Interview with photographers Courtney Coles and Erica Lauren Perez and Get Better Records’ Alex Licktenhour and Ally Einbinder | By Brittany Moseley
For me, it started with Jesse Lacey.
I’d been paying attention to the powerful men falling one by one as more and more sexual harassment and allegations came out. But Lacey was the first one to hit home for me. I grew up on Brand New. Hell, I still listened to them every once in a while—perhaps not as frequently as I did in my younger years, but with the same kind of fervor I felt as a 15-year-old.
When Emily Driskill and Nicole Elizabeth Garey shared about the years of sexual harassment they experienced at the hands of Lacey, I felt what so many people reading their stories did. Disgusted. Angry. Not shocked.
In the days after, I read too many comments online all saying essentially the same thing: “What Jesse did was awful, but I love his music, and he means so much to me. How can I just stop listening to Brand New?” People kept trying to separate the man from what he did. I had no time for that. Did Brand New have an impact on my burgeoning music years? Absolutely. But I refuse to give Lacey a pass because, a long time ago, he wrote songs that meant a lot to me. I wanted no part of him or his music.
I thought that was it. But then, I read Sophie Benjamin’s piece, “How mid-2000s emo groomed underage girls and poisoned teen boys.” You’ve probably read it as well—since it was published in November 2017, it has been read by more than 75,000 people and viewed more than 197,000 times, according to Benjamin’s website. It’s not hard to see why.
“Around the same time Brand New’s Jesse Lacey was singing songs about wishing his ex-girlfriend would die in a plane crash because she had the audacity to do a semester of college abroad, he was coercing underage girls into sending him nudes,” Benjamin writes.
Benjamin also cites Jessica Hopper’s 2003 essay, “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t.” Fifteen years ago, Hopper wrote about “the genre/plague that we know as emo songs that don’t consider the world beyond boy bodies, their broken hearts or their vans.”
It should go without saying, but emo is by no means the only genre dominated by men singing about women in what can, at best, be called problematic—and, at worst, misogynistic and hateful—ways. (See: “Under My Thumb: Songs That Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them” by Rhian Jones and Eli Davies.) In her book of essays, “Bad Feminist,” Roxane Gay points out the sexually violent undertones of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Kanye West’s Yeezus. But Gay also confronts the fact that she likes this music—and what that fact says about her. “We are constantly faced by this uncomfortable balance between brilliance and bad behavior,” she writes.
Hopper discusses this same conundrum. When you start to dissect one song, one band, or one genre, it results in a domino effect that makes you realize everyone is guilty. “Who do you excuse and why?” Hopper writes. “Do you check your politics at the door and just dance or just rock or just let side A spin out? Can you ignore the marginalization of women’s lives on the records that line your record shelves in hopes that feigned ignorance will bridge the gulf, because it’s either that or purge your collection of everything but free jazz, micro house 12”s, and the Mr. Lady Records catalog?”
Benjamin and Hopper’s articles shocked me, more than the allegations against Lacey ever did. This scene that I grew up in and am still a part of, I was suddenly seeing it in a harsh, new light. Sure, there had been instances when a certain band or song made me sit up and say, “Whoa, that is not OK.” But to sit back and take a look, a real look, at the entire scene—from the lyrics to the artists to the people running it—was something I had never bothered to do. Hopper saw it way back in 2003. Why did it take me until the age of 29 to see it? It’s easy to brush it off as the ignorance of a silly, self-involved teenager, and sure, maybe that’s part of it. But I can’t claim that this music meant the world to me while also claiming that I was too young and dumb to “get” it. I saw what I wanted to, what I was supposed to. I think many of us did.
If the past several months have taught us anything, it’s that we all need to talk about these issues—sexism, assault, harassment—and what we can do to address them. We need to take action to increase representation, not just of women but of femme and non-binary people, the LGBTQ community as a whole, and people of color.
We at New Noise don’t cover just one genre, and the idea of tackling these issues across a wide spectrum of music seems daunting, if not downright impossible. But what emo, punk, metal, and a hundred other subgenres have in common is that they grew out of each other. Their fans overlap. And their fans live and die by this music. All fans are passionate, but it has always felt different in these scenes. Even “scene” is such an easy word to throw around, but I’ve yet to hear another one that encompasses this motley crew of music fans so well.
So, I spoke with four people from different backgrounds about their involvement in this music and the community that surrounds it. Each has a unique perspective when it comes to issues of representation in music and the industry. We talked about their beginnings in music, how they got where they are, and the work they’re doing to create a more inclusive scene.
