IASPM-US/POP Conference Preview: Lindsay Bernhagen

by justindburton on March 11, 2012

In the coming weeks, we will be previewing several papers that will be read at the 2012 IASPM-US/POP Conference in New York. This preview is courtesy of Lindsay Bernhagen, whose paper “‘Everyone Here is a Little Weird’: Gender and Musical Intersubjectivity at the Girlz Rhythm ‘n’ Rock Camp” is scheduled for the Women’s Networks session, 4:00-6:00 on Saturday, March 24 in KC 405.

The video clip linked here was posted online this past August as part of the LA Times “Framework” series. The accompanying description promises a “whimsical look at girls getting their rock on” at one of the several dozen Girls’ Rock camps that have sprung up in the ten years since some Riot Grrrl veterans organized the inaugural camp in Portland. You’ll notice that, despite the filmmaker’s reference to “girls’ empowerment” and “self-esteem”- boosting goals of the camp, there are no girls’ voices heard for almost all of the roughly two minute video. Girl presence is visually and narratively confined to partial-body shots of campers posing for the camera and disembodied hands moving around guitar fret boards while an adult woman provides a hopeful voiceover proclaiming girls’ empowerment. The only girl voice we do get to hear comes in the form of a question at the very end of the video when one of the campers asks what she’s supposed to be doing when she’s told to make her “rock face.” In my presentation later this month, I will offer a critique of the “girls’ empowerment” discourse that pervades much “adult” understanding of the value of girls’ rock camps as it is by adult camp volunteers and organizers themselves, as well as in a great deal of girls’ studies scholarship. Then, I will draw from my own ethnographic work performed this summer at the Girlz Rhythm ‘n’ Rock Camp in central Ohio to offer, based on the girls’ articulations about their experiences with music and at camp, an alternative perspective that challenges the neo-liberal notions of individual agency that underlie “empowerment” discourses and foreclose richer understandings of musical experience. For now, I’ll only be sharing the first part of the paper as a preview. Interrogating Empowerment “Girl power” is likely a familiar notion to many, if not all, of you. Most of us remember the ubiquity of this phrase appearing on the glossy pages of magazines, in commercials, and emblazoned on neon pink, bedazzled t-shirts starting in the mid-1990s. The feminine adolescent who has grown up under the rubric of “girl power” is expected to be self-making, confident, and ambitious. She should be able to harness the tools granted to her by feminism, so that she can articulate meaningful, transformative resistance to gender hierarchies in the process of achieving for herself the life she desires. This is readily evident in the multiple outlets (both popular and scholarly) that celebrate the increased presence of girls’ voices in blogs, on television, in popular music culture, etc. This long-overdue interest in girls as active makers and consumers of culture stands as a much needed corrective to early studies of youth culture[1. E.g. Dick Hebdige’s Subculture (1979) and Paul Willis’s Learning to Labour (1981).] that only examined boys. Girls, who were not historically understood as actively participatory or significantly resistant, were presumed to absentmindedly consume whatever was set before them. “Girl power” ushered in forceful correctives to this pattern of omission, such as the advent of girls’ studies as an area of scholarly inquiry and a sudden onslaught of media interest in girls’ cultural practices. However, the effort to speak back to girls’ earlier marginalization in youth culture studies generally overemphasizes the transformative capabilities of girls’ voluntaristic responses to, appropriations of, and productions of popular culture with little attention paid to the ways in which girls’ subjectivities—the basis from which they can “speak” as subjects at all—are both produced and constrained by discourses of gender, race, class and sexuality. The belief system goes something like this: if girls participate in cultural production, then they can exercise control (agency) over which messages they receive and how they receive them. Therefore, girls must be “empowered” to participate through programs that build their self-esteem. Though I doubt any of the adults associated with the girls’ rock camps would use the phrase “girl power” without scare quotes or sarcasm—and, in fact, none of them did in the hours I spent talking with them—an investment in girls’ “empowerment” looms large in their interpretations of the fundamental value of the camps. Elizabeth Venable, who contributed an essay on girls-only space to the 2008 zine-style how-to manual on which many camps have relied in order to get started, Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls: How To Start a Band, Write Songs, Record an Album, and Rock Out!!, explicitly disavows “girl power” rhetoric when describing her first experience at rock camp. “I’d been a little wary going into that room,” she recalls, “not wanting to be put into that box that defines its contents as being ‘girl power.’ Girl, girl, girl! Go Girls!! For me, that can make it feel like I’m being surrounded by cheerleaders when what I need is a coach.”[2. Venable, 151.] But, the line between “girl power” and “girls’ empowerment” is a thin one. Let’s take, for example, Carrie Brownstein’s foreword to that same book. “Rock camp,” she explains,

isn’t music camp. The campers are not just learning technique as much as they are learning how to communicate in a way that they aren’t usually allowed to… When girls are allowed to let go and not be called crazy, or to yell without being called angry, then they learn that the world they live in is limitless—or at least that the possibilities are. Girls discover that they draw their own boundaries, that they can push those boundaries through art, that they can be heard… To reach the back of the room and beyond with a sound you create, that will change your world.[3. Brownstein, 9.]

