Girlschool's Anna Bulbrook and Shirley Manson: 'Women are roaring back in a massive way'

Shirley Manson, left, and Anna Bulbrook at Girlschool 2017. (Photo: Facebook)
Shirley Manson, left, and Anna Bulbrook at Girlschool 2017. (Photo: Facebook)

As the third annual Girlschool festival takes place in Los Angeles this weekend, its voices — which this year include Garbage’s Shirley Manson with the Girlschool Choir, Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein in conversation with poet Morgan Parker, Pussy Riot-affiliated rapper Desi Mo, and the Dum Dum Girls’ Kristin Kontrol — are needed now more than ever. Following a disappointing Grammys, at which few women won any actual awards and Recording Academy president Neil Portnow controversially placed the blame on female artists, telling women they need to “step up” — Girlschool provides a sense of community “for women that don’t get the opportunity to be heard on mainstream media outlets and platforms,” Manson tells Yahoo Entertainment. “You don’t hear these voices very much at all in our culture currently. That’s what I think’s so magical about Girlschool.”

The Girlschool artistic collective was founded by Anna Bulbrook of the Airborne Toxic Event (a classically trained violinist who’s also played with Kanye West, Beyoncé, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and Vampire Weekend) to “celebrate, connect, and lift women-identified artists, leaders, and voices.” Speaking with Yahoo about this year’s event in a candid roundtable with Manson (who was last year’s Girlschool keynote speaker), the conversation gets heavy at times, but Bullbrook can’t suppress her giddy excitement over this year’s Girlschool lineup. “It’s going to be unmissable, and if you miss it, you will probably have FOMO for the rest of your life,” she enthuses. “Everybody deserves a chance to be heard, but also everybody’s so good, you’re going to want to hear them.”

Read on for Bulbrook and Manson’s thoughts on gender equality and inclusivity in music, the Time’s Up movement, why the progress that women made in the ’90s frustratingly stalled, their hopes for the future, and the power of “positive discrimination.”

Yahoo Entertainment: Shirley, how did you come to be a part of Girlschool?

Shirley Manson: I just really admired what Anna was doing, and I felt it was really vital what she was doing at that particular time. As time has unfolded since we connected, I couldn’t be more right. The need for the kind of advocacy that Anna’s doing is more vital than ever. I was really inspired when I met her, and I’ve stalked her on social media ever since, and been blown away by how much she actually does. We’re all guilty of talking a lot, just saying, “I’m supporting and doing this and doing that,” but Anna has been able to do things for other people, and I really respect that.

Yahoo Entertainment: Anna, why did you decide to start Girlschool? Did your own experience as a musician in a male-dominated field make you want to take action?

Anna Bulbrook: Yes. I think especially in the wake of this [USC] study [about the lack of representation of women in music] that was just released this week; we’ve all seen the statistics, which very much confirm my experience — our experiences as the female members of the bands that we’ve been in, and coming from the rock space. It’s a very lonely position to be in. … It wasn’t until probably eight years that I started to really notice and miss the company of other women. I had this perspective-shifting experience with Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls L.A. I was a speaker, and it was the first time I’ve ever been in a space that was 100 percent women-identified people coming together in an intentionally positive way around making music. I’d never had that experience. After that experience, I was so hungry for more of that. I couldn’t unsee what I had seen, and I couldn’t exist without it going forward.

I’m actually really excited that we actually have hard data now that we can point to and say, “This is a problem, look. We’re not just making it up. There really is this incredible disparity.” What would music sound like if it were more inclusive? What would happen if all the incredible women producers that I know were actually given a chance to make a record, or someone would take a chance on them with a budget? What would happen if songwriters were women too? What would music sound like? It’s very exciting to have truth and have facts that we can look at, that we can actually assess where we are, then keep working towards a beautiful, brighter future — look back at the numbers and see if you’ve measurably moved the needle.

Manson: Statistics are really depressing. We all know that that’s not because women aren’t great musicians. There’s something amiss here. I guess we’re all trying to struggle to figure out why this is the case, whether it’s that women don’t have the confidence necessarily to push themselves into the spotlight, or whether they’ve not been given the chance to stand in the spotlight. I think there are multiple reasons why women are not engaged in music in the same way as their male counterparts. That has to change, and I think what Anna is doing, it’s positively trying to change how women view themselves and to give them this confidence and joy — the joy that you get from playing music.

Yahoo Entertainment: The ’90s, an era when Garbage came to prominence, is a decade I look back on fondly. At that time, it seemed like the issues we’re discussing now were in the process of being erased. So many bands that I like were coed, or all-women bands, or female-fronted. Lilith Fair, Alanis Morissette, Riot Grrrl, Courtney Love, the Breeders, Liz Phair — the list goes on. Then I feel like everything regressed, or it stopped. Do you have any thoughts as to why that progress didn’t continue?

Manson: I’ve been saying this for years now. I think when Sept. 11 occurred, it not only was a horrendous tragedy, but it affected the culture and it affected American radio programming. All of a sudden, everybody in the world felt really unsafe in ways that we had never ever felt before. As a result, humanity gets conservative. When humanity feels under attack, when it feels threatened, it gets conservative, and nobody wants a woman with opinions, or an aggressive woman, or a powerful woman, at times when white men are feeling under threat. It’s oversimplifying it to put it like that, but I do essentially believe that that is what was at play. Like you say, everything was on this amazing trajectory, and then all of a sudden it was like the car turned around and headed back down the road. It’s never changed direction since. It’s really rather frightening and really disheartening because when we emerged in the ’90s, it really felt like women were piercing through the glass ceiling. In some ways we definitely were, but unfortunately, that change has not continued.

You mentioned Lilith Fair. I didn’t want to participate in Lilith Fair. By the time we were invited to go on that tour, I didn’t want to do a fully female-oriented festival. It was against everything I believed in. But now I feel like it’s necessary for me to put my weight behind women’s interests. I feel like that because the times have changed. The climate’s different, and I think it’s a matter of urgency for women to galvanize.

Yahoo Entertainment: That is an interesting point, actually, because there is a mindset that sometimes doing things that are solely all about being women, whether it’s Lilith Fair or the She Rocks Awards, or even Girlschool, it’s making women be “other,” putting them off in a little side category.

Bulbrook: Actually, Shirley and I were talking about this. As two women in bands that have had some levels of success, we don’t have that many peers. I would say just from my experience being out there in the professional landscape, life got very lonely. So just the experience of seeing so many women-identified people as artists, technical people, and speakers in one place, it’s so exciting. I think that is the intention behind a lot of girls’ groups: When there’s a lot of really amazing people together who feel some kind of kinship with each other, that feeling of community feels very enriching. And I think if you do it in a way that is inclusive and includes everybody on the gender spectrum — and that includes men — then you’re creating something really beautiful, exciting, and positive. It involves the whole community. I do agree that if you completely separate yourself, it’s not as effective as it could be.

Manson: I think when I was younger, I guess I didn’t believe in “positive discrimination,” and now as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized we will never break the mold and the old patriarchy unless we do recognize that women of all colors are not as privileged as men of all colors. There has to be some way that we break that. A lot of people point at positive discrimination and say, “This isn’t cool.” I was guilty of that myself when I was younger. But the political climate is such and the actual statistics are such that I really feel that positive discrimination is the only way we will actually change the course.

Bulbrook: I tend to think this about feminism in general, but I think it has to be inclusive and representative across the board: color, identity, religion, ability. I feel like it’s really incredibly important to make sure that if we want to move forward, we do it together, and we do it from a very intentional and considered way. I feel like any effort which just is one group of people, one type of woman, so to speak, misses the point entirely.

Yahoo Entertainment: At Girlschool last year, there was a panel discussion about sexual harassment in the music business. This was well before harassment became the topic of national discussion that it is now.

Bulbrook: I think these things go in cycles in the media. I am heartened to see so many people engaging with it, and I hope that the process of building a big cultural moment actually results in people teaching our children how to be better people, people teaching their children about equality, people teaching their children about consent and what it means to be a good person, no matter what your gender is. I really hope that we see some change from this, but I think to be a woman in the world is to engage with the constant fear of sexual harassment and the fear of sexual assault. … I would love to see a world that feels like Girlschool, where when you’re there, you actually don’t have to worry about that for a little while.

Yahoo Entertainment: Sometimes I do worry that #MeToo and Time’s Up will be seen as some “hot new trend” — meaning, the media will get tired of reporting about it, or people will be tired of reading about it, just because there’s been such a media saturation for the last six months or so. I almost fear people will fatigue of these stories and then not take them seriously anymore.

