The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What’s it like to be a woman in rock today? The question is part of the problem.

Julia Cumming of Sunflower Bean performing in New York this summer. “If there’s still girls that don’t feel comfortable playing, and they still need to see someone out there to do it,” she says, “then it’s still important to talk about.” (Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)

For her 13th birthday in 2001, Sadie Dupuis received a Fender Stratocaster to take to summer camp — something she knew most girls didn’t get to experience.

“Every 13-year-old boy, when I was a kid, was handed an electric guitar. Girls weren’t really pushed in that direction unless they guided themselves toward it or had really cool parents,” she said. “For a lot of kids, their gender [got] in the way of them having access to certain genres of music.”

Lindsey Jordan was almost one of those kids. In 2007, when she was 8, her older sister showed her a bill from the Warped Tour. It seemed to her at the time that the entire lineup was male — did you have to be a boy to be in a band, she wondered? Then her sister brought her to a show by Paramore, whose lead singer/keyboardist was a woman. “I saw Hayley Williams and her outfit and she’s killing it, and she’s so punk, and I was like: That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” Jordan told The Washington Post last year.

Dupuis now fronts the highly acclaimed rock band Speedy Ortiz, while Jordan, recording as Snail Mail, is one of the hottest new artists in guitar-based music. They are two of several female musicians often cited as proof that the gender disparity in rock music is shrinking. And if you scour any critic’s best-of list these days, you’ll find it all but dominated by women — Mitski, Sharon Van Etten, Robyn, Snail Mail and Boygenius, the supergroup made up of Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers.

Yet by almost any measure, women still enjoy far less success in the industry, and female artists say they contend with unspoken quotas that keep them off playlists and festival bills as well as a culture that persists in viewing them as women first and musicians second.

Only 7.7 percent of inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are women, according to research by Evelyn McDonnell, the director of journalism at Loyola Marymount University who edited “Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl.” In 2017, Pitchfork found only a quarter of artists booked at the 23 biggest music festivals were women. Since then, more than 190 international festivals pledged to have a 50/50 gender split by 2022, but as of 2018, the magazine found that still “seven out of 10 artists on festival bills are men or all-male bands.” And this week, only two of the top 40 songs on Billboard’s rock chart are by female-fronted bands.

These numbers aren’t relegated to rock. A 2012 study helmed by Stacy L. Smith, an associate professor at the University of Southern California and the founder of its Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, surveyed the top 600 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 from 2012 to 2017 and found that 22.4 percent of them were performed by women. Only 12.3 percent were written by women, and only 2 percent of a 300-song subset were produced by women. “When it comes to women’s ability to contribute and to lead,” Smith told the New York Times, “they’re being shut out of the process.”

Yet whenever several notable female musicians emerge around the same time, headlines scream their tired refrains.

“Rock’s Not Dead, It’s Ruled by Women,” the New York Times crowed in late 2017. “Women are now at the forefront,” declared Pitchfork, “injecting DIY rock of the past with fresh perspectives.”

In the 1980s, the music industry hype machine proclaimed Joan Jett and Pat Benatar as the future of rock. A decade later, Alanis Morissette, the Breeders and Bikini Kill had critics declaring that women had finally arrived — a narrative that drew a scoff from Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders.

“Year of the woman rocker?” she asked the Chicago Tribune 25 years ago. “Is that like the year of the pig?”

In fact, “there have always been women at the center of rock music,” said McDonnell — from Bessie Smith, with her deep influence on the blues (thus, rock); to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a pioneer of electric gospel (thus, rock guitar); to Big Mama Thornton, who recorded “Hound Dog” well before Elvis Presley and helped set the pace for rock vocals as we came to know them.

“It’s funny,” said singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus, who often finds herself lumped into women-in-rock stories. These pieces always state, “ ‘Women are making such good music right now.’ Endquote,” she said. “But it’s like, [what about] Janis Joplin? Billie Holiday? Ella Fitzgerald?”

Sharon Van Etten — who grew up on PJ Harvey, Liz Phair, Portishead, Hole and Sleater-Kinney — said that while she’s glad women in music are getting media attention, she “struggle[s] with ­wanting to say ‘Yeah, women! You’ve heard of us. We’ve been hanging out. We can do things like you can.’ ”

“As a female musician, you get dumped in your little pink sidecar before you’ve even stepped into your own shoes,” agreed Emily Haines, who records as a solo artist, fronts Metric and plays in Broken Social Scene.

