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No Girls Allowed?

"He also said he feared for our health," says Lander, who called during a recent stop on Kittie's current tour. "I don't know if it was because we were screaming our heads off or what, but it became a real issue at school. My parents were really upset and they later went in to talk to the principal about it. Nothing ever came of it, but we couldn't believe it."

There were boy metal bands performing that day, there was one of those Spice Girls imitator girl groups that were the adolescent rage a while back, and nobody stopped either of them. Nobody fretted about their health.

"Playing lead . . . feels more like an ego pose to me," says Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson (right, with sister Ann). (Randy St. Nicholas)

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The punch line is that Kittie ended up with a record deal a few years later, and the single from its debut album was a track called "Brackish," which the group had actually played that day at the talent show. The album has since gone gold.

"We had quite a struggle, being females in a metal band," Lander says. "We heard a lot of 'You suck' and 'Girls can't play guitar.' "

This is key. "Take off your shirt" is one of the more benign taunts that an aspiring female guitarist is likely to hear onstage.

"From other bands you'd hear things like 'I can't believe we have to open for this bitch,' " recalls Jett. She was hazed well before she played a note in front of an audience. When she asked a guy at a music store to teach her rock, he "looked at me like I had horns," she remembers. Instead, he showed her "On Top of Old Smoky." It was her last lesson.

After moving to Los Angeles and forming the Runaways, one of the original all-girl punk bands, it got even nastier. (She and her band mates were called things that nice newspapers don't print.) And when Jett went solo in 1980, she was told by record executives that a girl with an electric guitar and an attitude would never make it.

"I heard a lot of 'You've got to stop hiding behind the guitar, you'll never get signed.' It didn't make me feel hopeless. It steeled me, but I can understand why a lot of girls just say '[The heck with] this. I'll just do something that doesn't take such a toll on my self-esteem.' "

A reasonable conclusion from all this might be that men are just mastodon brutes who have kept women away from guitars, and that's not entirely wrong. Neither, though, is it the full story. Jett proved the record industry wrong every time she slayed an audience and cashed a royalty check. But she was an exception, which suggests the problem is bigger than a bunch of satin-jacket dummies who open and close the gates at the major labels. Those dummies are usually pretty good at meeting demand, and even though they're routinely blindsided by truly original talents, they don't stay blindsided for very long. If there was a fortune to be earned from Joan Jett clones there'd be a swarm of them out there.

The truth, though, is that the market out there for guitar-wielding women has never been huge, particularly among girls. The gender divide at live concerts is often pretty stark. Boys generally want to see men play guitar (hence Metallica etc.), and girls generally want to watch men and women sing (hence Christina, Hilary Duff). After a Metallica show a few thousand lads are pining for their very own black ESP Explorer with the deer skull inlay. Has anybody ever watched a Hillary Duff show and then gone shopping for a guitar?

A Neck Is Just a Neck?

This is to some extent a self-fulfilling prophecy -- girls don't see guitar heroines and, in the absence of role models, they never bother to pick up the instrument. An exception is instructive: it's a safe bet that Avril Lavigne plays guitar because her chief inspiration, Alanis Morissette, plays guitar. (Morissette, in turn, exalts Joni Mitchell.) But women buy just 7 percent of all the electric guitars in this country, according to Music Trades Magazine, and you can't explain that figure without confronting a glaring truth: We live in a culture where the electric guitar, at least when it's played at full and distorted blaze, is considered unladylike.

The logic of this is just as circular as the role model problem -- girls don't see women play the guitar, which stigmatizes the instrument a bit, further discouraging girls from taking up guitar, and so on. But it's not just unladylike because girls, as they grow up, get the hint. It's unladylike because the electric guitar is traditionally an almost cartoonishly macho instrument. The paradigmatic rock pose belongs to Chuck Berry: legs apart, the instrument pointed straight at the crowd, turned upward a little. Symbols don't get more phallic. To Camille Paglia, a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, this isn't just because a guitar is longer than it is wide.

"Rock is a male form," she says, speaking at just under 150 miles per hour. "For an adolescent boy, your guitar speaks for you, it says what you can't say in real life, it's the pain you can't express, it's rage, hormones pumping. Women can be strangers and all of a sudden have an intimate conversation. Boys can't do that. The guitar for a boy speaks to an aggressive sexual impulse and suppressed emotionality, the things that boys can't share, even with other members of the band. It's a combination of rage and reserve and ego."

That's a combination that is rare among women, even some women who are famous because of their guitars. One is Nancy Wilson, half of the classic-rock sister act Heart, the band that gave us radio regulars including "Barracuda" and "Even It Up."

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