In praise of the all-woman su­per­group

From Honey Cone and Trio to Boy­ge­nius, when fa­mous fe­male mu­si­cians join to­gether in sol­i­dar­ity, the re­sults are of­ten ex­traor­di­nar­ily fruit­ful, writes Laura Snapes

The Guardian - G2 - - Playlist - Boy­ge­nius’s self-ti­tled EP is re­leased to­day on Mata­dor

There have been few all-women su­per­groups: by my count, 14 of note, span­ning 60s R&B trio Honey Cone to Boy­ge­nius, the trio com­pris­ing bur­geon­ing indie tal­ents Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Da­cus, who re­lease their de­but EP to­day. It is a com­par­a­tively rich era for such al­le­giances: Boy­ge­nius’s ex­is­tence is mir­rored in coun­try by Pis­tol An­nies and in folk by I’m With Her. Even so, the “su­per­group” des­ig­na­tion can feel like a bad fit for bands com­pris­ing noted women mu­si­cians.

When their male coun­ter­parts unite, it’s of­ten in a show of strength that up­holds tired rock norms: be­hold, wearily, the trav­esty of Hol­ly­wood Vam­pires (Alice Cooper, Johnny Depp and Joe Perry). Groups of fa­mous men join­ing forces of­ten feels like fan­tasy foot­ball – all-star names with no co­he­sion – whereas for women it’s of­ten more akin to shar­ing a sin­gle easel, cre­at­ing a space for their tal­ents to com­ple­ment each other. The young mem­bers of Boy­ge­nius – named to mock how eas­ily male mu­si­cians are lauded as prodi­gies – found so­lace in one an­other as their ca­reers rose in par­al­lel and they en­coun­tered the same is­sues. Mi­randa Lam­bert started Pis­tol An­nies to lift up two strug­gling song­writer friends; I’m With Her have re­marked on the cre­ative pos­si­bil­i­ties that ex­ist when they’re not rel­e­gated to singing high parts with men.

If these cre­ative part­ner­ships are so fruit­ful for women, why are there so few of them? One an­swer is that there are sim­ply fewer fa­mous women mu­si­cians. As­sem­bling a su­per­group re­quires a pre­cise cor­re­la­tion of ca­reer point, sen­si­bil­ity and com­pat­i­ble per­son­al­ity, and those with the stature to be in one have gen­er­ally pow­ered through an in­dus­try even more hos­tile to women than that of to­day. Hence why it felt so rev­e­la­tory when case/ lang/veirs formed in 2016: in their 40s and 50s, Neko Case, kd lang and Laura Veirs turned their hard-won ex­pe­ri­ence into el­e­gant Amer­i­cana that let them all shine.

An­other rea­son is that the scourge of jam-band cul­ture lends it­self to these male for­ma­tions. The hand­ful of note­wor­thy women su­per­groups stem from col­lab­o­ra­tion-ori­ented gen­res. The most fa­mous ex­am­ple are Trio, the Grammy award-win­ning group of Dolly Par­ton, Linda Ron­stadt and Em­my­lou Har­ris that formed in the mid 70s; coun­try mu­sic is rooted in the idea of the song­writ­ers’ cir­cle. Riot gr­rrl was rooted in Olympia, Wash­ing­ton State, and pro­duced a not-in­signif­i­cant num­ber of su­per-unions. Many of them in­cluded SleaterKin­ney’s Car­rie Brown­stein and Mary Ti­mony of He­lium and Au­to­clave: they fol­lowed 90s duo the Spells with 2010 four-piece Wild Flag, and Ti­mony later formed Ex Hex with some fel­low punk lif­ers.

It’s an odd mod­ern phe­nom­e­non that when a fa­mous mu­si­cian dies, fans muse on the heart-warm­ing pos­si­bil­ity that they have joined the big jam band in the sky. It’s a de­press­ing end game, re­ally: you spend your ca­reer carv­ing out an artis­tic iden­tity only to be sub­sumed into death’s eter­nal racket. When women and non-bi­nary mu­si­cians have to fight harder for that recog­ni­tion, per­haps it makes sense that they wouldn’t give it up so eas­ily. When they do join forces, it tends to be in sol­i­dar­ity rather than a show of strength.

Oth­ers know that the fan­tasy is of­ten much more tan­ta­lis­ing than the re­al­ity of full sched­ules and un­co­op­er­a­tive la­bels (an is­sue that stalled Trio’s de­but) and any ego pay­load it might de­liver. Björk and PJ Har­vey do­ing (I Can’t Get No) Sat­is­fac­tion at the 1994 Brits sug­gests a po­tent al­ter­nate re­al­ity, as does Dua Lipa per­form­ing in Ra­dio 1’s Live Lounge backed by Charli XCX, Zara Lar­son, MØ and Alma this Fe­bru­ary. Maybe these merg­ers are bet­ter left as fan­tasy – although call me when the mu­sic that St Vin­cent and Brown­stein made to­gether fi­nally sur­faces.

Boy­ge­nius

(From left) eft) Trio in 1987; 987; Honey Cone in 1971

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