Brownstein’s emphasis on the girls changing the way they constrain and bound themselves is typical of the ways other camp organizers speak about camp and reflects the central principles of “girl power”—a commitment to girls’ individual agency—all the same. Prior to spending a week at the Girlz’ Rhythm ‘n’ Rock Camp in Ohio where I sought to gain insight into how the girls themselves made sense of camp, I was able to interview three volunteers from other rock camps, each of which (like the camp I attended) belongs to a loose national network called the Girls Rock Camp Alliance. When I asked Alyx, who runs a women’s popular music history workshop at Girls Rock Austin, what she thought the main goal of camp was, she said she hoped girls would learn “that they can use their own voice and that their opinions are valid and what they think is valid, and that they are assertive and believe in themselves.” Kristen, who presents workshops with Alyx at the Austin camp, explained that the role of rock camp is, in essence, to give girls confidence in their own voices so that they can challenge systems of oppression. When asked about her goals, she stated:

I want them to have the confidence—even if it’s not in music—to go into other male-dominated areas and feel like, “Oh yeah, I can do this!”… I want them to recognize that… they can infiltrate and they can sort of take back some of the power, and their voice—whether it’s being recognized on stage or elsewhere—needs to be heard, and they need to be able to speak up.

Za, one of the counselors at the Girlz’ Rhythm and Rock Camp in Ohio where I did my fieldwork, stated,

[Camp is] more than just ‘music lessons.’[…] It’s an opportunity to be empowered as a young woman and to be exposed to a new way of thinking… With these girls, getting to meet… all these really powerful, strong women who have accomplished so much and continue to work so hard, they have an opportunity to view the world differently. They’re not going to grow up in the same box society would have women conform to, as a lot of other girls that don’t get to experience an opportunity like this, who get trapped into thinking ‘That’s all there is for me.’”

Her co-counselor Lexie followed, “I’ve told other people probably about 30% is doing music here, and 70% is relationship-building, trying to […] empower them in life, not just as young women, but also in life.” Each of these statements points toward the ubiquity of empowerment discourse as it relates to girlhood. Media coverage of the girls’ rock camps, of which there has been a fair amount, typically reflects this as well. In fact, a performance by the band from the nearby Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls is billed in our very own conference program as a showcase that “will bring to life, and sound out, the spirit of feminist music empowerment through arts educational activism.”  The story of girls’ empowerment is one we have bought into thoroughly, due in no small part to its all-American promise that individual fortitude is the key to a successful life. To my mind, there are three central, problematic assumptions that result from this sort of thinking. First, “empowerment” discourses reify neoliberal notions of agency by placing undue (and unfair) emphasis on girls’ individual capacity to effect social change to their own benefit. Consequently, girls’ individual shortcomings (rather than contextual constraints) are blamed if they fail to effect such change. Second (and relatedly), within “girl power” discourse, girls must speak from a position of “girlness,” thereby paradoxically reinforcing gender difference while also “overcoming” it. In fact, as girls’ studies scholar Marnina Gonick (2006) notes, “girl power” as a rubric for girls’ empowerment has gained popularity precisely because it fails to sufficiently threaten the ideologies of white, middle-class individualism and personal responsibility. My final critique, and the one on which I will be focusing for the remainder of my presentation at the conference, is particular to rock camp. If the adults are to be believed that the primary accomplishment of camp is “empowering” girls by giving them voice and confidence, then it would seem that the camps’ focus on music-making is purely incidental. This assumption, I believe, both minimizes the unique “music-ness” of music, and, in fact, is not reflected by the campers themselves who told me over and over that what they most value about camp isn’t feeling “empowered,” but the musical experiences they share with other girls. Lindsay Bernhagen is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Comparative Studies at The Ohio State University. Her dissertation, which gestures toward an expanded theory of musical subjectivity, explores the popularity of gendered musical contexts in terms of the shared musical experiences that are had therein.

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