Last September, I was talking to someone in my dorm at college about music. I told him that I liked indie, folk, and alternative artists, but that I tended to listen to male vocalists more. I reasoned that I preferred their deeper, more effortless sound, especially in the specific genres I was drawn to. Indie is a predominantly male space, and it made sense—simpler male vocals were, to me, what characterized the essence of the genre.
My friend didn’t let me get away with such an explanation. Instead, he questioned the legitimacy of my statement: men were better singers than women in the indie genre? Maybe that was just my preference, but had I listened to Snail Mail, Frankie Cosmos, Waxahatchee?
I had no idea who these artists were, so upon his suggestion I gave them a listen. Frankie was the first to grow on me, and I was soon also struck by Snail Mail’s “Heat Wave.” A few weeks later, I went to a concert by The Vaccines, my all-time favorite indie rock band, starring a male vocalist, Justin Young. The event was opened by Jesse Jo Stark. Gothic-chic, she strutted on stage and all at once made it hers. Her silky, dreamy, rugged voice was reminiscent of Lana Del Rey, but Jesse Jo Stark flaunted a newer, unique brand: her white knee-high boots standing feet apart, her dark, tousled hair, and her demanding gray gaze gave her the station of a full-blown rock star. She commanded every part of the stage as she sauntered and twirled from one end of it to the next, wrapping the microphone cord around her wrists like a snake curling up to its master.
In all honesty, goth-rock Jesse Jo Stark left a greater impression on me than The Vaccines did that evening. Her performance was this magical amalgamation of conventional femininity entwined with sheer force and brazenness. She constantly toed the line between vulnerability in her passionate lyrics and aggression in her searing vocals—something I hadn’t seen many male indie rock singers pull off or even attempt to execute.
My roommate then introduced me to the British alternative band Wolf Alice, and I also started exploring the discography of prominent indie artists like Mitski, Phoebe Bridgers, and Angel Olsen. I loved Soccer Mommy’s quiet, raw, and unapologetically soft vocals. I admired Canadian band Alvvays’ lead singer for her effortless yet sugary-strong vocals, as well as her clever lyrics. I marveled at Ellie Rowsell’s versatility, from screeching on “Giant Peach” to rocking on “Sadboy” to spreading feels on “Bros” and “Don’t Delete the Kisses.” My Spotify playlist, “Girls (Should Be Listened To),” was thus born and played on repeat.
That’s when I found my niche in the otherwise broad category that is indie music (most literally referring to independent music): the versatility of these women artists left me awestruck and empowered. That one singer could weave gentleness, pain, energy, and power into one track or one coherent album was inspiring. These indie women were pioneers in this field of yin and yang, painting strokes across all colors, dark and matte and heavenly light.
I haven’t altogether abandoned my old favorites. I do love a good track by Two Door Cinema Club, Phoenix, The Kooks, or The Killers. And of course, there are male artists who, too, are loved for their vulnerable, raw songs—think Sufjan Stevens, Bright Eyes, Iron & Wine, Rainbow Kitten Surprise, The Avett Brothers—just as I know there are female artists who play indie music in the more conventionally “masculine” sense.
Embedded under my selective listening was a tacit understanding that only men had what it took to master a genre I so enjoyed, a genre I respected for its upbeat yet laid-back, confident, and almost-aloof energy. Uncoincidentally, these were the positive characteristics I also reserved for boys and men in all senses, not just on stage. I had relegated female voices to unfounded stereotypes: they were too emotive, slight, and strained, and while these characteristics served well in pop, jazz, and folk, they had no place in genres like indie rock and alternative.
Musical genres are in no way gender-binding, and I’m grateful to have realized that. I’ve never felt this heard by other women artists, and I encourage everyone to tune in.
Here are five of my favorites I’ve come across since September:
Where it all began: “Dandelion” by Jesse Jo Stark
Vulnerability, power, desire, and rock: “Shut Up Kiss Me” by Angel Olsen
Softly searing, weeping vocals: “Mary” by Big Thief
Pulsing, humdrum verse, explosive chorus: “Fluffy” by Wolf Alice
A building symphony of bitterness and passion: “Worth It” by Haley Heynderickx
By Becky Zhang