Wait a minute. Is this one of those stories?

Admittedly, yes. Yet a number of female rockers grudgingly choose to talk about gender because they feel a duty to ensure women remain visible in their profession.

“It’s boring and frustrating to have similar conversations [again and again],” said Julia Cumming of Sunflower Bean. “But at the same time, if there’s still girls that don’t feel comfortable playing, and they still need to see someone out there to do it, then it’s still important to talk about.”

Laetitia Tamko, the Cameroon-born multi-instrumentalist known as Vagabon, wasn’t sure she wanted to be involved with this story at all — the premise seemed to her “a weird form of sensationalism while being extremely reductive.” But she felt a responsibility to represent black women and spread some attention to bands who don’t often get national press, such as Mal Devisa, Tasha and Black Belt Eagle Scout.

Plus, the stories might have impact.

“If Lollapalooza or Coachella knows . . . that there’s going to be a big article that shows the percentage of women or people of color on their lineup, those are things making really positive changes,” said Michelle Zauner, who records as Japanese Breakfast. And increasingly, she’s been heartened to hear the discussion move “beyond just women playing music — who are the engineers? Who are the stage managers? Who is the security?”

In truth, unfortunately, those are still mostly men. Behind the scenes, women make up only 5 percent of all audio engineers, according to Sound Girls, a nonprofit organization working to increase that number.

Regardless, the phrase “women in rock” has left many artists with the sense that female musicians are considered interchangeable. “The first thing anybody wants to do is find another woman to compare you to,” Haines said. “I’ve always found that incredibly insulting to everyone and have been waiting, and am still waiting, to be correctly compared to artists of my caliber that, perhaps, are men.”

Last year, Sunflower Bean faced an uphill battle taking a new single to radio. “Stations say, ‘We like the song, this is a great song. [But] we have too many women in rotation right now,’ ” Cumming said. “Stations will have about three women they keep in main rotation, and if you are a woman trying to get into that rotation, that means that they’re going to kick another woman off. Men’s music is still considered music. Women’s music is still considered other music, even though women are being photographed, used on the Spotify banners and written about.”

Some hope that the rise of streaming might help women sidestep the hard-wired biases of the radio industry. Dacus remembers discovering St. Vincent on Spotify and the thrill of having her entire discography a click away, “when I wasn’t making money, and I was eating a banana and a can of fish everyday as my two meals, [and] I couldn’t buy music.”

“The decentralization of gatekeepers via the Internet has allowed a lot of non-men to find other non-men role models in music,” she said. “Maybe there’s such a big propping-up of confident, female songwriters because we’ve all been able to witness that on our own time, and really excessively, on the Internet.”

Even streaming services, though, might be imbued with gender bias. A detailed report in the Baffler by culture writer Liz Pelly analyzed both Spotify’s biggest playlists along with the ones the service curates for individual users and found its “most popular and visible playlists to be staggeringly male-dominated.”

On Today’s Top Hits, Spotify’s most followed playlist, Pelly “found that over the course of one month, 64.5 percent of the tracks were by men as the lead artist, with 20 percent by women and 15.5 percent relying on collaborations between men and women artists.” On her personal Discover Weekly and other playlists curated for individual users by the service’s algorithm, she found 79.2 percent of the songs were by men and 12.5 percent were by women. (Male-female collaborations made up 5.8 percent, while 2.5 percent were by unidentifiable artists.)

In the end, many female rockers are frustrated that the conversation so often focuses on what it’s like to be a woman with a guitar rather than the actual music.

“I don’t sit around and think about being a woman,” Zauner said. “I sit around thinking about what kind of music I want to write and what the themes of the album are going to be and what lyrics are going to be interesting to tackle and what plugins to use.”

Perhaps St. Vincent summed it up best in a fake television interview she created to promote her 2017 record “Masseduction.” She’s sitting in a green room, answering questions that flash across the screen.

“Insert question about being a woman in music,” the title screen reads.

“What’s it like being a woman in music? Very good question,” St. Vincent says, as the camera zooms in on her fingernails, which are painted bright yellow with black lettering reading, “F--- off.”

It probably goes without saying that she declined an interview request for this story.