Photo by Ali Donohue.
Last Friday night, a panel discussion about identity in music was held at Smith College, the place that I go to school. The Panel was called "'Is She Really a Musician?' Navigating Identity and Authenticity in Music & Media", and it was put together by Ally Einbinder of Potty Mouth. Ally moderated the panel along with Sam Chaplin, and panelists included Imogen Binnie, Suzy Exposito, Mitski Miyawaki, and Meredith Graves. The discussion validated what I have been feeling for a long time; I have been personally reflecting on many of their points in the days following.
As the title suggests, the discussion focused what it's like to be a woman making music right now, but the panelists also delved into discussions about all how all different types of identities from race to class may inform how someone's art is perceived. Interpretations of authenticity aren't just gendered. Even within punk, different interlocking oppressions that individuals face can inform the amount of power that someone might have in a scene, whose bands get promoted, and whose lived experiences get listened to and believed.
During the panel discussion about the definition of authenticity, Meredith called attention to the fact that more grace is given to white people when they are being clearly inauthentic than to people of color. White folks, especially white men, are given the most room to stumble and reinvent themselves. These are points that Meredith has called attention to in the past, like the idea that when a white man asserts that he is a fan of a certain band, his authenticity will likely not be called into question. Women, on the other hand, are tested and re-tested and then ultimately often discredited.
Just about any woman who grew up listening to male-dominated genres of music has lived this experience. I can think of countless times that even boys who brag about their love for feminist hardcore have called my relationship with punk into question, or have scoffed at me for caring more about queer punk bands than whatever dude punk band was the most popular at the moment.
Meredith's point about white people being given more room to fail was confirmed by similar points made by Suzy, Mitski, and Imogen. Suzy spoke about her experiences growing up as a non-white fan of punk, and the concessions she had to make to be part of the punk scene because of her race. People of color (along with women and queer folks) were active in the creation of punk and radical politics, as Suzy has talked about this in comics in the past. Unfortunately, much of this history has been erased to give more credit for the inception of punk to white folks - mainly white men. In a lot of folks' eyes, punk has become the territory of white men, so not only are women tested when they mention that they like punk, non-white folks are also called into question and policed. This is something that countless people of color have called out in the past, something that I likely wouldn't have come up with on my own based on my experience as a white person if it weren't for the words and art of folks like Suzy.
This identity-based marginalization carries over to performance. In a recent conversation about David Bowie that Annie Clark (of St. Vincent) had with Jessica Hopper at the MCA, she explained her observation that "standing [on stage] with a beard and your feelings" has become the pinnacle of authenticity and value in many folks' eyes today. She contrasts the beard and feelings aesthetic with the presentation and showmanship of musicians like Chuck Berry, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Little Richard, showmanship that did not overshadow their true authenticity or musicianship. As Annie suggests, the authenticity of a white man with an acoustic guitar is very rarely called into question, even though that very presentation is an aesthetic, and the very act of his being on stage putting on a show is performative.
This assumption of white male authenticity carries over to DIY and punk music, as white dudes can create virtually whatever kind of band they want, make whatever kind of noise they want, say whatever they want, and be taken at face value. In DIY music, the dominant image of this may not be the beard and feelings aesthetic (though dominant conceptions of authenticity in DIY depend on the exact type of music and the exact scene), but if a white man wanted to make that type of music and had the means to do so, it'd be perfectly accepted. As a contrast, I know multiple women who make acoustic music who dudes have directly criticized for not being punk or tough enough.
Of course, none of this necessarily universal, and there are tons of exceptions. There are in fact communities of folks who welcome any type of expression by marginalized people, and tons more who are even validated by seeing marginalized folks expressing themselves however softly or harshly they want. Even so, these systems do oppressive work as a general principle, and must be examined.
The panelists explained that because the people in power in the world of DIY are also often the same kind of folks who are privileged elsewhere, those folks get to construct the rules of DIY culture. At one point in the panel, Mitski brought up her intention behind writing the lyrics "fuck you and your money" (from her song "Drunk Walk Home"). She explained that the line had been misinterpreted as an assertion that she doesn't want or need money, something that she has been called hypocritical for due to the fact that she is trying to make a living off of her music. She corrected this assumption, explaining that what she was trying to say was something more along the lines of, "fuck you and your monetary system that I have to participate in to survive." It's true that there's a lot of pressure on DIY musicians to give their art out for free. I have personally heard a lot of justification for this, and along with that comes the demonization of many independent musicians who make money off of their work. This tenant of DIY can be really myopic, and discount class differences. As Mitski and other panelists pointed out, some DIY musicians do not have the class privilege to turn money away. That said, it's important for things to be accessible, and some musicians can afford to give their art out for free, so it's not necessarily bad that some bands decide to do so. However, the demonization of musicians that ask for money for their work isn't productive. As Meredith pointed out, there is a historical pattern of people expecting women to work for relatively little or no pay. The way we conceptualize what is valuable in society is also deeply flawed. With this all in mind, I found myself examining my own relationship to art, work, and my expected payment.
As Imogen cleverly pointed out, authenticity is a trap. She spoke about the mindset of consumption that many folks in our society have, informed by colonialism and other systems. Sometimes systems of oppression cloud folks' interpretation and judgment, and authenticity is not safe from this. Because of the mess that authenticity is made to be, it can be deconstructed in many, many ways. Gender, class, race, sexuality, and more affect the ways that both musicians and fans are viewed and treated.
What I've discussed above is more a personal reflection on things that were said, not so much as a review or total recap of the panel - where the discussion on authenticity and gender went way further than what I have covered here. As panelists noted, authenticity and identity could be talked about for hours longer. There is talk of eventually posting audio from the entire panel online. If that happens, I would recommend watching it in full to get a more comprehensive look at everything that was discussed. Until then, check out all of the panelists' work here: