Alanna McArdle Talks Being “Just the Singer”

The former Joanna Gruesome lead singer on being treated like an ornament instead of a musician.

“So, you’re the singer right?”

I could never put my finger on why I found this question so grating when, in most of the bands I’ve been in, it was undeniably the role I occupied. I was the singer; I am a singer. Singing is something I’ve always done and always been good at. I also happen to play guitar and bass — but somehow I am always being told I am “just” a singer.

It would be impossible for me to count how many times I’ve been asked the “singer question.” Even when I lined up with the other members of Joanna Gruesome to collect our visas for an upcoming tour, the Customs agent at the U.S. embassy winked and said, “Let me guess: you’re the singer.” It confused and frustrated me that every time I answered, it would be with a sincere and nagging regret — a sudden sense of utter deflation. I was begrudgingly accepting, fulfilling, and (I was convinced) perpetuating my role as a woman in music with every acknowledgement of what should have just been a simple truth. But why, amongst a group of four men, was it a given that I’m the singer? Why is it that almost every woman in a band has been seen at one time or another as a groupie, or just “helping the guys load in” if she carries a guitar, or only just learning her instrument, or ever-so-endearingly having a go at making her equipment work? Why do women have to work so much harder: why does it always feel like I’m trying to pass a test to prove that I deserve to call myself a musician?

The objectification and belittling that women in bands suffer at the hands of male critics, peers and audiences is inescapable, regardless of whether they’re actually playing an instrument or not. In fact, the scrutiny that, say, female guitarists are put under is vastly more intense than what female singers are subject to. But the sudden silence and acceptance that follows “Oh yeah, of course, you’re the singer” might be an even worse feeling. It hurts to be confronted with that smirking confirmation that I, a woman, a feminist, am doing exactly what the men want me to do. I’m staying out of their lane, making room for their genius while I am transformed by the male gaze of the music industry into the backhanded compliment of a centrepiece.

I’ve never listened to Crystal Castles. But while mindlessly scrolling through Twitter, I decided to click on a news story that caught my eye.  I didn’t expect to have the visceral gut reaction that followed. My preoccupation with the idea that if I’m not holding an instrument, then I’m a mere ornament onstage; the constant fear that I am not seen as an important contributor to the musicality of whichever band I’m “just the singer” in — these things were staring me in the face in the form of Crystal Castles member Ethan Kath deriding the band’s former singer, Alice Glass. Alongside a newly released song, he wrote (and subsequently deleted):

“i wish my former vocalist the best of luck in her future endeavors. i think it can be empowering for her to be in charge of her own project. it should be rewarding for her considering she didn’t appear on Crystal Castles’ best known songs.”

In all facets of life, there is a tendency not to believe women. Historically, our creativity has been stifled, and that’s purely because it is a threat to male creativity and success. That threat is very clearly evidenced in Kath’s statement and the tone it screams: bitterness and fear.

As discussed in the writings of Virginia Woolf and bell hooks, among many others, denying women a right to our own talents and artistry is a learned, centuries-old practice. Art — divided by the racist, capitalist patriarchy into highbrow and low — has white men inevitably filling up the space in the former category, while women are relegated to the latter. Even if a woman’s talent surpasses that of her male peers, its manifestation will necessarily be presented as “craft” over art. Supposedly frivolous and incapable of serious thought, women were never allowed to partake in high art. Men can slip comfortably and unquestioned into the role of “artist,” while the onus on women to be the absolute masters of our craft actually necessitates greater resilience and persistence in us. The artistic endeavours of men are fostered and encouraged, while women, often discouraged from the same endeavours, are forced to teach ourselves. No wonder so many men, clueless to the historical prejudice and oppression of women in art (and everywhere else, for that matter), justify the lack of visibility of women artists and musicians by saying, “There just aren’t that many,” without giving a second thought as to why that might be, or appear to be.

Applying these historical notions that are still alive and well today, women musicians who have more often than not been the sole nurturers of our instrumental ability are still seen as hobbyists, dabbling in craft rather than living in their art. So, as women musicians are not taken as seriously as men, female singers are in their rightful place as “non-musicians,” and thus stripped of any musical autonomy. The assumption is that we should only serve as the physical embodiment of the music, not musical contributors ourselves.

I know what it’s like to be the girl with the guitar who’s getting weird looks from the soundguy. It’s exhausting, and you need a thick skin to deal with it. It always felt particularly cheek-reddeningly embarrassing because I’ve never been that technically proficient at the guitar. Each flubbed note in my soundcheck or honest question about the backline was another opportunity to tick boxes on the “female musician stereotype” list. It didn’t seem to matter that the guy bands I’d play with were almost always just as bad as me at their instruments. They passed the test the moment they started playing.

