By Alexandra Jones
Photos by Olivia Vaughn
Illustration by Drew Dunlap
Being human is hard.
Most people will concede that being a lady human poses its own set of unique, societally-imposed challenges. And if you take a look at our culture, it’s easy to get the impression that being a lady human who plays music must be a hundred times more difficult.
Girls Rock Philly’s mission is twofold: To foster self-expression in girls and young women and to create a future in which a lot more women play music. In some sense, it seems unnatural or artificial to have to encourage girls to play popular music and express themselves. Young boys do it, so young ladies should be able to do it just as well – or better! Girl power, right?
Of course, if you’ve ever been a lady (or sympathized with someone who is), you know it’s not that simple. The gender conditioning we receive all our lives filters into every aspect of our culture. It starts at birth. Boys can be loud and active and adventurous, girls must be quiet and delicate and pretty. Boys act, girls appear. Boys think, girls feel. Repeat ad nauseum until the zombie apocalypse. (Perhaps the undead will bring with them a utopia of gender equality.)
Like it or not, these messages are everywhere: TV, advertising, books, movies, and (duh) music, where the idea of women playing music together – no meat dresses or whipped cream can boobs, just some regular ladies doing their thing – seems to have become a fuzzily remembered, pre-9/11 concept. Sure, there are Kims (Gordon and Deal), Björk, Cat Power, Missy Elliott, Kate Bush – all great examples of women being actively creative and seriously awesome.
But getting girls engaged with playing music (outside of a classical or academic setting, at least) takes more than exposing them to world-changing female artists, though that’s part of it. Along with facilitating – providing instruments, supervision, and a friendly, healthy environment for girls to bond, collaborate, and create – part of bringing the benefits of music-making to girls is showing them how to think critically about the media they consume. And letting them know that if they don’t like that message, it’s in their power to flip it and reverse it.
As soon as Beth Warshaw-Duncan witnessed a girls’ rock camp, she was hooked. After volunteering at a camp in New York, Warshaw-Duncan knew she had to bring this kind of program to Philadelphia.
“I felt like we could bring it here, and so we should. That we deserved it in this town,” she says. “We needed it, and we deserved it, and we [could] make it happen here…there was obviously a scene of women here, and men, who would be willing to make it happen.”
Warshaw-Duncan started down the long, difficult road of building a nonprofit back in 2006. By summer of 2007, Girls Rock Philly had its first camp, during which girls ages nine to 16 picked up instruments, formed bands, and wrote and recorded a song. In a week.
Dedicated volunteers were around to teach inexperienced campers and supervise the girls, of course, but that’s still quite a feat for girls at an age at which self-expression can result in bullying, embarrassment or humiliation.
Musician Attia Taylor knows the value of GRP, too: she was a camper but now volunteers with the organization as a band coach and vocal instructor. “My favorite thing is knowing that I made an impact in the life of young girls,” she says. “I used to be young and unsure of how I would be expressive and fit in as a girl. It’s amazing seeing them realize that they actually can have their own voice and not be afraid to use it.”
As the founder and current Program Director of Girls Rock Philly – on top of her day job as a sound engineer and editor for WXPN – Warshaw-Duncan has observed that girls and boys have the same potential to play music, but one factor in particular can keep girls from getting involved. One reason girls don’t get into performing music the same way boys historically have is that both genders have seemed to internalize the message that girls and guitars (or drums, or turntables) don’t mix.
“[Boys’ and girls’ experience differs] in the sense that they’re interested, and the dudes also trying to be musicians at that age are saying ‘No you can’t,'” she says. “I think it’s because boys see the same media as girls. They don’t see women playing guitar all of the time.”
So, what’s to be done? “It’s just a matter of putting [women in music] out there so that enough girls and boys see it,” Warshaw-Duncan says. “The camp is for girls, but ultimately it’s about creating a lot more bands with a lot more women in them, and a lot more women doing a lot more things they didn’t necessarily think they could do, and then everyone seeing that. Once that happens, and you see more coed bands, and you see more partnerships arising from those – because bands are cooperative structures – boys have to be shown just as much that it’s OK to have a girl playing guitar as girls do. We all consume the same stuff.”
And learning how to digest the media they consume is one of the girls’ most valuable lessons at GRP. Besides instrument class, band practice, and other music-related workshops, the girls take courses on how to be a conscious cultural observer and think critically about what they see and hear. In fact, one of Warshaw-Duncan’s revelatory experiences at the New York camp – one of the experiences that inspired GRP – was that no one commented on each others’ appearance or took a break to check their looks in the mirror.
“Sexism and image and the way you identify yourself isn’t going to go away,” she explains. “There’s always a hierarchy of how people look, no matter what scene you’re in, just because that’s how people are brought up to live their lives and see each other, and judge themselves and each other.” As someone who works in the media, Warshaw-Duncan is aware that what we see and hear might seem to have a mind of its own but that media is created by regular human beings – we broadcast our culture to us.
