Not to already start this whole thing out on a really sappy foot, but there’s this Buddhist word mudita that basically means the opposite of schadenfreude. It’s like having feelings of human compassion, but with greater depth and fullness, like you’re floating by on the sheer feeling that you’ve brought joy into someone’s life. It’s a word I wish I had been able to place for the three on-and-off days I was at Ladyfest Philly, but every time I’d have a moment to breathe, think, or sit alone, I spent it making up reasons to get back to the polite crowd at the Rotunda in West Philly, to be near and around the good vibes again. I’d like to promise that this party report won’t bring up the word mudita again, out of respect for those who find sappiness to be overrated, but it will probably be masked somewhere throughout. Maybe in anagram form.
The fest was held over three days at three central locations, and it featured a host of incredible bands from all over the country (and Canada!), and there was free iced coffee, organized show pamphlets, tapes for sale, zine readings, drum circles, informative workshops, and the list goes on and on without stopping, all with the intent of making a safe space for learning, listening, and cultivating community. The organizers, whom we had a chance to talk to prior to the event, were all calm and smiling. Nary a frenzied face was in sight. Ladyfest Philly was the DIY fest of my dreams—and as co-writer Kerri O’Malley and I came to see it, it was a non-aggressive but powerful example of how strong communities can band together to prove that it is possible to overcome marginalization.
At the zine reading on Sunday, Bryony Beynon, a political organizer in South Wales, claimed that the power of friendship was parallel to the strength of DIY and underground movements, that all true change came from a basis of camaraderie and companionship. That feeling had never been so strong than at Ladyfest Philly and by its close on Sunday night, I’d believed that everyone in the room was my better and my friend and that was easily the first time I’ve ever left a show feeling that way.
Day 1: Bright Lights, Small City
The Rotunda is a venue I haven’t been to since maybe the middle of my college years. I saw Sondre Lerche there something like ten years ago, and I don’t think I ever got an opportunity to go back. One of the big issues with music in Philly (and I say this as a mostly outside observer) is that its segmented when it comes to its music scene—shows happen in W. Philly, N. Philly, and S. Philly, but when one of those neighborhoods is en vogue or that’s where your friends are, that’s where one tends to stay. That being said, The Rotunda is gorgeous and I’m happy to have gone back. As its name belies, its shape is round, which is a significant point that I bring up because of the long history of the circle in women’s stories, and it’s tucked neatly into a college neighborhood with droopy trees to either side. It’s old and smells of damp wood and when I arrived on Friday night, spring showers had made the air cool and disheveled bands poured in, mostly drenched.
The beginning of Ladyfest on Friday night felt a lot like a middle school dance. When I got there, the lights were still on, all harsh and unflattering, and people were milling about, making small talk with friends and acquaintances. There were nerves in the room, you could tell, and it seemed that they came from a pervasive feeling of, “Is this going to work? Can we really pull it off?” The only people who appeared to not have nerves were the organizers, who wore yellow and purple bandanas to point out their status, in case anyone needed anything. They walked around proudly, making sure to talk to everyone and field the room. They easily set the mood for the weekend.
Friday was the night that felt most like a traditional show and less like a huge undertaking, which was nice to ease into when there was already so much anticipation. When Amanda X took the stage in the early evening, the electricity still floated about the air, and the performances served to match. The five bands that played on Friday were met by an audience so polite and welcoming that it had the air of a church event or an address to congress, where the applause never went on for longer than it needed, and the whoops and hollers had been left somewhere else. It was a positive beginning to what would precede a long weekend, and that feeling was rarely—if ever—diluted.
In between the performances of several garagey bands on Friday night, I had a chance to catch up with the members of Blizzard Babies, a surf-punk band from Chicago. Their performance in particular had been effective for me, as one of their songs, a droney, calculated, Television-like tune, was punctuated with breaks of the caustic, “I do what I wannnntttt.” It served to the effect of hypnotism, and by the close of their performance, I began to experience the feeling of empowerment well up inside of me.
We sat down among the noise and talked about their band history, when they begrudgingly admitted to me that they’d met from working at Whole Foods. “It’s just sort of nerdy!” they exclaimed, and their vibe in person was as if I’d caught up with best friends at a slumber party. They were giggly and warm and friendly, explaining that their debut album is going to be coming out “any second” on Boulevard Records. Their accents were very deeply Midwestern and even their body language showed an effervescence that I can’t quite place until I asked them what their future goals were.
