There has been a lot of discussion about gender politics in the Twin Cities art scene this spring. I’m happy to say that even though I’m one of a small number of female music writers working in the area, sexism isn’t something that I encounter very often while doing this job. As I headed out on Saturday night, first to see St. Vincent at First Avenue and then to Ronnie Spector and the 18.104.22.168’s at the inaugural Girls Got Rhythm Fest in downtown St. Paul, I couldn’t help but wonder: Are we still in need of events like Girls Got Rhythm? Or is there still more work to be done?
It’s something that’s been on my mind ever since hosting the all-girl episode of the Local Show last month, especially when L’Assassins lead singer Tea Ann Simpson stated that her band occasionally still has a hard time being taken seriously by male musicians because of how they dress and look. I found that disheartening, and then became even more disappointed when reading a profile of the band that took a whopping seven paragraphs to get over their looks and their mysterious girl-ness and move onto how they sound. There are so many excellent female musicians coming to the forefront locally these days and they deserve to be approached with respect — it’s something that Girls Got Rhythm set out to do, and something that still feels vitally important.
Even artists as prominent as St. Vincent are still encountering weirdness from time to time. In a recent interview Annie Clark reflected that, operating as a woman in music, “The only difference is that you get asked ‘What’s it like to be a woman in music?'” On Saturday, she performed with a cool, constrained energy, teasing the crowd with percussive finger-plucked guitar solos and never once straying into self-indulgance or guitar wankery. Her detachment from the crowd only seemed to fuel her audience’s desire for more from her, and when she finally broke the fourth wall it was so she could straddle a security guard’s shoulders, leap over the barrier, and surf atop the crowd as she sang her final song. Her ownership of the room was irrefutable, and she knew it. Sure, there were some eye-rolly moments on Twitter as the males in the audience tripped over themselves expressing their unrequited love for Ms. Clark, but expecting a rock show to be absent of sexual tension is like expecting a car to run without fuel.
Across town at the Amsterdam Bar and Hall, Ronnie Spector was equally captivating. “You know Amy Winehouse, right? She wanted to be just like me,” she sighed at one point, clearly comfortable in her role as a pop music pioneer, while a few songs later she paused to shoot a smoldering stare out into the audience and proclaim “You guys are giving me an orgasm up here.” Spector is a survivor, and that ferocious spirit comes across in her unwavering voice and her easy presence in the spotlight as she worked through hits like Winehouse’s “Back to Black,” The Ronettes’ “Best Part of Breaking Up” and classic “Be My Baby,” and her sweet homage to Johnny Thunders, “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.”
The problem has never been about the actual performances by female artists, though. There were women rocking long before VH1 made a program called Women Who Rock and there is no doubt in any rational person’s mind that ladies are just as physically and emotionally capable of singing, soloing, kicking, screaming, strutting and flailing just as righteously as dudes can. The Women Who Rock dilemma has more to do with how we anticipate and respond to the women on stage — and in that regard, this weekend felt just right. Girls Got Rhythm Fest co-founder Dana Raidt shrugged off any suggestions she was making a feminist statement with the event and instead used it as a way to showcase an array of like-minded female artists. The bands on the bill got heaps of positive accolades, many of the artists fed off each other’s energy and supported one another throughout the fest, and a few hundred people got to experience Ronnie Spector, the Muffs, and the 22.214.171.124’s in an intimate club setting, not to mention discover a handful of previously under-the-radar local acts.
Speaking of the 126.96.36.199’s, the band spent the earlier part of the night at the edge of the stage awaiting their turn. Unfortunately, a hefty portion of the crowd cleared out after Spector performed, but those who were left were treated to a loose yet animated set by the Japanese trio. Lead singer Yoshiko Fujiyama, who coincidentally uses the stage name “Ronnie,” led the band through a series of shambolic garage and surf tunes, and even invited festival co-founder Travis Ramin to the stage to sing their biggest hit to date, “Woo Hoo” — a unifying moment for the crowd and a reward for those who stuck it out until the end.