Kim Gordon, Cat Power and gender equality dreams from Burger A Go Go 2

Welcome to Formative Jukebox, a column exploring the personal relationships people have with music. Every week, HG associate editor Lilian Min or a guest writer will identify a song, album, musical artist, or show and explore its significant influence on their lives. Tune in every week for a brand new essay.

Fact: Music festivals—the biggest moneymaking enterprises and visible cultural events in the otherwise floundering mainstream industry — are dominated by male artists. This is something that’s been empirically illustrated in helpfully bleak infographics, but more importantly, is very visible and tangible at shows and festivals around the world. After all, this is still a world where women  are routinely treated as eye candy and/or incompetent, or even worse, violently attacked for even trying to exist; where a female artist’s soul-baring and sexuality are overshare whereas male artists are lauded for the same things.

Which is why I set off for Burger A Go Go 2, a one-day music festival held in Southern California by the indie music label as just about every major festival, they also offer this: Burger A Go Go, a new-ish festival (it’s only on year two) that features only female or female-inclusive acts.

To be clear: The “issue” you always run into in discussions about all-one-gender activities is that wouldn’t it be better to just have an equal mix of equally-talented artists all on one bill together? Rather than setting the precedent for “dude festivals” and “lady festivals,” shouldn’t we just accept that there are more talented and visible male artists being pushed by the industry, or perhaps that more women just aren’t getting into music at a level in which they can draw crowds at festivals? In short, no.

Sure, there’s a level of “blame” to be placed at the feet of the industry itself, which definitely seeks and promotes male talent at a different level and in very different ways than they do for most female artists. (Though this, in turn, differs wildly between genres.) But there is no inexplicable dearth of female talent; the women in the industry are just sorely underrepresented on festival bills, whose two biggest genre representatives (EDM and rock of various forms) skew male-heavy for reasons of sexism, both subtle and overt.

Many of the Burger A Go Go acts are affiliated with (the admittedly male-dominated) Burger Records, and/or they played at Burgerama before. But what Burger A Go Go represents is a definitive planting-of-the-flag: We’re not going to pretend there is gender equality in music, not yet. And, instead of dealing with festival bro-heavy crowds—is there anything less heartening than going to see your favorite ladies kick ass on stage, only to hear someone drunkly holler “Take your top off!” as they start their set—the festival represents a symbolic safe space: You won’t be listening to men tonight.

Which isn’t to say that there weren’t men at the festival; in fact, much of the young crowd was an even mix of all genders, and there were plenty of male stagehands and techs working set-up, soundcheck, and mixing. But there was definitely a chiller, less antagonistic vibe between attendees; outside the two stages of the venue, “RIOT GRRRL”-pin-adorned women and girls browsed records, cassettes, and other merch for the acts being sold, food stands, and a psychic reading booth. The men who were there were attentive listeners and (generally) respectful fans, a far cry from the wild-eyed heterosexual leering one encounters in other locales.

As for the music itself — well, just about every act brought their A-game, and many of the performers addressed the crowd with explicit messages of girl power. Summer Twins played a rollicking cover of No Doubt’s seminal “Just A Girl,” with lead singer Chelsea Brown using the song’s bridge as a chance to encourage girls to pick up guitars and fight for their place in the rock scene. Kimya Dawson, the weird-folk artist whose side project The Moldy Peaches won her pop culture infamy through the film Juno, played a heartbreaking rendition of her song “I Like Giants” — when she sang the line, “I like giants;  especially girl giants. ‘Cause all girls feel too big sometimes, regardless of their size,” the crowd screamed along. She closed her set with a devastating indictment of race-based violence in a song that name-checked Ferguson, Baltimore, and other #BlackLivesMatter protests around the country, as well as #SayHerName and the victims of an ongoing campaign of violence against black trans women.

Kimya Dawson at Burger A Go Go 2

Later performers catered to the local crowd — Bleached and Cherry Glazerr, both veterans of Los Angeles’ underground scene, whipped the crowd into mosh pits crowd-surfing attempts. Woozy and self-assured, their music took teen girl sentiment and distilled it into rolling and rocking solos.

Cherry Glazerr at Burger A Go Go 2

Bleached at Burger A Go Go 2

Kate Nash, the ebullient performer who broke from traditional lady pop to lead the riot grrrl revival, had a standout set — she invited Kimya Dawson back on stage for a sweet cover of the Moldy Peaches’ “Anyone Else But You,” and then roared and cajoled the crowd through her discography. The final highlight: A smashing mash-up of her “Girl Gang” (itself a cover of punk band Fidlar’s “Cocaine”) and Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl,” providing a fitting segue to the lady rock legends who’d close out the evening.

Kate Nash and her girl gang at Burger A Go Go 2

Kim Gordon, whose work in Sonic Youth and memoir Girl in a Band helped change the conversation around women in rock, debuted her new group Glitterbust at the festival. It was, truth be told, a weird, wandering, noise rock set, but Gordon retains a magnetism that keeps your ears and eyes on her, even as she intones fuzzed-out vocals over borderline atonal guitar drones.

Kim Gordon of Glitterbust at Burger A Go Go 2

On the flip side, Kathleen Hanna and her new group, The Julie Ruin, were an upbeat, outgoing, and generously crowd-responsive act. Hanna’s verve is electric in-person; we’ve all seen and heard her early work, but it’s her continued commitment to a very hands-on approach to feminist activism that’s kept her an icon. One particular incident: The crowd was jumping along and moshing to the group’s songs, but as soon as an audience member pointed out someone else in the crowd being relentlessly belligerent to the point of hurting others, Hanna herself stopped the set to ask security to escort the offender out.

Kathleen Hanna of The Julie Ruin at Burger A Go Go 2

As the younger folks in the crowd filed out, the venue fell into a hushed silence. After all the punk and rock-oriented acts of the day, Burger A Go Go 2 closed perfectly — with a haunting, bare bones set by none other than Cat Power.

Cat Power at Burger A Go Go 2

Burger A Go Go works as a festival because, despite its “limiting factor” of having only woman-fronted acts play, it still showcases a huge variety of music styles and performer energies. Sure, it, like just about every festival on the planet (save for a few notable exceptions), could use a greater spectrum of diversity in regards to race and sexuality, but the fact that simply having women have significant representation on-stage is still considered a feat beyond many festivals shows that there’s still a long way to go.

That said, there are plenty of festivals around the world that also steer away from male artists in an attempt to showcase the diversity within the “diversity” categorization; take a look at TITWRENCH, featuring and organized by all female/LGBTQA artists, and the various events they support and signal boost. But while we still see all-male headliners at the biggest music taste-making events in the world, Burger A Go Go and other events like it remain the uneasy but vital middleman between grassroots art activism and international recognition.

Music is something that speaks to everybody; Burger A Go Go ensures that those who have historically been silenced have a say too.

How ‘boy’s club’ mentality is still hurting all of us

Some valuable lessons I learned from my first music festival

Images courtesy of Burger Records and the writer.