Rock of Underages
A week of teen and tween self-empowerment in the Live Music Capital of the World.
It began with a scream—actually, about sixty of them, one after another, coming from a circle of girls holding hands in a large room. Some screamed with glee; others shrieked; still others were so painfully self-conscious they could barely make any noise at all. When they were done, Emily Marks, the thirtysomething executive director of Girls Rock Camp Austin, made them do it again, this time faster.
After the scream circle came the dance party, in which—with “We Got the Beat,” by the Go-Go’s, blaring in the background—every girl was supposed to leave the perimeter and enter the center and dance, for a second or five or even ten if she felt like it, while the others imitated her moves, clapping and whooping. Then she would walk back and pick the next dancer. For some girls it was excruciating, and a couple refused, but most swayed or moved or just hopped or raised their arms and ran back, smiling. A fifteen-year-old with long hair did a hippie dance. A twelve-year-old did a version of the Riverdance dance. A shy ten-year-old reluctantly walked out with her shoulders slumped, danced for exactly two seconds, then picked someone else.
It was July 27, the first day of this week-long, nine-hour-a-day exercise in rock and self-empowerment for tween and teen girls at Austin Studios, the film production facility on the site of the old Robert Mueller Municipal Airport. Five dozen girls, mostly ages ten to seventeen, would take lessons in guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, and singing. They’d go to workshops on gender issues, sound systems, and poster making. Best of all, they’d start bands, write songs together, and, on Saturday, perform at a large club downtown.
Girls Rock Camp was started in Austin in 2007 by Marks, a guitarist and teacher from New York (recently the name was changed to Girls Rock! Austin). She modeled it after the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, Oregon. “We’re not just a rock camp,” Marks says. “We’re an organization that uses music to teach the girls, to create personal and social change.” She held a strategy meeting with her coaches before the camp began and told them, “When it comes to songwriting, there are no mistakes in rock camp. If you hear something ‘wrong,’ don’t correct it—let them figure it out for themselves. The number one goal is to get the girls empowered. If they never want to play again, that’s fine. The skills they get at rock camp they’ll carry for the rest of their lives.”
Today Marks had first gathered everyone by instrument—some could play, others were novices—and then sent them off to their lessons. The air was filled with beautiful noise: the guitar riff to “Sunshine of Your Love,” the plonking of electric basses, the intro to “I Love Rock N’ Roll,” vocal scales. When it was time to form a band, Marks told them to stand under big sheets of white paper stuck to the walls: “Alternative,” “Soul/Jazz,” “Grunge,” “Hip-hop.” She asked, “Does anyone want to play death metal?” Eight girls raised their hands. Everyone congregated, talking about their favorite musicians and videos. After thirty minutes of chattering chaos, Marks announced: “Find a band!”
Most kids take years to form bands; these girls did it in an afternoon. They got together, found out who would be playing what, joked about being rock stars. After an hour or so, there were eleven bands. They retired to their practice rooms with their coaches, who were all veteran musicians.
The group GLYCH took its moniker from the girls’ first names: Gabby Mutschler, a twelve-year-old who wore jeans and a pony-tail and played guitar; Laura Sanchez, a tall, shy fifteen-year-old bassist; Yinka Oluwadele, a thin fourteen-year-old girl who seemed to know everyone; Celeste Hermes, a ten-year-old guitarist who had been playing since she was six; and Holly Stoever, a fifteen-year-old drummer. All the girls were rock camp veterans, though only Holly had played in a real-world band, and she had been the only girl. “It didn’t end well,” she said. “Boys think girls are whiny and can’t play. You have to really prove something when you play with boys. Here, we all just play.”
While some other bands had trouble getting going, GLYCH started jamming right off. Holly began with a simple beat, Laura hit some bass notes, Celeste played a wandering riff, Gabby followed, and Yinka came up with a vocal melody. When it became apparent the song was going nowhere, the girls discarded it and tried again. Laura started playing a simple bass line, going from one note to another; Holly joined in, then Celeste and Gabby played chords. Yinka sang a singsongy melody. They were on to something. Gabby came up with a cool arpeggio guitar riff, and Celeste played off of it. Holly tried a slightly faster beat, like the one in “Get Off of My Cloud,” and the song took a new direction, which everyone liked. They ran through the verse four or five times, with Celeste and Gabby working out their parts and Holly and Laura locking in on the rhythm.
They had a verse. It was only Monday.
Every day at rock camp had a schedule: assembly in the morning, then instrument instruction, workshops, and band rehearsal. Another of the coaches, Sara Landeau, a guitar teacher from Brooklyn who helps run the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls there, told me that she has taught classes of girls and classes of girls and boys. “When boys are in the group, they won’t stop playing, and they’re very loud. Girls won’t take solos—they won’t play in front of the boys. But if it’s all girls, they’ll play.”
That morning GLYCH’s verse still sounded great—the guitars rang like bells—but the chorus was giving the girls fits. They tried to match Yinka’s melody to some chords, but it didn’t sound right. Then the PA started feeding back, and Gabby’s guitar went out of tune. Holly and Laura leaned against the wall, frustrated. When they finally started playing again, the chorus had too many chords, and the girls couldn’t figure out how to end it and go back to the verse. In fact, the chorus sounded as if it were part of an entirely different song. “They’re not matching,” said Yinka.
Other groups were having troubles too. A couple bands had changed members and were behind schedule. The ten- and eleven-year-olds in the Flaming Lollipops had never played their instruments before. A few of the girls in the British Cheese Stick People were so shy they just stared at their shoes and gave short answers to their coach’s questions. It was hard enough being thirteen and stuck in a room full of girls they barely knew. Now they had to write a song, figure out their parts, and learn to look as if they knew what they were doing. And rock. In front of four hundred people.