Manson: I feel a little concerned too, that people’s ears just start to shut down and get bored and move on to another topic. But I do agree with Anna. I feel like the conversation is being had and it is a really significant cultural moment, and it’s on everybody’s lips. I think that will affect a generation of men and women — or everyone on the spectrum, let’s say. I think it’s never going to change people who have serious sexual problems. There’s always going to be predators out there, and they will prey on anyone. No amount of discussion and no amount of analysis will ever change that; some people are sick in the head, and that’s just how it goes. But I do think it will give pause to the average [man of] power and privilege that thinks he can just take what he wants, when he wants, without consequence. I do think that’s one of the greatest things that we’ll take from this moment in time.

Above all things, we must encourage people to speak out, and continue to speak out. It’s about using your voice. If you don’t use your voice, you’re eradicated by history. That’s just how it’s always been. You must be a witness to your own experience. And at this time when we’re all so busy broadcasting, we really all need to stop and listen, and actually pay attention, and see, and hear, and try, and reeducate our children. A lot of it’s about education. It’s about teaching people what is right and what is wrong, what’s appropriate and what’s not.

Yahoo Entertainment: Do either of you have any stories about how you’ve been discriminated against, or just in general treated differently, poorly, because of your gender?

Bulbrook: Well, I think the insidious thing about bias is sometimes it’s hard to see it. I think it’s hard to even know when it’s happening to you, because we’re all biased. The sad thing is, everybody is biased against women — including other women. We might just look at two people, two different candidates for something, and think one is just worse for some reason. We don’t know why, but one happens to be the woman-identified candidate. It blew my mind when I actually started understanding the idea of bias and looked around. I started to see it everywhere — in myself, in others, in experiences I’ve had. I look backwards with a whole new pair of glasses and can see all of these colors I’ve never seen before.

I’ve had those very obvious experiences where the label executive suggested I wear a see-through skirt in New York City for a photo shoot. This was the head of the label, who holds the purse-strings for the marketing budget. Some members of my band were like, “Don’t do that. You’re going to be uncomfortable.” I was like, “Really? You want me to show my butt?” Some of that stuff happens, but I feel like more often than not, because I was with really good people, the way it plays out is much more subtle and hard to notice, unless you actually open your eyes to it. I know Shirley’s had some other experiences.

Manson: I feel like it happens to women every day, in really subtle ways. As Anna said so rightly, often you can be slow yourself to detect it, to have a clarity about what has happened. You’re not always aware of that when all the male record execs are commenting on your hairstyle. It’s only a few years later that I’m thinking, “What the f***? What’s my hair got to do with you? You wouldn’t be talking about a male artist in this way!” I was an object. I was too young, and too naïve, and too vain to really detect it at the time, but now looking back, I’m like, “That was just ridiculous.” More than that, I think in business I have just been completely ignored a lot of the time by male lawyers, and managers, and business managers. Everything’s directed towards my male counterparts. They would talk to me maybe about what shoes I wanted to wear. It continues to this day.

Yahoo Entertainment: How did you handle that, especially when you were first starting out?

Manson: I’m very aware that during the very first part of my career, I played submissive dog all the time. I wouldn’t come into a work situation and say, “This hi-hat doesn’t sound good to me.” I would fudge the margins and deliberately dumb myself down, use simple language and try not to be threatening. I would never take ownership over any directive. I knew that if I didn’t act like a submissive dog, I wouldn’t get what I wanted. Men don’t have to do that; women continue to have to do that often. You’ll see it in a lot of female execs. They’re very fun, and energetic. I feel that that’s methodology to get what they want, but men can be as grumpy and unpleasant as they wish and nobody has a word to say about it. If a woman acts that way, she’s a c***, literally. She’s a “bossy c***.”

Yahoo Entertainment: It’s interesting to talk about this stuff, because the recent onslaught of media headlines is definitely more focused on the crazy, shocking, violent stories. But these stories you’re telling now are also important. I think it’s important to talk about how incidents that maybe don’t seem nearly as dramatic, or traumatic, also take their toll.

Bulbrook: I’m hoping that Girlschool can create a really warm, engaging, and high-quality story around this incredible talent and create enough of a conduit so that we can start catapulting more artists who are already here. The industry is full of talented women who are working in the music space in some capacity. Let’s start pushing them into opportunities out in the mainstream, and let’s start pushing them and giving them the experience they need to go get a paying job. Let’s create jobs for them, so then they have the experience at a high level where someone finds them undeniable. If you can create this positive and action-oriented space, it’s also just really fun to be a part of. I’m hopeful about where we can go with things in the future. This is really positive for all of us who are involved in it.