“More hanging out and laughing!” was the contribution from Pam, Blizzard Babies’ bassist, after which their lead singer, Taylor, explained to me, “We were just talking about how we have too much chemistry.” When I asked the group why they’d want to do something like Ladyfest, their tone grew more serious, but never breaking stride.
“It’s really important to us,” Taylor explained.
“I feel like any time you get a chance to be in a safe space that is built on camaraderie, it’s an opportunity you want to take,” Pam told me as we all huddled in a circle. “We thrive on positiveness,” which was the best way to explain what we were all feeling, and a perfect precedent to jumping into performances from Black Wine (who were vocal about how well organized this event was), Void Vision, and a closeout from Potty Mouth. And when the garage-punk troupe took the stage to finish up Friday’s show, there was definitely something in the air.
Friends made: Somewhere between 10 and 15
Bands we saw: Amanda X, Blizzard Babies, Void Vision, Black Wine, Potty Mouth
Workshops we caught: None—yet.
New girlcrush: Miranda Taylor, drummer of Black Wine.
Scribbles left in Dayna’s notebook when it was left at a merch table: “Dear diary! I got my period today!” with an accompanying drawing of underwear with a period stain.
Quote of the day: Abby of Potty Mouth: “We have a new song that doesn’t have a name yet and usually this is the time of the show where we ask the audience what to name it!” Phoebe of Potty Mouth: “Cum rag! Let’s call it cum rag!”
Ally and Phoebe of Potty Mouth
Day 2: Passing the Baton
Saturday was a day that Kerri and I tackled together. I had some things to catch up on that night, so I spent the day going to workshops while Kerri spent her night watching bands. Might I note here that this process of co-covering an event has never felt so seamless and easy to coordinate, so more props go to womankind for making that work. This is the segment of the party report where I give ourselves a pat on the back.
I had scheduled an interview with Western Mass’s Potty Mouth that morning, and when we met up for coffee on Baltimore Avenue, our conversation was the perfect precedent for the second day of Ladyfest. Since day one had been more about the music than the ethos, talking with the highly informed, well spoken, and powerfully intelligent group of garage punks was all I needed to get myself amped for the day of absorbing, listening, and learning. The full transcript and details of that interview are to come, as we didn’t want to squash it all in here, but trust that there is nothing like a day of supportive empowerment when it is preceded by thoughtful conversation.
The three workshops that I attended were a drum circle (there are those omnipresent circles again), a workshop on abortion and menstruation, and then a long zine reading with a host of characters both humorous and heartfelt, mixing comics with art with revelation. Suzy X, lead singer for Shady Hawkins, took to the mic to read from her Chronicles of an 8th Grade Mall Goth, and I hadn’t laughed that hard in a long time. She stomped up wearing a Blink-182 shirt and stared petulantly at the crowd, reading in that indignant tone of voice that is so familiar at that age. Her humor was matched by the gravity of essayists who read about their gender transition, their sexual abuse, and their involvement in politics. The zine reading was undoubtedly already a highlight of the weekend, as it switched things up from a masked voice to a confrontational one. Here we had people really giving themselves to a crowd of strangers, and doing it with unheard-of gumption. After the reading, and still with that same ticky-tap beat from the drum circle pacing on in my head, I took off, leaving the reins to my associate, Kerri. When she took over, here’s what she found.
The vibe was way more community-coming-together than I had even anticipated, not in a way that felt overly self-conscious or defensive. Saturday seemed to be the more emotional day. When Parasol performed, both the female guitarist and male drummer made long comments about how moved they were by the event, and the guitarist said she’d been crying on and off all day and she’d seen a lot of other people doing the same. She pointed out how being at LadyFest really took you away from your everyday life thoughts and forced you to concentrate on the larger issues of gender, sexual oppression, and solidarity that the fest was about, and how great it was to take the time to come together on those fronts. It was really moving to hear. Then her sister jumped up to replace the drummer (all fiery red pixie hair and huge smiles) and she was such an awesome goof that it added incredible energy to their last song.
