In light of some recent culturally relevant controversies (Steubenville, Lena Dunham’s negative press) I’ve been doing some thinking as to what it means to be female.  Why does it feel necessary to have a female-focused specialty show on our programming?  Why should I feel the need to lump myself in a category, to defend not a minority but an entire half of the world’s population?  Why was I pleasantly surprised at the number of women in bands at SXSW?  I have a serious desire to know the answers to these questions. I think I‘ll take look at the schedule for women’s studies classes next semester.

I observed a female presence above and beyond my expectations at SXSW, not because I seeked it out but because most of the bands recommended to me had females in them.  About half of the 33 bands I squeezed into my stunted festival (I got sick Thursday night and was out of commission for the last two days) had ladies, playing everything from drums to the cello.  It seems to me that female instrumentalists rarely appear in a touring lineup.  Whether this is due to a lack of female instrumentalists or a lack of willingness to tour I’m not sure.  What I can say is that they often provide an element to performance beyond the ordinary for audiences, intentionally or not.  For me, it’s nice to see women function as an integral part of the music rather than pretty faces present only to please the eyes.  Not to say they don’t do that – people at SXSW tended to be pretty across the board.  But as far as I could tell there were no singers in the spotlight for the purpose of blatant sex appeal.

And if anyone fits that description the least, it’s Marnie Stern.  She’s beautiful.  A contest was held to win a date with her.  But the real crowd pleasing comes when she gets on stage.  Bubbly and full of energy (and vagina jokes) on stage, Stern rocked the ax and the audience during the two sets I saw. Stern is a master on the guitar.  Her distinct math rock style and impressive technical skill carry the songs, and her high pitched almost-shrill voice make them full-fledged art pop songs.  The new tracks she played from this month’s Chronicles of Marnia are less layered than previous releases and keep guitar parts stripped down, highlighting the quality of her guitar work.  The reduction in guitar grit and layers results in more voice coming through on the record – although live sometimes she was too focused on her hands to sing straight into the mic.  It’s forgivable though, and it’s clear that she’s the real deal on record and on stage.

Another artist that blew me away was Savages, a four piece post-punk group from London.  The set I saw was poorly handled – the sound at the main stage at Brooklyn Vegan’s party really sucked: the sound bounced off the walls, levels were off, and during Savages particular set there was a lot of feedback coming through their monitors which the sound guy could not seem to figure out until about halfway through their short thirty minute set.  The sun seemed to intrude as it beat down on the outdoor stage while the quartet, dressed in all black, took the stage.  Despite the circumstances, the all-female band – singer Jehnny Beth, guitarist Gemma Thompson, bassist Ayse Hassan, and drummer Faye Milton – powered through six songs with a consuming urgency. Drummer Milton’s dynamic stylings provided the foundation, beating the life out of the drums only to infuse life into the sound. Guitarist Thompson stood powerfully brooding over her noise guitar sounds while Hassan’s bass complexities wove around them.  Frontwoman Beth moved the mic stand from place to place, at first adjusting from the monitor feedback but continuing to do so throughout the set, as if her tense vitality could not be contained to one spot.  The punches she threw echoed the music, and the music embodies the incredible will and independence you can tell they have.

What Savages and Marnie Stern have in common is that they are about the music. Stern acknowledges her sex, and in both sets I saw mentioned her vagina in sound check.  But playing her instrument, she was all smiles; that’s what she was there for.  Savages was the opposite of smiles, but their all black outfits and lack of banter provided a similar effect to Stern’s presence : a focus on music rather than gender roles.

By Madeline Hassett

(Marnie Stern photo credit: Madeline Hassett)