I haven’t shared about this incident much, only to private friends and colleagues. And I’ve questioned the appropriateness of sharing about it in this blog. But that’s only out of fear, and why should an artist be afraid? We’re supposed to be the ones cutting through fear and misconception with our work. If I believe that’s part of my job, then I should just do it.
[BIG BREATH] …I’ve been dismissed from a band based on my appearance.
It was a real shock, because I’d been singing with this group for many months with reasonable success, and up until my dismissal there was never any question of whether I had what it took to sing everything from Aretha Franklin to Adele to Pat Benatar with strength and subtlety. It was a cover band – a bar/party/wedding-type operation that was poised to make waves in the casino circuit…until an “industry person” told our bandleader that I “looked like a librarian” and said,
“If you close your eyes, it’s a good band.”
Never mind that most of the other members of the band – all of them men – wore glasses like I did.
Never mind that they were all older than me and starting to show a tinge of grey, trading stories about their colonoscopies in rehearsal.
Never mind that at least one of them liked to wear baseball caps to gigs.
I was singled out because I was the female lead singer, and apparently I couldn’t dress or act like one. (Yes, like one of THOSE female lead singers.) Actually, I WON’T do that, because I resent the fact that men in music can get away with looking dreadful on stage and women can’t – unless they show their vagina or something. Or they’re Patty Smith. It’s a double standard, and even though it’s always been around and probably always will be around, it still doesn’t feel right.
I’m reminded of a song lyric by a good friend, Emily Rose:
“This is what a woman should look like / a tiny Tinkerbell jumping on a trampoline.”
This is the world of the “well-decorated mousetrap” that we’re all born into, even now, in the new millennium.
It wasn’t about my singing at all. Nor was it about my work ethic. Both were good. Some would say better than good. But because I stopped short of twerking, it wasn’t good enough.
Now, I’m not above being coached in the area of styling, and I said as much to this bandleader as an offering to look at myself and see what I could work on – I’d LOVE to be ambushed by a fashion-savvy friend who will raid my closet and tell me what not to wear! But it wasn’t enough. Not only did he want me to lose the glasses and dress differently, he wanted me to jump out into the audience and dance and interact with people more. The other lead singer of the band was doing exactly that, even standing on tables and being an outright flirt.
But here’s the thing: unlike him, I have a vagina! I look at the audience, and six inches in front of me is a sweaty, drunk guy trying to rub up against me! You seriously want me to jump out into that?
He said it was all about stage presence, not about how attractive I was. And he patronized me by saying I was a “very attractive woman.” But why is my attractiveness even a part of the conversation? Is praising my sex appeal supposed to be reassuring, somehow? That’s not what you hired me for. You hired me to SING, and I sang my ass off for months in your band before you decided my image had to be measured against some “industry” standard. You chose to ignore the best part of what I have to offer.
I steeled myself for what I thought would be the most common responses from my colleagues when I confided in them about what happened:
“That’s just how the industry is.”
“Duh – of COURSE you have to have the right image because that’s part of the product.”
“Don’t be surprised. It happens to everybody.”
“Customers are dumb/fickle/easily seduced.”
“Industry people are just bullish – that’s how it’s always been.”
But I heard none of those things. Everyone I told responded with shock and outrage at what this person had done. I was heartened to see that although image continues to reign supreme in pop music – from mainstream to indie and back again – more and more people are seeing it as a tyrannical emperor wearing no clothes. And what this bandleader did was bow down to him. He betrayed my loyalty by taking the low-hanging fruit that this “industry person” was dangling in front of him.
Well, in response to this rebuff, I decided to channel the power of Elvis Costello:
Here was a guy who just doesn’t give a crap about what people think of him; he embodies the punk ethic of “F— YOU” completely. He’s perfectly OK with being a total square. So I vowed to embrace my own square-ness and keep my glasses, thank you very much. And I won’t be ashamed to wear pencil skirts, straight pants, flowy tops and sharp jackets. And I’ll never wear high heels onstage because I have a hard time singing in them.
I give people my best product when I’m being fully myself, and the same is true for any successful woman in music – from Patty Smith all the way to Beyonce. I’m not going to hide it behind a style that doesn’t work for me.
And I’m not going to let one dismissal from one cover band ruin my career. I got lots of other things to think about, besides. Like my choir and my indie solo career. That stuff leaves no time for people who are willing to trash my loyalty to the art of music.
At this point in the post, I originally thought I should give you readers a sexy photo of me to prove that I can rock my look, but I changed my mind. I am beautiful, but I got so much more to share than beauty. Instead, I want you to hear me, and once you’ve done that, you can tell me if I got what it takes.