The experiences of female indie bands in the 1990s/2000s make for grim reading, thankfully a lot of progress has been made since.
A confession! Growing up as a fan of indie music during the early 2000s, I'd be lying if said many of my music heroes were female. As stated in a recent Gigwise International Woman's Day 2022 feature, I enjoyed Kim Deal's basslines for The Pixies and the odd Breeders song, but hearing Yeah Yeah Yeahs 2003 single 'Maps' for the first time was a real mind-blowing experience and one that really changed my thinking.
Here was a stylish yet raw, rock n' roll band with a frontwoman pouring her heart out over an emotion-filled and now iconic indie-rock banger. The New York band's debut album Fever To Tell would reveal punk energy in abundance, Karen O spitting her lines out with infectious venom and charisma in equal measure. For a young music fan, it was proof that gender really didn't matter, women COULD rock just as hard as men and some.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs would go on to sell millions of records, receive Grammy nominations and have three top 10 albums in the UK charts over the coming years. With 'Date with the Night' (2003) and 'Gold Lion' (2006) they'd gain two UK top 20 singles. Their 2009 single 'Heads Will Roll' and accompanying A-Trak remix have received over 650 million Spotify streams between them, proving their enduring popularity with third album It's Blitz moving towards more of a dance influence.
Speaking in Lizzy Goodman's book Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011, Karen O really didn't expect the initial success to last. In one encounter with Blondie's Debby Harry, she was told to "enjoy it while it lasts". Such advice shocked her. When the expected encouragement wasn't forthcoming from one of her hero's, Karen admitted to feeling completely alone as a female frontwoman.
"Do I think being a girl had anything to do with our outside appeal as a band? I think it had everything to do with it...I am a girl in a boy's world and like a lot of women in a lot of fields, I felt really isolated."
Not that Karen O and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were the first female-fronted bands, it's just that for many young indie rock fans in the 2000s into contemporary bands they definitely stood out for that reason. In the 1990s, the success of PJ Harvey, The Cardigans, The Cranberries and Breeders was notable, though these were very much the exception to the rule than the rule itself. The output of rock 'n' roll bands was still very much overwhelmingly dominated by men.
In some cases, the legacy of female bands has been completely undervalued. Take the reporting of Elastica for example. The London post-punk band should really be considered one of the most iconic Britpop bands of the 1990s. Their self-titled debut was nominated for a Mercury Prize, gained them a number 1 album in the UK Albums Chart and three top 20 hits in the UK with 'Line Up', 'Connection' and 'Waking Up'. They'd even be introduced on David Letterman's American chat show in 1995 as "one of England's most exciting and popular new bands".
However, it was the fact lead singer Justine Frischmann dated Suede frontman Brett Anderson (she was a guitarist in the early stages of the band) and was later in a long-term relationship with Blur's Damon Albarn that often dominated her reputation rather than the success of the band she fronted. Having attended Britpop-inspired nights and done a lot of reading on that time period, it's amazing that the scene is now often associated with "lad" bands and artists like Elastica - despite their immediacy - don't appear to fit that narrative.
There was even an undercurrent of sexism that prevented them being taken too seriously. In the height of the Oasis/Blur rivalry, Liam Gallagher would repeatedly attempt to get under Damon Albarn's skin by saying he fancied Justine Frischmann. In one interview he boasted that "she's going to go for me" and that he would "get" her as if she were a possession to gain. Noel Gallagher would continue the general sexist undertones in a 1996 Radio 1 interview with Jo Wiley, admitting he wouldn't want a current female band to support Oasis before lamenting the lack of bands with "birds" in them worth listening to.
Fast forward a few years and whilst it can be easy to claim Yeah Yeah Yeahs slammed through the doors of male hegemony and completely changed the indie rock music culture overnight, the noughties indie scene was still very much dominated by male bands. In the coming years, however, their influence would lead to a few notable exceptions. The Beth Ditto-fronted Gossip scored a top 10 hit with 'Standing In The Way of Control' (and gave NME one of their most iconic ever feature stories) and the 2006 breakthrough of Brazillian electro-punk outfit CSS (Cansei De Ser Sexy), who featured heavily in the pages of NME as part of the emerging nu rave indie scene (Klaxons, Friendly Fires, Hot Chip, Hadouken!), were two intriguing bands given exposure.
Over a decade and a half later are things better? I'd argue yes. Speaking from personal experience, I feel I'm listening to more and more female artists and female-fronted bands than ever before. For example, earlier in the year, I produced a profile of female indie rock duo Wet Leg and the buzz that was surrounding them in the UK music industry. Maanwhile, last year's albums by Black Honey, Amyl & the Sniffers, Lana Del Rey, Dry Cleaning, Arlo Parks and Wolf Alice appeared in my favourite albums list of 2021, also finding a lot of time for tunes from the likes of Self Esteem, London Grammar and Chvrches, and EPs by Swim School, beabadoobee and NewDad.
At the end of 2020, I asked if we'd seen the best year for females in indie music yet with album releases from Soccer Mommy, Phoebe Bridgers, Dream Wife, Georgia, beabadoobee and Another Sky, again, being amongst my favourites of that year. Call it a naive opinion, but it really didn't feel like there was the same volume of female-fronted indie bands and artists two decade ago or, at least, they weren't being granted the same exposure. Are females in the indie world still in the minority? Well, of course, but it feels like the tide has turned.
Despite my more positive outlook, it's clear there's still an issue with festival representation, especially with the growing number of brilliant female artists being ignored at such events. Last year, a Guardian analysis of 31 festivals found women were still vastly underrepresented in British festival lineups. I decided to do a little research of my own to see if this year was any better and thankfully found two festivals that revealed a little more progress.
As TRNSMT is the biggest festival closest to where I stay in Glasgow, I decided to count the artists on the 2022 lineup over the main two stages. The results saw 14 of the 40 announced artists featuring female artists or female-led bands (35%). This may sound low at first, but when compared to the numbers at T in the Park two decades earlier (the predecessor to TRNSMT) it at least revealed some progress. Of the 34 artists playing in 2002, only four featured female members. This is around 12% of performers, so while 35% may not be considered high, it still marks movement in the right direction.
Trying to find a solution to the last point is difficult. Is a 50-50 split in male/female artists the way forward, or does this effectively guarantee a box-ticking exercise and open it up to criticism? Still, it's something festival organisers should be aware of to ensure sizeable female representation. The Glastonbury lineup for 2022 has to be congratulated too, with an extremely healthy spread of female artists and female-fronted bands including headliner Billie Eilish and bands like Self Esteem, First Aid Kit, Dry Cleaning, Wet Leg and Amyl & the Sniffers.
This is close to half - around 40 of the 90, or 44% - of the announced artists to date. A quick glance at the same festival two decades before reveals only a small handful of female artists - you'd be lucky if it was 10%. So while equal representation hasn't been achieved, both Glastonbury and TRNSMT reveal two of the UK's biggest festivals are getting ever so closer to achieving that. Whether that's on purpose or simply reflective of the growing numbers of female bands coming through remains to be seen, but its definitely encouraging.
Female artists and female-fronted bands may still be in the minority within the indie rock world, but that it's now a sizeable minority than a tokenistic one speaks volumes for the progress made over the past three decades. What's clear is that female bands are gaining exposure and producing some of the best music out there. Karen O may have felt isolated and alone in 2003 upon her band's breakthrough, so lets hope the culture can continue to progress and create a more comfortable environment for female artists and female-fronted bands to thrive.