GLYCH started over and worked on a song based on one of Gabby’s guitar riffs. It sounded like surf pop, with Holly playing a double snare shot and Yinka singing a playful melody. This time the verse and the chorus matched. The girls came up with a stop at the end of the verse, Yinka added a hooky vocal line, and the guitarists played a descending riff. It was cool but complicated. At one point their coach Akina Adderley left the room and sat in the kitchen. “Sometimes someone does a three-count, sometimes someone does a four-count,” she said. “But they’ll figure it out—they always do. I told them to just keep playing, that it’ll work out fine.” Other groups were stuck on the verse or the chorus or both. Coach Melissa Bryan, also sitting in the kitchen, said she was having trouble getting the girls in the British Cheese Stick People to gel. She too had left them to work it out on their own.
I walked around the building and listened to the thunderous drums, scronking guitars, and earnest vocals. “I’m sick of it / I’m sick of you” came from the room with the New Wave—ish band Dude . . . Your House Is on Fire. Off Topic—with Genesis Myers, the shy ten-year-old I’d seen on Monday, playing keyboards—was powering through a straight-ahead punkish song. The Flaming Lollipops had come up with a simple two-chord tune. The British Cheese Stick People sounded tentative in their playing, but their song—something about a purple squirrel—sounded real, with a nice melody.
In the afternoon the girls had a workshop with Mary Kearney, a University of Texas professor who specializes in feminist and media studies. “They’re trying to figure out how to perform,” she told me. “I try to connect how women present bodies in music videos with how these girls will present themselves onstage.”
Kearney talked about objectification: “It’s a big word,” she told the girls, “but I want you to learn it.” She showed the video for Lita Ford’s “Kiss Me Deadly,” a piece of horrible eighties kitsch with the singer and guitarist striking girlie-magazine poses in sexy outfits. “What’s she doing?” Kearney asked. “I notice she’s crawling around on the floor,” said one girl. “It looked to me like she was just wearing underwear,” said another. Kearney asked if they saw any shots of Ford actually playing her instrument. “No!” the girls replied in unison. “It happens with women all the time,” Kearney told them. “Women musicians are usually thought of in that order: women, then musicians. Men are just musicians.”
By mid-morning GLYCH had finished their song. Called “Get Down,” it began with Holly’s double snare hits, then Laura’s slinky bass line, then Celeste and Gabby, and finally Yinka, who had finished the words, which were about singing, dancing, playing music, and being rock stars. The chorus, which Yinka sang, was particularly catchy: “Get down, down, down, down / Baby, get down.” As Adderley had hoped, they’d worked it out.
Other bands were finishing up their songs too. Immune to Gravity had a three-chord song with snarling guitars. Coach Rachel Badger stood outside the Flaming Lollipops’ door, occasionally opening it and yelling out the chord changes: “D! C!” The song didn’t have a name, but it was about being a vampire (“Don’t be scared / I don’t bite / Ha, ha, ha, ha!”). A few days earlier, coach Bryan had discovered that both the bassist and drummer in the British Cheese Stick People played flute, so she got them to work the instrument into their song. “It seems like things are coming together today,” she said.
The last day of rock camp felt like show-and-tell. All the bands had their songs; now they ran through them over and over while the members of other bands cruised around and listened in doorways. GLYCH worked on their introductions for the next night’s big show. “How are y’all doing today?” asked Yinka. “I said, ‘How are y’all doing today? ’ ” Off Topic blazed through their song, with the vocalist singing, “I’m a nervous wreck / You stress me out,” while Genesis played a plinky keyboard part. The Death Angels chanted, “Less talk! More rock!” The Balloon Animals practiced “High School Wonderland,” with everyone clapping and singing an insanely catchy chorus: “Ba-da, ba-da, ba-da, ba-da.”
Marks watched the British Cheese Stick People do their three-chord “Quest for the Purple Squirrel.” At the solo break, the bass player put down her bass and the drummer got out from behind her kit, and each picked up a flute. With the guitarist banging open chords, the flutists played the song’s vocal melody. Marks, at the end of the song, had tears in her eyes. “That made my week,” she said.
The Parish, an Austin club that usually plays host to tattooed grown-ups and performances by the likes of Fastball and the Meat Puppets, was jammed with four hundred parents, siblings, and friends, who clearly felt a mix of emotions and genuine awe at what they were seeing and hearing. The scripted moments were cute: the Flaming Lollipops walking off the stage singing, “Lollipop, lollipop, ooh lolly, lollipop”; Celeste holding her guitar behind her head and playing the “Smoke on the Water” riff during her introduction. The unscripted moments were downright uplifting, such as when Genesis, smiling broadly, threw her arms in the air in triumph at the end of Off Topic’s song. And GLYCH was awesome. Holly started with the surf beat, Laura came in, Celeste played the riff high, Gabby played it low, and Yinka sang about the joys of music and the dream of fame.
There were plenty of what are known in the music business as “mistakes”—lost drum beats, wrong chords—but there were also plenty of moments that made you remember why you love rock and roll, which is often best when played by amateurs: the chorus of “Get Down”; the simple solo by the bass player in the Balloon Animals, who had not even touched the instrument one week before; the buzz saw guitars of Immune to Gravity; the chorus to “High School Wonderland.” I woke up singing it in my head the next morning and found myself humming it all day: “Ba-da, ba-da, ba-da, ba-da.” It wasn’t full rock star glory, but it was still pretty cool: something created from scratch that lived on long after the amps were turned off.