MAJOR LABEL: Is “Groupie” a Bad Word?

GTOs

Nobody likes to be labelled, especially in the music industry. Major Label is a series that takes the often-negative labels and stereotypes attributed to women in music and reclaims them in a positive way.

 

I, like many others, was deeply saddened to hear about David Bowie’s death a few weeks ago. I mourned by listening to my favorite songs and albums of his, by checking out and contemplating his work in “Black Star,” and by reading countless articles and watching interview videos about the man and the legacy he left us. For a beautiful, brief couple of days, everything written or posted about Bowie was overwhelmingly positive.

And then I read this article, which I found through this one.

I guess when you’re a classic rock enthusiast, you have to learn to tolerate the fact that probably every male rock star of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s had sex with hundreds, maybe thousands, of groupies, and that many of these were likely underage girls. Or more accurately, as Stereo Williams points out in the Daily Beast piece, we learn to ignore these instances of clear statutory rape in favor of venerating talented rock stars. The fact is, both exist simultaneously—yes, these men were and are extremely talented and deserve their places in rock history, and yes, they raped young women. We can assert their grievous wrongdoings while still loving their music. That’s about all I’ll say on that matter.

My area of interest in this subject, instead, is the women (or girls) who call themselves groupies and how they view themselves. How do these women conceive of their place in rock and roll history? Are they contributors, historians, fame chasers, liberated feminists, exploited victims, or just women having a good time and doing whatever they want?

First, a definition, because the term “groupie” means slightly different things in different contexts. A Google search led me to a standard dictionary definition, which says a groupie is “a person, especially a young woman, who regularly follows a pop music group or other celebrity in the hope of meeting or getting to know them,” and an Urban Dictionary definition, saying that a groupie is, “a young woman, often underage, who seeks to achieve status by having sex with rock musicians, roadies, security, and other band-related guys.” The Urban Dictionary one is the meaning I’ll explore here, as it’s both the most common and the most negative.

I don’t think I need to explain the negativity associated with groupies—they’re seen as slutty, manipulative, opportunistic, and worst of all, devoid of talent beyond their looks. What’s interesting is that these stereotypes surrounding groupies seem to spring more from women than men.

Most of these female fans and women who date musicians are quick to distance themselves from the “groupie” moniker, and some even admit to assuming women in attendance at a concert are there more to ogle the musicians and not to listen to the music. There’s some obvious assumptions and slut-shaming happening there, but nevertheless, there is a distinction to be made between these different types of female fans and women who date musicians. Most female fans are not groupies—it is a distinct subculture that emerged with the nascence of rock in the 50s and flourished into the 60s and 70s. (For a very brief groupie history overview, read this.)

almostfamous

Most people’s concepts of groupie culture begin and end with the movie Almost Famous, which is certainly a good place to start. Penny Lane is reportedly an amalgam of several highly sought-after groupies of the late sixties and seventies, including Lori Mattix, Sable Starr, Pamela Des Barres and the rest of the GTOs, and likely countless others. But Cameron Crowe’s website claims Penny Lane is mostly based on a woman named Pennie Trumbull, whose story you can read here. It’s clear from her story that the film embellished some elements, and completely created some like the overdose. Nevertheless, we see Pennie Trumbull emphasize her commitment to supporting the music, and similarly, the “groupies” in the movie disdaining the term “groupie;” according to Penny Lane, “Groupies sleep with rock stars because they want to be near someone famous. We’re here because of the music…we inspire the music.” However, Penny Lane and the others also claim that they don’t have sex to avoid exploiting their bodies and hearts, which is neither true of the movie nor of groupie culture in general—as we’ll see, they did have sex, and they really didn’t feel too exploited about it. But the first quote is the most relevant—to groupies, it is all about the music.

Groupie culture was very much a way of life in the 60s and 70s, with its own philosophy and aesthetic. Magazines devoted to groupie culture, like Star, taught young girls the groupie way of life, with features on beauty tips, how to find your own SUPERFOX and avoid the “going steady trap,” comics and fanfiction about romantic encounters with rock stars, and, perhaps surprisingly, interviews with prominent musicians focusing entirely on their music and creative processes. Read all five issues of the magazine here for a good introduction to the groupie movement.

