On Watching Boys Play Music

“With a drink in my hand and earplugs responsibly in place, I’m very aware that I’ve spent more than half my life essentially standing in the same spot: off to one side of the stage (close but not too close), eyes forward, shifting weight from foot to foot.”

Read an introduction to the series.

Eryn Loeb | Longreads | April 2020 | 16 minutes (4,059 words)

Hive is a Longreads series about women and the music that has influenced them.

* * *

Three songs into their set, the band has gotten loose and they’re starting to sweat under the stage lights. From where I’m standing a few feet away, I can watch the four guys — a standard formation, with the singer playing guitar, flanked by a second guitarist, a bass player, and a drummer — grimace and grin. The music is feverish, a hook-y mix of ’90s rock and country twang. Playing it, they look expert and at ease, like they’re exactly where they’re supposed to be. 

The lead guitar player is my husband. He’s been in a few bands since we got together more than a dozen years ago, and a few before that. Rousing and charismatic, easy to move to, this is the best of them. 

With a drink in my hand and earplugs responsibly in place, I’m very aware that I’ve spent more than half my life essentially standing in the same spot: off to one side of the stage (close but not too close), eyes forward, shifting weight from foot to foot. I’d like to think that after so much time I’d be less conscious of where I used to be as it compares to the moment I’m in. But the truth is, when I’m at a show — whether the band onstage is comprised solely of men or not; whether the band is famous or unknown or the one my husband plays in — I’m never not thinking about it. 

In an important way this feels like a victory. As a teenager I was adamant that going to shows was essential to my being, something I would never outgrow. Going to a show meant supporting music that had fused with my identity and, crucially, doing it with friends who felt the same way. Going to a show meant being the kind of person who goes to shows — the kind of person I wanted and made sure to be. Even so many years later, it’s hardly a surprise that I married a musician.


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Now that I’m in my late 30s, things have shifted. Bodily and psychically, the relatively simple act of watching this band play is far removed from the ear-ringing dramatics I lost myself in as a teenager. The music itself is different: earworm Americana instead of sweetly sloppy punk. But with the shared vantage point comes echoes of some essential dynamics I’ve been steeped in — some might say implicated in — for more than 20 years, and that have informed the way I’ve listened to music and watched bands play ever since.

* * *

I’ve been watching boys play music since I was 15 years old, when I was growing up in a small town that felt farther from New York City than it actually measured in miles. It’s a classic story, the material thousands of songs are built from: The place I lived was boring and provincial; there was nothing to do but go to the mall, and music saved me. One day I started seeing flyers taped up on walls at school, broadcasting the names of a small crop of local bands alongside hastily scrawled logistical info and rudimentary collages, lazily appropriated photos, and the labored-over lettering that was the trademark of a certain kind of bored and vaguely artistic high school kid. Sometimes a photocopy would be tacked to a bulletin board in a classroom, and I’d let my eyes wander over to it while the teacher’s back was turned like I could will it to beam me up. The world they teased was one I’d been dreaming about, and the flyers were like maps to buried treasure.

My close girlfriends and I started going to shows every weekend. We could hardly believe our luck in finding this so close to home, a genuine local scene in our native territory, where we’d learned to expect little. Bands played in a big warehouse that had been converted to a skate park, or a small club in a strip mall abutting a Pizza Hut, or various firehouses and American Legion halls, and occasionally someone’s backyard. Self-deprecation was a trend when it came to naming — there was Not Good Enough, Last One Picked, and Humble Beginnings — as was alluding to a generalized toughness: Fallout, Eye 2 Eye, Inner Dam. They played catchy, snotty, buoyant punk music that was fun to jump around to, and snarling, screamy hardcore driven by bass riffs and body slams. It was all fast and loud and rude and messy, an ideal soundtrack for our restlessness.

Without exception, these bands were made up of boys, and boys accounted for the vast majority of people who came to see them play. Being a girl in this sea of boys was to be special — tough and wily and possessed of rarified taste. Right away, I knew I was where I wanted to be: in rooms where the air was thick with smoke and the floors were sticky and the sound was abrasive, with people who were attracted to things that didn’t exist for anyone’s approval. 

Kids from other towns and high schools converged at shows, and in these semi-secret spaces, we were drawn together and got close quickly. New faces gave way to new friendships and familiar frictions: long conversations and car rides, jealousy and competitiveness and unrequited love. Loyalty came quickly, and with it, the conviction that outsiders were not to be trusted — especially girls, since there couldn’t possibly be room for all of us. Everything revolved around the shows. The energy of being there rearranged my cells while sating a deep thirst; hours later, I always struggled to fall asleep, dreaming half-conscious dreams where the band was still playing, the music a stubborn throb, my limbs vibrating. 

