Monday, February 09, 2009

Why aren't there more girl guitarists?

At Sunday's Grammys, the only sight more unusual than a pregnant M.I.A. in a Minnie Mouse outfit was the attractive blonde guitarist in Carrie Underwood's band. Her fingers were performing such fantastic fretboard gymnastics that I had to double check that Joe Satriani hadn't married Jennifer Batten and spawned a daughter. According to Entertainment Weekly, the musician in question is Orianthi, a 24-year-old Australian who has been praised by the likes of Carlos Santana and Steve Vai.

The performance got me wondering just why it is that there aren't more prominent female shredders? Sure, there are many female songwriters who can play guitar, from PJ Harvey to Joni Mitchell to Suzanne Vega to Chrissie Hynde to Sheryl Crow to Bonnie Raitt to Nancy Wilson. Even Madonna can play a mean power chord on her black Les Paul. But there aren't many classic lead guitarists among the girls, bar the occasional Lita Ford or the aforementioned Ms. Batten. Look at any of those "100 greatest guitarist" lists that pop up in magazines all the time and they seldom, if ever, include women alongside Van Halen, Vaughan, or Vai. Even the term "axeman" suggests that this is provincially viewed as male territory.

In wondering why that is, I came across a lengthy 2004 article in the Washington Post about this very topic. Though the story suggests several reasons why there aren't more guitar heroines, one observation in particular stood out: "We live in a culture where the electric guitar, at least when it's played at full and distorted blaze, is considered unladylike. The logic of this is just as circular as the role model problem -- girls don't see women play the guitar, which stigmatizes the instrument a bit, further discouraging girls from taking up guitar, and so on. But it's not just unladylike because girls, as they grow up, get the hint. It's unladylike because the electric guitar is traditionally an almost cartoonishly macho instrument. The paradigmatic rock pose belongs to Chuck Berry: legs apart, the instrument pointed straight at the crowd, turned upward a little."

Just as fellow Australian Tal Wilkenfeld (Jeff Beck's band) is proving that girls can play bass as well as Geddy Lee, I hope that the sight of Orianthi at the Grammys inspires a few girls to head down to their local guitar center and level the guitar playing field.

What can I say about Robert Plant and Alison Krauss's Grammy haul? Longtime readers of this blog will know that Plant is my all-time favorite artist, so I was pleased to see "Raising Sand" get the recognition it deserves as a classic Americana record. Its success has been taken for granted, too. Even after the success of the T Bone Burnett-curated "O Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack, few would have predicted that an Americana record with bluegrass influences would sell over a million copies -- a rarity in today's music business. I mean, Alison Krauss may be the winningest women in Grammy history but, until now, she's hardly sold truckloads of records. Plant's career has been one of leftfield instinct that favors musical satisfaction over commercial impact.

Even so, I still abhore the idea of the Grammys. Music shouldn't be a sport. Who can say that "Raising Sand" is a superior album to "In Rainbows"? They're both great records. And very different.

Plant has a similar perspective on awards and, prior to the Grammys, announced, "I’m looking forward to being in Los Angeles, but musically - and spiritually - I expect we’ll be somewhere halfway between the Mississippi Delta and the Clinch Mountains.”

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