Female Subway Musicians A Rarity
For subway commuters in New York City and other cities around the world, subterranean musicians are a near-constant presence. These performers range in age, race, and talent. They play everything from the classical violin to the pan-flute. But look more closely at the demographics and it becomes clear that, at least in one category, the numbers are wildly unbalanced. Where are the women?
For some reason, males seem to have a lock on underground music. While stumbling across a woman playing or singing on the subway isn’t unheard of, it’s rarer than one might expect. Still, despite this discrepancy, according to former busker Anna Stefanic, often “girls make more money than guys.” Stefanic thinks it’s because “they’re less threatening” so people might be more willing to stop and listen, and sometimes “people are less likely to assume that a girl is a homeless pothead and more likely to be like, ‘Oh, you’ll make it, sweetie.’”
Money is only one of the tangible benefits performers get from playing in the subway. For musicians who need to practice their craft anyway, busking provides a way to rehearse with the added energy and encouragement of an informal audience. Some performance just sounds better in the subway. According to Natalia Paruz, more widely known as the “Saw Lady” for the oddly entrancing sounds she makes on a musical saw, “the subway has better acoustics” than some of the best concert halls in the world. She has played in these concert halls, but still felt when she started busking that, “in the subway, the sound was so beautiful that I never wanted to go upstairs ever again.” In addition, the busking community can be incredibly welcoming to newcomers. Renée de la Prade, who played rousing accordion songs on the Boston T before moving on to the San Francisco BART, describes in a blog post how she “met other musicians on the subway who taught [her] dozens of tunes” for free because “they want to keep the music alive.”
So why is it that so few women can be found playing underground? The most commonly cited explanation for why women pass up this unique financial and artistic opportunity is safety. Many female musicians worry that stationing themselves underground makes them vulnerable. We live in a world where women often deal with sexual harassment just walking down the street. Worries abound that such harassment can worsen if the woman is standing still in a location that can abruptly empty out, and both offering herself as a performer to and implicitly asking for money from all who pass by. Paruz has received her fair share of lewd comments while performing in NYC subways. “Men have said to me, ‘Oh, you want to make money? Why don’t you come to my hotel room with me?’” she says. “They see a woman working on the streets and their mind goes to that other old profession.”
No one messes too aggressively with Paruz, who does after all have a saw in her hand. Still, the prospect is enough to deter some musicians. Rhiannon Schmitt, a violinist who plays in public spaces in British Columbia, Canada, refuses to perform in subways. “Guys have pinched my butt while I was playing in a beautiful open-air park,” she says. “I wouldn’t feel safe in a subway.”
To combat such concerns, women who play underground often give thought to how they present themselves. That consideration in and of itself may act as a deterrent: no one wants to feel constricted in how they can dress, for fear of attracting dangerous attention. When considering playing in public, Schmitt was told by an older female teacher to dress modestly. She knows female buskers who put on fake wedding rings before they go out and play. Many wear plain outfits like jeans and T-shirts.
But when a different kind of outfit, one that appeals to the male members of one’s audience, translates into making more money, it may be difficult to resist putting it on. Stefanic, who busked her way through college with a portable keyboard and a winning singing voice, frankly lays out the types of people who would and would not give her money. She never received money from couples, unless they were elderly or with their young children. Women by themselves hardly ever paid her either. “Guys are the ones who will give you money,” she says, “so you have to appeal to that. It was kind of striking a balance.” She eventually settled on flowy skirts and red lipstick as a type of work uniform. And Renee De La Prade purposefully wears eye-catching costumes like tutus and corsets. After receiving her first $20 tip while wearing tutus, she wrote in a blog post, “There’s something very nice about getting more money for the same amount of work.”
Issues of presentation can extend beyond dress. Cathy Grier, who has sung and played guitar in NYC subways for years, woke up one morning in 2008 to find a picture of herself performing on the cover of AM New York. Although she was the cover woman for a story on buskers, the newspaper did not mention her name. In order to facilitate people finding her (she has a strong online presence), she identified a need to brand herself. Ultimately, she chose the moniker “NYC Subway Girl,” because it implied a levity that she hoped would draw people to her music. This moniker, now emblazoned on a banner, hangs behind her whenever she performs on the subway. However, she worried for a time about the feminist implications of calling herself a girl when she is decidedly a grown woman. She made her peace with it partially because, as she says, “there’s something about the girl that’s so in need of being cherished and supported. We all have a girl in us… You ask a girl in fourth grade what she wants to be when she grows up and she says, ‘The president.’ You ask her again in seventh grade, and she’s lost that. Somewhere along the way, we have failed her.” Grier hopes that, through performance in public spaces, she can encourage this kind of girlish dreaming to grow and last.
Beyond safety and presentation, female buskers had a number of other theories to explain their lack of cohorts. Some mentioned the difficulty of lugging around heavy equipment, like amplifiers and keyboards. Others pointed to smaller numbers of female instrumentalists in general. Grier believes it’s a larger societal issue, asking, “Where are the women in music today if they’re not bootying themselves up?”
Despite these deterrents, most female buskers love what they do. The ability to interact with an ever-changing audience provides moments of joy and connection. After busking in the subway, the audience in a concert hall may feel too far removed. The Saw Lady sums up the sentiment felt by many buskers when she says, “I fell in love with playing in the subway. I’m basically addicted to it.” Hopefully someday soon, a new wave of women will join her in her addiction.