October 2008

Eryn Loeb

Girl, Interrupting

Boot Camp for Girls

Two very similar books came out back in June, both offering inspiration to girls who want to learn how to play music and start bands (though not necessarily in that order). Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls: How to Start a Band, Write Songs, Record an Album, and Rock Out! is, as its title suggests, basically the much-admired girls rock camp between two covers, and boasts an enthusiastic foreword by Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein. The book’s aesthetic is solidly 1990s riot grrrl; it’s put together like a well-polished zine, with articles by a variety of contributors (including Sarah Dougher, Mirah, Beth Ditto, and Kaia Wilson). Girls Rock: How to Get Your Group Together and Make Some Noise, by Northern State's Robyn Goodmark (better known as Sprout), is slicker, its pages a semi-gloss contrast to the grittier style of Rock n’ Roll Camp; further cred comes by way of a foreword by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon.

With line drawings of mix tapes and mic stands, and high contrast black and white photos, Rock n’ Roll Camp could be a novelty sell at Urban Outfitters, marketed as a coffee table book for the hipster set as easily as a manual for young girls. Goodmark's brightly colored book (with illustrations by Adrienne Yan) could be sold at the mall, a subversively girly accessory alongside hot pink leggings and sparkly hair clips.

I don't mean this as a bad thing. Both books exist to give girls permission to start a band based only on their desire, regardless of skill. They take girls through the process from the very beginning, before they’re sure what kind of music they want to play, or even how to play it in the first place. Both have lengthy glossaries that define everything from “1/4-inch cable” to “merch” to “rhythm” (Rock n’ Roll Camp’s glossary is particularly comprehensive, and their resource section includes some charts of basic chords). Girls Rock presumes readers won’t wonder why the bands they’re urged to start will be made up of all girls -- it’s obviously what they’re hungry for. Meanwhile, in Rock n’ Roll Camp, Elizabeth Venable contributes a short essay called “Why Girls-Only Space is Important.” In neither book is there even a suggestion that readers’ eventual bands might include boys.

Rock n’ Roll Camp is determined to get the next generation to pay some dues to rock foremothers, so it prefaces the how-to sections with some history lessons. There’s background on the camp itself, which reads sort of like a grant application -- “Without the self-esteem and life skills components, the Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls would be just another music camp” -- along with more casual backgrounders on Janis Martin, The Shirelles, and The Runaways, interspersed with bulleted questions for pondering or discussion, like “Do you think Janis Martin rebelled against stereotypes of being a girl?” and “What bands do you know who sing about what is wrong with the world? How do they express it? Do you think they get it right?”

After leading its young charges through lessons on writing songs, playing various instruments, recording, and band promotion, Rock n’ Roll Camp closes with instructional sections on self-defense and punk rock aerobics (because “pursuing physical well-being can be as cool as mastering that sick guitar-tapping lick”), both staples of rock camp since its 2001 founding in Portland. Both it and Girls Rock insist that fun and freedom are the most important parts of playing music, but Rock n’ Roll Camp has a more explicitly political -- verging on moral -- drive that, while justified, can seem a little heavy-handed for kids.

Goodmark's book seems geared to an even younger audience (“Talk to your parents and get their permission before approaching other girls,” she writes. “That way you can avoid any embarrassment if your folks veto the idea later. And always get their permission before posting anything online!”). It’s also more focused on step-by-step how-to’s: interviewing potential band members, deciding on a band name, learning how to play, setting up a sound system, booking a show. Rock n’ Roll Camp gets into those areas too, but Goodmark doesn't spend time on prerequisites, or spell out a philosophy much beyond “more of us girls have to get out there and represent ourselves in the way we want the world to see us.” She does offer practical exercises and checklists (interview questions for potential band members, a quiz to determine “Which Role Is Right For You?”, a budgeting spreadsheet), making hers more of a book to work through methodically.

There’s no punk rock aerobics, but in a short section titled “Get In Shape,” Goodmark opines, “One important way to get ready for a performance is to be well rested and in good health, so you can feel your best onstage… Personally, I find that eating a meal high in carbohydrates and sugar does not provide long-term sustained energy.” A few pages later, though, comes perhaps the book’s biggest gaffe: a compiled list of “My Most Embarrassing Moments Onstage” that would be anathema to Rock n’ Roll Camp, and more at home in the pages of CosmoGirl!

The point, though, is that girls who subscribe to that magazine can feel as comfortable benefiting from Goodmark’s advice as young Bitch subscribers will from Rock n’ Roll Camp. Ultimately, their goal is the same, and some clever marketing strategies can get both of them in more hands. (And it’s not like they’re starting from wildly different points of view: Goodmark is a proud supporter of the real life Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls, and lists them in her book’s resource section.)

