Snail Mail at SXSW 2017. Photo by Lindsey Rhoades
I didn’t even have to break out my “The Future is Female” t-shirt to sound the alarm; at South by Southwest last week, the message was loud and clear. In a whirlwind five days, I saw dozens of acts – mostly emerging or signed to small labels – and only three of those bands did not have women on stage. I didn’t even have to try to make this happen. I made, as I always do, a must-see list, hoping to catch some new-to-me projects at showcases along the way, and in both cases, the most compelling artists at this year’s SXSW were women.
Now, it’s 2017 and women playing music shouldn’t inspire an epiphany. It’s a wonder then, that at this year’s Coachella, only 25 percent of the performers are women or prominently feature a female player. After facing criticism for gender-biased exclusion in years past, GoldenVoice (the company that books Coachella and its NYC sister fest, Panorama) killed two diversity birds with one stone by booking Beyoncé, the fest’s first black female headliner (and its first female headliner in ten years – Björk was last to hold that honor, in 2007). When Bey dropped off the bill shortly after announcing her pregnancy with twins, Lady Gaga was named as a replacement. This year’s Governors Ball doesn’t fare much better, with all-male groups, male DJs, and male rappers outnumbering women performers and groups that have, say, one woman in a band of five (like the Strumbellas or The Head and the Heart) by a shocking margin of ten to one. Lorde is closest to a headlining spot (followed by Beach House and Phantogram, both male-female duos) but she only gets second billing Friday night. Most of the women are relegated to earlier daytime slots, which begs the question – why can’t more of these slots be filled with ladies?
SXSW is pretty different than either of the above-mentioned fests. It’s really just a series of shows held in venues all over Austin, and SXSW-goers can certainly pick and choose what they want to see from a much wider array of artists. But music industry honchos – reps from labels, booking and PR agencies, and, of course, journalists – make up the bulk of the crowds. This year’s buzzy performances could populate the stages of tomorrow’s blockbuster festivals, even if they don’t yet have a big enough draw. That’s what’s exciting about the chaos. It provides a peek at who’s flying under the radar but poised to reach greater heights.
And this year, women ruled. Likely the biggest name of the bunch, the line to see Solange’s headlining slot at the dazzling YouTube house showcase wrapped around the block. Lizzo and Noname, two lady rappers with critically acclaimed albums out last year, routinely packed shows all week, and bring an energy to the stage that could easily translate to large festivals. Sylvan Esso, a male-female duo who toured festival circuits a few years ago on the strength of their 2014 debut, were on hand at SXSW to play new material to dense crowds as well. Any of these acts could’ve easily populated lineups this year.
Meanwhile, there are more than a few names that are likely to crop up when it comes time to book Coachella and Gov Ball for 2018. Hurray for the Riff Raff’s alt-country, pro-immigrant vibes won tons of hearts. Melina Duterte’s solo project, Jay Som, has evolved into an arresting full-band indie rock onslaught with the release of her excellent LP Everybody Works, which came out the week before SXSW. Her former tourmate Michelle Zauner, who founded Japanese Breakfast, played some gorgeously shoegazey sets (during the one I saw, she did an excellent cover of The Cranberries classic “Dreams”), and will get a big signal boost opening for a run of Slowdive’s upcoming North American performances. She’s not to be confused with The Japanese House, an electronic trio from England led by Amber Bain who may just be heirs to the xx throne. Similarly, Sneaks, Tei Shi, and Anna Meredith all brought unique blends of unclassifiable, off-kilter pop to SXSW’s many showcases.
There were a whole bevvy of astounding punk, grunge and garage acts, too. Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis brought her Sad13 solo project up to full-band speed with killer all-woman backup. Baltimore babies Snail Mail delivered vintage teen angst, former Swearin’ singer Allison Crutchfield and her new ensemble the Fizz, New Paltz newbies Diet Cig made a ruckus with little more than a drum kit and guitar, Cherry Glazerr veered into delirious heavy metal, and at the She Shreds showcase, Jillian Medford of Ian Sweet triumphantly announced she’d gotten her period before a raucous set – no one batted an eye. Meanwhile, Pill, Downtown Boys, and Priests, three of the most important acts currently touring, didn’t shy away from political messages and protests, either in their songs or in between them. It’s easy to imagine any one of these rockers tearing up an afternoon stage at Governors Ball, once bookers get the hint.
By contrast, of those three man-bands (which sounds as ridiculous as it should when someone refers to bands featuring women as “girl bands”) I saw, two of them bored me to tears: Floridian punks Merchandise haven’t managed to really grab my attention the way they did with thir 2012 EP Children of Desire, even though I still keep giving them a shot. And Spiral Stairs, the revived indie rock project of Pavement’s Scott Kannberg, felt like a slog rather than a celebration of their upcoming record Doris and the Daggers, their first in nine years. I would’ve rather seen a band that was actually called Doris and the Daggers, because they probably would’ve played with much more conviction. I won’t keep my fingers crossed that they’ll get a headlining slot on a big fest any time soon, but there are plenty of real, live, female-fronted bands that certainly deserve a shot, and if this year’s South by Southwest is any indication, their day could be coming soon.