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What Women Want and Why Music Festivals Never Get It Right (Opinion)

This weekend, one of dance music’s biggest festivals, HARD Summer Music Fest, marks its 10-year anniversary with more hype than ever, bringing its rave and rap extravaganza to Glen Helen Amphitheatre (moved from the Fontana Speedway), for two days and nights of glow-stick flashing dance debauchery. Meanwhile in Pomona, Warped Tour descends upon the familiar sprawling fairgrounds there with decidedly more screeching sounds, ending its traveling punk-a-thon with packed crowds pogo-ing about in the summer heat.

Festival season is in full swing, and while these huge concert events have little in common on the surface, they do share a significant problem with each other, and with the likes of FYF Fest, Lollapalooza, and the seasonal behemoth Coachella: No matter the genre or how different the fanbases may be, music festival bills never come close to reflecting their audiences in terms of gender.

More than half of all festival attendees are women, but only 15% of festival acts are, and the marketing, media and promotion that takes place both before and after these events reflects the disparity. If the images we see pre- and post are to be considered, festivals are fashion shows for scantily-clad females, and eye candy parades for males… with some music. But mostly bikinis and flower crowns.

Don’t get me wrong. I love fashion and planning fun outfits for big events. A lot of women do, but that doesn’t preclude what’s on stage. Every year when Coachella kicks off the season early in April, my inbox fills up with nearly as many “festival fashion” PR pitches as it does music-related queries. The designers, makeup lines, and liquor companies that align themselves with “festival lifestyle” branding all seem to promote the same thing: sexy, skinny young girls in skimpy get-ups. A couple years ago, a dietary supplement even hit me up to do a story about how to achieve a “festival body” with their product. Festivals do require a certain level of endurance, but I think we all know what they meant: fit and (specifically) female, as in, a “bikini body. “

Coachella and Electric Daisy Carnival, the latter of which had its annual event in Las Vegas several weeks ago, are sweltering during the day so it’s understandable that both men and women would want to wear as little as possible to them. And frolicking about in funky and flashy frocks, or people-watching those who do, is a bonafide facet of the festival experience. But revealing get-ups, swimwear, lingerie, G-strings and pasties have become the de riguer uniforms for many young women at these events the past few years, particularly at EDM-driven gatherings. Young girls exploring their sex appeal and pushing the boundaries of what their parents might deem acceptable dress is as old as time of course, but in the internet age, seeking attention sometimes gets women more than they bargained for.

For one, there’s permanent documentation of what they were wearing (or weren’t) out there, and often these pics end up getting used out of context. Like the Blurt magazine tweet during Coachella this April, which featured an image of three young girls and questioned if  “Chasing Coachella Bimbos” was “more important than Record Store day?” The punchline: “U aint getting laid either way. But u can bring vinyl home.” The backlash was swift and led to a mea culpa by the mag’s editor that seemed sincere but was too little, too late.

And Blurt was hardly the only offender. In truth, all media has been guilty, from the numerous “Hottest Girls of Coachella” themed posts (we won’t link to them) on hipster blogs, to the mainstream press’ obsessive coverage of the Jenner girls’ barely-there festival get-ups. Wearing what we want as women and owning our sexuality through dress is a right, and no one should be slut-shamed for it at a festival or anywhere else. But for young women all this objectification creates a level of expectation that they feel obligated to fulfill, and often, the attention they receive leads to more than just leering, but to unwanted physical contact.

While the events themselves may not be responsible for how women can be mistreated, the images and euphoric hedonism they continue to market coupled with the availability of alcohol and illegal drugs, surely contribute to it, and to an increase of sexual assault as well.

In a Los Angeles Times article from May, musicians, promoters, and even marketers acknowledged the problem in an attempt to find solutions. Among the action items: organizer acknowledgment of the issue and subsequent security measures at festivals; education about rape culture; and activism that might ultimately see an increase in women on stage and behind the scenes.

Beyonce’s headlining slot at 2017 Coachella — postponed due to her pregnancy — was a step in the right direction in having Lady Gaga fill in. It was the first time in 10 years that a woman headlined the main stage there. At FYF Fest, it was nice to see Missy Elliot and Bjork get top-billing, even though they had to share it on every flyer, poster and billboard. Either of them could have carried their own night as Frank Ocean and Nine Inch Nails did.

Even Warped Tour, which touts an entirely a different, but no less provocative aesthetic and festival uniform, has seen problems stemming from lack of strong female presence on stage. So much so that creator Kevin Lyman invited a feminist punk group, War On Women, to perform and their anti-assault/harassment group, Safer Scenes, to provide information in a booth on the tour. This led to a highly debated protest and viral video during which the singer of the punk band The Dickies humiliated a young woman and got the audience to chant the worst kind of expletives at her. It was disturbing but sparked a much-needed debate about the inherent misogyny in punk music. More women on festival stages could make all the difference.

Which leads me back to the most anticipated festival of the weekend. Excitement for HARD Summer Fest is pretty much fever pitched about now. Helmed by Gary Richards (his last year serving in that capacity), along with Live Nation, the event attracted 150,000 attendees over two days in 2016, but there were only four female artists on the entire bill. This year they’ve upped the ante with a total of 26 out of 110 performers and deejays.  It’s a great line-up with a diverse array of dance music makers including  Anna Lunoe, Nina Las Vegas, Ellen Allien, Uniiq3, Sita Abellan, Jubilee and Kim Ann Foxman, Charli XCX, Tink, Tinashe, and Uffie, to name a few. Richards really seemed to put a lot of thought into increasing the female talent and presence, but maybe he put too a little much thought. In an attempt to highlight the increase and apparently give HARD a pat on the back for recognizing more women, Hard made a promo video (watch below) about the sexist attitudes many in the biz have toward booking female DJs and performers. Though it was directed by a woman and meant as satire, it only trivialized the problem.

With more big music gatherings on the horizon (San Francisco’s Outside Lands next week, Life is Beautiful in Vegas end of the month, Seattle’s Bumbershoot in September, and Burning man after that), it’s a conversation we should continue to have.

Sex sells, and obviously people are buying when it comes to music festivals. But a more equalitarian and honest approach to the imagery and media feed, will lead to better representation of both genders on stage, which benefits everyone in the long run. And none of this has to be boring or chaste, either. It can still be exciting, electrifying and seductive even… because inherently,  that’s what music is.

Lina Lecaro is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers music and nightlife for L.A. Weekly. 

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