The memory of waiting around to soundcheck, clutching my guitar to my legs and being ignored by the all-male band next to me (whose short-lived buzz was due to little more than the bassist being the son of a former member of the Clash, and whose set that night lasted all of five minutes before they had a fight on stage and stormed off) as they discussed an emerging “female-fronted” band is fresh in my mind. While the lead singer and guitarist of said female-fronted band was “not that good at guitar,” they said that watching her play was “cute for a while, but it just gets boring.” I soundchecked through gritted teeth. During my set later that evening, a friend of mine heard one of them turn to his band mate and say, “She’s actually quite good.” Actually.

At another show I played not long afterwards, as I adjusted the levels on my fuzz pedal, I was subject to a sound guy explaining to me what feedback is. When I was scheduled to go onstage, he patted me on the head. “Let’s go, blondie,” he said, stroking my bleached hair.

I always thought that as a singer, the thing I always knew I was good at, I wouldn’t be under this rigorous scrutiny and condescension. In fact, it became even more patronising the deeper into the music industry I went. I never wanted to be seen as a mere symbol, but between audiences, reviews and my own draining self-esteem, it started becoming an even harder battle to fight than before. I’ve seen reviews attributing my lyrics to other band members. In interviews, questions revolving around songwriting were not aimed at me, despite the effort I put into every lyric I write. The focus on me as a frontwoman is manifested as a critique of my onstage outfits, denying my artistry only to expect me to bear the weight of constant analysis of my appearance. “At least she’s pretty,” read one comment under a live video of Joanna Gruesome. And what about when I’m not pretty? I am the subject of 4chan message boards in which men discuss how they’ll rape me, sharing photos they find on my personal Facebook page and criticising (a polite way to put it) my face and body.

So what is the perceived role of a frontwoman? In Ethan Kath’s opinion, it is of an image, a decoration, and ultimately a scapegoat. While male band members can get away with an assumption of sole artistry, women such as Alice Glass are time and again pressed to prove that we deserve any artistic credit. Kath brazenly denied Glass’ role as a real contributor in the band. Again, she was “just a singer.” This audacious stripping of Glass’ musical validity is bad enough as it is; denying a woman a right to her talent is just another insidious form of oppression.

This incident comes at a time where authenticity is being fervently discussed in relation to gender and women across genres are reclaiming ownership of themselves and their art. Yet, an entire genre that dips into feminine appropriation as an aesthetic consideration has emerged. The contrast of men creating hyper-pop music and presenting it through a stylised Barbie-esque persona (while dodging any real discussion of these gendered implications by claiming their creation is “genderless”) seemingly just because they can, and the lead singer of a very successful band being tarnished by the words of her former partner as essentially disposable, is bleak.

This is not to discredit the absolute wealth of empowered, empowering and strong frontwomen that are garnering well-deserved praise and popularity today. Mish Way of White Lung is very vocal about how she views herself in music, gloriously stating: “I never wanted to want to be the best female frontperson, I just wanted to be the best.” Downtown Boys’ Victoria Ruiz refuses to accept lazy journalism that dismisses her Spanish lyrics, diminishing her artistic effort and ability. Amazing female artists have been around since the beginning of time. Unfortunately, it seems that the men around them are still too scared to admit it, or they’re too busy taking credit for these women’s genius. Just look at Sister Rosetta Tharpe, for example.

Alice Glass defiantly came back at Ethan Kath’s statement in a series of tweets:

“for the record, i wrote almost all of the lyrics in my former band and the vast majority of the vocal melodies…manipulative statements about my contributions to the band only reinforce the decision I made to move on to other things”

Kath’s previous statement, snidely granting her “empowerment” as though she needed his permission to do so, is defiantly reclaimed by Glass. I believe Alice Glass with all my heart. Unfortunately for Kath, whether someone is a writer or performer on a song is not a matter of opinion but — once you start releasing music — a legally required fact. While several Crystal Castles songs are instrumentals or based around sampled and manipulated vocals, especially on their first album, Crystal Castles (2008), Alice Glass is listed as either a performer or a songwriter on every Crystal Castles album, and on several of the songs he claimed she had no contribution to. But I shouldn’t have to prove that to you. You should just believe her.

Alanna McArdle used to sing in Joanna Gruesome. You can follow her Twitter here, and follow her Tumblr here.