It's a hard-frock life for riot grrls

Frock Rock
February 5, 1999

Mavis Bayton asserts in the opening chapter of Frock Rock that: "The proportion which women make up in the instrument-playing part of the rock world is, by my estimates, less than 15 per cent" - a surprising and somewhat alarming reality. While there is no shortage of female all-singing-and-dancing bands, vocalists, record-company press officers, personal assistants and behind-the-scenes groupies and supportive girlfriends/wives, there are still relatively few women in the key positions, as songwriters, musicians, agents, managers, sound engineers and record-company executives. Frock Rock , though primarily concerned with the status of the female musician, provides an interesting overview of the involvement of women in popular music from technician to talent scout, and addresses the question of why there is still such an imbalance.

This is an ethnographic study, the result of extensive research spanning the late 1970s to the mid-1990s encompassing both punk and the more recent riot grrrl movements, involving in-depth interviews with a cross-section of women in bands from the commercially successful (Candida Doyle from Pulp, Gail Greenwood from Belly and L7 and Natasha Atlas from Transglobal Underground) to those just starting out. This material, combined with attendance at women's technical and music workshops and, most important, the compilation of two comprehensive media surveys monitoring the number of appearances by both men and women in all forms of media in the UK conducted in 1988 and 1996, forms Bayton's raw data.

She outlines the many hurdles that face any new band starting out and illustrates exactly how and why many of these obstacles are exacerbated for the female performer - by problems such as too few child-care facilities and insufficient encouragement from family/partner.

For lack of female instrumentalists, most of the women questioned said they compromised their desired sound, although Bayton concedes that the situation has improved in the 1990s as the technophobia of women in the 1970s and 1980s has gradually diminished.

She also touches on the role of ethnic women in pop, featuring interviews with Skin from Skunk Anansie and Debbie Smith from Echobelly.

The title Frock Rock is itself suggestive of how women's choice of image and clothes is open to as much criticism as the music, with sexual image taking precedence over sound. Many women express dismay at the importance placed on their choice of dress and cite examples of attempts at creating an "ironic pastiche of traditional symbols of femininity such as handbags and high heels" being misinterpreted as "sexual availability". Bayton's conclusions, based partly on her own experiences as a member of an all-female band, are amply supported by quotations from her interviewees.

The book is free from obscure jargon and unnecessary terminology, a rare quality in an academic study of this subject. It is aimed not solely at academics and students of cultural/media/women's studies and sociology, but also at women embarking on a career in music, as well as at any reader with an interest in popular music.

Inevitably, a substantial amount of the observations and conclusions are obvious to anyone who has ever had any involvement in the pop music scene, but I admire this book for being systematic, leaving no aspect of the industry unprobed.

As an ethnic female and former band member with a strong professional interest in pop, I empathised with many of the issues raised, such as women's lack of technical expertise, and certainly found the combination of Bayton's candidness and thorough grasp of the music industry compelling, astute and at times saddening. There is no other serious, up-to-date study of women in popular music to rival Frock Rock .

Ronita Dutta is a freelance journalist specialising in popular music.

Frock Rock: Women Performing Popular Music

Author - Mavis Bayton
ISBN - 0 19 816615 X
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £18.99
Pages - 246

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