This past year has seen an upsurge in the fight against sexism in the music industry, with several high-profile stories gaining national attention. In a Pitchfork piece early last year, journalist Jessica Hopper asked, “Why are misogynist lyrics still entertainment in 2015?” Then, in August, Hopper used Twitter to crowdsource stories from hundreds of women — both music fans and artists — who said they felt subjected to sexism during shows, in the music they listened to, by businessmen and more. And just last month, well-known music publicist Heathcliff Berru was accused of sexual harassment on Twitter by a number of female musicians, including the frontwomen for the bands Dirty Projectors and Best Coast, forcing him to resign from his position and issue a statement of apology.
Denver, of course, is not immune to this broader discussion. It was within this national context that local band In the Whale was accused of sexism on Facebook in late January. The accusations were a response to quotes from interviews with the band, as well as certain lyrics, including those in the song “34-28-32” that describe supposed ideal measurements for a woman.
Bandmembers Nate Valdez and Eric Riley were inside a recording studio when they heard about the Facebook post; a friend had contacted them about it. The following is an excerpt from the post, which was written on local punk band Chase Ambler’s page:
Valdez and Riley were taken aback by the accusation. Via e-mail and phone, they told Westword that they were surprised that Chase Ambler never reached out to them personally before writing the January 20 post. “If you have a problem with somebody — I don’t know about you, but as a mature adult, I prefer to talk to the source,” says Valdez. “But we tried to block it out [at the time] so we could focus on recording.”
In the following days, however, it proved impossible for the duo to ignore Chase Ambler’s statement as it rippled through Denver’s tight-knit rock and punk communities, especially when another group, Old Sport, also dropped out of the Fort Collins show and issued its own statement on Facebook:
Although Old Sport declined to be interviewed, bandmember Amos Helvey said in an e-mail, “It was a mistake to agree to play this show in the first place.”
Chase Ambler and the promoter of the show, Soda Jerk Presents, also declined to be interviewed for this story, but the members of Chase Ambler say that they stick by any statements and comments they made on their Facebook page.
Among those are allegations of sexism exhibited in some of In the Whale’s lyrics and quotes, which Chase Ambler excerpted in comments below the group’s initial post. Some of the quotes, such as the following, come from a 2012 Westword interview with In the Whale:
A lot of our music is pretty masculine and testosterone-driven. It’s all about pursuing a woman, trying to get into a chick’s pants. I feel like everyone has that side to them. We’re both stand-up guys, and we would never sexually assault anyone or anything like that; we don’t look at porn five hours a day. But I think everyone has that little bit of devil in them. It’s something you have to battle, and a lot of people don’t necessarily explore that in their subject matter.
In response to allegations that these quotes exhibit a sexist viewpoint, Valdez says, “The articles quoted are from 2012 and are arguably the first real press Eric and I ever received. Reading the quotes now is not easy; they were in poor taste, and not the way I would like to be portrayed in 2016. While the person who made the post in question was able to cherry-pick some very negative things, it didn’t address the very obvious joking nature of most of the article. We were very green, doing our best to perpetuate a false bravado, and we said things that on paper don’t translate well to what we were attempting out there.”
The band and its manager, Dan Rutherford, also suggest that the accusations from the other bands could be a way of getting attention. “This discussion has given Chase Ambler and Old Sport more press and name recognition than they’ve ever received to date,” Rutherford points out. “While I’d like to believe that people don’t make tactical decisions based on the opportunity to gain publicity and advance their name, I would be naive in saying that’s not what drives many in the up-and-coming generation of artists.”
Any personal differences between these artists aside, these public social-media posts are also notable for having initiated a broader conversation about sexism in Denver’s music scene; what began as one artist’s criticisms of another became a wider discussion about misogyny and gender, especially once women began commenting on the threads. Some even commented that Chase Ambler’s statement, which was attempting to defend women, contained a few lines that were inadvertently sexist.
One such commenter was Kaitlin de la Garza, who noted:
De la Garza, who is around a lot of male musicians in her job at the Mercury Cafe, adds that she regularly encounters loaded language like this and was trying to bring it to the attention of Chase Ambler, which is an all-male group. “I think that even the best of the best — even a band who stands up to sexism and sees it and is able to point it out and get people to say no to it — they have an internalized bias where they will write something like [that] and have no idea,” she explains. “It’s just something that they maybe didn’t know the right way to represent it. So it is important to also get women in there and ask women, ‘What do you think about this?’”
