Column 77: Girls Vs. Boys; Simon Joyner tonight…

Category: Blog — @ 12:10 pm May 18, 2006

The column hopefully speaks for itself. This piece marks the first time I’ve interviewed Sarah Benck, who has been targeted by every guy in scene as “the girl most likely to succeed.” Is a major record label contract in her future? We’ll see. I think she’d be happy to sign to any respectable indie label (Bloodshot, are you listening?). I’m told her voice may also be heard on the new Cursive album. Erica Hanton was a last-minute addition to the story, and a good one at that. Her band Kite Pilot hits the road today through Saturday, playing Ames, Osh Kosh and Milwaukee. Meanwhile, Megan Morgan’s Landing on the Moon is hitting the road this August with Billing’s 1090 Club on a tour that’ll take them from the Midwest to the East Coast and back. Landing… also will have a track on the upcoming Copper Press compilation.

Column 77 — The Last Double Standard
Are women vocalists judged differently then men?
I credit Omaha’s hardest working bassist and walking rock music encyclopedia Mike Tulis (The Monroes, Simon Joyner and the Wind-up Birds, The Third Men) for this installment’s theme. It was his wisdom that inspired it.

Here’s what happened: We were standing side-by-side in the back of O’Leaver’s listening to a rock band — Tulis in one of his stylish hats drinking an old-school tallboy. Classic.

On came the next band, which happened to feature a female vocalist. About halfway through the first verse, I noticed a slight shift in her voice. In the height of passion, she pushed it a bit too far in one direction, causing it to careen slightly off key. I turned to Tulis and yelled (because people don’t talk at rock shows — they scream at each other) “What do you think of her voice?”

Tulis just looked at me with his flat, knowing Tulis stare — dead eyes behind his glasses. “I’m not going there,” he yelled. “It’s one of the last remaining double-standards in rock — if a guy sings off-key, everyone thinks he rocks, but if a woman’s voice is less than perfect, she sucks.”

And like rays of light breaking through afternoon clouds, Tulis’ words opened my mind. Think of all the lousy male singers you’ve seen on stage — cocky, lazy, strutting around with their swooped haircuts and ironic retro clothing — whose voices carelessly fell off pitch, twisting back and forth like a drunken businessman headed back to work after a three-martini lunch. You cringe with every off-kilter note, but ask the crowd what they thought after the set and you’ll hear things like “Genius!” or “Man, he rocked!

But if it’s a woman, and her voice wavers oh-so-slightly, the result is rolled eyeballs. “Man, did you hear that? Where’d she learn to sing?” You’ve done it. Admit it.

So are women performers aware of this double-standard? I asked around, starting with Sarah Benck, perhaps our scene’s most well-known female vocalist. Benck, whose forte is cranking out soulful, strutting Bonnie Raitt-style R&B, has a confident voice that never wavers. Though she says she’s never had to deal with any “discrimination,” she knows she’s being judged on stage. “Springsteen, Jagger, those guys are on the top in the industry. They don’t have fantastic voices. It’s all about rocking out,” Benck said. “I can only think of one female vocalist, Patti Smith, whose voice is an acquired taste. From the get go, it wasn’t about what she looked like and sounded like, it was always about what she had to say. Her imperfection was part of her expression.”

But Patti was the only example that Benck could come up with of a successful woman vocalist with less than stellar chops. The only one that I could think of was Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders. Her voice — not pretty, and come to think of it, neither is she. The vocal double-standard is a social model, Benck said, that carries over from how people judge appearance. Erica Hanton, who sings in both Kite Pilot and The Protoculture, said the double-standard comes from an industry that markets women differently than men.

“You know, how, supposedly, ‘ugly’ men are considered distinctive or unique,” Hanton said. “You don’t see many women who are outside the ‘standard beauty’ who get that kind of treatment. So if a woman’s voice is not a standard, nice-on-the-ears pretty, familiar-sounding voice, it’s not acceptable. Imperfection in a guy’s vocals gives it character. Imperfection in a female’s vocals makes people uncomfortable.”

Society, Hanton added, is all about correcting female imperfections.

But what about the woman who was singing the night of Tulis’ epiphany? The vocalist was Megan Morgan of Landing on the Moon, a local indie rock band that throws a wrench into their sound with salty, John Steinman-esque rock ballads. Morgan knows a thing or two about singing — she’s the choral director at Bryan Middle School. She says if she’s off-key during her set it’s because she’s lost in the moment. It’s never intentional. That’s not the case with a lot of stylish male vocalists she’s heard warble over the years.

“I don’t like it when guys try to sing like that,” she said about their forced nonchalant approach. “Some guys sound that way on purpose. It’s supposed to be artistic. They’re supposed to be filled with so much emotion and angst. It sounds fake to me.”

It’s always been forgivable for guys to sing sloppy, Morgan said. Not so for women. “Women aren’t supposed to have that I-don’t-care attitude,” she said. “When a woman is on stage, people pay attention. I always try to make it sound as pleasing as possible. But when you’re into it, you become part of the music. Where it goes is where it takes you. Hopefully the audience is coming along with you.”

What’s my point? Don’t judge the voice; listen to what the voice is trying to convey in all its blemished honesty. It took Tulis to shake me from my daze and really listen to what Megan was singing instead of mentally comparing her to whatever ignorant stereotype society has dictated that a woman vocalist should be. Once I was really paying attention, it changed everything — about her band, about her performance. I heard a woman belting it out on stage, holding nothing back, lost in her music and lyrics. And just like that, I got lost, too.

The big show tonight at The Goofy Foot, 10th & Pacific, is Mal Madrigal, Outlaw Con Bandana and Simon Joyner and the Wind-Up Birds. Don’t get no better than that, people.

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