The Grace of the Outsider: The Women of Rock and Roll

I’m like so many other music listeners my age: my first favorite band was Skillet. At 15 years old I was captivated by this band that leaned heavily on the contributions of Korey Cooper (keys, rhythm guitar, backup vocals) and Lori Peters (drums). Some of my other favorites included Flyleaf, Evanescence, Plumb, and Fireflight. I glimpsed in them this incredible new reality I’d never even fathomed before, a world where a woman’s empathy and strength were inextricably connected, a world where your soul wasn’t required to shrink itself into silence. The women in these bands gave me permission to be passionate– permission I was desperate for.

In the religious circles I grew up in, rock and roll was Satan’s music, and women were expected to be silent. I was required to wear a veil over my hair in church buildings, warned against ever praying in front of men or speaking out about my beliefs (both were seen as taking authority). The path forward for me felt stiflingly narrow: I could be a mother and a homemaker, or possibly a missionary, and I would be expected to do it all quietly.

There is nothing wrong with those paths (if they’re chosen instead of coerced), but for me they felt like the wrong size of clothing that I was forced to try on over and over again. I felt this constant ache to live in alignment with the things that mattered most. I wanted to be on the frontlines of an expansive movement of love. I wasn’t sure I was allowed to.

What the women of rock and roll granted me was freedom by example. They weren’t just relegated to the background vocals: they shredded guitar riffs on the songs they’d written. That was a fearlessness that gave me a lot of hope, that led me to sharpie blue into my hair like warpaint when I was 17.

Jen Ledger (Skillet)

Years later, once I was working in the music industry, I would learn how many challenges the women I looked up to had overcome in order to offer that example. I’d watch women get talked over, counted out, even sexually harassed– and I’d experience the same things myself. I’d learn what it’s like to enter a record label’s conference room full of men twice your age and try not to panic under the pressure of everything you have to prove.

In those years, I learned the true value of what I’d been witnessing all along. The women of rock and roll hadn’t ever allowed themselves to be defined by what they lacked. They’d devoted themselves to proving what they stood for, defiant of the odds against them. None of them seemed too concerned with winning the impossible-to-achieve approval. Letting go of the need for something that’s not available to you anyway frees you up to simply care about what you care about, all passion instead of performance.

That was the gift I was given by the women who came before me. I’ve stopped asking “but what if the industry counts me out?” I’ve started caring a lot more about who I personally am choosing to invite in. I’ve started focusing on simply being the person I am, loving what I love, using the skills I have with as much excellence as I can manage, letting go of the need to manage what the world thinks. I’ve moved on from being frustrated that I can’t possibly win the industry games, instead taking that as a kind of relief: if winning their race by their rules is impossible anyway, can’t I just build my own track?

The hard grace of the outsider, of those who have been on the losing side, is clarity on what you never actually needed to begin with.

Of course, I would love to see rock and roll continue to shift towards inclusivity. Within every inch of my sphere of influence, I intend to continue pushing back on norms that sexually exploit in the name of marketing, pushing back on the limits of what girls “should” sing about, pushing back on that absurd idea from my younger years that girls are supposed to be quiet.

But whether or not the industry ever really changes, there are so many women who are out here who aren’t waiting for it– who are simply being themselves in defiance of the stereotypes. Rising voices like Zahna and the sister trio GFM fill me with hope. I love watching younger girls teary-eyed and inspired as Jen Ledger increasingly owns her solo voice. I look forward to a year that promises some of its best music will be come from the voices of women (Lacey Sturm, Fireflight, and The Letter Black all have new tunes due).

And as I work on my own personal projects and initiatives in the rock and roll community, one of my deepest hopes will always be that the way I carry myself gives other girls permission too: you can rock. You can scream. You can talk about the things that matter. You can write and take photos and direct video shoots. Yours is a soul on fire, darling– they never had the power to make you any more or any less.

Maggie English (Gold, Frankincense, & Myrrh)

Photography in this piece is from Mary Nikkel, Breanne Ciccone, Gina Monahan (Gemma The Rose), and Chad Fenner (Concert Fotos).

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