As women in Denver’s music community, Ru Johnson and Kalyn Heffernan think about it a lot.
Johnson, who owns entertainment consulting firm Roux Black and is one of the few writers of either sex to cover hip-hop in Denver (and has written for Westword), thinks that it is important to note that sexism in the music industry is far from exclusive to the Mile High City. “When you look at this on a larger level and on a larger scale, the music industry has always been male-dominated. Ninety percent of the people who I come into contact with — who, so to speak, ‘run the show’ — are all men,” she says. “But in terms of sexism in Denver, especially in the hip-hop community, having to present as someone with a viable opinion about the scene, I wish I could tell you how many times I was accused of sleeping with rappers or sleeping with other people with power in the community as a means of getting on the inside track. People can’t actually fathom that a woman who’s not from Colorado, who’s not a rapper, not a poet, not a performer in any capacity, would be able to make such strides in a male-dominated industry. So they naturally assume that you get into the office and get on your knees, because that’s how they think it’s traditionally been done.”
Johnson insists that she’s not just speculating about accusations that she would “soften up and fuck the boss.” “These are conversations people have with me all the time,” she says. “Oh, and for the record, it’s not true.”
Johnson takes inspiration from women who are fighting back by forming female-centered groups, defying stereotypes and educating one another, but she’s tired of female artists in Denver being passed up for performance spots. “A lot of women in this town are crushing it. In the EDM scene, you have amazing DJs like Rosa Sparks. And in the hip-hop scene, there’s Koo Qua and bunch of women who are killing it. But they get overlooked.”
Even if they don’t think of themselves as sexist, musicians like those in In the Whale should be cognizant of how their lyrics can be perceived by women, Johnson adds. “If a band feels comfortable enough to present this perspective about women in their music and then say, ‘Oh, no, it’s just the music. In my real life, I’m a nice guy. I have a sister, I have a mom,’ then they’re totally missing the point. We’re talking about the micro-agressions of thinking that it’s okay to present like that in your music while thinking that your music is separate from who you are as a person.”
Kalyn Heffernan, another well-known fixture of Denver’s music scene and frontwoman for the experimental hip-hop group Wheelchair Sports Camp, would also like men to know how some of the messages they convey — such as the “Where the whores at?” lyrics that were shouted at a concert she attended recently — can serve to create an unwelcome and oppressive environment for women.
After that show, Heffernan posted her own Facebook statement on January 12, an excerpt of which reads as follows:
But while Heffernan’s Facebook post, like Chase Ambler’s, received significant attention online, she says that calling out artists and having conversations with men about sexism can lead to exhausting arguments that ultimately drain her of time and patience. “Some days I have the energy to pop off and say, ‘I’m sick of this shit,’ and there’s other days where I’m just trying to create my art,” she says.
Heffernan does reach a point, however, when she can’t hold back. “If there’s any kind of violence against women, that’s my line,” she says.
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She gives the example of a hip-hop group in Denver that used to make promotional posters and album covers that featured bloody women. One graphic that the group released was of a woman dead in a bathtub. An album cover featured a girl who had fallen through a glass table and was covered with lacerations.
“That just fucking crosses the line for me, because I’ve lost a best friend to murder from her ex-boyfriend,” Heffernan says. “And as I’m getting older, doing more shows and being a teacher [at Youth on Record] and encouraging so many of my female students to be an active part of the Denver community, it’s not fair for me to push them into this scene if I don’t think this scene is supportive or safe for them. So I’m getting to this point in my life where I feel way more obligated to speak out about it.”
In the Whale is currently touring out of state. But since being approached by Westword for this story, Riley and Valdez have encouraged music fans to come to their shows once they return to Denver. “To anyone who hasn’t heard In the Whale, before passing judgment or taking the advice of Internet trolls, take the time to come to a show,” Riley says. “You don’t read the comments on a news site and take those as fact. The same thing [applies] here.”
It is the hope of Heffernan and Johnson that these conversations will result in Denver’s music scene being more inclusive and respectful toward women going forward. It’s also why Facebook posts like the ones concerning In the Whale, regardless of the validity of their allegations, have generated such interest from women like de la Garza, who have taken the opportunity to convey how often they feel subjected to sexism in the music community.