Today, the alternative genre is an established part of the musical fabric in America. However, in the 1980s, it had yet to fully emerge onto the scene. It all began in Athens, Georgia with a few notes.
The lecture, “Playing Like A Girl, was hosted by the departments of Art History, History and American Studies. Grace Elizabeth Hale, Ph.D, Professor of American Studies and Commonwealth Chair of American Studies and History at the University of Virginia, presented her thoughts on the amateur music scene in 1980s Athens.
Hale’s lecture was based on her new book, “Cool Town: Athens, Georgia and the Promise of Alternative Culture in Reagan’s America.” Her book and lecture cover the creation of the alternative music scene in Athens with a particular focus on the role of gender and amateurism within the development of the genre. She interviewed over 200 people for her work, including many women.
Hale’s lecture illuminated some of the original ideals of Georgian alternative culture. “Punk gave us this idea that anyone could be a musician… Athens taught us that you could do that anywhere. It democratized the idea of bohemia,” she said.
The Athens alternative music scene, often titled “New Age” or “New Rock,” began with prominent performing women and their male LGBTQ friends. Amateurism was an integral part of what made this music new. For bands, the most important part of Hale’s proclaimed “five-step program to success in the Athens music scene” was using their lack of experience to create unique sounds.
Unfortunately, Athens women came to realize that the democratic aspect of alternative culture only held when they weren’t getting too big for their boots. When women attempted to reach beyond amateur performances and move onto the national stage, they were confronted by the harsh gender binaries and stereotypes of 1980s America.
Sexism was rampant within the national music scene, and women were seen as amateurs no matter their skill level. From having instruments unplugged to being told that they “played like a girl,” women struggled to prove themselves within the scene. Just like within other professional fields, women were often infantilized or treated like they were not “real” musicians by the men surrounding them. The most common phrase that women heard was “you can’t play.”
The success of bands like REM began to corrupt the alternative scene in Athens as professionalism began to creep in. The “golden age of women in music” started to draw to a close. However, some bands upheld original alternative virtues. The Bar-B-Que Killers harkened back to the values of performance art and gender play that had allowed the alternative scene to flourish.
Athens was incredibly significant to the development of what Hale calls “New Rock.” Its embrace of outsider culture, femininity, and strong rebellion during a time of extreme neo-conservatism in the Deep South fostered a remarkable community. Women played an integral role in the creation of alternative culture. After all, without the female-dominated Athens alternative scene, we would never have had the B-52’s, and I don’t want to live in a world without “Love Shack.”