That music was miraculous for existing within reach. Whether it featured crushing screams or a catchy chorus, it was right in front of me, something I could get my arms around. When everything was clicking — when the band was playing the songs I loved the most, when I tipped my head back and sang along, when the music pulsed intimately through my body in a crowd full of my friends, buoyed further by the promise of the night spooling out ahead of us — the glow of bliss and belonging was so pure and potent it made me dizzy.

I just want to get laid, went the chorus of one crowd-pleasing singalong, the singer repeating the line with a nasal swagger before switching to a scream for the kicker: before I die! Were these bands any good? In the thick of it, it hardly mattered. It was easy to love something that you could stand right next to, something not everyone could touch or even appreciate. It felt good. Leaning up against the stage, my face arranged into an expression of practiced nonchalance, was to insist that I belonged there — and that my attention and support mattered. It made me feel cool, probably for the first time.  

But I couldn’t do it alone. If those flyers for shows had been maps, boys were the passports. And that’s what we called the ones who were our friends: the boys. Along with monopolizing the stage, they were the ones taking money at the door, massed in the crowd, stationed behind soundboards and merch tables, and doing tricks on their skateboards outside. They were the loudest, the most obnoxious, the funniest, the sweetest and most cruel. They had less to prove than we did as girls, though that didn’t necessarily mean they were any less self-conscious or tried any less hard. They played guitar and bass and drums; they sang and scowled and snarled and cracked jokes. They scribbled setlists and hauled gear around and did sound check. They gestured for the levels to be turned up or down. It was all very important stuff, and they made clear that it had nothing to do with us.  

Were these bands any good? In the thick of it, it hardly mattered. It was easy to love something that you could stand right next to, something not everyone could touch or even appreciate. It felt good.

What did those boys really see when they looked at us? Where there was affection, there was also suspicion. One of the tensions churning had to do with authenticity. Have you seriously never heard of this band? What are you, a poser? Another related — but usually unspoken — tension had to do with intent. Did the girls really show up for the music, for the scene, or did we have a predictable ulterior motive? The relationship between us was two-sided, if not exactly reciprocal: If we were special for loving the music, the boys were special because they were the ones playing it. Our attention gave them an aura of confidence and power, while theirs made us both more scrutinized and harder to see.  

Inevitably, some of the boys who played music became our boyfriends, which came with its own set of privileges and responsibilities. I harbored crushes and dated two guitar players. On and off, for too long, I hooked up with another guy who was really the number one groupie of the whole scene, but whose gender meant that he was treated more like a celebrity than a charity case. But being someone’s girlfriend was never the point. My friends and I wanted to be noticed and known, valued as experts and familiars and friends and fans and confidants and critics — and also be desired. We quickly learned that it was impossible to comfortably be all of those things at once. In the lyrics of the boys’ songs — which we memorized and sang along to — girls were mostly agents of heartbreak, objects of longing or blame.   

Among the flyers and band photos and handwritten lyrics covering my bedroom walls, I had taped up a cartoon. Headlined “I’m On the List!” its protagonist and punch line was a serial dater of guys in bands, a girl whose style and self transformed from panel to panel, depending whose hand she was holding: She was alternately punk, goth, hippie, girl next door. “I’m on the list!” she shouted as she shoved her way to the front of lines, trying too hard in a way that made everyone around her sneer. While she cheerfully narrated all the good times she’d had being “with the band,” the illustrations revealed her to be an oblivious opportunist, a hanger-on. I’d torn it out of Details magazine and put it up as a way of showing that I got the joke. 

But I think I sensed even then that the joke was on us.

* * *

Outside of shows, watching the boys play music was a ritual — though band practice tended not to involve a whole lot of actual music playing. The girls (and some boys) would lounge around and talk, graze on snacks and soda while the band noodled around in the living room or garage. When the boys got it together enough to play a recognizable chunk of a song, we’d stop whatever we were doing and pay attention, nodding to the music, clapping appreciatively when they finished. 

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be in a band myself. I did, badly. I craved the creative outlet, the spotlight, the place I would carve out, the point it would make. Hilary and I were slowly learning to play guitar; Brianna was already good at bass. We figured we could convince another friend that she wanted to be a drummer. That was what boys did; they didn’t think they needed to be good at something before pursuing it. (They didn’t necessarily have to be or get good at all; talent was not a particular requirement.) One of our male friends could start a band on a lark and have a show in a few weeks. But the mid-’90s in our leg of suburban New York could feel a little stuck in the past when it came to what girls could do. 

