Cover Story: Catch 22

A summit with 22 women in Cincinnati's Rock music scene

Dale M. Johnson and Geoff Raker

In mid-December, CityBeat asked 22 area women musicians (including one sound technician) to participate in a panel discussion about women in music at the York St. Café. Timed to the emerging "Chicks RockFest" (taking place Friday and Saturday at The Cavern and BarrelHouse; see interview with fest co-founder Jen Schmidt), the meeting-of-the-minds began with a single question — "Do you think being a woman is an advantage or a disadvantage in music?" — and launched into a wide-ranging, intelligent, funny and informative two-hour discussion.

Gender was the loose theme, but wrought conversations about being a "Woman in Rock" never overtook the summit. The ups and downs of being a musician, regardless of genre or gender, dominated the talk.

As Emily Strand said in an e-mail a few days after the panel, "(It was) cool how the discussion kept straying from the 'women in music' issue to just our own experiences in music — hey, that's what it's really about, isn't it? I think we got past our gender pretty quickly!"

The panelists represented a sampling of women from the diverse local original Rock scene, from singer/songwriters to Indie rockers and all points in between. Participating were Amy Constantine (Spiff); Whitney Barricklow (The Whitney Barricklow Band); Emily Strand (winner of this year's "97Xposure" band contest); Danielle Bell and Amy Combs (Viva La Foxx); Susan Vitelo (sound technician at York St. Café); Jen Schmidt (Chicks RockFest); Erin Proctor, Melissa Fairmount and Dana Hamblen (The Fairmount Girls); Sarrah Hutton, Annie Peeno and Julie Baker (The Woos); Shawna Snyder, Lisa Miller and Dawn Burman (wussy, Lovely Crash); Abiyah; Makenzie "The Mayor" Place (The Sundresses); Tracy Walker; Jennifer Wesenberg; Beth Holzer (Lovely Crash); and a late arrival from rehearsal, Andrea Rosenthal (Venus Mission).

CityBeat: Do you think being a woman is an advantage or a disadvantage in music?

Shawna Snyder: I think it's an advantage, especially in Cincinnati.

Like at a singer/songwriter night, when a woman steps up to the mic, people shut up and listen. But if a man steps up, people just keep talking and drinking. I'm not sure why.

Danielle Bell: Because you have boobs.

Jen Schmidt: I think it's more a novelty than that. I don't think people are that concerned about T&A really. I think it's the fact that it's not as available. I think women's songs are more emotive in their delivery and the wording. I don't think anybody ever thought Diana Ross was T&A, even though maybe she is. And even though she doesn't have some huge voice like Janis Joplin or whoever, it's just a style, a presence. It's not sex.

Erin Proctor: I think it's an advantage because it means that a woman has balls enough to step up to the microphone, has balls enough to go up there and play and put herself out there emotionally, vocally or whatever she does. ... All women don't do that. Women are thought of as very meek and mild or whatever the stereotype is. Any musician that's a woman who goes up there, it gives them balls, it gives them an outlet and it empowers them. I think a lot of people respect that.

Lisa Miller: I think this is a nice contrast to all the "woo-woo girls" ... not The Woos (laughter). Like the Main Street "woo-woo girl" stereotype. A ballsy, smart woman — and everybody in this room qualifies — is just going to get up there and lay it all on the line. I think to an extent that that is sexual, but not necessarily in a traditional way. I think there's something to that that just draws people in.

CB: But do some people find it intimidating?

Everyone: Absolutely.

CB: I can't fathom people who see a woman performer and say, "I don't like her because she scares the hell out of me." People don't come right out and say that generally, but you know that's what it is.

Amy Constantine: (Women rocking) is still a novelty. It's not celebrated enough or at least not as much as the males in music. As a novelty, it's (the audience's) chance to get to see something that they don't see every day.

Emily Strand: I think maybe more in the mainstream, it's becoming more "even," but out there, where a lot of us are, on the grassroots level. ... A lot of times I'll be the only woman in a string of guy songwriters. In a sense, I think it's an advantage (being a woman) because you get people's attention, but sometimes your gender becomes your genre. It's like, "A guy who was kind of bluesy got up and sang, and then there was a guy who was kind of Rock, and then there was this Folk guy ... and then this chick got up." You might stand out from the night, but you don't stand out because of what you're really trying to say.

CB: You're saying that your music or your message sometimes gets muted by the fact that you're female?

Danielle Bell: You get categorized. But it's not all about your boyfriend that broke your heart. You feel about a lot of different things.

Dana Hamblen: They think you're going to talk about a bunch of shriek-y crap.

Beth Holzer: You get judged differently. I think initially people might come out to see you because you're a woman. But in a weird sort of way you're also judged differently about how you play and what you have to say because you're a woman.

Amy Combs: You have to be technically better than any man to be as good as them in any male-music thing. Think about it — they're judging you harder because they don't want you to be good.

Shawna Snyder: Emily and I were talking the other night, and I was telling her that somebody approached me and asked, "Have you ever seen Emily Strand?" And at that particular time I hadn't seen her yet, so I said, "No." And then this person said, "She's great! She freakin' plays guitar like a man!" We both laughed at that.

Dawn Burman: That happens a lot with drummers. I've never wanted to be told, "You're pretty good for a girl." Fuck off, y'know.

Whitney Barricklow: Somehow, the good qualities come off as masculine to some. Sometimes people say, "You're good," and it becomes associated with men, the quality of "good."

Tracy Walker: We're still trying to move out of these perceptions, the roles of male and female. Like you mentioned Diana Ross before. Yeah, you had The Supremes, but the band was made up of all guys. Everyone around The Supremes were all guys, but they had these women out there, which I don't think is a bad thing at all. But the role perception ... women are supposed to do these things, men are supposed to do these things. Men go out and work and do all the rough, tough things. Chicks — "chicks" — aren't supposed to do that kind of stuff, especially in the mainstream's view. Britney Spears is not out there because she's talented.

Erin Proctor: There comes a point where sex sells and the music doesn't matter. In the mainstream's view, that's exactly what they're doing in the marketing of these women (like) Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, etc. And to the mainstream's view, it doesn't matter whether they can sing or not, 'cause no one really listens to music except for the 12-year-olds who are trying to identify with something. And what's in their face every day? But sex sells, and it sucks because the women who are out there actually trying to make music in an honest and creative way get kind of drowned out by the mainstream's "sex sells" view.

Jen Schmidt: There's a visual aspect to having a woman up there, though. There's just something intriguing in a girl getting up there and playing the guitar. I literally stood onstage for an entire show holding a guitar, not playing a single note, and everyone came up to me afterward and said, "That was so hot!" It was for a Halloween show, and everyone thought it was just so hot to have a girl holding a guitar onstage.

It's just a visual aspect. I don't think it's necessarily wrong to use it to your advantage, and I don't think it's necessarily necessary to use it to your advantage. You just have to have fun with it, no matter what you're doing, and not get wrapped up in the "politics" of it. I like women singers, and I can't tell you why. It's not that I hate men. It's not that I want (men) to not play music and step aside so I can only listen to girls forever and ever. There's just something very intriguing about a woman's voice that gives them an advantage in the world.

CB: Let me direct the "advantage" question to Susan, since she's in a traditional "guy" profession (as a live sound technician). What's your take? Is being a woman in music an advantage?

Susan Vitelo: I come from a completely different perspective, but in regards to my job being a woman is definitely an advantage. I can't word this in a way that's not going to sound "wrong," but I think guys will take my suggestions more than they would from a man, because I'm a girl.

CB: Why do you think they take your suggestions, though?

Susan Vitelo: Because I'm a girl.

CB: OK, but why?

Susan Vitelo: It's the male ego thing, I think. I don't hate men either — very fond of them, actually. But I think that men are constantly in competition with one another, and taking orders, so to speak, from another man, they're more likely to be on the defensive, whereas with a woman they're more, "Well, she's cute, I guess I'll turn down."

Amy Constantine: Your delivery is a little different though.

Susan Vitelo: Sure. I mean, the way I approach bands is: "I want to make you sound good. I'm here for you. It's not about what I want, but I really want to present your music in a way so that everyone's going to enjoy it." And I might think that way because I'm a woman or present it that way because I'm a woman, I dunno.

Danielle Bell: "Hmm, if I turn down, she might give me a blowjob." (laughter)

CB: But guys sometimes do think like that ...

Susan Vitelo: Sick little monkeys you all are (laughter).

Lisa Miller: A lot of guys will come up to (wussy) after shows, and they'll be like (deep, creepy voice), "I play bass." It's never just because they like what they hear. They want to be in a band with girls.

Dawn Burman: In our experience, we've had some pretty creepy propositions.

Susan Vitelo: I don't really run into that so much anymore here (at York St. Café). I see nine bands a weekend, typically, so at least people know who I am and they know I'm not "some chick" that's here for any other reason than doing the sound and that this is what I love to do. I do work as a stagehand occasionally at Belterra (Casino in Indiana), and we get national acts in, and I'll still get the "honey" and "sweetheart" and, "Here let me help you with that." I used to have a huge chip on my shoulder about that, but anymore I'm like, "OK, fine. You carry it" (laughter).

CB: Almost on the flipside of what we're talking about, do you use your sexuality on stage? Does it come out organically or is it more calculated?

Abiyah: There's some controversy in me expressing my sexual side to the audience, as I'm a somewhat socially conscious Hip Hop artist. A lot of people expect you to be fightin' the power in every song and to talk about sex would be possibly detrimental to young girls. And to some, that means you're selling out, (as if) it just wipes out any social consciousness that you might have, in their way of thinking. But, the sexual side of me ... I love sex. And for me not to have a song about sex is selling myself short and selling my audience short.

I think it depends on how you present it. (Using sexuality) draws the audience in, though. Even women. A lot of women who are afraid, the ones wearing all camouflage and combat boots, rappin' about whatever, to cross that line over into being sexy onstage gives them the encouragement to (use their sexuality) and still be the mothers of the earth. I think it's necessary, if you have a sexual side, if that's who you are, to express that. Otherwise you're not going to come across true as an artist.

