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The problem with Aus Rock

On toxic masculinity in the Australian pub rock scene.

Live music, for many women and non-cis male people, is a fiercely love-hate relationship.

It’s the rush of your favourite band, the feeling of your sweaty mate crashing into you, the camaraderie of being in a room full of people all there for the same reason.

It’s also the hurt of knowing you’re often not included in the lawless white boys club that controls it. That’s why there’s been a strong conversation brewing about toxic masculinity in Australia’s live music industry. 

Over the last few weeks I’ve brought up this article with a lot of women I know. The first words to come out of most of their mouths were stories about being treated like shit at gigs. The next ones were:

Oh God, talk about Sticky Fingers.

In December 2016, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Dylan Frost, the band’s frontman, had racially abused Indigenous singer-songwriter Thelma Plum. Allegedly, he was verbally abusive and spat on her in an event in which Plum described she had “never felt so unsafe.” He was later accused of further racial taunts against Indigenous band Dispossessed, in response to them speaking about the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre on stage.

The most telling part about Sticky Fingers and their fall out is not just the incidents themselves; it’s Frost’s response. He never apologised for being racist, denied that the Dispossessed event occured, and blamed bad behaviour on mental health issues.

He had the opportunity to set a precedent for apology and self growth, yet instead he deflected. However, he’s not the only one. Sticky Fingers are only a symptom of the pattern: abuse, get called out, deflect, move on. 

Sticky Fingers are still given airplay, and in March this year featured on Triple J’s hottest 100 of the decade. 

In February 2019 Smith Street Band lead singer, Will Wagner, was publicly accused of emotional abuse by his ex-girlfriend, Camp Cope lead singer Georgia McDonald. McDonald aired a number of text messages and emails detailing manipulative abuse from Wagner. Some of his threats included killing both himself and her.

In Wagner’s public response, he said the texts and emails had been “selectively shown out of context accompanied by one-sided statements.”

This culture of  unaccountability flows right into the way women are treated at gigs.

I spoke to Maisie from Melbourne bands Clamm and The Belair Lip Bombs about mansplaining, toxic masculinity and her experience of being a young woman in the live music scene. 

“I’ve been mansplained to a lot at gigs, by punters in the crowd or even venue workers… one time at a gig I was having trouble hooking up my bass to the DI box and I asked the sound guy for some help. He got kinda passive aggressive at me and said “I feel like I’m your teacher”… After we’d played the set he came up to me all sheepish and was like “hey you’re really good, did you study music or something?” He had treated my male band mates with respect from the very start. Little things like that that are hardly even memorable and are so subtle, but they can wear you down a lot of the time.”

This culture of mansplaining is no surprise when women occupy a slither of sound technician and production positions.

“On a weird flip side sometimes I have been overly praised for my set. The whole, you’re so good for a girl concept is still very much alive and that is something I want to see squashed, I just wanna see men and women as equal in the music scene and both treated with the same amount of genuine respect.”

It’s starting to look like that’s happening.

According to Triple J Hack’s annual report into the representation of women in Australian music, women and non-binary people now study music in high school at the same rate as men. And due to strong conversations about the lack of gender-parity in festival lineups, festivals like Groovin the Moo and Falls are starting to listen, with 43% of Groovin acts having at least one woman and Falls closing its gender gap completely in 2018.

Of course, however, fairness is not trickle-down, and there’s a lot of work to be done in the space between diverse acts and safe gigs. 

The longer men live in a lawless kingdom where they can abuse women and minorities and still get played on supposedly progressive stations like Triple J, the longer women will feel unsafe and unwelcome. 

Dune Rats are a Queensland band with thick accents and masculinity to show for it. They are one of many young all male groups who confuse nostalgia and Australianism with abusive behaviour. Blokes being blokes. 

In 2014 they posted a status to Facebook and Twitter which read “do you guys want to make a Dune Rats Tinder and just gang bang chicks.” It has thousands of likes, and is still online.

Two years later, in 2016, one of their band members was accused of sexual assault online. They responded with a laughing eyes emoji. The same year, they dedicated a song at the Tivoli “to all the sexy ugly chicks.”

In 2017, Triple J described Dune Rats as a “a super-fun, mega-hot mess, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”

In 2019 they successfully toured Australia.

It’s hard to see hope in all of this, but it’s there. It’s in classrooms full of girls studying music, it’s in conversations at pubs between women building solidarity and strength, and it’s starting to be in the industry.

When Will Wagner’s behaviour became public, The Beths and Sweater Curse, who were supposed to be opening for the Smith Street Band on their tour, announced they were pulling out. 

“We don’t want to stand with the abuser and we stand with the victims involved,” The Beths said in a statement

It’s going to take a long time for women to stop being pushed around in crowds, but moves like that make it seem more possible. 

Maisie spoke to me about this, saying she thinks “the Melbourne scene at least is progressing really well in terms of gender equality in music and it’s great. There’s heaps more female led bands and musicians popping up and playing gigs and getting the recognition they deserve, and having bad experiences at gigs is generally pretty few and far between – for me anyway.”

Change will take time to translate from classrooms to gigs, but if we keep pushing to the front of crowds, we’ll get there.

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