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Bands Rock the Status Quo for Young Women

January 28, 1994|DEBORAH SULLIVAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Shermayne Brown's eyes brightened and her voice rose as she described the moment at an L.A. rock club two years ago that changed her life.

During a set by the all-women group Addicted, Shermayne watched intently as the guitarist blasted forth sound and emotion.

"In the middle of the song she started screaming 'woman power.' It was really, really empowering to me," recalled Shermayne, 16 and a junior at Los Angeles High School. "I went home that night and I couldn't sleep. I just felt really good, really high, like it was a great thing to be a girl."

With her blue smock dress, pigtails and black-rimmed glasses, Shermayne looks more like a storybook schoolgirl than an aspiring rocker, but she is one of many young women who have drawn inspiration from a generation of all-women bands and solo artists who have stormed the male bastion of rock 'n' roll like never before.

These women say acts such as Liz Phair, L7, Bikini Kill, Hole and 7 Year Bitch, through their unabashedly feminist lyrics and no-holds-barred musicianship, have motivated them not just to pick up a guitar, but to pursue a variety of personal and political interests.

"To learn anything you have to be encouraged. And to play a guitar or a bass or a set of drums and play in a rock band isn't a girl thing," said 16-year-old Katie O'Brien, a freshman at Pierce College and a friend of Shermayne. "It's supposedly a teen-age guy, Beavis and Butt-head-type thing, where you've got the boys doing air guitar, doing fake drums and screaming, and the girls are supposed to be groupies.

"Now we have women who are finally coming out saying, 'We're just as good as they are. . . . In fact, we can play better than most of them because we have had to work so much harder.' "

Some young women say these groups inspire them to excel in other fields, too.

"I love playing that music when I go out snowboarding or when I'm skating," said Cara-Beth Burnside, 25, a professional snowboarder and competitive ramp skater, and a devoted fan of the L.A. band L7. "It makes me really hyper. 'Cause when you go out in these sports, you want to be like, really crazy. (The music) gets your adrenaline pumping."

She also identifies with the struggles these groups have faced to get respect for their work. Although she said most male rivals welcome her at competitions, in her early days she felt intense pressure to prove she could hold her own.

"It's kind of that way for women in hard-core sports like snowboarding, where it's really more male-dominated. It's harder for women to get recognition and to get out there," Burnside said. "They say that about their music. How it's hard to get taken seriously as a woman. To get recognition you have to be really out there, just busting out."

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While rock has long been a lifeline out of the frustrations of youth, there are specific problems young women face--from negative body image to sexual assault--that male rock anthems ignore or even glorify. But many women rockers use their music to turn that around.

"I think most of the time when you think of a woman in a band, you think of something very pretty and dainty. And not all women are pretty or dainty," Katie said.

"It's a Barbie syndrome. You grow up looking at rock stars and Barbies, who are so perfect, they've had everything on them tucked and sucked, and increased or decreased. And I think a lot of the thing with the girl bands is that they aren't all sex objects. They don't wear tons of makeup. They're done as 'We're here, this is our music, we've got lyrics.' "

"We're normal people and we're real women," Shermayne added.

Even the darkest side of womanhood is brought to light in this music.

Debbie Patino, singer of the L.A. band Holy Water, said songs about sexual violence lift the shadowy stigma from the experience: "It brings it out in the open and says 'It's OK, we're all here together, no one's going to do it anymore.' It's a barrier."

Patino and other musicians organize and play concerts to benefit causes from abortion rights to Bosnian rape victims, street kids to voter registration. Following the groups' examples, many of their young fans become involved as well.

"My friend and I were listening to Tori Amos, and one song she sings is about rape," said Christie Mosebar, 22, as she distributed literature for Rock the Vote at a December benefit at the Palace in Hollywood. "It got (us) interested in voting and seeing if we could change something."

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Some musicians who have already made it believe that it is their responsibility to pave the way for younger women. Chicago newcomer Liz Phair, who wowed critics with her debut album "Exile in Guyville," a razor-sharp, distinctly feminist response to the Rolling Stones' classic "Exile on Main Street," said that's part of why she ventured into music in the first place.

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