* * *
There is a photo on Courtney Coles’ Instagram account of a young girl named Francis. She is sitting backward on a couch, elbows propped up, iPhone in hand. She is taking a picture of a picture. The photograph that has captured Francis’ attention is from “To the Front,” a traveling exhibit started by Coles and her friend and fellow photographer Erica Lauren Perez that showcases the work of women and non-binary music photographers. The Instagram caption reads: “this is why we do what we do. and yes, i cried. her name is francis and she had an embroidered camera on her shirt.”
Coles still remembers Francis, recalls how she diligently snapped pictures of the photos she liked—and had her mom photograph any that were too high for her. “At the end of the day, if I don’t reach some girl who doesn’t see some other girl out there, I don’t think I did my job right,” Coles says, “I don’t think I used my platform the way I was meant to. Because that’s why I definitely do it. When I was 16, I didn’t see women like me in the pit.”
“To the Front” started when Perez attended an art exhibit in Los Angeles focused on the work of women of color. Coles’ photographs were featured in the show. At the time, Perez was recovering from a dislocated knee and was “trying to figure out how to be productive.”
The two friends came up with the idea for “To the Front” that night. For Coles, it felt like a sign. “Before [Perez] even finished her sentence, I kept saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes. Let’s do it,’” she recalls. “I knew the universe was answering every anxious thought I had about music and where I fit in it and where I see myself as a Black woman in this very predominantly white male scene.”
They held their first show in January 2017 in their hometown of Los Angeles. They kept it small, including their work and pieces from fellow photographers Carly Hoskins and Danielle Parsons. They didn’t plan to do another show, but the amount of support they received convinced them to commit. Last June, they took “To the Front” to New York, followed six months later by Toronto. Each show included more artists and larger crowds. Toronto was the first show under the “To the Front” moniker, a shortened version of the original “Girls to the Front”—a nod to Bikini Kill—intended to make the show’s title more inclusive. Each show is free to attend, and the photographers donate the money they earn from merch sales to charity.
Although Coles and Perez created “To the Front” fairly recently, the motivation behind it has been simmering for years. Both women are 28 and became interested in music as teenagers. Perez found her footing in the punk scene through bands like The Virus, A Global Threat, The Distillers, and The Unseen. She started photographing bands at local venues and received her first photo pass from The Unseen for Warped Tour.
Coles was raised on a steady diet of MTV and cites bands like Simple Plan, Taking Back Sunday, and Sugarcult as early favorites. She still remembers the first show she photographed. Taking Back Sunday played an album release show at Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard for 2004’s Where You Want To Be. Coles shot “with my little point-and-shoot and disposable camera[s],” she recalls.
Both Coles and Perez have strong memories of the music scenes they grew up in and the diversity—or lack thereof—inherent in them. “I’m Mexican, and I grew up in an area that was primarily white, but the shows that I was going to, a lot of Mexican punks were there. I felt like there was more diversity within that community,” Perez says. “There were a lot of female punks who were going to these shows, but when I would go to different types of concerts and it was more, like, the pop punk world, I definitely felt that it was mostly white and it was mostly guys.”
“It’s L.A., so it’s a pretty diverse town, but I was very hyperaware that, besides me and my sister, there were probably, like, less than 10 other Black people at these shows,” Coles says. “It was weird, because people treat you differently, but you don’t know why they’re treating you differently. When I started getting more into photographing shows, I was hyperaware that the pit was mainly dudes. It became this thing of me trying to weirdly assert myself in this scene, like ‘I belong here.’ No one in the pit ever questioned my authority, but I always felt like I needed to be ready for it just in case.”
That desire to showcase their work—and the work of their friends who are also underrepresented in their fields—is what led Perez and Coles to create “To the Front.” They also see the exhibit as a way to encourage and support younger generations of artists. “I want people who are getting into photography and are younger than me to feel like there’s representation there,” Perez says. “When I was younger, I didn’t see that.”
“I see all my friends who are killing it right now,” Perez continues. “They’re working professionally. They’re going on tour. This is their job. This is not a hobby. And they’re not getting the same recognition as some of the most mediocre work I see getting praise online. It’s very noticeable. If you don’t have a space for yourself, you have to create it.”
“To the Front” will be in Nashville June 1. Visit tothefrontdiy.com for more information.
When Alex Licktenhour started Get Better Records in 2010, they didn’t intend to create a label focused on supporting queer artists. They just wanted an accessible way to release their music and that of their friends. Only after Licktenhour started to unravel their own gender identity did the label evolve into what it is today. “The label has helped me grow in a lot of ways as a person from being exposed to different politics, different people,” Licktenhour says. “I feel like my goals and politics have changed since starting the label. Whereas, when I first started it, I wasn’t thinking about gender. I wasn’t thinking about things like that at all, even in my own life. You know, it was always kind of there, but kind of suppressed. [Get Better] was always a political label, but it wasn’t political in the same way it is now, just ’cause I’ve changed so much as a person.”
