From the University of South Wales Digital Media Conference -Sex and Sexualities in Pop Culture. November 7, 2015. All Rights Reserved by Author.
In researching my book on popular music’s impact on female sexuality it was clear early on “groupies” were deserving of their very own chapter. It’s a term so associated with rock and roll, even those who aren’t fans are familiar with it. For many, it brings to mind a sexy yet desperate young woman patiently seeking validation by a backstage door or the character Penny Lane, the underaged,1970’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl played by Kate Hudson in the Disneyesque Rock ‘n Roll Male Fantasy- Almost Famous. But by the true definition of the word, Journalist come Director Cameron Crowe is just as much a groupie as his fantastical creation Penny… Because the term “Groupie” as it is defined by Webster’s, is as about as noncontroversial as Crowe’s cinematic interpretation.
Definition of groupie
1: a fan of a rock group who usually follows the group around on concert tours
2: an admirer of a celebrity who attends as many of his or her public appearances as possible
3: enthusiast, aficionado a political groupie golf groupies
We as music journalists are all fans of music who follow concert tours, frequent the work of certain celebrities and often serve as their enthusiastic supporters. However, as we know, the word has been tainted over time. As defined by Wikipedia, Groupie is “a particular kind of female fan assumed to be more interested in relationships with rock stars than in their music” and has become the go-to slag for women, particularly journalists, in the music business.
So how exactly did we get from genderless enthusiasm to dismissive misogyny within the breadth of one term? The negative connotations shouldn’t be surprising, as the women we’ve come to associate with the later definition of “groupie” are women who, without apology, refused to live within their era’s societal norms- most notably by taking ownership of, and pleasure in, their sexuality.
Amber Rose is a very keen current example. Refusing to be shamed or degraded by former paramour Kanye West, a man who wrote a masterpiece about her only then to publicly dismiss her as “dirty” in his famous “30 showers” comment Rose took control of the conversation, by vocally participating in the SlutWalk Movement turning West’s statement into one of empowerment and not shame.
But even as societal progressions start to shift, women who work within the music industry have the term groupie held over their head as the ultimate dismissive. On the TV series, Nashville a female music journalist sleeps with her subject The following day a noted female music critic takes to social media to criticize them. “Come on Nashville -Do female music journalist always have to sleep with their subjects?” To which I replied, “Yes. Please. It would certainly make up for the fact I make .25 cents a word.” Though meant to rebuff the stigma surrounding female music journalists, statements like the critics also play into a mindset that suggests that if we are going to be taken seriously we can not be sexual. Even though it is completely normal for co-workers to date and is, in fact, one of the most likely ways to meet a potential partner- The reaction of many women in music, especially journalists is to shun relationships with musicians and actively take a stance against the idea.
I would challenge that in adhering to that mindset we are pandering to how men who still dominate the industry view us and their antiquated stigmas attached to women as sexual beings because we still let them dictate this conversation and control the narrative. The dated notion that we as women lack objectively or critical thinking when we are attracted to a subject exist because men are operating under the false assumption our sexuality works like theirs- i.e. a nearly immediate response to stimulus that directs blood flow to a particular appendage rendering it a sole point of focus, but female sexual response requires that our brains be stimulated as to be turned on increasing blood flow to our brain prior to distribution to our genitals, never making us smarter than when we are turned on. And post orgasm we are even more primed for critical analysis. as determined in a study by a Rutgers’ research team lead by noted sexual researcher Dr. Barry Komisaruk who has studied the point in female sexuality when the prefrontal cortex (PFC) becomes active. The PFC is situated at the front of the brain and is involved in aspects of consciousness, such as self-evaluation and considering something from another person’s perspective. Komisaruk’s team recently found there is a heightened activation in the PFC during the female climax. This was also the case in individuals who can achieve orgasm by thought alone a phenomenon overwhelming achieved by women vs men.
So now that we know our genitals are not standing in the way of effective critical evaluation we should take pause and consider how the stigmatizing the word Groupie came to be.
