It’s impossible to measure the lost potential of the talented women whose music careers were cut short due to harassment, exploitation, and sexism. The #MeToo movement could help change that for future generations.
In a lot of ways, 2017 has been an incredible year for women in rock. A New York Times headline from September claimed “Women are making the best rock music today.” NPR’s All Songs Considered “The Year in Music,” which came out this week, stated “It was a strong year for guitar rock, the best of it coming from relatively younger bands dominated by women: Jay Som, Charly Bliss, Vagabon, Waxahatchee, Diet Cig, Palehound, Chastity Belt, Girlpool, Daddy Issues, Partner.”
Awesome! Finally, some recognition! But you know what else happened in the past few days? A UK pub banned women bands from performing, because “customers just didn’t like it–we’re a rock bar and they don’t think that women should sing male rock songs.”
Yikes. Okay, two steps forward, one step back.
Regardless, things are definitely moving in the right direction when it comes to equal representation of the sexes in music. Half of NME’s top 10 albums of 2017 include female performers or bands with female members, and this looks a lot different than the same list from 1977 (where no women at all could be found). There are several factors that have contributed to the women finally getting recognition, but given the fact that TIME just named the Silence Breakers–women who have spoken publicly about sexual misconduct–as Person of the Year, it’s worth exploring how speaking out has affected the music industry and female musicians in the recent past.
For a long time, enduring harassment and exploitation by men was considered part of the business for women in music. As rock ‘n’ roll flourished in the 1960s and 70s, it was dominated by male performers, managers, producers, and engineers. In her 2014 memoir Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys, The Slits’ Viv Albertine recalls managers who “treat us like malleable objects to mould or fuck or make money out of.” Also, the mostly-male music critics, who could make or break a career, focused on the physical appearance of a woman, her “desirability,” rather than her musicianship. Obstacles like sexual harassment and condescension are not typical of the white male musician’s experience in rock, but they are universal for women who rock. For men, becoming a rock star meant unfettered access to women, and for women, it meant adopting the same carefree and cool attitude as the men. For those navigating a world liberated from traditional sexual boundaries, the line between enjoyment and exploitation was often lightly drawn.
This is not to say women weren’t enjoying sexual openness as much as the guys. In Andy Warhol’s Factory, sexuality was fluid and free love was the norm. Nico, for example, had sex with a laundry list of men at the time, which isn’t shocking. What’s unsettling is the notion that she traded sex for song lyrics, as suggested by several people in the scene, including Gerard Malanga, who remembered “I just put two and two together that Nico had slept with Dylan. It was kind of obvious. She got a song out of Bob, “I’ll Keep It with Mine,” so he probably got something in return, quid pro quo.” Whether or not this actually happened hardly matters as much as the idea that it was seen as par for the course for a female musician. Here is her cover of the song, from her Chelsea Girls album:
If women faced uncomfortable or unwanted behavior, they essentially had two choices–quit or keep it to themselves. It’s not surprising, then, that in the days I spent searching for stories of sexual misconduct negatively impacting the careers of female musicians in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, I found few concrete examples. And of course, it’s not because it didn’t happen.
Jackie Fuchs went from being the bass player in a band that played sold-out shows to never playing music again in less than two years’ time. Fuchs joined the Runaways in 1975 when she was 15 and became Jackie Fox, one of band manager Kim Fowley’s jailbait rockers, along with fellow teens Joan Jett, Lita Ford, Sandy West, and Cherie Currie. In 1977, midway through a sold-out tour of Japan, Fuchs quit the band and music altogether.
In a 2015 Huffington Post article, Fuchs revealed that after a New Year’s Eve gig in 1975, she was drugged and raped by Fowley in a room full of people–including Joan Jett and Cherie Currie. According to the article, Fowley was known for his sexual prowess with young girls: “So many people in the industry knew what Fowley was like, what he was capable of. But he had just enough clout to convince the naïve and the desperate that he could make them stars. It was too risky to cross him.” Fuchs admits that she worried about the consequences of reporting the incident when it happened, from both Fowley and her fellow bandmates who already considered her an outsider.