pameladesbarres

My most eye-opening window into groupie culture came by way of Pamela Des Barres’ insanely funny and revelatory memoir called I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie (note that Des Barres embraces the “groupie” label!). Dave Navarro wrote the preface, and mostly got it right (although his advising girls not to be jealous and guys to read the book with a box of tissues handy—not for crying, obviously—made me physically ill). He points out that Des Barres is a rock and roll historian, and that although the book you’ll read is written from her personal perspective, she details events in rock history from the inside. Des Barres herself recounts how she wanted to be close to rock music because of how deeply, in a raw, emotional, sexual way, it made her feel, and she wanted to support the rockers who made her feel that way. And in sharing her story, she offers a window into the true, naked (pun intended) culture of rock and roll, and how the music was about far more than just the musicians who made it. Still, as I was reading her self-assured, unabashedly pleasure-seeking memoir, I had one overwhelming thought—why didn’t it ever occur to her to pick up a guitar and make music herself? Was she settling for sleeping with rock stars when really, she wanted to BE a rock star?

To be completely fair, Des Barres was a member of the short-lived music group the GTOs, or Girls Together Outrageously, made up entirely of groupies in Los Angeles and curated by Frank Zappa. The women read poetry and sang their lyrics while Zappa arranged sparse rock instrumentals for them (listen here if you’d like; it is, in a word, unique). She was also an actress, and for a while designed and sewed outfits for rock stars, so she did have creative outlets. And although she spends much of the book looking for one rock star to support forever, and ends up hugely disappointed as each one inevitably leaves her or cannot commit to her (or she can’t commit to him!), she expresses few, if any, regrets. She views herself as inspiration for the music, and thus a heavy creative influence, refuting any “talentless” stereotype. And now, she chooses to share her perspective on rock music and what it meant to its fans as a sort of participatory historian. So really, she didn’t become a rock star because she didn’t want to—she was doing exactly what she wanted to be doing, and nobody, including myself, has the right to judge or pity that.

The running thread between the different groupie accounts I’ve encountered thus far, including Lori Mattix’s interview above, is that these women largely did not feel exploited or taken advantage of. They really felt incredibly in control of their sexuality, proud, powerful, desirable, and free. Des Barres writes in her book about how it was empowering to her that these influential, famous rock musicians were cowed by her sexuality, her body. They wanted her badly and she loved it! For these reasons, groupies have had a tempestuous relationship with feminists; groupies emerged within the second wave of feminism, when some feminists would criticize their reliance on their looks and sexuality for success, and some would applaud their free-love, sex-positive attitudes. Some sex-positive feminists even argue that statutory rape laws are inherently sexist, as they imply that teenage girls are naïve and pure and must be protected from evil older men. I certainly can’t support that line of logic completely, though I see where it’s coming from. But I’ll point out that statutory rape does not exclusively apply to female victims or to male rapists, and that teenage girls are legally free to sleep with as many teenage boys as they want. The age gap is the source of the predatory tone here, regardless of gender. But any implication that consenting adult groupies are somehow innocent victims of experienced rock stars and their drug-heavy lifestyle grossly ignores the groupies’ perspectives. They wanted sex with rock stars, they got it, and they got it exactly when and where they wanted it. This is just mounting evidence that the groupies of the sixties and seventies were pioneers in sex-positive feminism, with its merits and flaws, at a time when it was still controversial.

And so, I confer no judgements on young groupies, or on consenting adult groupies and their rock star lovers—or at least, I try my best not to. The term “groupie” is a badge of honor for them—they contributed to a liberated sexual movement that influenced the creative outpouring of rock and roll in its early days. Not everyone obsessed with music wants to be a musician; and, I hasten to add, not all women who sleep with or date rock stars are groupies. It’s a specific, sex-positive, music-appreciating, cultural identity, and one that is crucial to understanding fully the nuanced history of rock and roll and of women’s involvement in that history. The worst thing we could do would be to ignore them, or tolerate their existence while lauding the rock stars they accompanied. The groupies were an integral part of the music and the culture; they saw it all, and they’ll talk about it unabashedly. That’s definitely a perspective worth hearing.

 

For more on groupies, check out these blurbs about different groupies and their lives: http://learni.st/users/4054/boards/67310-some-girls-a-guide-to-the-classic-groupie

And for another positive groupie perspective, read here: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/we-support-the-music-reconsidering-the-groupie

Girl Talk: Heather Hershow

The following is the first of my interview series Girl Talk, featuring talented female musicians in Nashville. If you’d like to be considered for an interview, shoot me an email at kellyhoppenjans@gmail.com!

heather

Heather Hershow is an indie-country singer-songwriter from LA who is currently living in Nashville. Her first EP, Her Show, will be released in February. You can preview Heather’s music on her Soundcloud at: https://soundcloud.com/heather-hershow

And check out her website at heatherhershowmusic.squarespace.com for updates on her EP release!