CB: It's a side to everyone and there's just no getting around it. But, particularly here in Cincinnati, there's a conservative moral climate. Well, first, do you think there's a conservative moral climate here?

Danielle Bell: In Rock?

CB: In Cincinnati.

Danielle Bell: Well, there might be one there, but not in Rock.

CB: Is it, "This is us, that's them"?

Danielle Bell: Yeah, this is our own world, and we don't want to limit the things we want to do.

Amy Constantine: In that sense, I think that if I would ever, ever set foot in Have a Nice Day Café and people would see me dancing, touching my boobs and grabbing my crotch, everyone in the joint would be like, "What a slut!" But when I get onstage, I'm going to put on a fuckin' rockin' show. If I jack off the mic stand — which I did recently (laughter) — there's something about being onstage, it's like you have a free pass to do things you couldn't do in public, that women in society would be judged for doing in public. Yet (women) are applauded for doing it onstage, to a point. If I were allowed to, in regular daily life I'd (makes a jack off gesture) to my boss if I felt like it (laughter) — but I can't do that. But that's one great thing I've experienced and I'm sure a lot of females have experienced — onstage you have a freedom, and with that comes the freedom of sexuality. In a Cincinnati environment, we might be more "censored" than in a lot of other places.

Amy Combs: But you do come across the "moral" thing. One time, these girls, I don't even know how old they were, were really kind of offended by what I do onstage. They said what I do is degrading to myself and degrading to women in general. And I just thought it was the funniest thing ever, because, first of all, I'm not standing up and being the voice for all women. I'm just trying to find my own voice, and that's hard enough.

We all have a sexual side, like we said, and I embrace that. I embrace who I am. Being up onstage does give you license to do other things, but when you're up onstage it's really freeing to explore all the other sides of yourself, which you can't do when you're just walking around, day-to-day, talking to your boss or even talking to your boyfriend. So you get up and do things (onstage), kind of push people's buttons, but it's performance. It's art. You want to give people an experience. Make them feel something — hate me or love me or go home and fuck or go home and cry, whatever.

It's like a chain reaction. As artists, you're there to make people feel something. I think people lose sight of that. It was really funny to me (the girls who said I was degrading). I felt like what I do is really freeing to myself and it should be freeing to you, too, to see it.

Beth Holzer: You know what? As much as it can be a really emotional, exploratory experience, when you get into your head and can kind of really feel what's going on, the bottom line is that it's entertainment. I think you have to do what you have to do to get people to start to listen, at least initially.

Julie Baker: I think we (The Woos) have kind of the opposite thing going on, because we're a little bit more repressed as far as performing, because we're afraid of not being taken seriously. We kind of try to hold that (sexuality) back. We don't want to flaunt anything because we might not be taken as serious musicians. You can be like, "I don't care what you think," or, "Oh my God, it's Rock & Roll! It's just a sexually charged kind of thing." But (we're thinking), "I'm a girl, so I should probably hold back a bit because I don't want to be just that one thing." You can be conflicted about things when you're performing.

Melissa Fairmount: How many men even think about how they're presenting themselves onstage? And whether or not they're going to be judged based upon that?

Lisa Miller: I grew up as a Fundamentalist Baptist. And so there's a lot of shit now that's coming out onstage, because being onstage is the first time I've ever felt like myself. Ever. So there's stuff that's coming out that's sexual, I guess, and other things are coming out. All this stuff that I've been wanting to say for my entire life but I couldn't. I just felt as if there was a veil in between who I am and my upbringing. And it's all coming out for the first time, and there's some shit there. And if somebody responds to that, to any part of it, great! Because on some level there's a connection being made. And I don't really even think about, "Hmm, what am I putting out here?" I get up there and I fuck up and what comes out comes out.

There's more artistry to it than that. It's not like I get really high and play ... yeah, there's that, too (laughter). But I mean, to an extent, there's that release. I have a lot of friends in here who are like that too — they grew up very repressed, like, forced repression. So a lot of this stuff is just now — 26, 27, 30, 40 years on — coming out for the first time. In the Baptist tradition, there were many, many, many more rules on me than were on my male friends and my brother. There's a lot more that's been pushed down that's going to kind of bubble up to the surface. I think it's its own reward, too — I think that makes us even more worth listening to.

Tracy Walker: You perform art because you want to make some sort of connection with people. If it's just an expression of my feelings, I can write it in a journal and never perform it in public. Somehow, somewhere, I want to make a connection with somebody. And so there's a certain thought process where you wonder, "Is anyone going to like this? Why do they like it? Why do they not like it? Should I be doing this differently?" And you have to just go back and say, "I still have to do what I want to do." You just want to make connections with people. I think all people do. And I think we're really fortunate that we're able to get up and make that connection with people.

Much, much more was said, but space constraints prohibit further exploration. The women of Cincinnati's music scene just want to be seen and heard as they are, not as some preconceived, stereotypical corporate vision of what women should be.

They're fun, they're funny, they're real and they rock. Go seek them out.

ERICKA MCINTYRE and MIKE BREEN assisted with the interviewing and moderating for this article.