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Women in Music: 'We've Come a Long Way, Baby'

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My earliest memories of music are my mother cranking up Mozart records in the living room next to my first childhood bedroom in Montreal. It was my request, explaining that it helped me fall asleep. What she didn't know is that I was so terrified of the dark that I would lie flat as I could under the blankets, with my head UNDER the pillow, to pretend there was no little girl in the bed.

But those Mozart motets did ease the fear a little bit. That is my earliest memory of music in my world.

The next wave of music experience was my mother's amazing record collection. Linda Gaboriau, my mother, may have been one of the coolest women in Montreal at the time. She was the first female rock Disc Jockey on CHOM FM (still to this day Montreal's leading English classic rock station) and a music journalist who effortlessly found herself interviewing Leonard Cohen, Frank Zappa, Robbie Robertson and every other heavy hitter to come through the vibrant city during the 1960s summers of sex, drugs and rock 'n roll.

I would browse her vinyl collection, so excited by the photos of strange people and amazing illustrations. "Between the Buttons" by the Rolling Stones left a big impression, specifically the eyes and expression of the dreamy-looking blond in the center who had been found dead in a swimming pool.

The beautiful woman engulfed in flames and shackled in chains, on the back cover of the "Songs of Leonard Cohen" album, fascinated me and reminded me of my mother. I knew she was friendly with the singer -- could this be her in flames, I wondered?

Along with my mother's record collection was my alternative music school F.A.C.E. and in particular, Mr. Edwards, my Welsh choir teacher. Imagine one man wrangling a choir of 200+ children to sing the Mozart Requiem with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra! That was the turning point. The power of music was revealed and I was hooked, just in time for the drama of the 1980's popular musical landscape.

The Cure, The Smiths, The Psychedelic Furs and all the rich darkness filled with melodies and strange melancholic lyrics. I found my identity, my armour began to take shape as I wiped my teenage tears in the high school bathroom, haunted by the universal fear of being "alone" without anyone who understood you.

So, that's my music foundation. Now fast-forward to the present, I am hosting a NXNE panel discussion on "Women In Music in the 21st Century." How does one reflect the other? The only women present in the formative music narrative of my youth are: my empowered mother, the woman in the artwork on the Leonard Cohen album (and the women in his songs) and me, afraid in my bed or mesmerized by the power of Mr. Edwards and Mozart.

The female role models in music continued to be few and far between. Madonna made an impression, but it was just POP art. Cindy Lauper was cooler than Madonna and inspired me enough at the age of 12 to participate in a Cindy Lauper look-a-like competition at a mall. But none of the actual "sounds" affected me the way the men mentioned above did. Blondie made the only REAL lasting impression, and Blondie was a band, not a woman. It was clear the band members were the musicians and creators. She was the fashionable and beautiful front-woman of their dreams.

Somehow the scared girl in the bed who found comfort in loud and dramatic music eventually found her position as the only female cassette DJ at Biftek, the legendary 90s Montreal rock bar, started her first band with a bunch of boys and had a dream of committing her life to the power of sound. That eventually lead me to join the "biggest female rock band of the decade, who would never have to tour" -- which is the way Billy Corgan sold the position to me when I was doubtful as he tried to help his friend Courtney find a bass player replacement.

Summer of 1994 I joined Hole. That's when the female politics and "women in music" dialogue began inside me. I honestly had never thought of it much, I was a tomboy, happened to relate more to boys and liked a lot of the same music they did. My mother never made a big deal of "feminism," she simply led by example and was self-possessed and independent, perhaps even to a fault, in that she chose to be a single mother.

I wasn't one for the Riot Grrrl movement or the idea of being in a girl band to make a statement. Then from one day to the next, I found myself stage-right, to one the most provocative women in rock history. I will keep my, "Mysteries, Beauties & Complexities of Courtney Love" essay for another time, but the long and the short of it was a "Burn the Witch", "Bitch", "Slut", "Psycho", "Asking for It" powerful universe.

Women had become the foreground of my musical landscape.

Female icons, goddess and women's roles in history, society and myth are mind-melting topics we haven't really even explored beyond the tip of the iceberg (which in the real world, is currently melting due to climate change -- another topic entirely, BUT not entirely unrelated).

Women's voices, opinions, leadership and contributions have been overlooked and taken for granted for as long as the books I've seen have been printed. The power that women possess is rooted in our innate ability to give birth to life, the symbol of an incredibly active, mysterious and powerful inner world. The inner world is always at work in the arts, and perhaps especially in music, the most mysterious and ephemeral art form in my opinion.

Original, talented, independent and self-reliant, women are in the forefront of music today. I may be biased, but I truly believe that women can be THE FUTURE OF MUSIC AND THE WORLD. Now we can really say, we've "come a long way baby".

Melissa Auf der Maur hosts the "Women In Music: More Than Ever Before!" NXNEi panel at 3pm, June 13 with No Joy, Sonic Titan and Toronto Star music critic Ben Rayner

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