More Than a Music Camp: The Story of Girls Rock!

In the summer of 2015, music journalist Jessica Hopper took to Twitter to pose a question to her 30,000 some–odd followers: “Gals/other marginalized folks: what was your 1st brush (in music industry, journalism, scene) w/ idea that you didn’t ‘count’?”

Hundreds of people responded with stories of men assuming that women at shows were girlfriends or wives rather than band members, of people of color being tokenized and called out at overwhelmingly white concerts, of an endless chorus of “sweeties” and “honeys” from every stratum of the industry.

One day and hundreds of infuriating anecdotes later, Hopper sent out another tweet: “Imagine how many women, queer kids, POC might stick around scenes, industry, journalism if they encountered support not hostility.”

One such network of support exists in the very city that Hopper calls home. For two weeks each summer, campers at Girls Rock! Chicago learn how to play instruments, record music, collaborate with one another, and perform live.

But GR!C isn’t just a space for playing music. The camp is dedicated to combatting the fact that girls and transgender and gender non–conforming (TGNC) kids are rarely encouraged to seek out outlets for creative self–expression, nor are they granted access to the same sort of technical instruction as boys.

In other words, GR!C is committed to nipping things like low self–esteem and imposter syndrome in the bud — two phenomena that are byproducts of a culture that so often tells girls and TGNC youth, “You can’t.”

The Origins of Girls Rock!

Girls Rock! Chicago was founded in the Fall of 2005 when a group of women sought to join the then–small network of girls’ rock camps that had been cropping up around the world, beginning with Portland’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls in 2001 and subsequent camps in Sweden (started in 2003), Tennessee (started in 2003), and Brooklyn (started in 2004).

After hosting fundraisers, acquiring gear, forming a nine–member board, and securing a space at Roosevelt University, GR!C had its inaugural week of camp in the summer of 2006.

Today, the Chicago chapter is one of the fastest growing girls’ rock camps in the country and is part of the Girls Rock Camp Alliance, an international coalition of organizations that amounts to nearly 100 — a number that grows annually.

The alliance was formed in 2007 at the initiative of Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls, the founders of which sought to create a network among camps.

They invited organizers from the other camps to a conference in Portland, where seven camps in total were represented: Willie Mae Rock Camp (New York, NY), Girls Rock Philly (Philadelphia, PA), Bay Area Girls Rock Camp (Oakland, CA), Southern Girls Rock Camp (Murfreesboro, TN), Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls (Portland, OR), Popkollo (Sweden), and Girls Rock! UK (London, UK).

In 2012, GRCA became a 501(c)(3) non–profit run by its 43 participating camps, a two–person volunteer staff, and a board of directors.

At the moment that 501(c)(3) status was achieved, the GRCA had 43 chapters in eight countries worldwide and served 3,000 girls per year. Five years later, there are close to 100 camps in 19 different countries, from Anchorage to Australia.

And if the success of the Chicago chapter is any indication, the growth of the number of campers each year suggests that girls around the world are increasingly interested in learning about music.

Per GR!C’s annual report, the summer of 2014 served 148 campers with the help of 100 volunteers (producing, it should be mentioned, 39 original songs) — a huge leap from the 16 campers that attended the program in its inaugural summer eight years prior.

For Girls Who Want to Rock, Just Try It

The camps within the Girls Rock Camp Alliance share a set of common values pertaining to diversity, female empowerment, and music’s capacity for creating personal and social change. The individual organizations, including GR!C, also take part in an annual conference where volunteers and board members meet to train, share resources, and network.

That said, the individual programs vary in order to best reflect and serve their local communities. Since its first summer at Roosevelt University, Girls Rock! Chicago has since moved to West Town, where it hosts two one–week–long sessions each summer.

A typical day for campers, whose ages range from 8 to 16, begins with a morning assembly and a two–hour–long instrument lesson. Though some of the campers bring their own instruments from home, the camp provides everything they might need.

