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Tragic Cases of Domineering Bro Disease

An obsession with female singers comes with many frustrations. Primarily, someone who loves female vocals has a much smaller pool to draw from when trying to find new bands, just due to the sheer disparity in numbers compared to male vocalists. This is already annoying enough, but it doesn’t end there: many bands have talented women but will waste their singing skills in lieu of a lame, questionably talented generic indie rock bro.

It’s a phenomenon I’ve decided to refer to as “Domineering Bro Disease,” because I couldn’t think of a better name. As far as I can tell, it’s exclusively a male phenomenon, and it’s plagued bands for decades, frequently worsening their creative output in the process. The main symptom of the disease is the result of the fragile male ego. It infects a guy, often a songwriter who helped to create the band, who – because he is a guy and guys have to be in control of everything – feels that the world needs to hear his uninteresting voice interpreting the songs rather than a talented female singer.

This is obviously frustrating for me, because I’m on the record as finding female vocals inherently more interesting than most male vocals. But in some cases, particularly at the more underground level, it hurt the band as well. A great female vocalist is an easy way to get your band spotted and to instantly stand out from the crowd on the local scene. Unfortunately, far too many dudes who think they’re the next Jeff Mangum have destroyed their chances by insisting that they handle the microphone.

Some bands with both genders have been able to find the right balance — Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine come to mind. But too frequently, the domineering bro asserts himself too strongly (part of why I love all-female bands is that there’s no guys around to screw everything up). Here are some of the many bands that could have used a bit more equality (or in some cases, inequality). Hopefully future bands will learn from their mistakes and work together to find a cure for this horrible, debilitating disease.

Jefferson Airplane

Like most people, the two songs I was first familiar with from Jefferson Airplane were “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” each of which were written and sung by Grace Slick, one of the most charismatic women in early rock. Both of these songs are purposeful and combined the band’s psychedelic aesthetic into a unique pop package. Excited to hear more, I downloaded the 1967 album Surrealistic Pillow that both songs are found on, only to find that the entire rest of the album was just pointless noodling with listless male vocals.

To this day, Jefferson Airplane drives me insane, because Slick was so clearly the biggest draw for the band. Her two songs were the chart hits from the album and also are the ones that frequently appear on “best songs of all time” lists. At a time when female-fronted rock was in short supply, they had an opportunity to be something truly unique and memorable, but it was squandered because the dudes in the band couldn’t put the pieces together and were too stubborn to step aside and let her rock. Instead, we’re left with “Somebody to Love,” “White Rabbit,” and a bunch of forgettable songs that non-hippies don’t listen to anymore.

The Pixies

Rock history is littered with domineering bros, but perhaps none were more domineering with less justification than Pixies frontman Black Francis. He was an undeniably talented songwriter who wrote some extremely influential songs, but his yelpy vocals often straddled the fine line between experimental and annoying. Meanwhile, bassist Kim Deal was blessed with one of the finest voices in rock music, a sweet but sinister coo that played perfectly with their noisy instrumentation. She showcased it on “Gigantic” from 1988’s Surfer Rosa, but after that album was mostly relugated to sidekick or background roles while Black Francis took charge. Thankfully Deal escaped the wrath of Francis, leaving the band to form The Breeders, a band that is much better than the Pixies regardless of what anyone tries to tell you.

Rilo Kiley

Rilo Kiley was founded by two child-actors-turned-musicians, Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett, but it quickly became apparent to anyone with half a brain that Lewis was the star of the band. Her honest lyrics, sugary voice, and good looks quickly made her an indie darling. Despite that, Sennett doggedly inflicted his eighth-rate Elliott Smith voice on their audience, singing multiple songs on otherwise good albums like Take-Offs and Landings and The Execution of All Things. While Lewis’ songs were usually memorable and full of personality, Sennett’s invariably fell flat and quickly found their way onto my “instant skip” list.

In this case, it’s not that the male overshadowed the female, but that he felt the need to draw a shadow at all. Sennett was a fine guitarist who I’m sure was partially responsible for some of their best songs, but he should have been content to stand in the background playing guitar while riding Jenny’s coattails to stardom. Unsurprisingly, since the band broke up Lewis has had success as a solo artist and partnering with Jonathan Rice in Jenny and Johnny while Sennett now fronts the presumably crappy indie band The Elected.

Galaxie 500

Galaxie 500 made some of the most atmospheric and influential music of the late 80s and early 90s, using their love of The Velvet Underground to craft a slow-paced sound now known as “slowcore.” The band was fronted by guitarist Dean Wareham, who sang almost all of their songs. His nervous, jittery vocals suited the band’s songs about alienation and isolation quite well, but they still could have used more vocal turns by bassist Naomi Yang. The only two songs she sang over the band’s three albums were two of their best: On Fire‘s “Another Day” and This is our Music’s jawdropping cover of Yoko Ono’s “Listen, the Snow is Falling.”

Yang’s vocals suited the band’s hazy sound, and the band would have benefited from having another voice to mix up their songs a bit more. For a band that has occasionally been criticized for being too repetitive with their sound, Yang was an obvious answer that got overlooked.

The Dead Weather

A lot of the hype for supergroup The Dead Weather came from it being another Jack White side project. However, the band worked a lot better as a vehicle for The Kills’ Alison Mosshart, whose hellcat vocals finally got a chance to shine in a full-band atmosphere compared to the minimalism of her other group. The group’s best songs like “Gasoline” and “Hang You from the Heavens” are the ones where Mosshart leads the way, followed by the ones where both she and White play off of each other. The band’s worst songs are when White obligatorily takes the lead by himself. Mosshart’s vocals are passionate, full of attitude, and sound fresh while the overexposed White’s often sound like self-parody from his days with The White Stripes and usually just consist of him yelling attempts at catch phrases.

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