After Parasol, I caught the closing act, Canada’s US Girls, who were so good! Honestly, I had no idea it was only one girl (or if she usually plays that way)—and she’s freaking gorgeous at that: blonde, striking, wearing hoop earrings and her hair pulled back tight, while wearing this dress that just seems like she was born wearing, super elegant, high heels, the whole nine yards. While she performed, there was a video loop behind her of a girl running down a dirt road in her underwear, and it played backwards and forwards creating a really surreal complement to her show. It was essentially performed as one long number, transitioning without a beat or a clap from the audience from one song into the next. It was an absolute trance, the whole audience was almost still and totally sucked in to her as she bent over a table, playing tapes and messing with dials, making sounds with her mouth that weren’t quite singing on top of her deadened but sharp vocals.
Friends made: At least 12, including the benevelont staff at Metropolitan Bakery
Bands we saw: Parasol, US Girls
Workshops we caught: Drumline; Abortion, Menstrual Excavacation, and the MVA; Zine Readings
Today’s girlcrush: Suzy X of Shady Hawkins
Zines read that made me laugh: 2
Zines read that made me cry: 5
Quote of the day: “Friendship is a powerful tool for affecting change.” —Bryony Beynon, political activist
Day 3: The Next Generation
The last day of the Fest was, as you’d expect, bittersweet. It was hard to let go of all the good feelings we’d all been sucking in all weekend, sharing with each other and feeling at ease finally. And it wasn’t just a “feeling at ease” like you’d feel after three days of being in the same location with the same people listening to the same tunes and buying the same seven-inches. It was this release, this calming, this unreal feeling of knowing that where you were and what you were doing was within safe confines with people who really cared to make it that way. It was a release that we’d all been waiting for probably for years, since our birth, our mothers’ births, and so forth. It was no small potatoes to be in that room with those people because it felt like we were all looking out for each other in a context that seemed so damned obvious. On the Sunday before it all began again, the room was again filled with this magnetic, magic energy, like a live-wire ready to ignite.
Tara Murtha of Philly Weekly
My day started when I bought and then ate a bag of walnut-and-pecan scones that were a day old, and I don’t even have to begin to explain what a terrible idea that was. Never eat day-old pastries, even if they look good. But also don’t eat things with two kinds of nuts in them. Undeterred, I decided to take on a workshop held by Tara Murtha, a senior writer for Philly Weekly. The workshop was titled Victim-Blaming in the Media, and if you ever want to get yourself riled up beyond words, this is exactly the place to do it. Murtha was a brave, incalculably effective speaker, who talked to a rapt crowd about what it means to talk about rape and sexual violence in the media. The number of examples she pointed to that showed how sexual violence against women is often horrifically misportrayed and at the cost of the victim were so many that it made my head spin. I hadn’t felt “angry” the whole weekend of Ladyfest until Murtha brought up a screenful of tweets that blamed Rihanna for being beaten by Chris Brown.
“Our uteruses are public, but violence against us is private,” Murtha said gravely, and you could feel the festering disdain in the room. “The definition of rape hasn’t changed since 1929, and even now, you only really hear about and sympathize with rape victims who have a guy coming out of the bushes with a knife. That is a very small percentage of rapes.” The thoughts in my head were spinning, and after Murtha listed off several adjectives that the media typically uses to describe “good victims,” a term that speaks for itself, I was enraged.
“Bright, bubbly, vivacious, that she was a ‘girl,’ not a ‘woman.’” The workshop ended to introspective questions, more thorough discussion, and a pervasive outrage that things had to be this way. Murtha, not in one instance losing her steam, noted that the only way for it to not be this way is to whistleblow.
“You have to be on Twitter,” she said. “Usually these things can get changed in a short time, publications will correct their language. You just have to be persistent.”
After the workshop, I headed over to The Rotunda to catch some of the bands for what would be my last day among the conscious crowd. One of the most exciting parts of the day was when the bands of Girls Rock Philly performed, which is an organization that serves to introduce music to young girls. From Miss O’Malley, a short assessment of the day’s unanimous highlight:
GIRLS ROCK PHILLY!!! They had no idea when to start or anything and they were so cute about it. Their songs were fucking SLUDGY and HARD in a way I totally did not expect—this was some punk rock shit from a girl in a Sunday school dress. Jack Black could not have made this. All original stuff, too! The first band played a great song whose chorus was a powerful wail: “I’M NOT AVAAAILABLE TO YOUUU.” Damn, ten year olds! Then they had a hilarious song called “Song” that was like “Your song can be good, your song can be bad, your song can be whatever you want” and the chorus was just this super dead-pan and monotone “SONGSONGSONGSONGSONG” over and over. I fucking loved it. I want those girls to put out a record—I’d listen to that all the time.