“Girls Rock! Chicago does have a small budget for gear,” Britlynn Hansen–Girod, Reverb employee and GR!C’s Gear Coordinator and de facto organizer, distributor, and schlepper told me over the phone. Save the budget’s handling of smaller items and repairs, the vast majority of gear is acquired through donations.

Following instrument lessons, campers attend a workshop, then practice with their freshly formed bands. And the band names alone are something to behold. Past acts, like 2016’s “Scream Cheese” and “Tattooed Chicken Heads,” contain all of the inventiveness and unabashed silliness that only kids could cook up.

For the final weekend of camp, the bands perform their music at an End–of–Camp Extravaganza. The event, which is open to the public, has taken place at venerated venues like Schubas, Metro, and Thalia Hall. They also record their music at recording studios like ESS, Engine Studios, and Wall to Wall, the latter of which has been used by Neko Case, Andrew Bird, and the Thrill Jockey label, to name a few.

Not only do these spaces provide the campers with a palpable connection to Chicago’s local scene, but they also legitimize the campers’ efforts — a feat that, considering the incessant undermining of women in music, is no small beans.

Making a Better World for Women in Music

That sort of inclusivity and encouragement show up in spades at Girls Rock! Chicago, whether it’s through the counselors’ guiding the campers without interfering in their creative process, or the camp’s commitment to providing scholarships and financial aid to anyone who wants to participate but might not have the means. In 2014, 48% of the camp’s 148 campers received financial aid.

As evidenced by the Twitterstorm that Hopper incited two years ago, the music industry is rarely as inclusive and supportive as the microcosmic biz that GR!C has constructed. Rather, it can be an especially fecund breeding ground for misogynist, demeaning behavior.

“We recognize that women and nonbinary people and trans people have been excluded widely in the music scene,” Hansen–Girod says.

Upon looking at a list of artists in the Top 40, that sort of exclusion isn’t immediately apparent. The list is peppered with the names of female performance artists, like Lorde, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Katy Perry.

The gender imbalance begins long before musicians crack into the Top 40."

But according to a 2016 survey, only 22.3% of the 206 songs that made the Top 40 list were performed by women. That number shrinks when one considers the entire strata of the music industry. The same survey indicates that a mere 10.8% of 2016’s Top 40 songwriters were women, and less than 5% were female producers.

The gender imbalance begins long before musicians crack into the Top 40. Susan Rogers, a former producer for Prince and professor at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, posited that the number of women in music production and engineering courses is only around 10 to 15 percent.

Furthermore, women only make up about 32% of the entire student body. “[Women and TGNC people] are not represented and they’re not encouraged to play music,” says Hansen–Girod. “This camp exists to change that, address that, and interact with it.”

That sentiment comes across in the camp’s current mission, which is constantly being workshopped: “Building socially just community with girls, transgender youth, and gender non–conforming youth by developing leadership, fostering self–esteem, and encouraging creative expression through music.”

While rocking out is certainly at the center of Girls Rock! Chicago, music is a conduit through which campers can learn larger lessons about inclusivity, self–possession, and social justice.

Nowhere is the camp’s commitment to positive social change more evident than in its diverse lineup of workshops. The workshops vary from summer to summer depending on which coordinators are available.

In addition to addressing topics associated with playing music, the workshops also delve into issues of self–esteem and the role that gender plays in our understanding and consumption of music — subjects that might challenge and equip campers for the real world more than your run–of–the–mill music camp.

Past workshops have included songwriting, performance and stage presence, DIY effect pedals, DIY recording, the history of women in rock, electronic dance music, and button making.

One workshop that the camp tries to include every year is a discussion on media literacy, wherein campers look at how the media portrays women and are asked to consider what that means.

Another recurring workshop is one on gender, the main objective of which is, as per the camp’s website, “to provide campers with a basic understanding of gender, and how that relates to and impacts one’s experience in the world, especially in terms of oppression, bullying, and self–esteem.”

Even if these budding musicians never blossom into full–blown rock stars, they’re taught early on what it means to navigate the world as a non–male person.

GR!C also takes care to offer workshops and meetups outside of the week–long summer sessions. This past April, the organization hosted a “ShredShop” in Wicker Park that featured its characteristic blend of musicianship and social progressivism.

