is girl rock an exclusive club?
girlpool, cleo tuck, and the future of gender-defined spaces
For years, the female-fronted rock scene has been connecting loyal audiences with female personalities. In a genre dominated by men who have laid claim to the “Rock God” persona, female-led rock movements like Riot Grrrl have cut against the grain. But despite efforts to subvert industry toxicity, an unwelcome deposit of transphobia within the subgenre has caused some listeners to disavow the community entirely, while others are calling for change from within.
Durring the last few years, the Girl Rock scene has been consumed with questions about gender identity, implicating the name of the genre itself and the culture organized beneath that title. If the movement is going to have girl in the name, how are we defining “girl?” What are we saying the word means (or doesn’t)? Trans-exclusionary feminists have tried to stake a claim to Riot Grrrl and all its iterations, claiming that the female-led space was created explicitly for cis women to air grievances about the larger rock genre and—through their performances—play into a femininity suppressed by the sexist rock hierarchy. This take doesn’t sit well with many people, including me, and is steadily losing favor as understandings of non-binary genders, gender fluidity, and gender-bending performance become more widespread. Instead, trans activists argue that the Riot Grrrl space should be one where all people who don’t benefit from cis patriarchy can explore, perform, and celebrate femininity in its many forms.
While queer fans seemed to be winning debates about the genre, I was anxious to see how these new intersectional philosophies would play out in real life. Would broader audiences be welcoming when a trans person was leading a high-profile group? Then, in the spring of 2018, it happened. Cleo Tucker (he/him), one of the leads of the iconic indie rock duo Girlpool, came out as trans-masculine/non-binary. Not only was this a major band in the genre that literally had the word “girl” in its title, but it was also a group known for its crooning hyper-femme harmonies on tracks like “Cut Your Bangs” and “Ideal World.” What would it mean for a band seemingly defined by its “girliness” to suddenly lose 50 percent of it? Now that Cleo had come out to the world, was he supposed to pack up and leave?
I remember that when I started questioning my gender, I’d wonder if transitioning meant letting everything that’s femme-coded go: my special bond with my sister and mom, these Girl Rock bands I grew up with? I even remember lying on the floor of my dorm room thinking, If everything has already been associated with female or male leanings, does gender queerness mean having nothing? When we ask whether the future of Girl Rock is trans-inclusive, beneath that lies a fear that we won’t have a seat on the boat we built. I worry that I won’t be afforded a ticket on the next ride beyond this place, that the entertainment I consume will leave me stranded.
Needless to say, I was excited for this February’s release of the new Girlpool album, titled What Chaos Is Imaginary, and for how it might interact with these questions of mine. The album opens slowly (but not quietly) with “Lucy’s.” The song pointedly and unapologetically centers Cleo’s voice, lower now after hormone replacement therapy and voice training, backed by heavy guitars. It’s hard for me to listen to the first lyrics without reading them as a nod to his experience in the genre:
An unfamiliar place where you’d rather stay
A meditation plan when you sway and sink
The album as a whole doesn’t shy away from the topic of Cleo’s transition. Instead of fading into the background with an unannounced change in his voice, Cleo jumps into the upbeat track “Hire” with an unabashed energy that proclaims gender euphoria rather than fear. A C-major key and 4/4 time signature keep the song filled with a lightness that builds to meet Cleo’s joyful belting on the chorus. He sings:
Now I’m the ref and a phone call cutting out
Back on the bench I fall into the month I think about
How I sold seven doves when I was lying on your back
While these lines paint a funny image of Cleo as an energized dad at at his son’s sports game, they also quietly reference a deeper sense of gender euphoria and arrival, declaring that he’s “back on the bench” but with a new perspective. He does note, however, that he still carries with him the memories of his struggle navigating his gender identity in the Girl Rock space. The next phrase, “lying on your back,” may refer to Cleo’s reliance on his fellow band member Harmony Tividad when feeling pressure to lean into femininity in order to sell records. This short investigation into “Hire” is just a small glimpse into the self-aware poetics Girlpool brings to their latest project, which tackles the deep complexity of the subgenre, the act of making music, gender, and the internal conversations we have with ourselves about the spaces in which we belong.
Even outside of this album, the band seems to have positioned itself as a real changemaker in the Girl Rock scene. Both members have been vocal about the invasion of racism and transphobia into the community, wielding their own music to transform the subgenre’s culture. In live shows, Cleo has adapted old Girlpool favorites to work better with his “new” voice and often points out the differences on stage. This isn’t to say that Girlpool is single-handedly changing all of Riot Grrrl, but their actions still help make Girl Rock a more intersectional and inclusive space. Encouragingly, Girlpool’s latest album has been received by many as their best yet, suggesting a growing demand for inclusivity and genre critique.
So, what does Girl Rock mean now? While the definition is ever-changing, I see an especially important evolution in the subgenre’s relationship with femininity, where “girliness” is beginning to describe an experience, way of being, sensitivity, or exploration without a strict biological or identity standard. As we learn to see and feel gender as fluid, it’s important to consider what spaces we’ve built constrictive walls around and framed as cis-exclusive clubs. Personally, I’ve only ever asked a few things of Girl Rock. I want to be able to work through my response to patriarchy with someone by my side. I want to know that some people, maybe even a crowd of people, understand the frustration I feel and are willing to hear me. I want to be able to reflect on, feel, perform, and play with “girliness.” For a while, I felt that love go away. I began to see this escape as a new kind of trap, and I was waiting to get caught and thrown out. I’m not saying that Girlpool, Cleo Tucker, or What Chaos Is Imaginary fixed that completely, but now I’m starting to feel as though I can exhale, and enjoy something just because it feels right.