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So what if you're not the best?
By Fay Funk
I was thirteen the first time I saw a woman perform in a rock band. It was D’arcy Wretzky, the original bass player for the Smashing Pumpkins. I had liked the Smashing Pumpkins for a few months already, but I had never thought to look at pictures of them until I became bored one day and did a Google image search. In those images I saw someone who looked like me, doing something I never thought I could do. It caused a paradigm shift.
The Smashing Pumpkins went from a band I liked to my absolute favorite band. I also became very interested in female bass players, and spent many hours searching for bands with girls on bass. Once I found the Pixies, with their prominent and distinct bass lines, everything clicked into place. I asked my dad for a bass guitar and had my first bass lesson on January 2, 2005.
As I delved deeper to learn more about the bass player who started it all for me, I found that not everyone liked D’arcy as much as me. Anger and resentment were frequently present, but the most painful of all was the dismissal. She was a mediocre bass player at best. She didn’t even play bass on the recordings for Siamese Dream--Billy Corgan played them because he could do it in fewer takes. She was boring, mundane, and only in the band because she was beautiful. She was entirely replaceable, and contributed nothing of value to the band.
At the time those dismissals really bothered me. She couldn’t be useless—she was the person who inspired me to play. Was I aspiring to uselessness by aspiring to be like her? It didn’t feel that way, but everyone was telling me that was the case. It hurt a lot.
Those criticisms don’t bother me anymore. It’s not that they aren’t true; it’s just that I realized they aren’t really bad things. The criticisms against D’arcy are really just a description of the way bass players often are. The vitriol aimed at D’arcy is the result of intense internalized misogyny present in rock music, and not because of her failings as a bassist. There are a million and one mediocre male bass players out there, both in bands that are successful and bands that are not. D’arcy was never the most dynamic person in the band. The same is true most bass players; it’s a personality trait so common in bassists that it has become a stereotype. It’s true that D’arcy didn’t play bass on Siamese Dream, but it’s also true that James Iha didn’t play guitar for the same reasons. I’ve never seen him called talentless because of that.
D’arcy is the everyman of bass players, except that she’s a woman, and a strikingly beautiful woman during her time in the Smashing Pumpkins. That was the hardest criticism to shake, that she was only in the band for her looks. She was a mediocre bass player, so why pick her out of the scores of other mediocre bass players if not because of her beauty?
I don’t doubt that her beauty was a benefit, but I also know it was not her only contribution. Anyone who has ever been in a band knows that a lot more than musical ability goes into making that band work. Billy Corgan described D’arcy as the “moral authority” of the band, providing a sense of integrity that was fundamental to their success. I don’t think he was just saying that, either. D’arcy left the band in 1999, and the Pumpkins only lasted for one more year after.
So why the anger? Why the dismissal of D’arcy over things that are true of almost every bassist in any band? Why outright ignore her contribution to the integrity of the band and focus only on her beauty? Because people get angry when they see a woman fill the same position as a man.
When people see female musicians, they want them to be either a lot better than men or a lot worse. A female musician is only acceptable if she possesses such rare talent that one can’t possibly expect to find a man who is her equal—women like Janis Joplin, Shirley Manson, or Madonna. A female musician who is talentless can simply be ignored. But somewhere in the middle? That is a boys-only club, and they do not like women who try to enter.
The vast majority of musicians fall somewhere in the middle talent-wise. As individuals they are neither particularly bad or good, but are capable of forming really good bands should they find the right combination of chemistry, vision, and motivation. When a woman enters as a mid-level performer, men feel like they are stealing their places. These men don’t have to worry about top-level female musicians. They would never be expected to compete on that level anyway. But they have to go head-to-head with moderately good female musicians, and the idea that a woman might fit better in a given band than them is unbearable.
The reason I find D’arcy so inspiring is not because she was great, it’s because she was average. Women are not allowed to be average at anything; we have to be significantly better than men if we want any recognition. We shouldn’t have to be great; we should be allowed to be average and get the same things that average men get. D’arcy will never go down in history as the greatest bass player of all time, and once she left the Pumpkins she fell off the radar, which is to be expected for someone on her level. She did receive praise, admiration, and money for performing in the band. I think that is fair for an average bass player. It’s what average male bass players get all the time.
It is vitally important to see women occupy roles on all levels of success, not just the top. For a long time it seemed like the only option for me musically as a woman was to be the powerhouse lead singer with a larger-than-life personality. But I’ve never had that in me. As much as I like playing music I’m not comfortable being the center of attention, and have no desire to carry a band. Because I do not possess what I now realize is a rare ability, I thought I could never be in a band. It was all or nothing if you were a girl. But when I saw D’arcy I learned that there is a middle ground. I could play the music I loved in a role more suited to my personality. I could have the voice I wanted to have.
That’s something young women don’t hear often enough: you can have the voice you want to have. It’s not weak to prefer a more subtle part in the band, and it’s not obnoxious or bitchy to want to be the lead singer. The instrument a person chooses to play says a lot about who they are. For me it has been the strongest expression of self that I have ever found. And I am far from the best bassist in the world. For so long girls have been denied this sense of self by being told they aren’t good enough if they aren’t the best, that looks are their only asset, that a man is always preferable. So fuck being the best; say what you want to say, however you want to say it.