Hello! The project my heart and brain have been pre-occupied with for a few months now is where I want it to be for the moment, so I am doing what any sensible person would do with a little freed up brainspace: thinking about girls and music and girls who play music. Famous ones, yeah, but also the stealth women musicians who are trailblazing and/or just playin’ around without support from the music industry.
A Christmas or two ago, my parents gave me a ukulele. They knew I missed playing music at school: when we set out for the airport my first semester of college, I left my sax at home for safekeeping, and hesitated about taking formal lessons again because I didn’t want to equate music with a source of extra stress. I wanted it to be an escape, a layer of built-in beauty in my life like it had always been: from the days of Johnny Cash and the Supremes warbling from my dad’s truck when I was way too young to be sitting shotgun, to the doo-wop ballads cassette I wore out from listening to it every night as I fell asleep, to my first-ever Walkman and my first-ever album purchase (Avril Lavigne, Let Go), to the progression of MP3 players that would be my constant companions through chemistry p-sets, identity crises, and 6:55 AM rides on the school bus.
I was never exceptionally good at playing music, but I was lucky to get a lot of opportunities to do it anyway. It sure felt good — even in those troublesome phases when practicing seemed like a chore on principle. And when I wasn’t working up a repertoire for recitals, or for gigs with one of the bands I joined, it was satisfying to just play something beautiful for me. (Even when “beautiful” was actually more like “crushingly average.”) My musical education taught me to like playing concerts more and more over the years, but I was always most at ease with my audience of one. Mastery was never the goal — and still the music was transcendent.
I found that feeling again on a crisp November morning first year, when a friend dragged me to a jam session populated by upperclasswomen — mostly seniors — I’d never met. Sitting on the floor of their hip, impeccably-decorated triple room (they had a wine rack, you guys) with a cup of tepid dining hall coffee, still wearing the contact lenses I’d fell asleep in the night before, I felt like I belonged in a different universe. They seemed impossibly cool and put-together, and most surprisingly, like they didn’t mind me lending my (off-key, unpredictable) voice to theirs. We walked outside, on crunching leaves and gravel paths, pausing on a bench overlooking Lake Waban while nimble fingers coaxed pure warmth out of guitar, melodica, uke.
Every time I played or sang with them that year, it felt like all of us were somehow outside the physical realm and more intensely embodied all at the same time. The rich timbre of many voices is communion unlike anything else I know. And it works not in spite of our raw imperfection, but because of it. Our harmonies light up Tower Court East, and when the last vibration stills, the songs never leave our bodies. We are swimming in music.
I want to believe that everyone gets to experience this feeling at least sometimes in their life. Music, obviously, is not the only way to get there. For me, it’s one of the most intense and reliable sparks. And mastery has never been the goal.
Which is why I’m truly dumbfounded by people — like this dude on Cracked.com in 2012 — who complain about the now-ubiquitous trend of girls and women playing uke covers on Youtube.* I mean first off, for real, you search “guitar covers” and the first page of results is full of teenage boys — but I guess no one sees that as a problem, because it’s just normal teen boy behavior. (I have an older brother, I know these things.) So why is it laughable when girls do it?
If your problem is the fact that they’re all (mostly) cover songs: hello? Performing a well-known artist’s work has been a way for budding musicians to gain exposure since pretty much time immemorial. (Like you’re really going to pretend that the Hendrix version of “All Along the Watchtower” didn’t kick Bob Dylan’s troubadour butt.) Also, cover songs are a frickin’ great opportunity for artists to make something new or more nuanced out of something that already exists, which to me, is actual magic. (…but more on that later.)
If your problem is the fact that uke is “easy”: please, tell me more about how society is going to fall apart because people who aren’t classically trained or devoted to a life of art are getting more opportunities than ever to create and share themselves with an unprecedented audience, mostly for free. Any instrument (or tool or platform) that makes it less intimidating to dabble with art multiplies those chances we have for a little taste of infinity. You don’t have to be conventionally “good” to be worthy of making art. “Talent” should not be a prerequisite for creation.
All of this is especially important for women (and queer people and people of color), who have a long history of struggling to get recognized and compensated for their contributions to music. If you grew up with limited role models in the mainstream music world (think Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, VMAs, Rolling Stone), but you were given the opportunity to blend a little bit of yourself with the music you loved, to have a moment of flawed, silly transcendence, to brush up against someone else’s heart in this weird digital cosmos without having to “earn” the attention of record companies — tell me you wouldn’t take advantage of that.
*unless you’re thinking about the historical/social/colonial context of the instrument itself, in which case, let’s talk.