Let’s face it, society can be pretty cruel to teenage girls. They’re characterised as silly, narcissistic and immature. If lots of teenage girls like something, chances are the rest of the world hates it. Bands are known to bemoan their female fans, and teenage girls are the butts of so many mocking jokes.
But teenage girls deserve so much more credit than we give them. They’re talented, creative and full of smart, intelligent ideas. If we stopped characterising them as silly fans and empowered them to write their own music, what would they write about? Well, based on Girls Rock! camp this week, songs about bullying, political empowerment and finding a home in space might just top the list.
For the past week, Wick Studios in Brunswick has been home to some of the newest talent on the Melbourne music scene — 10 all-new bands made up of 12 to 17-year-old girls and gender diverse kids. It’s all part of a new-to-Melbourne initiative called Girls Rock!.
Girls Rock! is an international movement that started in Portland, Oregon. It was founded in 2001 as a summer day camp and soon expanded to over 65 camps around the world, including, most recently, Melbourne. The camp organisers believe in the power of music as a means to create personal and social change. Over the course of a week, campers form bands, learn instruments, write original songs and perform them at an end of camp concert. Along with playing music, the campers also participate in body image workshops, self defence classes and other trainings. It’s about empowering girls to support one another and express themselves.
Walking into the Girls Rock! dress rehearsal on Friday afternoon was like stepping back into high school — only a high school where everyone loves and supports one another. The room was filled with a nervous energy, but any time a camper got overwhelmed or apologised for a mistake, everyone shouted “Hey, you rock!”.
The second band to get onstage was The Rosebloods. All four band members, between 14-17 years old, looked stoked to be in front of an audience. “This song is called Braindead,” said the lead vocalist, “It’s in reference to political ideas and empowerment”. Starting slow and melodic, the song quickly transformed into fast beats, guitar solos and head banging. The audience loved it.
Young girls have so much to say and are so rarely taken seriously. It’s exhilarating to be in a space where not only is there no judgement, but every girl’s thoughts, feelings and ideas are taken seriously. Every camper left the stage buzzing.
Sally Balhorn, Programme Director of Girls Rock!, Melbourne, first heard of the movement when a bandmate suggested she watch the documentary Girls Rock! The Movie on SBS. The documentary tells the story of a Girls Rock! camp in the United States and follows the transformative way music empowers young people. “It was amazing,” she said, “I thought, we’ve got to have this in Melbourne. We need it. We’ve got to have more girls playing instruments on Melbourne stages”.
Sally strongly believes in the power of women’s voices and creative expressions as a positive force against sexism. “I didn’t think that I could be the person holding the electric guitar. Or playing the drums. It wasn’t a conscious thought that I couldn’t do it, you just didn’t see [other women doing it].” Surrounding herself with female musicians was an empowering moment — a moment she wants other young women to experience, too.
Through Girls Rock!, Sally hopes to create a space where young people are empowered to pick up instruments and express themselves. “It’s really important to be able to express whatever you’re feeling, be that aggression or sadness or confusion,” Sally says, “particularly when you’re a teenager and you’re coming into the world and realising that it may not be what you want it to be. Being able to express those feelings instead of internalising them — being able to get them out and scream and yell — is really healthy.”
From nervous first meetings to final sold-out concert, Girls Rock! is a big experience for young campers. Something magical happens when you give a group of girls a microphone, some instruments and the power to write their own songs.
It’s not all fun and games, though. Girls Rock! is about self-expression — even the bad parts. One of the songs performed, called ‘Less Than Human’, is about feeling like a burden. It’s emotional — especially to the young lead vocalist — and everyone in the room felt it. Another song, ‘Neverland’ is, according to the lead vocalist, “about finding a safe haven away from people who push themselves into your life and keep saying things and doing things when you don’t really want them to be in your life”.
Girls Rock! gives young people space to express themselves without judgement. It’s a reminder of just how brave young girls are and just how tough it can be to be one. Despite having only picked up their instruments for the first time a few days ago, these campers will leave you with goosebumps.
Sally and the Girls Rock! team have big ambitions for the camp and believe it has the potential to grow into a powerful community. She envisages the camp evolving into a series of workshops, which will run throughout the year, alongside the annual summer camp. “I think this is the perfect time to have it. It’s time to start making projects and tackling issues. I’m not even going to talk about it anymore, I’m going to do what needs to be done. This is what we’re doing. We know that this is the right thing to do.”