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2000s lad culture

The 2000s were a Lad Culture Landfill

We appear to be having a collective cultural reckoning about the lad culture of the late 2000s. Like most women, I have been horrified by the stories of Russel Brand’s predatory, criminal conduct, but I have welcomed the surrounding discourse on the toxic, misogynistic culture of the time. Many women journalists have lamented the celebrity culture that enabled Russel Brand’s behaviour in the 2000s. We are suddenly disgusted by the way women like Georgina Baille were treated by the mainstream media. My own experiences confirm that this culture was not confined to the artistic elite. The sold-out shows and televised comedy programmes of the time provided a blueprint that was replicated in artistic spaces at all levels. A generation of creative women who once dreamt of ‘making it’ are still reeling.

I was in my late teens at the end of the 2000s. I lived in a northern city and wanted to be a famous songwriter. I was invited to join a band with a group of people in their late twenties and early thirties, one of whom had enjoyed some success a few years before when South Yorkshire indie music was fleetingly trendy. As such, he had a cult following of beer-swilling, Fred Perry polo shirt-wearing young men, and some power and influence in the spaces he operated in. This isn’t a story about fame, however. It’s a comment on the opposite- how the misogynistic lad culture of the noughties permeated all of the music industry, including at the unsigned, grassroots level. Women who were aspiring musicians, playing gigs and interacting in local music communities, were subject to much the same treatment as those who were operating in, or had connections to, the mainstream. What was happening in the city’s unsigned music scene was presumably replicated in small venues and practice rooms up and down the country.

Through my involvement in this world, I was catapulted into adulthood in a skewed environment that taught me that my value as an artist, and as a woman, came from the male gaze. I was picked up from sixth form to perform at various ‘toilet circuit’ venues. There was a feverish excitement to it at the time, but in hindsight, I find my memories of the constant, casual misogyny very troubling. The objectification of women was constant. A lot of it was aimed at me. 

I remember a band member joking that it was a shame I had a boyfriend because it meant he couldn’t get me to sleep with someone influential to gain some leverage in the music industry. I remember a repeated joke about a fan who had sent the lead singer a message (real or imagined): “I hope you’ve banged your backing singer”. This was, of course, all in the name of banter and upkeeping an image that appealed to the lads who came to the gigs. Male musicians of the period practically condoned misogynistic behaviour. My Mum told me, much later on, that she once talked to a fan at a gig who, not realising my Mum’s connection to me, exclaimed that the lead singer was “great, but he doesn’t need that slut on stage with him”. In hindsight, it is not difficult to see how this sort of atmosphere encouraged the acceptance of sexual harassment and assault.

It never occurred to me to complain. I laughed along. I was proud to be desirable. I was a teenager, and this kind of attention was new and exciting. This was rock and roll, and I wanted to be part of it. It’s only in the past few years that I have been able to see with some clarity how inappropriate and damaging so much of what I experienced was. I shared a practice room with a band who plastered the walls with pages ripped out of pornography magazines. I had a boyfriend who was 10 years older than me, a relatively conservative age gap in comparison to some young women who existed in that world at that time. 

I feel a big-sisterly sadness when I look at ‘promo’ photographs of myself from that period. My breasts are invariably in the centre of the frame, my teenaged face trying so hard to be something that I don’t yet really understand. One night I got very drunk, and a man in his thirties took me to a strip club and paid to watch me have a lap dance. I consented to it. I went willingly. I was not coerced. I didn’t need to be; my desperation for acceptance meant I was happy to do whatever was necessary to be accepted and considered a ‘cool girl’ by the boys. I cried bitterly afterwards.

Part of the problem was that there were just so many men, and so very few women, about, and it felt as if the women who were making music were pitted against each other in a way the men never were. A landlord menacingly told me at one point that there was ‘another Emily’ on the scene as if there was only space for one of us. Obviously, I was never going to see the other Emily as anything but a threat from that moment onwards. I doubt he would have said that to another Tom or Joe. It contributed to the implicit message that the local creative space was one reserved for lads in bands, and could only be permeated if you were talented, but more importantly, hot enough. It is ridiculous, really. 

The men who made these rules were not high-flying, famous household names, but ordinary blokes who aspired to be successful musicians, managers, promoters, or photographers. The power they held was very much relative to the community in which they existed, but their influence appeared insurmountable to me as a teenager. I stopped making music when I was 22 years old because I genuinely thought I was too old to be successful, too past it for anyone to be interested in my songs. It breaks my heart to think about how distorted my vision of myself and my worth had become.  

I am now in my thirties and, like a lot of women my age, have been induced to look back on this particular period of time with a great level of discomfort. This is not entirely a sudden awakening. The musician Self Esteem, for example, has been ahead of the curve in voicing her chagrin with the sexism of the lower levels of the noughties UK music industry, but it does feel like there is now a level of momentum that has not previously been present. 

Nowadays, I work as a university lecturer. This week I welcomed my first-year students, who are mostly young women, to the university. These women are the same age I was when I was intoxicated by the lad culture of landfill indie. They are youthful and hopeful. I feel an intense urge to protect them. I cannot say if unsigned music communities are still plagued by the same level of sexism. My observation is that there are many more women playing in unsigned bands than 10 to 15 years ago. I hope that this in itself has induced some change, but I’m not holding my breath for a radical difference.  

It strikes me that there is a generation of women who grew up embroiled in this sexist culture, who are now mothers, teachers, and mentors. We need a moment, I think, to collectively mourn the balanced introductions to adulthood that we were not allowed by the persistent objectification, harassment and sexism of the time. After that, society needs to come together to ensure the next generation of creative young women is provided with a more positive introduction to womanhood and artistic spaces. The people and the music will benefit.