Earlier this year, Neko Case tweeted, “No, ladies in bands don’t get any action.” This caused fellow pop stars like Michelle Branch, Anya Marina and Crooked Fingers’ Miranda Brown to tweet back in agreement, adding their own laments of failure to fuck on the road.
A common truth amongst female musicians was suddenly outed. It was a big deal. Case’s comment even went so far as to inspire Ellen Campesinos (of the Arts & Crafts indie pop band Los Campesinos!) to pen an entire essay for Nerve detailing the three options women in touring bands have for a sex partner: a fan, a member of the support band or a random dude at the bar. Needless to say, none of the three options were all that great, and while some men seem to have no problem spending an evening with almost anyone, it can be tough for some women to lower their standards for a cheap night of random sex. Maybe it’s because there is a sexist expectation in rock ’n’ roll culture for male musicians to come back with a pocket full of stories of all the attention, sex and love they got from groupies (who are almost always female). No one seems to care about the female perspective — you don’t read interviews asking Wilson Phillips how many dudes they fucked on tour.
Whatever the comment, the general consensus was clear — female musicians faced sexual obstacles on tour that men didn’t, and the lack of obvious flirtation and success was annoying them. However, they didn’t really have any answers. Case admitted that she was disappointed in her 20s, but now doesn’t really care. Campesinos alluded to the same wilting shrug of an answer. But when she spoke of obstacles like a lack of space in her twin bed on her tour bus or no privacy in the four-star hotel room, I had to laugh. These aren’t obstacles! These are perks! At least for someone like me.
I play in a band called White Lung. You’ve probably never heard of us, which is why our tours lack expensive buses, fancy hotel rooms — occasionally we splurge — and privacy. There’s no “sound check” or “food and beverage rider.” White Lung tours consist of a bunch of us shoved into a van with our insane amount of personal crap and instruments piled floor to ceiling. Last summer we toured the entire continent for two months in a van with no AC, sweaty thigh to sweaty thigh. In 2010, we toured with seven people, our bags, merchandise, instruments and amps crammed into a minivan. Before that, we toured down to Los Angeles and I ended up with second-degree burns on my face from the sun. The sun! Since I couldn’t afford medical attention I had to play five shows looking like a tomato wearing an Andy Warhol wig and feeling even worse than I looked. Do you think getting laid was my top priority? No. My top priority was rubbing aloe on my face so it wouldn’t fall off.
BREAKING THE RULES
You would think that because I’m playing a show in a sweaty basement instead of a classy, 300-capacity ballroom it would be a little easier to break the strict gender rules of sexual negotiation. It’s not. The same sexual dynamics apply, but this time they are complicated even further by the fact that on a “punk” tour, you are haunted by a trail of “no”s. No privacy, no money, no phone, no space, no bed. The only “yes” you get is from Taco Bell.
Do you know what it’s like to sleep folded over like a plastic lawn chair? I do. It sucks. Have you ever tried to invite a guy to make out with you in your sleeping bag on a stranger’s living room floor? Probably not, because that would be insane. These are the lows one must stoop to in order to have sex on a White Lung tour. That’s why it rarely happens.
The point of touring isn’t to get laid, at least not for someone like me. I’m not Slash and I never will be. That said, when you’re on the road for weeks, you get stir-crazy and bored, real bored. Sometimes you just want to get some action, if only for something to do in between your set and your load-out time.
I remember last April, I was on a quick East Coast tour with the band. We were playing a packed show at a bar in Montreal. While I sat at the merch table, I scoped the crowd for attractive men. This is something I do when I’m bored at shows, which is a lot of the time. There were a myriad of impressive specimens out that night. Dirty, slightly battered boys leaned on the wall with their whisky drinks, while more collected and clean prospects cruised the merch table, occasionally asking me questions about record prices. Sadly, record prices was where the conversations both started and stopped.
We played a fast set to a receptive audience. After I got off stage, I spotted my friend Naben in the crowd. Naben lived in Montreal, worked as a teacher assistant and was one of the smartest guys I knew. As we chatted at the bar, I noticed just how many cute guys were in the room. Even though I had just been onstage, they didn’t seem to know I was alive. My ego looked like a sad-face emoticon.
“Why don’t guys hit on me on tour?” I suddenly blurted out. “Naben, I don’t get it. Why?”
Naben shook his head and laughed. I knew what he was going to say before he even said it.
“You think this is one-sided?” he asked. “You’ve got to talk to them! They are intimidated! You were just playing. They know you won’t respect them if they nerd out on you.”
Sexual negotiation exists because of a strict power dynamic. It’s this complicated push-and-pull game that keeps us so interested. I think some people call it “flirting.” Salon writer Mary Elizabeth Williams chalked up the lack of male groupies to the stereotypical gender roles of sexual negotiation in rock ’n’ roll. Williams says that even though female fans may pathetically throw themselves at huge rock stars, they are still chasing after a male of higher status. However, a lonely dude waiting outside for the female star he adores is never seen as her sexual equal.
Case said it wasn’t so much that she wanted to be hit on by lots of men, more so that she wanted to be hit on as much as her male counterparts.