 

First off, how would you describe your music?

That’s a loaded question. It has a country sound; I write stories. It’s more country with a bit of an indie rock feel, ‘cause I don’t have a country voice necessarily. So it tells those stories, it’s got bluesy guitar, or the slide guitar, but it’s kind of a grab bag, to be honest. That’s my music style, and that’s what I’m sticking with. Influenced by Lady Antebellum, Gavin DeGraw, OneRepublic, kind of all thrown in together.

I know you have a musical theatre background as well, so has that influenced the sort of storytelling that you do?

Storytelling, and structure, and melody-wise. I tend to go off in sometimes different directions with melody or I don’t stick to the same chord progressions because that’s not what you do in musical theatre—you go off on a completely different tangent. And so it’s finding the balance between [going] so far off, like a different melody, and keeping it a little new. But it is all still very new to me. I’ve learned a lot being here [in Nashville], but it is, you know—it’s kind of new territory, being here for about a year, it’s been about learning how to be a better songwriter and storyteller in a different way.

So this is your first EP… what was the recording process like—where did you record?

So I recorded the first three tracks that I had written for the little record—[laughs] that’s what they’re called these days! I recorded those in California through a family friend. He’s got a studio out there, and this was when I had decided to move to Nashville but I hadn’t done it yet. I spent a year still in California, just kinda preparing. And we recorded three tracks; it was “Whiskey,” “Playing with Fire,” and “Tool Shed” [that] were all done back in California.

And then I came out here, and I ended up meeting with one guy who had a studio—super cool, I’ve continued to work with him since. He recorded “Dance Another,” and it had a very Nashville sound—a little more raw, a little more rock and roll, it was very cool. And then I worked with a friend of mine who’s actually my guitarist and friend in California’s brother. [He] has a recording studio, and so I did “Smile We Say Goodbye,” [there]. That was an incredible experience because I sent them a rough demo of it, and I said, “I trust you—go nuts.” They came back at me with this incredible instrumental track, had me come in to do vocals, and then that was it. They were really on top of their stuff.

So those will be what’s on the EP, it’s just five songs, and they’ve been well received. I’ve only recorded the ones that have been well received on live performances. You know I’ve written a bunch but I feel like if you play the record in order, you kind of see the progress of the storytelling and the writing, I think it’s interesting how you kind of go from where I started with “Playing with Fire” and moved into the Nashville way. I hope it’s a testament to what I’ve learned here.

When is that gonna be released?

Working on a release sometime in February… You can hear all of these on SoundCloud, they’re just not downloadable yet.

I wanted to ask you about the inspiration behind “Smile When We Say Goodbye.”

So “Smile When We Say Goodbye” was a co-write with a good friend of mine back home who’s kinda like a big brother to me. And he always asks me to tell him stories, and we fit them into a song. So “Smile When We Say Goodbye,” I was getting ready to leave California and move to Nashville. And it was kind of a mix between, you know—I’d heard so many break-up songs that were like “I hate you!” and “Tool Shed” [one of her other breakup songs] and whatnot, but sometimes breaking up with someone has nothing to do with anything going wrong—it’s just timing and circumstance, and things don’t work. But it doesn’t mean when you say goodbye, that you’re going to be upset, or angry—there’s a sadness, but it’s a different kind of sadness. It’s knowing that I’m gonna smile at what we had… and I don’t leave out the fact that I’m gonna miss something I left behind. But the point is that I’m gonna smile because we had something good…

Well, speaking of the other kind of break-up song, what’s the story behind “Tool Shed?”

That actually—it’s funny, you know you write what you know, but that’s not a personal story at all! I was in a songwriting class, and we were doing phrases. And oddly enough, my mom and I have always had this phrase that, he’s not a tool, he’s the whole toolshed. And my mom came up with this idea of “Can’t find love in a toolshed,” and well, there’s a song there! So I started, and my first draft sounded like I was going through the halls of Home Depot, just picking things up into my cart, and the teacher was like, “I like it, but it’s almost too, look here’s a hammer! Here’s a nail!” And he said, “You gotta find a way to be tongue-in-cheek, but like, [laughs] tone it down a little.” So it’s about that guy that—he’s a jerk basically. He’s a tool.

That is a clever song with a lot of wordplay—are wordplay and humor things that are important to you as an artist?