“We blame the media and the industry, but they’re made up of people,” Warshaw-Duncan continues. “Just like any other smaller scene is made up of people. So we have to realize the media and the industry are tools by which we get major distribution of those ideas, but they’re still made up of people who, if they see a more enlightened view, can broadcast that.
“And we are small, [but] there’s a bunch of different camps, and we’re growing, and we’re making our own media,” she says. “And that really is the best way to combat any negativity, or anything that we feel isn’t supportive of girls and women – to create. You don’t like what the media is saying about you? Great. You’re a person. Make up your own stuff…”
n light summer camp’s historically rustic settings – forests, mountains, national parks – what kind of parent would install his or her daughter in the middle of Philadelphia’s grittiest months of summer? And who are the girls who forgo tubing and shade trees for amps and mic stands?
The parents and guardians, it turns out, want to do something positive for their girls. And the campers are typical Philadelphia teens and tweens, navigating awkward stages, dealing with school and growing up, and figuring out who they are. You know, kid stuff.
“They really come from all over the place, [but] the majority come from Philadelphia proper,” says Warshaw-Duncan. “We have a lot [of campers] from the surrounding suburbs. We have girls once in a while from as far away as Delaware. Some are from the region and stay with their cousin or a friend or whomever who lives in the area. In a couple cases the whole family has come down to have a vacation [while] the girl goes to camp.”
Socioeconomically, the girls come from a pretty wide range of backgrounds. GRP targets schools and neighborhood festivals to attract campers from different sectors of the city. And although GRP does charge tuition, at least half of the campers each summer attend with financial assistance – no small feat for a young nonprofit like this one. The volunteers who are in charge of forming the bands at the beginning of the camp session take care to approximately match ages and skill levels to the groups’ best advantage.
Camp would be at Girard College, the only facility GRP has ever used to house the dozens of girls – 75 this past summer – who come to town for the weeklong program. No men are allowed on campus for that week, although Warshaw-Duncan credits men who are involved with the organization behind the scenes – in legal, accounting, and post-production of the girls’ recordings – as invaluable allies in achieving the camp’s mission.
On the forefront of that mission are dozens of volunteers. These are women who teach instrument classes, supervise the girls, coordinate outreach or act as band coaches. Not all band coaches are musical – Warshaw-Duncan admits that her performance skills are limited to karaoke – but they provide guidance, answer questions, troubleshoot broken strings or conflicts between band members, keep the girls focused on their musical goals, and prompt them to think critically.
“We ask them to talk about what they like and why they like it, and get them thinking why,” she says. As for the songs the girls build throughout the week, their themes trend towards the universal tropes that have been the model for bards, vaudevillians, and Disney Channel tween queens alike.
“There are ‘I love to rock out’ songs, there’s the story songs of something that happened to [the girls] or a dream they had, and then there’s the breakup song. I don’t know if they’ve had breakups or they’re just emulating what they’ve seen or heard,” Warshaw-Duncan explains. “Those are the things that they hear about sung in songs, so that’s what they sing. As long as they can talk about why they like what they like, it’s fine.”
And what are the young people into these days? “Miley Cyrus is way out at this point,” Warshaw-Duncan says. “I have no idea until I get [to camp each summer] what’s in with the tween set. As far as their mainstream pop, I mean, Taylor Swift always – always, now. And you know, she writes her own music and she’s aware of her image to some extent, and so…whatever feelings we have about what they like don’t matter.” Besides the youngest of the young pop stars, some girls bring influences they’ve inherited from their parents – Beatles, classic rock – and there are always a lot of rap and hip-hop fans. Despite the girls’ individual tastes and the visions they develop, GRP aims to present campers with a wide range of music to inspire the work they’ll create. But it’s easy for kids to get stuck on one idea.
“I think having the word “rock” in our title is not misleading exactly, but I find that some of the girls are like ‘That’s not rock enough for rock camp,'” says Warshaw-Duncan, “and we try to discourage them from figuring out what the song is going to sound like before they even write it. We want everyone to be able to create whatever song they want to create, as long as they respect each other in their bands. So we play them a lot of different music.” That includes anything from Led Zeppelin (with certain lyrics bleeped out, naturally) to illustrate walking bass to West Philly soul singers to protest songs to Bryn Mawr/Haverford pop rockers Post Post, who appeared at camp this past summer.
“We try to have all sorts of different sounding people in,” says Warshaw-Duncan of GRP’s guest bands, “and all kinds of different looking people to come in [so we can] say, ‘These are women actively making music of all kinds in town.”
Each Girls Rock camp has its own flavor, and Warshaw-Duncan’s goal is to expose the girls to a wide range of music while giving the Philadelphia chapter its own sense of place.
