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From Trio to Boygenius: in praise of all-women supergroups

The Guardian logo The Guardian 09/11/2018 Laura Snapes
(Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images) © Getty (Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

There have been few all-women supergroups: by my count, 14 of note, spanning 60s R&B trio Honey Cone to Boygenius, the trio comprising burgeoning indie talents Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, who release their debut EP today. It is a comparatively rich era for such allegiances: Boygenius’s existence is mirrored in country by Pistol Annies and in folk by I’m With Her. Even so, the “supergroup” designation can feel like a bad fit for bands comprising noted women musicians.

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When their male counterparts unite, it’s often in a show of strength that upholds tired rock norms: behold, wearily, the travesty of Hollywood Vampires (Alice Cooper, Johnny Depp and Joe Perry). Groups of famous men joining forces often feels like fantasy football – all-star names with no cohesion – whereas for women it’s often more akin to sharing a single easel, creating a space for their talents to complement each other. The young members of Boygenius – named to mock how easily male musicians are lauded as prodigies – found solace in one another as their careers rose in parallel and they encountered the same issues. Miranda Lambert started Pistol Annies to lift up two struggling songwriter friends; I’m With Her have remarked on the creative possibilities that exist when they’re not relegated to singing high parts with men.

(Photo by MICHAEL CAMPANELLA/Redferns) © Getty (Photo by MICHAEL CAMPANELLA/Redferns)

If these creative partnerships are so fruitful for women, why are there so few of them? One answer is that there are simply fewer famous women musicians. Assembling a supergroup requires a precise correlation of career point, sensibility and compatible personality, and those with the stature to be in one have generally powered through an industry even more hostile to women than that of today. Hence why it felt so revelatory when case/lang/veirs formed in 2016: in their 40s and 50s, Neko Case, kd lang and Laura Veirs turned their hard-won experience into elegant Americana that let them all shine.

Another reason is that the scourge of jam-band culture lends itself to these male formations. The handful of noteworthy women supergroups stem from collaboration-oriented genres. The most famous example is Pistol Annies’ predecessors Trio, the Grammy award-winning group of Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris that formed in the mid 70s; country music is rooted in the idea of the songwriters’ circle. Riot grrrl was rooted in Olympia, Washington State, and produced a not-insignificant number of super-unions. Many of them included Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and Mary Timony of Helium and Autoclave: they followed 90s duo the Spells with 2010 four-piece Wild Flag, and Timony later formed Ex Hex with some fellow punk lifers.

(Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Pistol Annies) © Getty (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Pistol Annies)

It’s an odd modern phenomenon that when a famous musician dies, fans muse on the heart-warming possibility that they have joined the big jam band in the sky. It’s a depressing end game, really: you spend your career carving out an artistic identity only to be subsumed into death’s eternal racket. When women and non-binary musicians have to fight harder for that recognition, perhaps it makes sense that they wouldn’t give it up so easily. When they do join forces, it tends to be in solidarity rather than a show of strength.

(Photo by Rebecca Sapp/WireImage,) © Getty (Photo by Rebecca Sapp/WireImage,)

Others know that the fantasy is often much more tantalising than the reality of full schedules and uncooperative labels (an issue that stalled Trio’s debut) and any ego payload it might deliver. Björk and PJ Harvey doing (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction at the 1994 Brits suggests a potent alternate reality, as does Dua Lipa performing in Radio 1’s Live Lounge backed by Charli XCX, Zara Larson, MØ and Alma this February. Maybe these mergers are better left as fantasy – although call me when the music that St Vincent and Brownstein made together finally surfaces.

Boygenius’s self-titled EP is released today on Matador

Related: I'm (Not) with The Band: Musical defectors [Microsoft GES]


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