A few thoughts on Coldwaves, WaxTrax!, & feminized care/curatorial labor

This year, Coldwaves celebrated the 30th anniversary of Front 242’s first US show at Medusa’s, and also WaxTrax! Records‘s revival. The only reason WaxTrax! is around these days is because of the work Julia Nash (daughter of co-founder Jim Nash) and three other women. They’re preserving, rebuilding, and extending the work of OG WaxTrax!

Pop music’s “second shift,” this sort of care and curatorial work is heavily feminized: care for the legacy of the deceased, the health of the young, old, and rebounding, the curation of archives, this is about as pink collar as it gets. Librarian stereotypes are generally feminine, right? Or, here’s a much older example: The plot of Sophocles’s Antigone is centered on the conflict between Antigone’s duty, as a sister, to bury her brother Polynices and care for his legacy, and her duty, as a citizen of Thebes, to leave treasonous Polynices unburied, forgotten, and erased. Antigone’s situation mimics women’s situation in a lot of music scenes. In her 1989 doctoral dissertation, Mavis Bayton suggests that both amateur sports clubs and rock music scenes both “deny women access” to full membership in the scene “whilst using their unpaid labour” for doing things like “making cricket teas and washing ‘whites’” (155) in the case of cricket clubs, or doing all the “fan labor” that’s necessary to a successful music scene.

This is unglamourous work–the behind the scenes care and curatorial work is far less spectacular and fun than performance. Necessary but undervalued and undercompensated work that is assigned to undervalued and oppressed members of a group–that’s about as good a definition of “women’s work” or “feminized labor” as you can get.

On Friday night at Coldwaves there was a really telling example of the gendering of this sort of care labor.  Both nights, Coldwaves organizers took the stage to talk about the festival’s charitable mission, to memorialize Jamie Duffy, and to remind people about the silent auction. But Friday, a guy was up talking about some of the details, and he finally gave up and turned the mic over to his wife, who really knew what was going on behind the scenes. So, for as male-dominated as the whole weekend was (I say this as someone who works in a field with <30% women, and Coldwaves felt exceptionally male-dominated even to me), I wish I knew more about the work women were doing behind the scenes to make such an amazing event happen.

So, though women were never particularly central to WaxTrax!’s roster (supporting parts here and there, and a release or two from Psychic TV, mainly), and they are absolutely central to its continued survival.