To determine what is so inherently quote/unquote “bad” about groupies lets explore their origins. Though women being attracted to musicians is a cultural trope as old as time. The term groupie begins to take form in the 1960s in major music hubs like New York and Los Angeles a time when the business of music is completely dominated by men. Women work at record labels as exclusively as secretaries. There is a small (as in “you can count them on one hand”) sector of female journalists (who are often treated as a novelty) and 2 working female Disc Jockeys in major markets. And though there are a number of women participating in the culture of music serving as informal stylists, publicists and promoters they have no title and are not compensated for their efforts. Given their enthusiasm and proximity to the “groups” they admire- the term groupie is born.
Pamela Des Barres who has come to be known by the title “queen of the groupies” is one such example. A young woman who lived in Los Angeles during its musical heyday and at the dawn of sexual liberation- Des Barres is a woman who fell in love with music and happened to be in the right place at exactly the right time. Falling in with the crowd on the Sunset Strip in her late teens Des Barres dated her scene cohorts who happened to be musicians. Through her encounters on the strip she found a group of like-minded bohemian women who wanted to explore music and sexuality. They would later be organized as a musical group of their own the GTO’s or Girls Together Outrageously by Frank Zappa. Their singular record Permanent Damage showcases the freakier side of the LA scene with conversational lyrics blended with Zappa’s avant-garde musicality. A vinyl copy is so prized it goes for about $300 if you can find one at all.
Though they would warrant an early cover of Rolling Stone Magazine groupies were still very much sold to the public as being interesting by virtue of the men they dated- often portrayed as chasing fame, when in fact the GTOs were the ones being pursued by famous men. Des Barres noted in her famous memoir “I’m with the Band” is being pursued by Jimi Hendrix sideman Noel Redding, Waylon Jennings, and Mick Jagger while dating Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page- not the kind of acquaintances one makes by waiting by a backstage door.
When Des Barres memoir comes out in the ‘80s she is simultaneously slut-shamed to her face by talk show hosts (“did you really sleep with allllllll those guys?” is a frequent question) and praised for her candor. With a lack of female authorship to compare it to noted rock critic, Kurt Loder praises her for “recounting her sexual adventures with the gusto of a man”. The book, however, is not only a vivid kiss and tell, it is a history class on the very best in popular music- as Des Barres noted influences range from the Flying Burrito Brothers to Zappa and everything in between. The book provides the type of musical education it takes some a lifetime to cultivate. When asked to name the ultimate book on Rock n Roll for the NYT’s early this year, Sonic Youth founder Kim Gordon named ‘I’m with the Band’ as it. When pressed by the interviewer as to why Gordon didn’t feel the need to defend her answer she flatly responded “It. Just. Is.”
While the GTO’s are fondling their way to fame in LA, other collectives of women who appreciate music and sex are forming around the country, the Plaster Casters of Chicago literally made it an art form. Cynthia Plaster Caster and Company take an art school approach to musical appreciation Creating plaster casts of the erect members of rock royalty. Unlike the GTOs who had relationships with musicians the Casters, though the act of casting, take overt sexual ownership- there are no romanticized notions about the Casters and their subjects-Rock at the time was all about cock and they set forth immortalizing it in revered works which are now viewed under glass. Not to one to be tied to the times, as more female musicians emerged Cynthia Plaster Caster began Casting vulvas and breasts in all their glory.
In Texas, in the early 1970s, a teenaged Margaret Moser earns herself and fellow female music & musician enthusiasts the title of ‘the Texas Blondes’ by the Velvet Underground’s John Cale who would become a longtime paramour. Even though Moser becoming one of the most respected music journalists to ever pick up a pen with a award that bears her name and a career that spanned 33 years the first line many journalists took to cover the story of her recent retirement was “At 15 Margaret Moser dumped her boyfriend to sleep with the bassist of Blue Cheer”.
