginning (arguably) with The Runaways. Although they weren’t the first all-girl group, they were the first to be signed to a major record label and reach commercial success within an extreme genre. According to lead singer, Cherie Currie, the teenage band members were constantly pitted against one another, over-worked, barely paid and some have alluded to incidents of sexual abuse. They may have been breaking boundaries, but they sure as hell paid for it.
When you get right down to it, the purpose of a genre is to tell the listener what they can expect from a band or an artist. Each category has its own set of musical attributes and conventions to help you define it. Music classified as ‘punk’ will typically sound raw, thrown together and frantic. We know that metal music has wailing guitar riffs, heaps of distortion and a dense, chuggy base. We’ve even created niche sub genres to narrow the focus further: horror punk, indie folk, Britpop, ambient pop, math rock…the list goes on (believe me, it really does).
With that in mind, the use of ‘female-fronted’ as a genre is pretty ineffective. It tells you absolutely nothing about the music style, only that the singer is a female and the majority of the other band members are male. I’m not the only one up in arms about it, either. Floor Jansen (Nightwish), Lauren Mayberry (Chvrches) and Mercedes Lander (Kittie) are also calling bullshit on the whole thing.
"There seems to sometimes be an entire genre called 'female-fronted metal’,” Jansen told Metal Nation Radio. “What on earth does that say? Because then Revamp is a female-fronted metal band, and so is Nightwish. But those bands don't sound alike at all. Arch Enemy is a female-fronted metal band, but so is Delain. They don't sound alike at all.”
The use of ‘female-fronted’ as a genre may not tell us a lot about the music style, but it certainly has the power to be divisive. I’ve known music fans that have deliberately avoided certain bands because they had a female at helm. On the flip side, I’ve also known music fans to blindly throw their money and loyalty at a band for the very same reason.
So, what gives? Why do we need to single women out?Mercedes Lander recently told Yesterdaze News that she believes journalists and music critics are to blame: “I think journalists in general tend to focus on that a lot—'female-fronted’, blah blah blah—but that's not what it's about. It's about the music.”
Lander has a good point. According to music journalist, Fiona Sturges, male journalists still significantly outnumber females in her industry, even more so in respected, longstanding publications. Could it be argued that females are so under-represented behind the scenes that our very gender becomes a juicy story angle?
This redundant genre could also have something to do with the marketability of the female form. Let’s face it, we’re sexy, we’re mysterious and we sell like nothing else. Perhaps this gender call-out is a marketing ploy rather than a genre tag?
When we see a woman at the head of a band, we’re conditioned to reduce her value to ‘the token girl’ or the ‘eye candy’. She’s there to make the music marketable and to tantalise us with a provocative performance. Nothing more. It’s inconceivable that she should add anything of value to the band beyond image.
This is something that Chvrches frontwoman, Laura Mayberry, knows all too well. She wrote an article for the Guardian back in 2013, which spoke out against misogyny in the music industry: “I am often cynical about aspects of the music industry and the media, and was sure from the off that this band would need to avoid doing certain things in order for us to be taken seriously as musicians—myself in particular.
“We have thus far been lucky enough to do things our own way and make a pretty decent job of our band without conforming to the ‘push the girl to the front’ blueprint often relied upon by labels and management in a tragic attempt to sell records which has little to do with the music itself.”
These sentiments were echoed by Shirley Manson in a recent interview with Louder, “…it’s really very difficult still for women to be treated as equal thinkers and creators in the same way that men are. It’s not enough for a woman to be a great songwriter, she has to be fuckable in order for a record company to give a fuck. And that’s patriarchy at its most terrifying.”
The patriarchy may have a bigger role to play in the music industry than just the chaps in suits sitting at the head of the record labels. You’ll notice that many of the bands I’ve referenced here are alternative, and that isn’t just down to my own personal music tastes. The world of aggressive music has always belonged to men, from rap to hip-hop, metal to punk; the more extreme the music, the more heavily coded it is towards masculinity.
In her book, Heavy Metal, Gender and Sexuality: Interdisciplinary Approaches, Deena Weinstein notes that since the 90s, women have slowly begun to infiltrate more extreme commercial music genres, perhaps prompting male-centric sub cultures to hunt for a way to define a movement they’re still struggling to get to grips with. But what do guys in the music industry think about this?
Singer-songwriter, Scott Swain, has seen the gender divide himself and stands firmly behind the female music movement. In his experience, promoters will see gender before talent, “[There’s no doubt that] as a female, you will get more recognition, and everyone and his milkman will want to help you get 'further exposure'”, he said. “In such cases though, people will still see your gender waybefore they see you as a musician.”
Scott noted that the reaction to his band’s female bass player was the same everywhere they went, “I've seen how people respond to it—it's always the same comment: ‘cool, a chic that can play bass’.” More nagging proof that few music fans expect a woman to bring more to the table besides sex appeal.
All things considered, isn’t it time we binned the term ‘female-fronted’ and started measuring bands by their musical merit, rather than the gender of the members? Let’s focus on creating even wilder sub-genres (wizard rock, anyone?) and leave the misogyny where it belongs—firmly in the past.
Title image by pxhere.