“I didn’t know if anybody would have backed me,” she says. “I knew I would be treated horribly by the police—that I was going to be the one that ended up on trial more than Kim. I carried this sense of shame and of thinking it was somehow my fault for decades.”
Fuchs’ story was confirmed by Kari Krome, a songwriter who penned most of the Runaways’ songs and who was signed by Fowley when she was 14. Krome, along with members of the Runaways, often crashed at Fowley’s place, known as the “Dog Palace.” It was there that he first abused Krome, who abandoned her career in songwriting largely because “she couldn’t shake the idea that Fowley never believed in her talent, that he only wanted to sleep with her.” Today, Krome’s apartment is piled with lyrics she’s written over the past 40 years but never shown anyone.Until the day he died, Kim Fowley maintained that he never had sexual relations with any members of the Runaways. He remained respected by many in the music business, including Joan Jett. But the fact is that there are two women whose careers in music were cut short by his actions, not because they chose to speak out when it happened, but because they didn’t.
There are so many reasons why sexual assault never gets reported–victims may not be sure what constitutes misconduct, they feel humiliated (especially true when drugs and alcohol are involved, which they often are in the music biz), they may be blamed (aka “she was asking for it”), they worry they will be retaliated against (the vast majority of offenders walk free after being accused), or even accused of lying. Sadly, after Fuchs went public with her story, her bandmate Joan Jett denied witnessing the rape, casting doubt on the validity of Fuchs’ claims.
But there is a shift taking place, one that will hopefully change the landscape of the entertainment business forever. The past few years have seen women coming forward with accounts of sexual misconduct in the industry, largely at the hands of men who wield some sort of power over their careers. And not only are their claims being taken seriously but, thanks to social media, victims are being met with a wide net of support from fans and fellow musicians who no longer feel their stories need to remain hidden.
“All I ever wanted was to be able to make music without being afraid, scared, or abused,” Grammy-nominated singer Kesha wrote on Facebook in 2016, during the course of a lengthy legal battle with her producer. In 2014, she brought a civil lawsuit against producer Dr. Luke, who she worked with on her first two albums, in order to void the remainder of her contract with him and be allowed to record with other labels. The suit stated that the producer—whose real name is Lukasz Sebastian Gottwald and who is not a doctor of any kind—in order to maintain control over her career, “sexually, physically, verbally, and emotionally abused Ms. [Kesha] Sebert to the point where Ms. Sebert nearly lost her life.” Gottwald denied all charges, claiming the suit was the singer’s way of extorting him and the label, and the court dismissed Kesha’s request, saying it would undermine the state’s laws governing contracts.
Despite the outcome, the show of support from fans and fellow musicians like Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Adele, Fiona Apple, and Miley Cyrus, and the release of a universally acclaimed 2017 album, Rainbow, proves that speaking out against abuse didn’t derail the singer or her career.
Kesha sings about her newfound liberation on the album’s title track:
Last year, indie music publicist and founder of Life or Death PR & Management Heathcliff Berru was accused by numerous women in the industry of inappropriate behavior ranging from verbal and physical harassment to roofies and forced sexual acts. In January of 2016, Amber Coffman from the band Dirty Projectors recapped via Twitter an encounter with Berru during which he groped her at a bar, and other women in the industry including musicians and publicists quickly shared similar stories. Coffman’s label immediately dropped the PR firm, and Berru faced serious consequences as artists, including Kelela, Speedy Ortiz, and D’Angelo, did the same. He has stepped down as CEO of Life or Death. By speaking out, Coffman not only prevented other women from having to put up with Berru’s assaults but showed that there are other options for women beyond staying quiet or jeopardizing their careers.
Over the course of rock music’s history, there are pivotal moments that brought permanent change—Elvis recording at Sun Studios, Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival, the launch of MTV, etc. Perhaps in a future decade, we will be reminiscing about the unfair standards women faced in music, how they were seen as sexual objects first and musicians second, what they had to go through to make it in a male-dominated industry, and we will think back to the moment when all that finally changed.
If the momentum of the #metoo movement continues, that moment could be now.