In the past eight years, Get Better Records has put out more than 60 releases from bands such as Cayetana, Thin Lips, and Young Mountain. The label also hosts Get Better Fest, an annual music festival in Philadelphia, where the label is based. The goal of Get Better Fest is to raise money and awareness for local and national organizations, and 2018 will mark its fifth year. It’s scheduled for May 4 through May 6, and proceeds will go to Black And Pink, Morris Home, and Project SAFE.
“We strive to support the people who are not typically supported in the music industry—or life in general,” Licktenhour says. “We do a lot of benefit releases. We try to raise a lot of money for organizations that do very political, sometimes radical, work. Even our bands—we really do a good job of picking bands that are queer [and] people of color. I don’t think there are any bands that are active on the label that are all white cis dudes. Even with the fest that we do, Get Better Fest, we really try to make it inclusive in a way that feels good and not like we’re alienating people who should be included.”
Today, Get Better Records is run by Licktenhour, Jenna Pup from The HIRS Collective, and Ally Einbinder from Potty Mouth, who is also Licktenhour’s partner. Like Coles and Perez, Einbinder and Licktenhour can trace their musical beginnings back to their teenage years. Einbinder grew up in Albany, New York, and started going to punk shows when she was 14. She was drawn to punk because “it seemed like anyone could just start a band and put out a record and tour the country.”
Everyone, that is, but her. “I had a lot of guy friends, and I never even considered the fact that I could also do the same thing—learn an instrument, start a band—until I was about 20 or 21 years old,” she says. “The punk scene where I grew up in Albany was just very, very much male-dominated—not just dominated by men in numbers, but just the whole vibe of it was very macho and masculine and a boys’ club. There wasn’t actually a lot of solidarity among women in the scene. Because there were so few of us, it felt more like a competition of who can be accepted into the boys’ club.”
Einbinder picked up the bass in college when a friend gave her a tape of songs he’d written and told her to learn them if she was serious about playing bass. Once she became more comfortable with her instrument, she decided to start her own band to have more creative control. A couple years later, in 2011, she formed Potty Mouth.
Licktenhour admits that they had a different experience with music growing up. “I started playing drums when I was 11 or 12—just, like, at school and stuff. Music’s always been interesting to me,” they say. “I got into DIY starting when I was, like, 14 years old. One of my friends had an older brother who was in the DIY scene booking shows. I had a very different experience than Ally, first, starting off, because I grew up like a boy, I guess, and I had those privileges of, like, ‘Boys can play music.’”
Get Better is a small but mighty label with a mission to support and advocate for those who are often overlooked. Unfortunately, the label is still an outlier in the industry. While Licktenhour says change is happening in terms of diversity and inclusivity, they also wonder how long it will last and question the intention behind it. “I think we’re making progress a little bit in the fact that people are being spotlighted more and being given the [credit] and attention they deserve,” they say. “[But], in the media, are things changing because people actually want there to be change? Or are they changing because they don’t want to be the next thing that’s called out for something?”
“I feel like it is becoming more inclusive in a lot of ways,” Licktenhour continues. “This is a hard question for me. I don’t feel excluded necessarily, but I think a lot of people do. I think that’s slowly changing as people’s politics are changing. Obviously, it’s still a huge thing that it’s dominated by white men, but I feel like that’s even slowly shifting, and there’s more not-white-dudes playing music. That feels really good. Even though these are small, slow changes, they’re really positive changes that can be really inclusive.”
To learn more about Get Better Records, visit getbetterrecordsnh.limitedrun.com.
Courtney Coles, Erica Lauren Perez, Alex Licktenhour, and Ally Einbender are doing necessary work. It’s not easy, lucrative work, and it’s often thankless, but each of them acknowledges its importance and how much it means to them.
We should all be doing necessary work.
It’s tempting to collapse into a heap of “Everything is terrible, and people are awful!” I get it. A lot of shit is terrible. This article was inspired by terrible shit. We even talked about all the terrible shit, from Jesse Lacey—“What do you do when the band that fixes things is the band that causes pain?” Coles wonders—to sexual assault allegations in the news—“It shows that this is a pattern in culture, and no, you’re not crazy. You’re not alone,” Einbender says—to people who tokenize women for their own gain—“I’ve been hired for stuff before, and I find out later they needed a girl to do it,” Perez shares. But perhaps it’s more productive and heartening to focus on the positive work people are doing to help remedy the terrible shit.
In the end, that is much more powerful.