Yahoo Entertainment: I love the idea of community, because you touched on something interesting: women sometimes being biased against other women. I think that is such a shame.

Bulbrook: I feel like, yes, there’s bias, but it is a myth that women don’t support each other. I think when given the opportunity, we do. It’s magic, it’s incredible. I can’t feel anything other than hopeful, because of what I see every day in my personal experience and work. I see too many good things that happen when women come together to believe that we’re not supportive of each other.

Manson: Well, I have to disagree and agree. I’ve been on the receiving end of both situations. I’ve enjoyed phenomenal support from incredible women, and I’ve also seen the panicked, fearful, defensive approach by a lot of other female artists who never, ever seem interested in supporting or speaking out on behalf of another female artist. I think ultimately it speaks of the way our culture is, which is all based on fear of lack of opportunity. For women in general who are getting less opportunity than their white male counterparts, I think they feel if one woman flourishes, automatically all the other women in the room don’t. Of course, I don’t believe that’s the case at all, and until women really support the women they see flourishing, we’ll never change the lack of opportunities. Similarly, white women have to get the backs of their black sisters and women of color. We all have to start recognizing how can we break down the system that we are currently oppressed under. These are big words and it sounds dramatic — but I think it is quite dramatic, really.

I think, again, it goes back to education. We need to educate our children differently. We’re still teaching them that girls do housework and boys get to run out and get dirty in the yard. It’s just crazy that these stereotypes still exist. We have yet to really break that down. I just feel like boys are encouraged to take up room, and girls are encouraged to make themselves small. Boys are encouraged to be loud and boisterous; girls are supposed to be ladylike and quiet. I think all these things are what lead to these weird imbalances in our culture, and it has to change. This is not good for anyone. Yes, particularly in the arts, you’ll find pockets of incredibly supportive women collectives and movements, but out in the world at large I don’t see a lot of support from women for other women. I see a lot of bitchiness, criticism, judgments, and snickering behind girls’ backs. I don’t know, that’s just my perception of the world. I’ve worked with men a lot in my career, and men are much more forgiving to themselves and to each other. Women are really unforgiving of themselves and each other. These are sweeping statements, and it’s not by any means a rule of thumb, but that’s what I’ve witnessed in my life.

Yahoo Entertainment: How do you see what’s going on musically now — especially as it pertains to women-identified artists — reflecting what’s going on politically, culturally? And where is that going?

Bulbrook: I’m just so deep in this festival coming up, and I’m just excited about what we have around us. I’m enthralled with how much different talent there is. I’m excited to see what happens when we get all those different people together under one roof, bringing different audiences together. I feel what’s happening, especially with people ages 15 to 25 these days, around gender and unboxing these gender types and creating a bit more freedom within everything. I feel so hopeful. I know that history and statistics show that maybe I shouldn’t be hopeful, because it’s really hard to make a change, but I have to believe in a better future — because if I didn’t, what would I work towards?

Manson: I also feel really optimistic, and I feel that there’s a whole new wave of really provocative, smart, informed women making music that’s much more rebellious/provocative than the last 20, 15 years. I feel like there’s a real upswell from women who have something to say, who are not interested in putting on a leotard and singing pop music. Now, that is a huge shift, because certainly 10 years ago, that’s all you saw: girls wanting to be pretty. They were all wearing long nails painted glamorously, they were all very ladylike, and they were all singing pop songs either about having a great time in a club, falling in love, having their hearts broken, or being forever young. Things have definitely shifted.

I feel like we have had 20 years of forceful women being pushed back; now the women are roaring back in a massive way. And I do feel that that will then, again, push women’s rights and women’s fortunes forward. Let’s face it, I have a better life than my mum did. My mum didn’t get to choose what she did for a living. My mum basically would keep house, and get a f***ing allowance from my father. I grew up in a very conservative household, and my granny also didn’t have freedom. And neither did her mother before her. I do believe in the concept of evolution really strongly. When I talk to young women now, they’re way smarter than I ever was. So, I just have to believe that the next generation are going to continue that. Human nature is going to continue to evolve, and everything’s going to be OK in the end.

Girlschool takes place Feb. 2-4 at the Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles. Click here for tickets and the full lineup.