“We try to keep it somewhat regional,” she says. “Portland is going to [be] very rock-based. New York plays everything. We try to play local artists at the beginning of the day for instrument class. We try to keep it diverse as possible while still being able to teach what we want to teach…It’s all about creating an atmosphere of all kinds of different music.”
The girls’ wide variety of backgrounds and experiences along with GRP’s popular music mini-course plays out in their music: While most of the tunes do tend towards the can’t-miss model of 4/4 time and three chords, the songs created by campers are deeper and more eclectic than you might expect. Where the Waves Break’s shoreline spoken story in “Chased By Seagulls” is bookended with distorted samples of Beach Boys tracks. The ladies of Electric Fizz could write the next “1 2 3 4” after the bouncy piano vamp and alone-together lyrics of “Time Is on Our Side.” Judy and the Baguettes – besides rocking what is officially the cutest/most covetable band name ever – echo some kind of wonderful Dire Straits/Sonic Youth hybrid in their “On the Stairs,” and it sounds freaking great.
And the girls aren’t afraid to venture towards the more experimental edges of young musicianship: Purple Dream recorded “Magic in Life” at camp earlier this year. The song kicks right off with pounding, dissonant keys and meandering guitar. Then stream-of-consciousness narration gives it direction before the quietly sing-spoken chorus makes the chaotic sounds fall away: “I want you to believe in magic, yeah.” It’s a boisterous, weirdly cultivated jam, performed with a Shaggs-esque sense of calm self-assurance that provides an anchor amidst the combative sounds. It’s as good as grownups, and maybe more truthful.
It’s amazing to hear what a group of girls, given instruments and a mentor, can accomplish in just one week. (It’s easy to picture Kimya Dawson pinching campers’ ideas, then throwing in a few drug references and calling it a day.) Intrigued by these song descriptions? Downloads of this year’s camper showcase release are for sale via girlsro ckphilly.org – and we promise it’s better than most of the junk in your iTunes.
As GRP relies heavily – as do pretty much all nonprofits – on volunteers, parental engagement is key to keeping the operation going. Parents and guardians have worked with the GRP board to form Our Girls Rock Philly, a PTA-style organization that’s dedicated to creating more GRP activities year-round. Susan Proulx volunteered when her daughter Erica attended GRP; now, Susan is a board member and liaison with OGRP.
Proulx sees the camp not only as a chance for girls to feel comfortable with self-expression, but for parents to get some bonding time in as well.
“Sometimes it is difficult for parents to find a common interest or experience with their teenagers,” Proulx says. “[Girls Rock Philly] has given us this connection.”
Multi-instrumentalist Erica’s take on the benefits of camp demonstrates the solidarity she’s learned through GRP.
“Besides becoming a better musician myself, I think I’m more into supporting other female musicians than I was before and supporting any female-fronted organizations, really,” she says. “I also feel more open and willing to try new things.”
Another camp parent, Leslie Marant, saw her relationship with her daughter Morgan grow because Morgan was becoming more independent.
“I’m a pretty hands-on mom,” Marant says, “but [I] am learning to give my daughter space. I’ve always supported her in any venture in which she’s expressed interest.”
For Marant, supporting Morgan in her chosen activity – DJing – meant being a little more hands-off. “For her first gig, I just dropped her off, helped set up, and stayed away while she played the music. Huge step for me and good for her.”
It’s not unusual for parents to support their kids in extracurriculars and other activities, but the change they see in their daughters after a week of camp is a pleasant surprise.
“[The girls] stand up straighter by the end of the week. They’re more outgoing,” Warshaw-Duncan explains. “They have friends that they want to hang out with more… They want to keep practicing with their friends, or they want to keep writing songs. Before they were all quiet, and now they want to sing. They’re much more open, and they’re prone to high fiving people a little. They get really nervous but really excited about trying something new.”
Temple University sophomore Maura Filoromo was a camper, but now she volunteers as a keyboard instructor at GRP. “I can say as a past camper that your self-esteem just rises,” she says. “I made so many friends that I probably wouldn’t have ever met. As a volunteer, I see the girls smiling more and more as the week goes on. They’re having fun and really get into the music”
ut the last day of camp – be it band, rock, scout or sleepaway – is always bittersweet, and it’s hard to keep up the connections over time and distance, particularly for kids. So what happens to the girls’ bands after camp?
Sometimes, a few band members will keep practicing and working on songs after camp, depending on distance and other logistics. Since most of the girls are from the Philly area, it’s not impossible for them to stay in touch throughout the year, but Warshaw-Duncan hopes that GRP’s new space on Frankford Ave. at Norris St. will make it easier for girls to keep working on music, whether with their camp bandmates, solo projects, or new collaborations. There will also be facilities for lessons, workshops, and GRP operations.
“We have a place for girls to not only play in that one room but to hang out and take a break if they need to. It’s a place we can expand and grow and create more of a community.”