Enough Room: Bedroom Pop and Gender Politics in the Music Industry

Illustration by Malaika Astorga

Spencer Peppet, front woman of The Ophelias and Canvas & Cassette’s Issue 3 featured musician, unpacks the implications of labeling music as “bedroom pop.”

Every now and then, I obsess over whether or not there is space for me in the music industry. Sometimes a friend of mine gets a really good gig, or a person I admire puts out a new album, or an established star releases a video, and it sends me into a panic. If these women are doing well, it must mean that the quota filled. There is no more room.

That’s a pretty standard feeling for women in the “industry.” There are lots of female musicians, producers, and performers, but so few of them reach high exposure and success. When they do, they’re constantly confused for or pitted against each other. It’s a Battle Royale of gatekeeping. The “bedroom pop” genre exemplifies the standards placed on women, and restricts their mobility in the creation, distribution, and reception of their music.

Clairo wants to be a pretty girl. Her big break came from a YouTube video of the same name, where “Pretty Girl” (catchy, understated, her voice layered plainly over pre-programmed beats) plays behind a Photo Booth video montage of her (cute, button nose, on-trend oversized sweatshirt and tiny sunglasses) holding up Troll Dolls and trinkets and mouthing along to her lyrics. It’s a music video, but it’s also a glimpse into a seemingly private space. She, an objectively pretty girl, sings about wanting to be what she believes she’s not. The Internet went wild, ecstatic to be let into her very cool, very stylish life. She allowed the world to view her in her literal bedroom, a private space turned public, and the world responded with adoration. Clairo is now headlining tours across the world, opening for bands like Tyler the Creator, and shooting magazine covers. In theory, this is what bedroom pop offers.

“Bedroom pop” is the new big Bandcamp trend. It has settled into the mainstream through people like Clairo and Frankie Cosmos, and while its origins are based in accessibility, its current applications are based in restriction of resources and feminized language.

The ethos of bedroom pop centers on supposed democracy. Anyone can make music! You don’t need a high-tech setup, songs recorded in a person’s bedroom on a whim can be just as profound as a record with a million dollar budget. Bedroom pop creates an equal playing field, an ability for people who aren’t being afforded label attention or funds to make and record music.

Labels consider the question of “risk.” For a long time, signing a woman was considered a financial risk. People didn’t want to listen to what women who weren’t stars had to say. There is a surge of support for women in indie music, but it comes with its own challenges of homogenization and forced competition.

In the past few years, there has been a rise in support for women in music, specifically in indie rock. Bands like Mitski, Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail, and Vagabon are playing sold out shows across the globe. They’re being featured in New York Times roundtable discussions about women in music, talking to Pitchfork, Noisey and NPR about being women in music, fielding drunk fans asking what it’s like to be a woman in music. There have always been “women in music,” it’s just that now some record labels are extending their hands to people who may have been considered risky in the past. The people who are being signed are still predominantly straight, white, cis women; there is a huge lack of diversity in indie music as a whole.

All of the people mentioned above got their start in bedroom recordings. They uploaded their early work onto Bandcamp, where it gained popularity and acclaim from indie tastemakers. They got signed to labels, and have been touring and working furiously since then. However, those chosen few women have become a model for other people trying to make their way into the scene. There is a set method for acceptable women to make acceptable music, and if you sound different than that there is less of a chance that people will listen. That’s why we have such a huge influx of treble-heavy guitars drenched in reverb and lyrics about dogs, parties, and being sad.

When writing about bedroom pop lyricists, publications often rely on the terms “diary entry” and “confessional songwriting.” However, the connotations surrounding these phrases are rooted in misogyny, both general and musical; condescension; selfishness; and infantilization. There are male artists whose lyrics are literal journal entries, but the term has been feminized in its use. The lyrical work in current indie rock certainly has recurring themes, but the imagery of Soccer Mommy’s “Still Clean” and Mitski’s “A Horse Named Cold Air,” for example, stand alone as poetry.

All of the artists mentioned above have since moved out of bedroom pop and into more hi-fi recordings. They were given the resources to make something in a studio, with an engineer, time, and money allocated towards them. They created albums like Clean (Soccer Mommy), Be The Cowboy (Mitski), Vessel (Frankie Cosmos), and Lush (Snail Mail), stunning albums that brought them deserved attention and led to larger stardoms. By definition, a record made in a studio with high-tech equipment on an established label would not be a bedroom pop record. It wasn’t recorded at home! The resources allotted to them are much greater than what bedroom pop offers. But for some reason (I wonder why!) many publications are still classifying Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail, etc. as bedroom pop. While they may have begun there, it’s now an incorrect and misogynistic classification to continue to reduce them to “girls in their bedrooms” while they put in time, work, and money to make intricate records.

Bedroom pop offers a space for women and nonbinary people who wouldn’t be as easily accepted into the mainstream to make music, but the space it offers is heavily surveilled and regulated so that the people within it all function the same way. The moniker “bedroom pop” has become synonymous with women, single guitars, and harmonies a third above in such a way that one can predict how the song will go before they even hear it. It’s also worth noting that the major indie players at the moment are majority white, majority straight, and majority cis. Space is being made for women, but only women who adhere to at least one of those identities.

Women have to create something with no resources, no label support, no PR, and be extraordinary enough to prove themselves worthy of signage and attention. Women in indie rock are simultaneously told that they must sound like the already-existing bands in order to have marketability, but also that they have to be in competition with said bands. Forcing women into male-approved roles and then pitting them against each other is nothing new. Since most of the power is held by record labels and publicity outlets, there is a feeling of it being “out of our hands.” There have been successful women in every era, but how many? How often do they reach the same level of stardom as their male counterparts? How much harder do they have to work?

This regulation of taste and performance stifles genuine creative output. There are women making music that pushes genre bounds and gender expectations. Joanna Newsom makes everything from nursery rhymes to madrigals, using her voice and her harp to make academically dense lyrics hang like stars on a dark night; Ichiko Aoba builds sparse folk songs that sound like they’ve been encrusted in ice, waiting to emerge for thousands of years; Big Joanie is redefining doo-wop riot-grrl punk; SOPHIE is running a crunchy, shiny PC music empire; Princess Nokia crosses between Y2K hip hop and emo rap; Yvette Young creates dizzying folk-math-rock that skips like a stone on water; and Julia Holter crafts huge orchestral landscapes that coast and flit like birds between a tree and a telephone wire.

As the amount of women in music grows, and as more time and money are allocated to them, there will be more space for genres beyond indie, and less forced competition within bedroom pop. Women will be allowed to make whatever music they want without being seen as financial risks. The music that’s being created now is good, it shouldn’t stop being created, but the constraints of who and what “women in music” are need to expand. Maybe someday there will be enough space for all of us. God knows there is enough room for all the men.

-Spencer Peppet