Rebel Girls: At Girls Rock! DC, Punk Starts at Preteen
Jenn Fox-Thomas can already envision it: a private space where girls and women from all over D.C. can gather to learn to play instruments and practice with their bands. The walls would be covered with photos of powerful female musicians like Rosetta Tharpe and Ma Rainey. And after hours, they’d rent out the room to any local band looking for a spot to practice.
The yet-to-be-created spot would be managed by Girls Rock! DC—a summer camp founded eight years ago that teaches local girls to play instruments, start a band, and get rock show-ready in less than a week’s time.
“There’s a boy band and they’re looking for a place to practice,” says Fox-Thomas, elaborating on her vision. “And the place that they find to practice is Girls Rock. They walk in and there are posters of women musicians every-fucking-where and the first thought in their heads should be, ‘Why is there not a girl in our band?’” The veteran D.C. musician, one of the founders of Girls Rock! DC, an independent member of a national alliance of camps, recalls times when she’d be carrying her drum set on tour in the ’80s and ’90s and onlookers would say, “Oh that’s so cool, you’re helping your boyfriend.”
To Fox-Thomas, who now works as a high school teacher, part of Girls Rock’s mission is to show girls that their roles in the traditionally male-dominated rock scene aren’t confined to those of a lead singer who’s expected to “shake her booty” on stage. “Why is it that women are always lead vocalists—up front...body-conscious, and it’s all kind of this natural-versus-built skills?” Fox-Thomas asks, referring to the perception that playing instruments is a more technical, learned skill than singing. “We want to change that.”
As far as punk scenes go, D.C.’s has historically been friendlier to female musicians than most, going back to bands like Chalk Circle and Fire Party. The District is often credited as a cradle of the riot grrrl movement, and Black Cat owner and local punk veteran Dante Ferrando, who’s sent his 10-year-old daughter to Girls Rock camp for the past three years, says it’s not hard to find a solid lineup of gender-mixed bands for the venue. Two of D.C.’s most buzzed-about bands of the moment, Ex Hex and Priests, include female musicians. (Ex Hex is an all-woman band.) Both groups have played benefit concerts for Girls Rock! DC, too.
To get a picture of the female power players in the local rock scene, the roster of Girls Rock! DC volunteers is a good place to start—many of them play in local bands, and others have close connections with venues like the Black Cat and 9:30 Club. The camp has transformed into a large networking platform for local musicians. Ferrando says some years, when the Girls Rock session rolls around, he’s one of the only people left working in the Black Cat office after most of his female staff empties out to volunteer at the weeklong camp.
But even in D.C.—where several of the city’s indie-rock venues and the Fort Reno concert series are booked by women—underground rock music remains a mostly male pursuit. A quick scan of the local bills at Rock & Roll Hotel, DC9, Fort Reno, the many DIY spaces, and even the Black Cat will confirm that.
So how do you convince the next generation of D.C. girls to play three-chord punk—or whatever else they want to play? In the Girls Rock! D.C. camper application, they’re asked to select whether they want to play electric guitar, bass, drums, or keyboard, or be a DJ or vocalist. Just as Fox-Thomas predicted, more than half of this year’s 62 campers selected vocals as their first choice.
This summer, Girls Rock! D.C. temporarily transformed the halls of E.L. Haynes Public Charter School into the female rock oasis that Fox-Thomas imagined. The first of two week-long sessions kicked off last Monday, in a classroom plastered with posters of musicians like Tori Amos, Grace Jones, and Lady Gaga.
In this room each day, at the very un-rock-’n’-roll hour of 9 a.m., the girls created organized noise so loud that half the campers opted to wear earplugs. The counselors led the campers in “metal yoga”—traditional, calming yoga exercises interrupted by sporadic head-banging. Then, the campers stood in a circle, held hands, and took turns screaming as loud as they wanted. By the end of the week, the high-pitched screams were louder, longer, and even more ear-splittingly high-pitched.
And that’s kind of the point. The organizers say Girls Rock is as much about creating a space where girls feel confident and comfortable taking risks as it is about music. They want the campers to know that being a girl in 2014 means they can act outside of gender norms, dance as ungracefully as they want, and wear whatever they choose. The punk-looking counselors, sporting jorts, tattoos, and numerous variations of the Skrillex side-shave, set an unequivocal example. One of the camp’s founders, Annie Lipsitz, donning a cyclist’s hat with the word MACHO printed under the brim, asked the girls what it meant to respect one another’s differences.
“Don’t yuck someone’s yum,” one of them answered.
The girls also received lessons they wouldn’t find in any standard middle school classroom. One day, Fox-Thomas gave a quick exposition on how gender works on a spectrum, explaining not everyone identifies as completely female or completely male. The organizers don’t typically refer to the camp as one for girls, but rather as a rock camp for those who identify as female.
