For anybody familiar with the recorded output of the Heartless Bastards, track two of their third release, The Mountain, might be something of a shock. “Could Be So Happy” sees Erika Wennerstrom — singer, guitarist, and only remaining original member of the band — take a solo acoustic spin, something a tad out of character with her recorded output to this point. To be sure, it’s followed by the hardest rocker on the record, “Early in the Morning,” the one tune here most directly related to the blues-based material of the group’s debut. But three to four songs later you find yourself in the middle of something like a country/folk revival, replete with banjos and fiddles, and you gotta wonder where you are exactly, what happened to the Heartless Bastard version of Kansas.
Basically, an alt.country record breaks out. Please don’t get me wrong: it’s a great alt.country record, the crystal clear, carefully-layered production and knife-sharp writing serving as perfect vehicles for Wennerstrom’s always expressive vocals. I like this record a lot, no question. Of the acoustic-based stuff, the aforementioned “Happy” rides a gorgeous hook and “Had to Go” is a full blown country jam that unfolds in killer fashion. And there’s still enough rock, albeit of a slower, more diffused variety, to make me very happy.
My problem is not with the record itself, but with what it seems to represent: another woman rocker moving on to something great but something not entirely rock. And given the dearth of female rock band leaders, that saddens me, even as I am thrilled by the depth and grace of the performance in question. Factor in Wennerstrom’s relocation to Austin, Texas and parting with original members Mike Lamping and Kevin Vaughn, and you have to wonder if the country leanings are experiments or indicative of a pending full bore detour. None of which means Ms. Wennerstrom doesn’t have the right to live wherever she pleases, to reconfigure her band as she sees fit, to play the music that best makes her happy. Like my title suggests, there is a rock and a hard place situation developing here for women rock performers and their rock music-loving audiences.
Let me slow down a bit and try to make some things as clear as I can. First of all, when I talk about rock, I am not talking in general terms: I am talking crunchy, guitar-led rock and roll music. Women are everywhere in popular music; they largely dominate the dance music realm; they are frequent contributors in the country and Americana fields; they’re all over R&B (although not hip hop necessarily, a “problem” I will leave to others better schooled in the genre): they are mostly absent in rock. Always have been. And, as often as not, when they are present, they mostly seem like afterthoughts, the proverbial bass-playing girlfriend.
If all of this is purely a matter of choice, I’ll gladly shut up. If there is something about the rock genre that is not attractive to women in general, if they occupy the musical positions they do because that is how they are hard-wired, if they are simply doing what comes naturally, if their absence can indeed be explained by the simple fact of gender difference, then I have no complaint. Here’s my problem, as my questions undoubtedly suggest: I find it hard to believe this is entirely a matter of choice.
What is it a matter of? I am afraid I have nothing more concrete to offer here than fairly obvious explanations. All I can offer in my defense is this: the familiarity of the suspects doesn’t mean they aren’t guilty as hell.
1. Paternalistic Protectionism. Yeah, it’s 2009 and I still think parents and others in positions of authority tend to think largely in terms of what is or isn’t appropriate for girls and/or young women, much more so than they do for boys or young men. And “appropriate” can refer to a range of concerns and/or standards: morality and safety, for starters. You may think rock has had all of its grime and jagged edges scrubbed off or worn down, that we live in a post-decadence world where the outrageous sexual exploits of rock stars are remade as cute memoirs and the stuff of well-loved legend. You might also be tempted to think the subsequent Reality Television revolution pretty much rendered all sexual and substance-related behavior palatable for prime-time television. If it has, you can’t tell by looking at the gender make-up of rock bands. As a culture, we still appear to think we need to protect girls and women from the excesses of men, from the (still) dangerous world of rock and roll. And maybe we do, but if that’s the case, let’s modify the rock world, not reduce the list of suitable vocations for women.
2. Male Snobbery. Let’s face it: rock is a dude’s game and as such, they set the rules. More significantly, they set the attitude, especially when it comes to something as subjective and value-driven as musicianship. Rock music is still largely a world where “throws like a girl” gets supplanted by “plays like a girl.” Maybe nobody is stupid enough to say such things out loud, but the attitude is there, just as it continues to exist in the world of professional sports. We still struggle to accept women on their own terms. We still insist on comparisons that are as unfair as they are beside the point. And in the instant news world we live in, we are not willing to be patient, to let musicians or definitions of musicianship develop over time. Our loss.
Is this a problem on par with the glass ceiling dilemma that continues to plague the business world? Is this absence comparable in impact to the ongoing gender imbalance in the science and math worlds? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. The relative dearth of women rock musicians represents another way in which we restrict the imaginations of girls and young women; it’s another blacked-out part of “the suitable lifestyles and careers for women” menu. Add to that our cultural failure to create a world capable of accommodating all of the possible dreams and desires of men and women, and you have a real mess, one for which the truly remarkable Erika Wennerstrom is not responsible. Listen to and enjoy the new Heartless Bastard’s record and support the musical endeavors of all women, wherever their efforts may take them. That will be a start.
The Mountain (Fat Possum Records) is currently available on CD.
Band photo by Felicia Graham