Do you really think I care,
What you read or what you wear?
I want you to join together with the band.
— THE WHO: “Join Together” written by Peter Townshend, 1972
On August 7, 2014, Bulletproof Stockings, an all-female Orthodox Jewish rock ensemble from the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, so named because of the opaque tights worn by Hasidic women, played a sold-out concert at Arlene’s Grocery, a music venue located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan Island. The band, led by keyboardist/singer Perl Wolfe and drummer Dalia Shusterman, attracted media attention when they persuaded the venue hosting them to ban men from their shows, as the group consider themselves bound to the Hasidic tradition of kol isha, which forbids men from hearing women outside their immediate family sing, although women are allowed to hear songs sung by men outside of their immediate family. Without a doubt, this gives the awful impression that the members of Bulletproof Stockings are willing participants in their own subjugation, as this prohibition, by definition and design, is sexist against women, as it pre-emptively frames them as sirens who tempt men into adultery.
Though Arlene’s Grocery was reluctant to book the band at first on the grounds of their decision to ban men from their shows, the group took to the streets of New York, aggressively promoting the show enough to draw a capacity crowd of female fans. Nonetheless, a handful of petulant and aggrieved posts coming from both men and women were made to the band’s Facebook page about the band’s decision to exclude men from their shows. Some messages accused the band of sexism and practicing segregation, while one woman wrote, “As a fellow woman, i find it sad, that in order for you to be ‘heard’ you have to limit yourselves… Sad state of affairs when a musician like Matisyahu can make it in the secular music world, not having to worry about the gender of his audience.”
One message, coming from Tyler Weiss, a musician and producer based in the San Francisco Bay Area who co-owns the indie music label Rip Toad Records, strongly questions the constitutionality of Bulletproof Stockings’ decision to exclude men from their shows.
“I understand you have certain religious beliefs,” Weiss writes, “but it’s actually illegal in America to discriminate against sex. When you come to America to perform, you perform for the American public, male and female, and all religions too. That is how America works. I urge you to change your tactics while here in America. I will be using all of my connections to spread this info throughout the industry here, so in my opinion your best solution is to come out with a public apology and say that from now on while playing in America, your doors will be open to everyone.”
Indeed, as rock and roll is a primarily secular art form that is very much driven by rebellion, the more people are invited to the party, the more effective the revolt will be. Case in point, when the Beatles toured the United States in 1964, they flat-out refused to play for segregated audience, and when acts such as Thin Lizzy and Rory Gallagher performed shows in Belfast, Northern Ireland in the 1970s, despite the rampant sectarian violence there between Protestants and Catholics, they saw no reason to exclude fans from the shows for any reason whatsoever. In return, the fans would their religions at the door and enjoyed the show. Case in point, a reporter who took in Rory Gallagher’s show at Belfast’s Ulster Hall on January 1, 1972 writes: “I’ve never seen anything quite so wonderful, so stirring, so uplifting, so joyous as when Gallagher and the band walked on stage. The whole place erupted, they all stood and they cheered and they yelled, and screamed, and they put their arms up, and they embraced. Then as one unit they put their arms into the air and gave peace signs.”
As for Rory Gallagher himself, he never had any reservations about performing in Belfast. “Kids still live here,” he said around the time of his 1972 performance at Ulster Hall.
Bulletproof Stockings no doubt will always have an audience, as the band was able to pack Arlene’s Grocery in Manhattan for their ladies only show on August 7 by means of relentless street promotion. However, they may perhaps do well to soften their stance, as their policy of prohibiting men from their performances will only elicit a chain of backlashes. Last but not least, their endeavor to ban men from hearing their music in accordance with the strict terms of kol isha will only prove ineffective, as the band’s songs can be accessed on YouTube by users of either gender.