But the camp also uses music—loud, high-school garage-style rock music—to teach these feminist lessons in a more oblique way. After morning assembly, the campers break into small groups to practice keeping a beat on the drums, ripping solos on guitars, and singing a cappella. The latter group, unsurprisingly, repeatedly serenaded their peers with Frozen’s “Let It Go.” But once the group chanted shy, 11-year-old camper Charli’s name to get her to take a turn, she busted out a rendition of the Animals’ “The House of the Rising Sun” that brought her classmates to their feet.
“The first time I came, my voice was all nervous,” says Charli, who names Nina Simone as her favorite singer, “but now I think I can do it.”
The camp brings in a musical act to perform for the girls each day. A 17-year-old alumna of the camp sang at lunch on Monday, and on Tuesday, camp volunteer Katie Park played with her punk group, Hemlines, in its very first show. Some established names in D.C. music have played during camp hours, too, like D.C.’s only all-woman go-go band, Be’La Dona, and Coup Sauvage and the Snips (Crystal White, one of the members of the band, sits on the Girls Rock! DC leadership team). Last Friday, Chilean musician Ana Tijoux played at Girls Rock while she was in town for a gig at U Street Music Hall.
The idea of an instructor teaching a genre of music that sprung from rebellion and, in its purest form, still retains a DIY, anti-authoritarian impulse, may seem ironic. But aspiring rockers are far more likely to pick up an instrument and start a band from thin air if they can learn from role models, which, for young white men, are in no short supply. For young women—especially young women of color, who made up the majority of this year’s camp roster—most music stars who look like them aren’t playing instruments in rock bands. “Girls don’t necessarily get the same exposure to rock music and what it means to play in bands as their [male] counterparts,” says Nikki Smith, founder of Ladies Rock This, an online D.C. network and concert promotion organization. At Girls Rock, campers get schooled on basic music skills, yes, but the exercises in defying stereotypes and building a badass self-image may do more to get these girls on tomorrow’s indie venue stage than any music theory lecture.
The camp doesn’t exactly employ traditional top-down lessons, either. The girls come up with a band name, write their own lyrics, and practice to perform their original song at a showcase at the end of the week. At last Saturday’s show, songs covered the well-worn childhood topics of ice cream, candy, and wanting to be a celebrity.
But it was about as far from a kid-rock show as the Ramones are to Raffi. “We can’t just sing about ice cream,” Dani, the guitarist for the Crazy Rocking Uncontrollables, insisted to her bandmates at their Tuesday practice. “We need to make it sound like rock ’n’ roll.”
Girls Rock! DC works to attract girls from all corners of D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, according to Lipsitz. The camp costs $550 for a weeklong session, and this summer, nearly 75 percent of campers received some sort of financial aid, amounting to more than $20,000 in scholarships. The camp raises part of that money through year-round benefit concerts that feature all-female local bands. This fall, Girls Rock plans to host an adult Lady Rock camp that, in a scene straight out of Portlandia, will have grown women go through many of the same rock-learning, confidence-building exercises in a single long weekend.
The adults will pay tuition, which will help fund Girls Rock’s burgeoning programming. This summer marks the first season that camp’s hosted two separate sessions: one for 8- to 13-year-olds and another for 13- to 18-year-olds. (The older girls’ camp is currently in session.) Girls Rock launched an after-school initiative for girls at Sousa Middle School in Fort Dupont last semester and plans to continue the program at another local school this fall. The after-school programs work like the camp, with students paying tuition if their families can afford it, while others receive financial aid.
Girls Rock is also working to realize Fox-Thomas’ vision for the organization: to find a permanent spot that Girls Rock! DC can call home for its after-school and summer programs. The leadership team is looking along the Kennedy Street NW retail strip and plans to offset overhead costs by renting the space out to local bands looking for practice space, which is in high demand.
At last Saturday’s Black Cat showcase, the crowd was an enthusiastic intersection of campers’ families and Black Cat scenesters. Each week-old band played its songs, with every member taking a brief solo. All the bands—the Electrified Techno Unicorns in an Elevator, Sea Scorch, Rhythmic Travelers, and the others—performed on a professionally lit stage with the Black Cat’s engineers working the sound.
Not every kid up there was the next Patti Smith, but each girl dressed and played the part of her newly discovered image of a rockstar, with the audience eating up every earnest word of it.
“I’m so cray cray for candy,” the Zombie Apocalypsticks sang.
And the audience repeated: “So cray cray, so cray cray!”
The second Girls Rock! DC camper showcase is on Saturday, July 19 at 11 a.m. at the 9:30 Club. 815 V St. NW. $15. (202) 265-0930. 930.com
Photos by Darrow Montgomery