“That was the first night I remember counting the non-white people at a show. The number fit on one hand.”
By Kika Chatterjee
My first concert was a Nevershoutnever! show in 2010. That’s right—ukulele-brandishing, excessively-flat-ironed scene sweetheart Nevershoutnever!. And of course, I made all the best first concert memories: sweaty, tightly packed crowds of teens singing in unison; buying my first concert t-shirts; standing outside for what seemed like hours waiting to meet the bands.
That was also the first night I remember counting the non-white people at a show. The number fit on one hand.
I’ll spare you an extensive tour through my music taste, but think Warped Tour neon pop and you’d be on the right track. Desperately wanting to become that concertgoer, I clad myself in Hot Topic and clipped in hot-pink hair extensions. And once I found Paramore, I was in it for life.
I was raised in the ABC Family-grade public schools of suburban Ohio. My closest friends loved to tell me that they “always forgot I wasn’t white”, which in a twisted way was my favorite thing to hear—it felt like a reinforcement of my own defense mechanism; every day my friends forgot I was Indian was another day safe from facing the downsides of my identity. I traipsed through high school like a criminal waiting to be found out.
In the throes of adolescence, I fell into the traps of mental illness and self-harm, for which “the scene” is both a haven and a healer. These spaces, both in reality at shows and online in fandom communities, became my home. In rooms of white people, it was easy to forget I wasn’t one myself. All our differences melted away when the music started to play. In that moment, these stories—the ones about straight white boys and girls in love—became mine. For a few moments, I could suspend my disbelief long enough to convince myself that these stories were about me: this was my family, even if they didn’t look like me.
But as I started drifting away from my middle school music taste (as we all do at some point), it got harder to forget who I was. Thanks to a move to the blue state of Massachusetts – combined with a few Women’s Studies classes – I finally settled into the most authentic version of myself: a brown, lesbian woman. The antithesis of everything with which I had once associated myself; the foil to an identity that I had once thought was mine.
I couldn’t listen to the same songs anymore without focusing on the fact that some of them were about slut-shaming women. I couldn’t read a tour announcement without feeling my heart sink that the lineup was 100% straight white men.
The scene no longer had a place for me. Listening to bands that had been the pinnacle of my adolescence felt like staring into the windows of an abandoned house, squinting to try and make out the life that used to be there before.
There is pain that comes with that realization. I have friends that talk about “taking off the feminist goggles,” which is to say that being “woke” can be tiring when everything you consume seems to sting, so sometimes it’s easier to forget about your values for the sake of enjoyment (and sanity). And it sort of worked, for a while. I took off the goggles for as long as I could, and I was content. Until that shifted and suddenly I wasn’t content, and all I felt were the scraggly fault lines that separated me from what I thought I was. Trapped in my own skin, I was, and am, a minority in a scene that is still overwhelmingly white.
It took that shift to realize why Paramore has always been and will always be my favorite band — they were the first to show me a woman doing what seemed like the impossible. At the same time, I clung feverishly to Lynn Gunn of PVRIS and Julien Baker, both of whom are vocal lesbian women. It’s a simple answer to the question of why representation matters: these bands gave me a narrative, of love and of loss, that I could truly relate to. In the process (read: HAVOC! CHAOS!) of realizing I was gay, the constant bombardment in music of love songs by straight white boys about straight white girls wasn’t helping.
It wasn’t a clean break. In the Alternative Press office – where I worked for two consecutive summers – I was far from the only woman, LGBT person, or person of color. Yet, the ache still lingered. Cycling and recycling the same names through my mouth and keyboard all day (State Champs, Knuckle Puck and Neck Deep; State Champs, Knuckle Puck and Neck Deep) sat like a weight in my stomach. I love these bands, but it had become a frequent reminder that I still couldn’t find myself represented in a scene which remained so homogenous.
The funny thing is that despite knowing all this, I still don’t want out. And I think it’s for the same reasons I fell in love in the first place. For all the straightwhiteman-ness of bands, their fandoms can be microcosms of various LGBTQ+, mental health and POC identities, centralized via the internet. They are an oxymoron; an outcast island where everyone is welcome. Even you. Even me. Music gives us all a safe space.
Bands like PWR BTTM and Speedy Ortiz have undoubtedly had an impact on gig etiquette in the scene: their respective initiatives to demand gender neutral bathrooms in the venues and set up helplines for shows have gone on to inspire larger bands like Modern Baseball to do the same.
Equally as important are the fans of Modern Baseball, who were quick to take the band to task for their failure to bring any women on tour with them during their latest run. It’s living proof that behind every progressive movement are the activists and allies that pushed that movement forward and continue to ask bands to do better.
Right there next to them are the incredible women out there on the front lines pushing the scene to do better, like Girls Behind the Rock Show, Girls Against, Defend Girls Not Pop Punk, and anyone who has ever booked an all-female show. All these people, the ones who are fighting to make the scene show its worth because they love it, are the ones who push other bands to do better for all of us.
To all of them: thank you for being you unapologetically.
A little while ago, I went to the super-stacked Real Friends and Knuckle Puck Holiday Show in Chicago. Seven amazing bands— almost good enough for me to forget that the lineup was practically all straight white men. But then something happened during the last set of the night. Dan Lambton of Real Friends introduced his next song by apologizing for the fact that it could be construed as demeaning to women.
And then it happened again, and again and again. He talked about the importance of pursuing mental health services; how men like him have had it better off than anybody; how he’s tapped into his own Latino identity through music. He pressed that the scene needed to work harder to be inclusive, that it could be doing more if they included people of different identities.
When you are a minority, sometimes it stings to hear this, even when it’s the words you want to hear. After all this time counting the audience members who look like you on one hand, after promoting equality by demanding inclusivity and respect in the scene, after allowing yourself to suffer through being silenced—one white man speaks, and he is met with applause. It feels like all this time, you’ve just been screaming underwater.
But simultaneously, there’s relief in hearing people cheer for accepting people of color, women and gay people—accepting me. It felt like a small weight that had been amassing in me over the course of the show had lifted, just a little.
It’s moments like those that help me believe in change for the scene that took me in during my formative years. I’m confident that in the coming years, not only will we continue to improve, but all the efforts of the activists working behind the scenes will come to the surface and be recognized in the mainstream.
That inclusivity is going to pay off in huge dividends, for the bettering of both the fans and the music itself. What if the scene had equal proportions of gender identities, of color, of sexual orientations, abilities and body types? What kind of stories would we be able to tell? Whose lives could we tap into with the power of music? Isn’t that what music is supposed to do in the first place?
Progress is an interesting word. At its core, it’s about moving forward. But for minorities, it’s more like reparations for all the pain we’ve gone through in the past. For us, progress is also forgiveness. I love this scene enough to come home, even though sometimes it feels like it has broken my heart and healed it a million times over. But more than that, I love it enough to help change it for the better.