“Girls Can’t Play Guitar”: On Musical Gatekeeping

I watched an excellent mini-documentary on the New York Times website about The Liverbirds. They were essentially the female version of the Beatles: a four-piece group that came up in Liverpool in the 1960s. The documentary featured interviews with the two surviving members of the band.

One of them shared an anecdote that really stuck with me. They were at a club and met the Beatles. John Lennon scoffed and said, “Girls can’t play guitars.”

Obviously this is musical gatekeeping. And it extends beyond the players themselves into the audience. My blog attempts to get to the heart of the music and why we react a certain way to it. So with that in mind, if we go beyond the sexism and flame wars, what is it about the music itself that reads as masculine?

Well, let’s look at what bands seem to be the most common victims of gatekeeping. I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but in my experience it’s the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. Led Zeppelin’s masculinity is very obvious: Bonzo’s heavy, hard-hitting drum beats; the thick wails of Jimmy Page’s guitar. The Beatles are a much more curious case given their original rise as a boy band writing pop hits like “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The argument here seems to be that it’s their later work that we should take more seriously, such as the experimentation found in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Maybe it’s simply that sense of ownership: I listened to this music because my dad introduced it to me, but he listened to it with his friends, who listened to it with their friends. All these men would eventually grow up to become the reviewers from Rolling Stone and Pitchfork, those hallowed canons of music history and criticism.

I would recommend The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic by Jessica Hopper as a starting place to break beyond that gate. As Hopper writes, “Us girls deserve more than one song. We deserve more than one pledge of solidarity. We deserve better songs than any boy will ever write about us.”

Music should be a connector, rather than something to sever and divide based on who you are. So put on your headphones and get swept away in those rocking beats. You deserve to be part of the audience, too.

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