Juliana Hatfield sure could've used either book in the late 1980s, when she was slouching around Boston’s Berklee College of Music, wondering how to fulfill her own dream of starting a band. Hatfield's experience, which she recounts in her new memoir, When I Grow Up, is basically textbook validation for Rock n’ Roll Camp’s emphasis on self-esteem building -- she was insecure and suffered from crippling shyness (“I felt like a mouse. Quiet, tiny. Even my voice was small, thin, weak… I felt separate from everyone else, like an oddball”), couldn’t figure out how to start a band when she didn't know anyone (“My future bandmates and I needed to bump into one another and lock eyes in mutual connection and understanding; we needed to just happen upon one another”), and all her rock role models were dudes (“I guess I assumed that all my bandmates would be men, because all of my instrument-playing role models were men”).

When I Grow Up is a strange book. Hatfield alternates between a diary of touring cross-country with her band Some Girls in 2003, and other memories of being almost famous, from the early '90s through today. Some anecdotes will be gratifying for fans and alt-rock nostalgists, but Hatfield renders them so plainly that nothing really sticks. Without explanation, she skips over what are clearly important expanses of time. One moment she's ecstatic about joining her first band, The Blake Babies, and the next they've broken up and Hatfield’s first solo album is getting lots of attention. When this abrupt transition appeared on page 52, I was at a loss to imagine what the content of the rest of the book (which tops out at 330 pages) could possibly be.

Turns out it’s mostly a dry report of disappointment. It’s unlikely that anyone who’s not already a fan of Juliana Hatfield will be reading her over-long memoir, but even her admirers won’t be rewarded for slogging through it. The book doesn’t tell us much we didn’t know or couldn’t have guessed, the writing is pretty perfunctory, and the most revelatory thing about it is the profound self-pity on display.

Hatfield insists that music is her life, but as she describes what that life feels like, it’s hard to believe she gets any satisfaction from it. She can trace her career through shitty hotel rooms, shitty clubs, creepy audience members, tiny dressing rooms, and very little money, and it’s been a long time since she was seduced by any of it. She’s uncomfortable at nearly every show she plays, and describes feeling like she's holding back, disappointing her audience. “It took me a whole decades-spanning career in music to realize that maybe I wasn’t really cut out for the job of a rock star,” she writes, but there’s no relief in it.

The book itself is actually patterned sort of like a (very long) song, with repeated refrains of “I wanted so much for my music -- for my voice, and my words, and my feelings -- to be heard, because I had been so desperately shy and so hidden and so mute and ineffectual in my personal relations for so long,” and “I kept putting myself out there, hoping someone would enlighten me as to why I kept doing it when I felt I was not very good at it. Maybe someone would understand what it was I was trying to do, when I didn’t even understand myself.”

It's a little alarming, actually, like a classic cry for help (Hatfield doesn't actually cop to her depression and anorexia until the book is nearly over, at which point the only reasonable response is, duh). Here she is in the mid-'90s promoting her album Only Everything, right before canceling her European tour and going on anti-depressants:

Every night I got up in front of a room packed full of enthusiastic, clapping, cheering college kids, not knowing how I would summon the energy to get through the show when, because of my diseased state of mind, I had no faith in what I was doing anymore… All of a sudden my music felt hollow and worthless. I was singing without any love or conviction.

And then in 2003, touring with Some Girls:

I am the cold gray ashes the morning after. I am the wet kindling that won’t burn. I alienate everyone with whom I come into contact. I can see it in their faces. I squirm so they squirm. I must remind them of what they don’t like about themselves. Their insecurity, their dissatisfaction, their frustrations, their loneliness, selfishness, dread, petulance, impatience, hurt.

Jeeeesus.

As a disturbingly familiar record of the perils of creativity and fame, When I Grow Up has its place. While I was reading it, I listened to Hatfield’s latest record, How to Walk Away, keeping in mind that she almost quit making music, but decided she “still had to make something great happen… I didn’t want to go out with a whimper. I would retire with a blast of beauty. I knew I had a great, untapped album in me.” I hope she wasn’t talking about this album. It's competent enough, but the lyrics ("She's such a beautiful girl/and she lives in an ugly world/They want to knock that smile off her face/So she shuts her door/And she writes and dreams/It’s her favorite escape” she croons on a track called -- wait for it -- “Such a Beautiful Girl”) are the sort of thing girls who attend rock camp are already scrawling in their notebooks during homeroom. I hope that to them, the woman behind sweetly ragged pop rock songs like “Spin the Bottle” and “My Sister” can be more than a cautionary tale.