In addition to a vinyl DJing workshop taught by board member Sarah Frier, there was a "Bystander Intervention Training for Teens" that focused on "different intersections of oppression, including race, gender, religion, and class and how to stand up for yourself and your community members when met with oppression."

Girls and Gear

One of the workshops that encompasses the thorny relationship between gender stereotypes and musicianship is the camp’s gear workshop. The workshop’s facilitator, Donna Polydoros, is especially interested in dismantling the barriers between gender and perceptions of technical prowess.

Gearheads aren’t born into a specific gender identity, she writes: “They're made through exposure and instruction. I believe that girls are just as interested as boys in the technical aspects of music; it's just that few people take the time to expose them to it.”

One of the major challenges of women in the music industry is that they have a presumed lack of gear knowledge. It doesn’t help that most sound engineers and technicians are men. “In my personal experience,” says Hansen–Girod, “the person setting up your sound is usually a man, and their assumption is that you don’t know anything at all.”

Polydoros contends that this assumption spreads beyond the realm of sound guys. “Advertisers, retailers, and other people in the industry may consciously or subconsciously reinforce the idea that girls just aren’t interested in or aren’t suited to certain types of gear or, even worse, certain technical trades.”

Gearheads aren’t born into a specific gender identity...They're made through exposure and instruction."

To combat this harmful presumption, GR!C aims to instill gear literacy in its campers.

To ensure that the fundamentals of gear knowledge remain fun and accessible, the camp embraces a learn–by–doing philosophy. The campers are taught how to set up a stage for a live show, and they’re exposed to the simple yet informative act of deconstructing an amplifier.

Being able to see and identify the heads, cabinets, and effects teaches the campers not to be intimidated by the guts of their own gear.

Polydoros even introduces them to objects that kids usually aren’t allowed to handle, such as the tubes, speakers, and circuit components. In doing so, the workshop embraces the sort of trust and inclusivity that GR!C tries to uphold as often as possible.

Perhaps most crucial to the demonstration is that Polydoros does it herself. “For many of them,” she says, “it’s the first time they’ve seen a woman handle gear in that way.” There’s an immeasurable value in seeing someone who looks or thinks like you doing something you once thought impossible and thinking, “Hey, I could do that.”

GR!C recognizes that knowing how to use and set up gear is only as useful as your ability to speak knowledgably on the subject. This is especially true for women and TGNC people, who are more likely to be scrutinized than a man when buying or discussing gear.

As such, Polydoros takes care to go over the terms and labels for different types of equipment. Staying informed, knowing the terminology, and communicating clearly and effectively are crucial when it comes to gear acquisition and maintenance.

In teaching and reinforcing the technical aspects of musicianship, Hansen–Girod hopes that Girls Rock! Chicago is “mentoring a future generation of sound [engineers and technicians] who are women and people of marginalized genders.”

By creating a space for girls to learn about gear and recording in a hands–on, nonjudgmental setting, Girls Rock! Chicago shares much of the same DNA as other national organizations dedicated to supporting women in audio production, engineering, and other technical positions, such as Women’s Audio Mission in San Francisco.

On paper, Girls Rock! Chicago is a music camp, and it accomplishes all that that entails: campers learn instruments, write songs, and perform with bands.

But, at the risk of sounding trite, the organization is so much more far–reaching. It teaches its campers to be empathetic, open–minded, empowered individuals. It achieves the rare goal of entrusting kids to understand challenging, intellectual concepts that they can apply to music and beyond.

For Hansen–Girod, the most exciting part is the visible transformation that the campers undergo in a matter of days. By the end of camp, any kid who had been shy or unwilling to participate is running around and screaming into the mic, blasting their amps too loudly.

“The confidence they gain over a five–day span is just amazing.” As she pauses, a couple of thoughts cross my mind. Why wasn’t this available to me when I was 10–years–old? Why isn’t this available to me now? She catches her breath and says what we’re both thinking: “It’s incredible.”

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