When I ask all my street performer friends why they think there are so few career solo women street performers, they all hint to the sexual safety issue. So, as a visible, veteran, solo woman street performer for 27 years, I thought I would tell ya my take on it…
Everyone agrees street performing, or “busking,” is hard work. Someone once said about acting, that they do not pay you for the acting, they pay you for the waiting around. That is true in busking, too. Performing talent is about 30% of a good street act. The ability to persevere under harsh conditions, to battle police and merchants over air space, to assert free speech rights at every corner as they are questioned, to spontaneously gather and hold a crowd, and to keep up with hecklers, makes the profession a die-hard one, at best. You spend little time on musical rehearsal, as compared to holding your place in line for a good spot, or “pitch,” and then defending that pitch from police when they show up to shut you down. Street performing is not for the weak. And being a solo woman street performer has extra unseen entanglements, due to societal gender stereotypes.
Solo woman street performers directly conflict with the traditional American desexualized, meek and dependent ideal oursociety upholds for women. They make their own money, they are loud and independent, they speak their mind, they talk about politics, they compete with the boys, sometimes stealing the spotlight with women’s issues, and they encourage other women to do the same, as visible role models in the public square.
If you are a woman breaking gender roles by commanding street corners for entertainment, your safest bet is to sing sad love songs, depicting yourself as lovelorn and lost, still looking for a man to save you. Or as Joni Mitchell sings, “There’s a wide, wide world of noble causes…but all I really want to do right now is find another lover.” Although people are uncomfortable with your use of the street venue, as a woman, they are consoled by the material, which fits the female stereotypes and keeps a male focus. When I began street performing at age 18 in 1978, I followed these gender rules. I had a confident stage presence and strong voice, yet I sang about needing a man, and of men who left me heartbroken. One day a male street performer came up to me and said, “Is love all you can sing about?” It made me take notice of what men sang about. They sang about sex, and getting drunk and high. They were singing about traveling, and wars, and whaling, and politics. And about trying to stay away from women who would marry them. They were not singing forlorn love songs.
Holly Near had released a song called “Get Off Me Baby” around this time. She said she liked singing blues, but hated blues because the lyrics usually victimized the women. So she wrote the song where the woman is empowered, and the difference was marked. Immediately I saw the power in taking traditional forms of music, and twisting them to empower, rather than victimize, the women. Often, sadly, it was as easy as switching the genders in songs, to make the woman end up the victor. I began to sing “Summertime,” as “Your mama’s rich, and your daddy’s good looking,” as one of my first gender lyric switches. I began to focus on issues that were relevant to me, as a woman and mother. While the men were singing about balling all night, I was singing about men’s responsibilities in birth control and child support, and was developing lesbian comedy. Many people felt I should be jailed for such behavior in public.
I have asked many street performers, male and female, why they think there are so few solo women street performers. Predominantly, women buskers show up with a male street performer they date, play with them until they break up, and that is the end of their busking career. A very small handful of women can, and continue to, perform as professional solo women street performers in America. The ratio of male to female solo career buskers is about 9:1. The most common reason buskers gave me for why they think women do not busk solo is a fear of rape. They are afraid it would be construed as “asking for it” if they sang on a street and then were raped later. They fear they will be mistaken for prostitutes, the way male performers can be mistaken for “bums.” Yet I found I was safer than most women I know in downtown areas I busked in, because I knew the street people, and they treated me as an asset to their world. Street people protected me from harmful people, intervening, explaining I give good free music, so to leave me alone. But the main reason women tend to avoid performing on the streets alone is this sexual safety issue.
If women are scared doing male-centered, meek love songs on the street, imagine the fear in doing a sexy Bessie Smith song out on a street corner as a woman. Men perform songs about their sexuality freely in public, but those gender stereotypes kick in hard and fast as soon as women start singing freely about their sexuality in public! Especially if it leaves men out altogether, as in lesbian comedy. I found that men’s jokes about women’s genitals were accepted, even by families. No one noticed. That is what men do. But you make a joke about men’s genitals as a woman performer on the street, and the police are there within minutes! Testing these boundaries, I decided to sing sexy songs covered by Maria Muldaur and Bonnie Raitt, et al, instead of sad love songs by Joni Mitchell. I began to get large, clapping, stomping crowds like the men got. No longer was I surrounded by hippie men who wanted me to join their cult, or hippie “chicks” who could “relate, man.” Respect for me doubled among my male performer peers. Ironically, I felt even more safe on the streets after asserting my sexuality in my music, like the men.
But singing about sex with men, in songs like “Women Be Wise,” still does not rock the boat, as it is still male-centered. Issues of pregnancy, birth control, child care, women’s sexual fulfillment, and lesbianism, DO rock the boat. Until the insertion of feminist material into my act, all loved me. No one cared if men balled all night, or if women cried in longing all night. But singing about women having sex together with other women all night, and not crying over men, was suspected criminal activity! Not only were authorities called in, but my own male performer peers backed up in confusion too. I received 8 “peace disturbance/obscenity” tickets in Santa Cruz, Ca. for busking. This happened while the famous busker Artis, the Spoonman, was screaming, “Give Me Back My Foreskin!” in his street performances up the street. I was ticketed for the word “penis,” when I said in my act, “What do you get when you cross a penis with a potato? A dictator.” I got another ticket for the word “bitch” in a song lyric saying, “Girls have got to act a certain way, or else, they ain’t A-OK, always be willing, never get mad, or they call us bitch, they tell us we’re bad.” Interestingly, that same song was later used in Seattle, Wa., at the Pike Place Market, as potential grounds for banning my performances there. The double-standard for obscenity on the streets for men and women became painfully apparent after I fought off 8 obscenity tickets with the ACLU in Santa Cruz, and attended hearings to fight for my free speech rights in Seattle.
After seeing that double-standard, my whole performing career came into focus. Police are present to reinforce societal norms, and the status quo. And it is not clear where the status quo stands on solo women street performers. Much less, solo women street performers who make fun of the sacred male genitalia, and talk about women-centered sexuality and other dangerous feminist issues. Some would ban solo women street performers altogether if they could. Some have tried that with me. Others would allow solo women street performers, but would censor their material to be male-centered. That has been tried on me too. In 1989, I was so sick of being hassled by police for performing, I put on a nun’s habit, thinking it would confuse the public. I was not sure if the public would side with a cop or a nun, but I found the nun’s habit effectively intimidated police. I have not been ticketed once since I have performed as a nun, and I can do material that is MUCH more racy than I ever did before! My journey as a street performer continues on, but it is a different journey than my predominantly male peers’, for many reasons. The biggest reason being the lingering gender stereotypes in our society.