Still, we dreamed up band names and doodled them on our notebooks. For a while we got together to write and play songs with simple melodies and tortured lyrics. We were pretty bad, like so many young bands driven by little more than excitement and impatience, but our inability to get our shit together felt more consequential, because it meant the scene we took so much pride in still had no girls in bands. (I’d heard whispers about something called riot grrrl, but it seemed mostly like a colorful rumor in Sassy magazine, a postcard from somewhere else.)

So my friends and I started a zine. We called it Thriftstore Injection, the title partly a rip-off from the name of a girl-led band in Blake Nelson’s 1994 novel Girl. In that book, a Portland teenager named Andrea discovers her own local scene and her life becomes an enviable, angsty blur of vintage dresses, punk shows, and the intermittent attentions of a damaged musician. Here she is describing a raucous show, in her signature breathless style: 

Boys were moshing and girls too and it was this big swirl of people and me and Rebecca looked at each other and then we both ran right into the middle of it. And everyone fell down and we were getting kicked and smashed and falling over everyone and rolling on the floor and then we got up and we were dancing like crazy and whipping our hair around and it was the wildest time! 

I read this book at least 10 times, seeing in it a version of my own life: the joyful frenzy of it as well as the constant self-consciousness, the quiet humiliation of trying to get close to something that could only ever sort of belong to you.

We made a new zine every few months and sold it at shows for a buck or two. Encouraging our readers to pick up the latest recordings put out by local bands, and proclaiming nostalgia for the TV shows of our childhoods, we used our new platform mostly to convey enthusiasm. We wrote as fans not only of bands but of low-level quirky subjects — Pez, ramen, cats — that we played up partly as a way of crafting a voice and identity for ourselves. When it came to the things we really loved, we tended not to describe or interrogate them in too much depth (demos by local bands are described variously as “incredible,” “amazing,” and “kicks so much ass it’s not even funny”). In later issues some light criticism started sneaking in (“sounds like they recorded in a box which makes it kinda hard to listen to … none of the songs stick in your head”), alongside earnest rants about racism, depression, and authority figures.

I read this book at least 10 times, seeing in it a version of my own life: the joyful frenzy of it as well as the constant self-consciousness, the quiet humiliation of trying to get close to something that could only ever sort of belong to you.

We interviewed a handful of local bands — most of them friends of ours — and one bigger score, a California band signed to a prominent punk label making a stop on a longer tour. We crammed into their van on a rainy Sunday before their show and pelted them with questions about their favorite foods, their influences, and the funniest place they’d ever peed. “What do you think of our scene so far?” we asked, craving validation so plainly that it’s clear even on a faded photocopy. “Looks cool,” the lead singer said, and my heart swelled. 

Looking at these zines now, I see an overeager patchwork of underbaked passions and opinions. “I don’t think that anything could ever make me feel the way that music does,” I wrote, skimming the surface of a deep and complicated connection. “I can’t do anything without music playing. It’s even better when you’re a musician, to be able to create music and understand things about it. I feel like I owe it my life.”

I believed it, though. And regardless of the inanities and insults, I was fiercely protective of the scene. I hated when there were fights at shows, because the fights were always started by boys and were only ever about them. To me, their involvement in such stupidity was disqualifying, an offensive distraction from what I believed — or wanted to believe — the scene was supposed to be about. Among those things (despite all the evidence to the contrary) was pushing back against aggressive macho bullshit, which was alienating not only to the girls but to boys seeking a refuge from the tyranny of high school. I cared about zines because they were a place for people to say something, anything; to articulate what they thought and believed, even if it was just “school sucks.” I respected the prevalence of straight edge because it was driven by a conviction, even if it wasn’t my own. 

I wanted the scene to be about more than it was, and after a couple of years I couldn’t ignore that it wasn’t really up to me. Meanwhile the warehouse/skate park that had been the best place to see shows had closed, and some of our favorite bands had stopped playing much. Most of what was left was hardcore music. Increasingly, I wanted to be less besieged by boys, my life less dominated by the things they made. I wanted to be less peripheral to the things I poured my attention into.

* * *

The scene had gotten me through high school, but when I got to college in the fall of 2000 (in New Jersey, not all that far from my hometown but miraculously absent anyone I knew) my attention transferred effortlessly to politics. While I was funneling all that would-be-riot-grrrl energy into national elections and local activism, I started writing for my school’s alternative paper, where a review of the new Cat Power record could sit comfortably next to a critique of globalization. This time coincided with the rise of girl-driven bands like the Gossip and Le Tigre and Bratmobile and Gravy Train!!!! With a new group of friends, I went to see these bands play in larger clubs in New York, dancing and sweating and singing along until our bodies ached and our voices went raspy. In those rooms, with all those women onstage and in the audience, there was a sense that we were part of something that mattered, something that had momentum, and that needed us.

I wanted to be less peripheral to the things I poured my attention into.