Ain’t that the truth.
Girls Rock Philly
The rest of the day was spent watching, exhaustedly, the huge list of bands that had been scheduled for Sunday. If I had one complaint, which I am even wary to pose, it is that I wish Sunday had been Saturday. By the time Screaming Females went on that night, I was so delirious from catching up with people, mainlining iced coffee, and trying to absorb all the #posvibes that I could, that it was hard to give it my all during the Females’ electric performance. Luckily, though, I had a chance to sit down for a brief chat with the NJ trio, in the early light of the afternoon.
“We, as a band, have always been involved with a lot of DIY community activities, running shows in New Brunsick, NJ, where there is a show pretty much every other day and they’re all just in houses and run by people independently. When you see your friends decide to put on an event that is going to be something fun for the community and it’s going to be somewhat challenging to open up a space for something different to exist, it’s something you definitely want to be involved with,” Jarett Dougherty explained to me.
“Have you guys ever played a Ladyfest before?”
“Nope!” This is Marissa Paternoster, the notorious guitar wailer we’d all come to see.
“Wait, yes we have. It was our third show ever.”
“Yeah, our third show. Wow.”
“Was it any different from this?” I asked.
“Yeah, there were people at this one. Betty was supposed to be their main headliner, then they dropped out. Betty is best known for writing the theme song to The L Word, which is—on the record—one of the worst songs of all time,” Paternoster explained, and I left it in my notes. It pretty much is.
“It’s actually captured in our first ever music video for ‘Electric Pilgrim.’”
“Most of the people sitting on this staircase are in that video,” Marissa points out, gesturing to the heavily thronged staircase of The Rotunda. When I parsed the question about the importance of Ladyfest, it causes a stir among the trio, who obviously get tired of answering that same question. Why do we have to constantly ask why it’s important to highlight women in music? It seems obvious, and Paternoster tells me this, not hestitating in the least.
“Music for the past hundreds of years has been primarily dominated by men. That’s still the case in most places, so it’s important to sometimes make a point of showing the community how many ladies are capable of doing the exact same thing a guy would do. Even if it doesn’t go down in a history book, these people will always remember it, which is the most important thing.”
We talk a little more about the band’s recently released Chalk Tape EP, which was a different way of recording than they’d done before, and then follow-up our chat with talk of Paternoster’s recently released art book on Don Giovanni Records. She says she might be looking to do a second, some time in the future, and our chat ends with a touching scene: As I walk away to scribble down some notes, I catch the group returning to the throng on the stairs, being warmly embraced by their friends. Community has never looked so good.
The bands on Sunday were incredible, and it’s hard to believe that such a community-organized event could bring such talent together, but at the end of the show, as I was walking out, I knew it wasn’t the bands that I’d remember. The unanimous camaraderie between people of all genders at Ladyfest Philly was electrifying, challenging, and worthy. Though mudita might be a stupid, clichéd way of putting it, there was never a time in the three days of the fest that I felt a negative feeling toward anyone or anything. I felt safe and encouraged, and willfully expressed the same feelings toward all of my companions there. If only something like Ladyfest could happen every weekend and to a larger audience, change might happen a little quicker and with a decidedly forceful impact. But at least now we’re just that one step closer.
This has been the Impose Babe Squad, signing off on Ladyfest Philly, which we give ten out of ten stars.
Pastries I wish I hadn’t bought: A whole bagful of nut scones. Nut. Scones.
Friends made: Hard to count at this point. Everyone, all of the people, every single one.
Bands we saw: Ghost Ship, Girls Rock Philly Bands, Attia Taylor, Trophy Wife, Screaming Females
Workshops we caught: Victim-Blaming in the Media
Today's girlcrush: Marissa Paternoster of Screaming Females
Quote of the day: “The bottom line of victim-blaming in the media is that 1) Whores deserve it and 2) We’re all whores.” —Tara Murtha, senior writer at Philly Weekly
#Posvibes absorbed: EVERY SINGLE #POSVIBE.