Regardless, Naben was right. When you flipped the gender rules around, you had to flip all of the gender rules around. I couldn’t just sit back in the corner with a sour, disappointed look on my face and expect a trail of interesting guys to come up and talk to me. I had to do it myself. What was that thing Courtney Love said in the 1995 documentary Not Bad for a Girl? “Do not destroy yourself to get the football captain, be the football captain! It’s that simple.” It’s a great metaphor to encourage girls to stop kissing posters of Axl on their bedroom wall and, instead, pick up a guitar and get onstage. And besides, I don’t care who you are or what reproductive organ is between your legs, no one can deny that there is some kind of unexplainable sexual power that comes along with the wonderful feeling of being onstage.
A few summers ago I went on tour with my good friends Nü Sensae. Our first stop was Seattle, where we ended up crashing for a day or two because of a festival that was in town. A huge group of people had come down for the festival and we all ended up staying with the same host. It was there that I met a certain bass player from a certain internationally popular indie band from Calgary. I didn’t think much of him as we drank our faces off for two days, except for the fact that he was super funny and I didn’t mind his beard.
Fast forward a year to Sled Island, 2010. White Lung was in Calgary playing a few shows. Bass player guy was there too. We ended up seeing one another and partying because we had friends in common. There was nothing special happening between us except for endless whisky shots in someone’s backyard. The next night, my band played a big show at The Legion with Fucked Up. Bass player guy was in attendance. After the show, we all went out drinking together. At one point he pulled me aside and cooed, “I had no idea you were in a band! You were so good!”
Suddenly, he’s all over me. Maybe he had thought I was semi-attractive before, but now that I had some clout I was worth my salt in his world. I was an acceptable prospect. The swagger of sexual negotiation, especially when that so-called “star power” is involved, has zero to do with gender in the grand scheme of things. We are all attracted to confidence and power. What better way to assert that within yourself than by getting up onstage, commanding a crowd and acting like it was just another day at the office? The flirtation between the bass player and I went on all night, until he finally grabbed my face and made out with me in the parking lot at 6 a.m. We finally sealed the deal half a year later on New Year’s Eve in the city where we first met, Seattle. There was a lot leading up to this moment. He even drunkenly told my friend he was going to “stick me like a Mish-ka-bob.” When we finally hooked up, it was terrible. I don’t blame him, I blame my own drunken self. My bandmates kept busting into the room, they even stole my bra from the floor and chucked it around the party upstairs. It was one of the most embarrassing sexual encounters of my vagina’s entire career.
TROUBLE WITH TOURING
Besides the intricate game of power dynamics that exist in sexuality, the circumstances of touring make it extremely difficult to hook up. Your only privacy is in your sleeping bag and, truth be told, I’ve never brought a sleeping bag on tour. I just wing it. Most of the time, I’m not staying in a private hotel room. I’m crashing with the band we played with, friends or, if I’m lucky, sharing a Motel 6 room with the entire band. No one wants to listen to their bandmates have sex. No amount of alcohol can drown out that torture. One of my band members risked this bold move before. It was my fault, I brought back two new friends to our motel room and, as the night wore on, one of the new friends turned into a clinger. The Clinger was not going anywhere without some action. We even offered The Clinger cab fare home, but The Clinger wouldn’t leave. I passed out. When I woke up in the morning, The Clinger was still there and after a night of passion in an unnamed bandmate’s bed, the other two members were masking their disgust with anger.
Next to the sleep-time privacy issue, there is also a general consensus that, as a group, you have to stick together. When you are constantly on the move, you can’t be taking off without informing your bandmates. Do you know how embarrassing it is to have the person you’re going home with wait for you to get paid, tediously load gear, weasel your bag out the packed trunk and then ask to be picked up by your bandmates in the morning? Everyone knows everyone’s business on tour so maybe that’s why who you fuck can often turn into a gross game of show ’n’ tell.
SEX, DRUGS AND ROCK ’N’ ROLL
If rock ’n’ roll has taught the world anything, it’s that sex and drugs are a nice little sidebar. This is why Guns N’ Roses have had entire quote books published about their sexual escapades on the road, while in the biography Hammer of the Gods, Led Zeppelin is alleged to have fucked a bound groupie with bits of shark. It’s why people are enthralled with the rumour that Stevie Nicks stuck cocaine up her asshole to get high faster. It’s all part of the fantasy of rock ’n’ roll, and as stupid as it is sometimes, you want to give in to the ridiculous dream. Sometimes you get a little desperate.
I remember I once let this toothless kid kiss me at a house party show in Oregon. He had already unsuccessfully hit on everyone else. I was literally his fifth choice. It was the last night of our tour and after the toothless kid kissed me, some guy across the room yelled out, “He’s got Hep C!” This was at a place with cooked spoons lining the bathroom sink, an overflowing toilet, a black kid with a Nazi hand tattoo and a yard that was later lit on fire by the resident hooligans, so the idea of the toothless little grub having Hep C didn’t seem that far off. Fantasy of rock ’n’ roll accomplished? I don’t think so. Risk of random make-outs with junkies realized? Yep.
Look, the reason Neko Case doesn’t get laid on tour is the same reason Ellen Campesinos doesn’t get laid on tour and it’s the same reason I don’t get laid on tour: we don’t try too hard because we don’t really care. If Case wanted to fuck some hot guy who came to her show to fawn over her, she could. If Campesinos wanted to land a private make-out on her giant tour bus with that cute sound guy, she could. And if I wanted to have a disgusting orgy with all the toothless junkie punks in Oregon, I could. I’m not denying that there’s a sexist imbalance in rock ’n’ roll — there is — but the whole point of being in a band is to play music because you love music. If I wanted to get “laid” every day, I’d become a porn star.