I’d felt that particular mix of heady idealism and physical abundance at shows plenty of times before, a fizzy warmth that swept through my whole body and was almost holy. I was always chasing that particular shiver. I missed the version of it I’d experienced close to home: the urgency and weight of it, the insider knowledge that had been so hard-won, the pride that came with staking a claim. But when I watched Le Tigre and Sleater-Kinney dominate the stage, I knew what I’d been missing. For me, there was less immediate intimacy in these spaces, but in some ways that meant there was more freedom.  

There were still boys. Regardless of geography, activism tended to parallel and overlap with music and those who played it, which included plenty of boys who believed they knew everything there was to know about both. It was a world of impassioned attractions, to both causes and people, and within it the boys I was interested in were still mostly ones who played music. But listening to their songs and going to see them play was an occasional thing, not a habit or an identity, or part of anything beyond it.

When I was 20, I fell in love with a talented singer/guitarist who had taken a year off from college to work at Sam Ash while he tried to find success for his band on a two-semester deadline. Their songs were pretty good: shimmering melodies and brightly plaintive vocals, but as they struggled it was clear they didn’t have what it would take. Still, I cared and I wanted him to know it. My best friend and I once raced out to Asbury Park to surprise him when his band played a show at a small club on a random weeknight. We arrived during one of their first songs to find my boyfriend’s mother sitting by herself at a cocktail table, the only person in the whole place besides the sound guy. I gave him a hug after their set and we never spoke of it again. 

I think about that anecdote a lot, and it still makes me cringe. There is something about the dream of playing music that can seem like a particularly delicate thing. To be onstage is to be vulnerable, exposed. It is a display of hope with an undercurrent of need, laying bare a longing to be noticed in a sea of others who understand that hunger — and many of whom share it. There’s a kind of immediate validation in playing, but getting beyond that is a lot more difficult, and wanting it isn’t enough. 

I think, too, about the word “support” — what it means for a girl, a woman, to support a boy, a man, in his pursuits, to show up and stand by and endorse his efforts, or to support a scene at large. In both contexts support is a resource; attention is currency. They can be deployed in ways that make you a participant or that make your position more of a passive one. They can be appropriated. Maybe this is especially true in a dynamic as visible and traditionally gendered as playing music. “Support” is related to both fandom and community, but it can exist without them. The shape of my support varied over the years, but it often involved some amount of glossing over the obvious, pretending things were OK when they weren’t. It didn’t always mean the things I wanted it to, or fully belong to me.

Whatever form it took or how earnestly I bestowed it, I always recognized and resented that my gender made my support a cliché. In some ways, it was as simple as that: I didn’t want to be dismissed as a girl, or as someone who watches. Today, what I resent almost as much as the stereotype itself is its hold on me. Not only the extent to which I still feel the need to object: I am not just a girl who watches boys play music! Not only because it forces me to admit that I care what other people think. What I try and fail to resist is this facile analysis, a flattened sense of burden and blame built on one-dimensional ideas about how men and women relate to each other and what our roles are as musicians and fans. In many ways, the lessons of watching boys play music are ones I reject. But I still learned them, and the songs are stuck in my head.  

Things should be less fraught these days. I’m not ambivalent about supporting my husband’s band; they’re genuinely good and it’s fun to see them play. In going to their shows, I’m supporting a person I love, doing a thing he loves — a thing he’s really skilled at and that I want him to be recognized for. And yet: As much as this dynamic is undeniably, fundamentally different from the one I grew up with, it sometimes resembles it, with the participants in their prescribed positions. And the part of me that loves seeing my husband onstage — that is proud of him, admires his talent, loves these songs, is still turned on — can feel like it’s at odds with the part that doesn’t want to just stand there and watch. 

This feeling is not strictly useful — as a musician’s partner, it is mostly just disruptive. Still, I’ve tried to pay attention to it. And at some point I noticed that my stubborn inner conflict could feel as good, as right, as its absence used to. It reminds me of what I regret, of all the things I’ve learned to look out for, and have come to question — the compromises I’ll accept and concessions I refuse to make. It shows me what I was always right about and what I needed more time to understand. It shows me that it’s possible to outgrow something and still hang on to a part of it. It underscores the distance of two decades and makes those years disappear, all at once. It can be as nourishing as the music, now that there is, at least mostly, room for both. 

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Also in Hive:
Welcome to Hive: Series Introduction by Danielle A. Jackson
Miami: A Beginning, by Jessica Lynne

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Eryn Loeb is the deputy editor at Guernica. Her writing about nostalgia, books, and feminism (or some combination of those things) has appeared in Poets & Writers, Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, the Awl, the Village Voice, the Rumpus, and the Millions, among other publications.

Editor: Danielle A. Jackson

Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross