Content warnings: Discussion of sexism, brief mention of sexual harassment and assault.
Well, she was just seventeen / You know what I mean
(The Beatles 1963)
And she won’t give up ‘cause she’s seventeen / She’s a frozen fire, she’s my one desire
(The Cars 1979)
All of seventeen / Eyes a purple green
She was seventeen and she was far from in-between
(Kid Rock 2007)
Seventeen, (Oh, oh) / Don’t change one thing (Oh, oh)
Oh, she’s only seventeen / Whine whine whine, weep over everything
(Kings of Leon 2009)
You were only seventeen / So sweet with a mean streak / Nearly brought me to my knees
(Cage the Elephant 2013)
When I first met her, she was seventeen / Seventeen
(Queens of the Stone Age 2017)
You were only seventeen / But that puppy love is over
(Highly Suspect 2019)
She / Was only seventeen / Oh, why are girls in songs always seventeen?
I’m in the car listening to Melophobia by Cage the Elephant for probably the 325th time. When I’m not in the car, I like to watch YouTube videos of CTE’s frontman Matt Shultz performing live because he is dynamic, because he wears mesh shirts and leopard print and tosses himself around his microphone stand, and because he is drenched in sweat a third of the way into every show. “Cigarette Daydreams” is playing. Despite my love of this album and band, I say aloud to no one in particular (since there’s no one else in the car), “Next time a song comes on about a 17-year-old girl, I am going to punch something.”
Cage the Elephant didn’t mean a literal “fear of music” when naming the album Melophobia. In an MTV interview, Shultz said he viewed the term more as denoting “a fear of creating music to project premeditated images of self, like catering to cool…rather than just trying to be an honest communicator.”
In high school I googled articles about shooting lasers at sweat glands after a male instructor at a music competition pointed out my sweaty palms, but other than a proclivity toward sweating while playing music, I am not very much like Matt Shultz. I do, however, find it incredibly hard to be an honest communicator artistically. By this I mean I find it hard to present an image of myself that is confident and true, that is not curated through the eyes of what I perceive my culture approves of and desires.
I am a woman in my late twenties. I’ve been playing music in some capacity since I was eight.
When I was in seventh grade, I tagged along to a meeting between my dad, who works in marketing, and a studio musician who was composing music for a commercial. I remember being impressed by the little plate of cookies and bottles of water we were offered while seated on leather sofas. Like really impressed. The other thing I remember is how awestruck I was by the way the musician seemed to pull music out of thin air. My dad and I talked about it the entire car ride home. How did he compose like that? With no written notation, off the top of his head. It must take years of practice.
“I’m going to go home and try to compose little melodies on the piano—I’m going to put away my sheet music and bang on the keys until a tune emerges.”
I’d like to say I thought that, but I didn’t. I’d like to say that day was a turning point in rethinking my relationship to music, but it wasn’t. I didn’t think for a second that composing, or rather, trying to compose—trying and sounding bad and having confidence enough to try again—was an option for me.
The boy I liked at school at the time played guitar. I’d hardly talked to him in the two years and five classes we’d shared, but the next day I rushed up to him in the hallway out of breath, voice shaking and palms sweating, to tell him all about my trip to the music studio.
“Wouldn’t it be amazing,” I asked, “if you could work in a place like that someday?”
If Matt Shultz can redefine melophobia, then so can I.
Melophobia: a fear of looking bad musically, messing up in public, making the mistakes required for experimentation in a society where your projected image is supposed to bring grown men to their knees.
I spent an afternoon once making an anger-induced Google doc of song lyrics about 17-year-old girls, and it’s pages long. The 17-year-old queens. The precocious, barely legal daddy’s girls. The overwhelming sex appeal of a girl who doesn’t know enough to know how alluring she is in an older man’s eyes. The whole trope may be a fantasy concocted to sell catchy songs, but that’s the problem—it does sell, and the soundtrack is hard to get out of your head.
It’s a soundtrack of images, premeditated and curated by someone other than ourselves. And they ask us to curate too, curate toward some narrow notion of female perfection.
I can’t aim for perfection.
I aim to get up with enough time to make coffee and wipe off the traces of yesterday’s eyeliner still stuck to my face. I aim to not pour so much boiling water on myself making coffee that I get second degree burns (which I did) and then have to rebandage them in the bathroom between sets at a Cage the Elephant show (which I did). I aim to keep up on laundry and do well at my job.
And when I practice music, I also do not aim for perfection, even on weeks when I practice every day.
I do not aim for perfection, because I am not perfect. Because I am not extraordinary.
But neither are 14-year-old boys in garage bands. They are ordinary. They are common. They are on every suburban street in America banging on drum sets, writing trite lyrics, and giving their parents tinnitus.
And these things, I could have done.
But they weren’t my ordinary. They weren’t my common.
In a high school of 1,500 students, I didn’t know one girl who played in a band.
And I didn’t imagine our adult selves behind the controls in our own music studios.
Well, she was just seventeen and…
Always on call
Keeping the peace
Showing up, cheering on
Working, studying, practicing
Pulled, and pulling
Well, she was just seventeen and…
Navigating bosses’ hands, boyfriends’ protection, counselors’ advice, and parents’ expectations.
Getting angry and not knowing why.
Running out of internet searches that promise to fix what terrorizes her.
Writing unspoken words behind a locked door.
Envisioning worlds other than the one she’s in.
I was 17 the first time I performed in the type of setting that intimidates me, the kind I’d been watching male friends play—and tank—in since we were 13. By this I mean loud, and with a mic. By this I also mean without sheet music and in front of people who could judge me. I was stepping in with an Irish rock band, on fiddle, in a bar in my Midwestern hometown. I was so excited…
Though I played piano as a kid and picked up guitar as an adult, my main instrument, the one that made me love not just listening to but really making music, is the violin. I tell you this because the violin may seem like an odd instrument choice for a preteen girl who glorified boys in garage bands, so it’s crucial that I explain a little about why I love the violin.
There are a lot of reasons. I love the sound of the high notes, the tortured-animal practice sounds and the screaming glory of a concerto cadenza. I love fiddle breaks and digging, grinding, percussive violin. I love soulful jazz violin and licks played with a distortion pedal that rival the power of an electric guitar. I love the way the wood on my violin absorbs the smell of every place I take it. But mostly I love the way a violin is bold and rejects perfection. With no frets for guidance—just a player’s faith and muscle memory—and a 90db-plus volume that requires I put a rug in my apartment, the instrument is quite nearly impossible for anyone at any level to play perfectly (and definitely impossible to play timidly).
Not to belabor my metaphor, but the violin represents much of what scares me about being a musician, and much of what I want to learn to embrace.
I’ve been fortunate that the violin has allowed me to dip into more causal musical settings over the years, making up slightly for not being in those middle school garage bands. As a high schooler, I experimented a bit in jam sessions of various genres in the upstairs of bars and the downstairs of bars where I was often the only teenage girl in a room of gray-haired men who applauded me for getting out there so young. They told me music was ageless, but I hardly ever saw a gray-haired woman at a session.
At a jazz session in college, I made friends with Katie, another young fiddle player. She came with her dad, who insisted on giving me a ride whenever a session let out late, so I wouldn’t have to walk or take the bus back to campus alone in the dark. The three of us always sat together. At some point each week, the group would play harmony as we went around the circle so everyone could do a few lines of solo improv. During the first week, I think Katie or I tried to pass, and one of the older men suggested the two of us solo together. So we always did. Every week. Never alone. Maybe I am a coward, but maybe I took a suggestion that was only ever offered to the group’s outlier girls.
I do believe music is ageless. It better be, because I am still learning to solo.
So back to that hometown bar performance. And me, 17. You know what I mean?
This is another day I want to tell you was a turning point—one in which, standing in a nondescript suburban bar, fiddle in hand, behind a row of mics and a room of strangers, I had some sort of revelation about belonging. I want to tell you that I realized I could take risks on stage and be okay even if I messed up. I want to tell you I realized it was okay if not every note was perfect, that I learned to trust my abilities to communicate something musically, even if it wasn’t going to win an award.
In reality, I played what I’d practiced and left the gig with a sense of relief. But it wasn’t relief that I could do what I’d been watching others do. It was relief in my ability to become invisible. The other instruments were loud enough that no one could hear if I messed up. The bar was dark enough that it was likely no one noticed my facial expression. To this day, I hate seeing pictures of myself play. I look like I’m concentrating, not smiling or tossing my hair, or looking sweet with a mean streak or whatever women are supposed to look like when they’re playing instruments.
That day I melted into the background, and in future years, I continued (I continue) to seek out musical venues where I can sink into the safety of invisibility.
Maybe when you’re 17 and you hear lyrics about 17-year-old girls, you stop hearing the music and start hearing only the words. You start seeing yourself as the object to be written about, not the producer of the song. You become more concerned with being the song-worthy girl than the song-maker. Or maybe you know you’re not the song-worthy girl. You don’t recognize yourself in her. But you don’t see yourself in the songwriter either. You don’t see room for yourself on stage, taking creative risks, and messing up with confidence. There aren’t songs about that. And your neighborhood garage bands aren’t full of girls like you. In a world in which you are a gazed-upon commodity, taking messy creative risks feels nearly impossible.
Maybe you decide to find refuge in the beautiful history of female pioneers in rock music, but you still can’t shake the fact that they are the exceptions. And you are not an exception. You can’t shake the pervasiveness of male-dominated bands who do not present nuanced views of women. You get tired of seeing women used only as background in music video after music video. You count the number of women who have ever won the Grammy for best rock album and are not surprised that the number is two.
Of course, some things are changing, and the music industry is making room for new types of artists. But as doors crack open and critics discuss the future direction of rock music, you start hoping one of those bands that won best rock album will write a song about a 27-(or dare I say 37)-year-old woman with, I don’t know, thoughts, character, and a history—the things the songwriting men of the world might call “baggage.” You start hoping the song will play on the radio and not need to be accompanied by 12 think pieces. And when this feels like hopeless dreaming, you realize how low your bar has gotten. You realize how much it hurts to find yourself absent from the cultural consciousness of mainstream music. You realize how much it hurts that you are not part of the music that your culture has taught you to love.
Recently, I volunteered at a week-long rock camp for girls and gender non-conforming youth. I was there to lead a comedy workshop (another male-dominated creative zone, but that’s another essay) and to help out with odds and ends where I could.
The premise of the camp is ambitious. Some of the campers have never played a musical instrument before. But over the course of a week, they form bands, write an original song, and perform it in front of the rest of the camp in a joyous final concert.
In my comedy workshop, the campers wrote a listicle about surviving rock camp—a room of 20 teens yelled ideas over each other as I scrambled to capture their humor on a whiteboard. They said things like “buy a wig for better head banging,” and “wear grippy shoes so you don’t slip on sweat and spilled drinks on stage,” and “throw drumsticks at your bandmates to get them to do what you want.”
It was a comedy workshop, sure, but it seemed so free. The camp’s final concert also felt this way.
The lyrics to the songs performed that night had to do with everything from hating Ohio weather, to relationships, to insecurities, to sexual assault. It would be redundant if I said they didn’t reproduce the trope of the 17-year-old song-worthy girl.
The camp was a moving experience, an embodiment of the ideas I’ve been grappling with. It was a space for girls and non-binary kids to take the messy creative risks that boys grow up being encouraged to take.
I don’t think it’s going be easy for these teens after leaving that final stage at camp. The world will not part for them and give them Grammys, and their male peers might still dismiss them. I don’t underestimate the importance of having a group of non-male peers who will not dismiss them. And I don’t underestimate the importance of having a safe and welcoming environment that allows for creative freedom. But until this environment can exist in non-exceptional mixed-gender spaces, real change in everyday communities won’t happen. Until this space exists, we won’t be able to fill our cultural mind with new widespread and diverse images to counter and add nuance to that of the 17-year-old song-worthy girl.
Throughout my week at camp, I think I felt more insecure than some of the campers. I wanted them to see me as the kind of person they might want to become, to see me as a woman who is succeeding creatively, but I’m still so unsure of how to present in that way. I wish I could tell them that—that I’m up there leading a workshop but often feel like an imposter. That when they get on stage, they might feel like an imposter, but that’s okay. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t feel okay. Sometimes I’m too mad that everything moves so slow in this battle for recognition.
And if I’m being honest with myself, if you asked me to do it today, I don’t think I could storm the stage as confidently as the campers did the night of their final concert.
The guy I liked in middle school is now a professional musician in Chicago, and I feel proud of my ability to spot talent at a young age. I don’t know if he has a studio with little cookie platters, but I hope he does.
I don’t have a studio. I have a bedroom with a door I shut and walls I don’t share with my neighbors. In this space, I write fiddle parts to songs I like and play along with YouTube on crappy PC speakers. I experiment with the sounds my instruments can make, some raw, some weak, some beautiful, some original. My mind fills in what isn’t there—accompanying instruments, perfect pitch, a sense of belonging, missed opportunities regained. And the music becomes louder than the words.
And I think about what it means to be loud and a woman, to be heard and listened to in the authenticity of imperfection.
Image: Photo by Luis Levrato, licensed under CC 2.0.