By the late 1970s the stigmatized version of groupie we’ve come to know is deeply in place, In ten year’s Rolling Stone has gone from lauding their virtues to bashing them in print, defining the derogatory version of the term with a 1978 piece called “The Lay Apostles”. The male author of the piece has no respect for the subjects, painting a sad picture of people starved to touch fame he notes “ stating whereas a decade ago some managers, agents, promoters and publicity people considered it a regular part of their jobs to provide a healthy variety of groupies at concerts and post-gig parties, now they consider it more important to protect their clients from hangers-on. The stars of the Sixties — now the superstars of the Seventies — aren’t into that scene anymore, unless princesses, socialites, models and the upper-crusty jet set are considered groupies. Groupies are now déclassé, no longer thought of as stylish ladies (if they ever were) or as interesting, personable young women who can offer something unusual to a post-gig party, but as deviant social climbers hoping to attach themselves to a band on the way up.”
Social class and status have long come into play in terms of women’s perceived value in music. There are countless songs written about Andy Warhol Icon Edie Sedgwick, as she had nearly as countless love affairs with famous men- she is, in fact, the inspiration of Bob Dylan’s Masterwork Blonde on Blonde- yet women like Sedgewick or Patti Boyd — who left George Harrison for Eric Clapton– are deemed “muses”- their status allowing them to escape the tainted Groupie trope. However “Muse” may be the world’s most highly underpaid profession. A song may immortalize you, it does not, however, pay the rent. Unless you become a rockstar “wife” you may never eat a meal paid for by the music you inspire or in the case of Angie Bowie a women credited for creating the look, style and personas explored in David Bowie’s early work you’ll be divorced given a flat sum of $250,000 for the rest of your life and never see a royalty from the work you helped create.
So what does a woman have to do to stake her claim in the business of fame? There may not be a better example than Kim Kardashian whose documented sexual relationship with musicians and other famous men translated not only into notoriety for herself but a career for her entire extended family. Kardashian fits both definitions of groupie we earlier discussed, yet her family’s notoriety and Los Angeles Nouveau riche status spared her the term. She may have been deemed a “slut” but it only served to pique public interest making her a prime for reality TV drama. Way back before Kanye West and the cover of Vogue when she was the assistant to Paris Hilton Kim career was either leaked or launched (depending on who you believe) by her sex tape with R&B Musician Ray-J. But either Kim or her mother (again depending on who you believe) made the decision to use the tape which once would have sent a young celeb into hiding as a launching platform suing Porn house Vivid Films for 5 million dollars for circulating the video and with that transaction the Kardashian Empire is born. Of course, women like Kardashian West have publicly dated musicians prior to the Reality TV frenzy of the early 00s. When we think of other beautiful women who dated famous men prior like Pamela Anderson Lee (whose sex tape was considered an invasion, not a gimmick), or Carmen Electra the difference between them and the Kim is that we don’t hear them speak. They are Mona Lisas on a swimsuit calendar who may stumble through a line or two on Baywatch, but we don’t know “everything” about them that life under the reality TV microscope provides. Their relationships with musicians only add to the mystique.
And though Kim is present cultural figure she is more often than not a Butt (pun intended) of jokes and not deemed a superstar till her relationship with Kanye West and we see her “brand” and that of her family explode. She is now an “A List “Star” -making it way to forget that a clothing line, cosmetics line, modeling contracts, countless magazine covers, not to mention a completing different standard of physical beauty for women are born all because of a poorly taped sex act with a middling musician. And while Kim’s financial gains may be a form of empowerment, it is through a man, West, that she is still it seems legitimized. West may refer to former girlfriend Amber Rose as a dirty for stripping to support her family in her teens his ability to downplay his now wife’s fame through what’s essentially a porn film seems more about his famously large egos need to control her narrative and his own persona. West’s greatest contribution to redefining the groupie narrative may not be the rehabilitation of Kim Kardashian’s reputation but his public introduction of Amber Rose. Her stance in refusing to be shamed, her public vocalization about sexuality on her own terms and her “I’m sexual, So what? attitude is one we women who work in the business of music and all women, in general, may benefit from adopting. When we are challenged or asked if we’ve slept with someone to whom we are professionally tied what if we just said: “so what?” Wouldn’t we be better off if we did exactly what we wanted with our vaginas without apology? Not only would we control our own sexual narrative, we’d have the ability to simply just shut it down -and that may be the greatest feminist take away on groupiedom to date.