Not A Muse Anymore

As someone who identifies as a female, I often feel like there are only two places for me in the music world. One is as the fan girl; the groupie, the silent observer. I can stand there and perfect the head bob, or the movement in my hips, just enough that I look encompassed by the music; just knowledgeable enough about the band, but not too much dancing, not too “dumb teen-girl” who is more interested with her own reaction to the music than the music itself.

The fan girl/groupie is relentlessly criticized in all of her forms; we’ll call her “Other Girl.” Making fun of the girls who are wearing Nirvana crop tops and flower crowns at festivals is probably the most consistently unoriginal joke that many still try to hammer into the ground. Responding to authentic musical emotion and talent with consumerism is a serious, frustrating issue, but it’s a problem regardless of gender. Boys are equally as guilty. The ditsy, obsessed fan stereotype is not the cause, but rather a product of a capitalistic, consumerist, “wanna buy merch” protocol pushed on everyone exploring music—but especially girls.

This stereotype pushes girls to distance themselves from this “fake” Other Girl in order to be seen as “authentic.” I often feel the desire to let everyone and their mothers know that I, in fact, do not listen to Ariana Grande, but rather to The Velvet Underground. Please note how phenomenally revolutionary I am. This obsessive need to emphasize how this makes me “not like other girls” ends up delegitimizing the truth of my love for The Velvet Underground as something I just proclaim so boys will say, “Yah man, she’s so real,” which is unfair to both me and Lou Reed. I don’t know why everyone, myself included, feels such a strong urge to attack the Other Girl. Flower crown girls at festivals are doing their thing. Is your personal relationship with music somehow threatened because you think these girls aren’t appreciative enough of whatever post-punk band you are exclusively there to see? Their relationship with music actually has nothing to do with you, or your self-justification, and this is nothing to be threatened by.

My past personal experience has always been in the realm of the fan girl, but there’s always the second option: that maybe from within the three or four bands of the night, there is one with the token hot bass chick, who kills it, but looks a bit bored. Among the men in the room, there will be two reactions to her. The lead guy will make some easy, subtly self-centered, even more subtly sexist comments, and you will see the light in her eyes fade just a little. Later on in the night, after some reflection, the boys I am with will all puff up their chests and declare, “Awh man, no joke, I could definitely go for her, damn.”

The one or two bands who are all girls are the All Girl Bands, and generally stick with a very specific, punk-rock girl band vibe, and will probably sing about periods in at least one song. Which, please don’t get me wrong, should absolutely be praised—let’s please destigmatize women talking about the reality of women’s bodies, because what’s more natural and honest and true than that?—but feminist riot girl theme songs should not be a prerequisite for a band that just so happens to include all girls. (That being said, the Riot Grrrl Manifesto, written by Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, is essential reading. I want to recognize that I am building on the foundations of powerful, female rock and punk bands, and the movement they began.)

Oh, but hey, girls can always be muses! I think from the instant I knew what a ‘muse’ was, I wanted to be one for some sexy guitarist…a real moody, quiet guy, to inspire him with my crazy, quirky antics. I think this was probably right around the time I watched 500 Days of Summer for the first time, (so, like, twelve years old? Maybe?) with a completely f***ed up reading that made me want to be in Tom’s summer, with a strange desperation to recreate that IKEA scene over and over until I f***ing died, or something. The idea that the best a girl can be is a “muse” is only reinforced by the romantic comedy genre, encouraging girls to see themselves simply through the eyes of a desired male. If he sees you as sexy, as inspiring, and as crazy, then you must really be all that. Why bother with the effort of actually being sexy or inspiring? I really, strongly believe that this mindset funnels girls into the seemingly inevitable flower crown mentality.

The muse role also allows girls to sit back. Once you’ve done your lil’ sexy thing, your job is done. Hang back and let the boys play (you can use this time to perfect the head bob!). Personally, I’ve always considered myself very interested in the music world. I love exploring the more underground concert scene in Seattle, reading—or at least liking the headline of—Pitchfork articles, understanding the Hard Times’ jokes, and watching more La Blogotheque videos than I care to admit. These forms of appreciation were really all I thought I was capable of. It’s crazy to me that it was only this past year that I decided to pick up a guitar and really learn. (Of course, I have to take some personal responsibility, as I can be extraordinarily lazy when I want to be, and I could have tried earlier. Many girls do, and again, I’m not trying to diminish their efforts.)

But I think I’ve always been content to just listen. I have a big problem with participating in class, and when I do talk, I throw in a couple dozen softeners, like, “I just think,” “I guess I think,” “If that makes any sense,” “…but I don’t know” (I had to edit many out of this article). I’m in a program that focuses heavily on class participation, and my grade suffers because I can’t bring myself to speak up. I’ve done some rough soul searching and I’ll share with you the bleak conclusion I’ve come up with: I don’t believe that what I have to say is worthy of the classroom. In other words, I don’t believe my voice is worthy of space. To raise your hand in class to share what you have to say is to ask a space for the right to dominate all sound, to include your voice in a larger dialogue, and to demand that everyone currently sharing the space focus solely on your own thoughts and opinions and feelings. I don’t value my opinion enough. I can’t risk someone in that class thinking that I don’t belong there, or that I shouldn’t contribute, or that I ask for too much.

I don’t want to project gender issues where there are none. There are strong, intelligent women in my class that do not have trouble voicing very important and powerful voices. That being said, I believe it’s easier for boys to occupy space—both physically and verbally—simply because they are expected to. You all remember that one obnoxiously loud boy in seventh grade that everyone wrote off as the “endearing ‘class clown.’” I think there is something conditioned in me by growing up as a girl that I could sit back and listen, and over the course of middle school and high school, I began to apply that as I should. It was easier, maybe, to let stronger people who were more assured in the sound of their own voices, to let their opinions be heard. Less risky. I think there is an intense concern cultivated in girls from a young age that they are asking for too much; that they are asking for more than they are worth.

I like to think about music as a desire to participate in the sound of a space. I especially like those few moments before a band starts their first song because it always makes me catch my breath a bit, the act of appropriating the silence as cue for you. And you fill the space with your voice, your opinion, your work, your value.

I think this desire to fill space is more prevalent in men than in women, and I think this is a direct consequence of society teaching young girls to see themselves as passive observers, rather than active participants. Why? Because they are taught that their worth is in quietly listening to an indirect version of themselves, romanticized through the eyes of these musicians, whilst standing on the sidelines, bopping, or something.

Boys who read this may feel I’m complaining about a relatively small issue that I could easily fix within myself. I defer to an essay by Simone de Beauvoir I recently read, where she says, “It is a difficult matter for man to realize the extreme importance of social discriminations which seem outwardly insignificant but which produce in woman moral and intellectual effects so profound that they appear to spring from her original nature.” She has helped me learn it is not inherent in my nature to simply be someone’s muse.

My point is that it wasn’t until very, very recently that I went to a show, liked what I heard, and had the frightening, arresting, loud, and unforgiving thought: “I could do this too.” And I saw myself differently—I saw myself through my own eyes, I guess, instead of imagining myself through someone else’s. The desire to take over silence with my own voice is one that I lost somewhere along the way. Recently I’ve been trying to reclaim it, by learning to embrace it without hesitation or forgiveness. I’m tired of constantly trying to give proof of my realness, my authenticity; I’m tired of just listening. I’ve realized that if I do not believe in my own voice, I will never convince anyone that I am worthy of being listened to.


*Banner Photo by Adrienne Hohensee


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