Thank you! Yes, that’s how I am. I’m a comedian, I like to make people laugh. And if I can do it in a way that incorporates songs as well, I’ll do it.

What’s the next step after the EP release?

I’m playing more shows. After the EP release, I’m going to begin writing more. I’d love to do a raw, not as produced album of just acoustic stuff. But truthfully, the next step is just to get out there more—figure out who needs to hear the EP, and keep writing for people, and not really worry about what my next step is. I told a friend of mine, who asked, “Why do you stay in Nashville?” I said, “Well, to be honest, every day I find something or I meet somebody that makes me need to stay for at least one more day.” And when I think about it, that’s kind of all we have is just one more day. So my next step is just to be here and not wonder what the next step is yet.

Okay, fun get-to-know-you questions are last. Do you prefer smooth or chunky peanut butter?

Chunky.

New country or old country?

You know, I gotta say, I’m a big fan of—oh gosh, I’ll probably get schooled on this—I enjoy new country. I enjoy 90s country, like Shania and Faith Hill, and I’m still learning old county—I’m still new to the genre.

New Star Wars or old Star Wars?

Well—wait, new as in Force Awakens? ‘Cause the prequels don’t count.

No, prequels do NOT count.

Kay. You know, I—ugh, that’s tough. I had so much fun with this new one, really I did. But I just, I can’t not love Han Solo.

“I KNOW.”

I just—oh [realizes my dorky joke, laughs], nice one! I mean, Indiana Jones, just—Harrison Ford.

Favorite ice cream flavor?

This is very specific—there was a Baskin Robbins flavor that came out in February of like 2011, okay? Maybe 2012, I don’t know exactly when. But it is called Love Potion #31. It was chocolate, and it had everything… it was just brilliant, and I love it. I don’t know where that is now, it was like a seasonal flavor, flavor of the month—but I will never forget it.

Favorite childhood TV show?

Oh, there’s so many! I really enjoyed Lizzie McGuire… but I think one of my favorite TV shows as a kid was All That one Nickelodeon, because it was a sketch show, a kids’ sketch show, it was SNL. And I loved laughing and making people laugh.

One final question: what do you want to communicate to people through your music?

Depends on the song, truthfully. I want people to connect their memories to music, maybe to heal through painful experiences, to bring joy. I wrote a song for a friend who ultimately, unfortunately, lost her battle with cancer. But when she was going through it, it was a song of cheering her on, and she found peace and joy in listening to that. It was great, and that was enough for me. And I also just want people to have fun, you know—for that three minutes, they can be in a totally different head space. For three minutes, you can think about something that may have been weighing on your mind from a past relationship. For three and a half minutes, you can literally just stop and dance your ass off. And for three and a half minutes, you can cry, you can laugh, you can dance—you can do anything. You can be moved to do something that you might not have thought you were brave enough to do.

VAMPing

Welcome to VAMP! This blog is all about supporting local female musicians, music lovers, and YOU.

So what is a vamp? Many things:

A vamp is a repeated musical passage, usually played under a solo or dialogue.

vamplogosmall

Can you vamp that while I take a solo thanks

 

It’s a velvet display for a necklace or a bed of rice for the main dish—it’s steady, reliable, and at least mildly interesting, but it serves mainly to support the primary focus. All good music blogs should be like this; yes, a certain amount of self-promotion is always involved in a blog, but giving a voice to talented local artists and providing resources to help musicians improve is the most important goal. I know so many incredible artists in Nashville, and I want to help them get there music out there as much as I can—simple as that!

A vamp is also a femme fatale—a strong, self-assured female character in literature, movies, opera, you name it.

carmen

Carmen, the original bad-ass opera vamp

 

Women are underrepresented in many facets of the music industry; it’s just a fact. I figure the only way to fix that is to talk about the female artists that I love and that deserve everyone’s attention—and to talk about them A LOT. So, the main focus of this blog is to support incredible female songwriters, musicians, and bands in Nashville and around the country. If this describes you and you want to submit your work to my website, contact me here!

 

According to Google, a vamp is also the “upper front part of a boot or shoe.”

vampshoe

Sooo that’s cool.

 

A VAMP is also an acronym for Voicing All My Passions, which is what I intend to do with this blog. I love music and I want to bring good music to appreciative listeners—that’s why we’re all here! All musicians are voicing their passions every time they make music; it’s my hope that presenting musicians and music issues on this blog amplifies their voices and brings their message to a larger audience. Hear some good music, read some articles and interviews, and raise your voice in a song—I’ll vamp for you while you do.