Choosing a band name is secretly the hardest part of being a new artist. Branding is just as essential to putting yourself out there as the actual music is, and the name you choose will determine whether you’re given the time of day from someone who has never heard of you. Understandably, there’s a strong desire to catch the eye of a potential new fan. To stand out among the endless scroll. To get a listener to consider you among the millions of other upstarts.
When you’re keen to make an impact, there’s always the provocative name choice. Something that purposefully stands out, whether it’s because it’s transgressive, confrontational, or just downright offensive. These are your Anal Cunts, or your Rapeman’s. Or, to a certain extent, these are your Dead Kennedys, or Slaves, or even your Joy Divisions. Highly charged band names are nothing new.
This brings us to Girl Band. Now officially named Gilla Band, the Irish noise-rock foursome were a decade into their career when they felt compelled to change their name. According to them, the original name was “chosen without much thought” and “from a place of naivety and ignorance,” they explained, adding: “We had no grasp of the weight it at the time and in the past few years we have found it impossible to justify or explain this choice.”
The term “girl band” hovers somewhere between being a lazy indicator of a band’s primary gender makeup and a derogatory term for an all-female act. Sleater-Kinney used it to kick back at the “guy bands” who were too precious about the boys club that rock music can often be in ‘You’re No Rock n’ Roll Fun’. Whether it was Fanny, The Runaways, The Go-Go’s, The Slits, The Raincoats, Girlschool, Vixen, L7, or The Donnas, nobody wanted to be called a girl band — and that was the major pull of choosing the name Girl Band in the first place. It seemed to be a cheeky subversion of the term, with four pasty white guys giving a nod to how ridiculous the idiotic reference point is.
The main problem with Gilla Band taking on a new moniker and apologising for their previous one has nothing to do with being overly politically correct. A band that chooses an eye-catching or provocative name, only to backtrack once they get criticised for using the said name, is counterintuitive. It’s fine to acknowledge the optics of the name, and pleading ignorance is their prerogative, but that doesn’t do anything to actually improve the lack of respect given to these bands – or the lack of safety they often feel in the scenes they are a part of. Changing Girl Band to Gilla Band doesn’t actually help any girl bands, it only helps Gilla Band.
It’s not a hard and fast line of demarcation either. Artists should have the autonomy and perception to understand what their name means and the effect that it has on the audience that hears it. If Marea Stamper believes that referring to herself as the Black Madonna is antithetical to the Black Lives Matter movement she supports, then she has the right and responsibility to change it. If Joey Negro believes that the George Floyd protests invalidated his use of the name, by all means, get rid of it.
But there doesn’t seem to be any sign that Gilla Band have done anything to make a difference. The perception seems to be that this wasn’t actually much of an issue and that the band have overcorrected as a result. Perhaps they’ve heard a few persuasive arguments and weren’t crazy on the name anyway. Perhaps they truly believe that changing the name will have a notable impact on the stronger push for diverse voices within the entertainment industry. Or maybe they just thought Girl Band was more hassle than it was worth and changed it. Either way, the fact that they immediately promoted their next shows in the same announcement/apology just makes it seem like a PR front. It’s impossible to say whether the name change comes from a place of sympathy or a place of cynical consumerism, and that’s one of the more unsettling aspects of the name change.
Context is always going to be important with these decisions. If Gilla Band want an example on how to properly acknowledge a potentially offensive name, just look at how Steve Albini addressed the fact that he contributed to projects like Rapeman. Albini’s entire initial career, with his group Big Black, was based around provocation, but he was forthright in his view. He said:
“A lot of things I said and did from an ignorant position of comfort and privilege are clearly awful and I regret them. It’s nobody’s obligation to overlook that, and I do feel an obligation to redeem myself… A project I’ve undertaken piecemeal as I’ve matured, evolved and learned over time. I expect no grace, and honestly feel like I and others of my generation have not been held to task enough for words and behaviour that ultimately contributed to a coarsening society. For myself and many of my peers, we miscalculated. We thought the major battles over equality and inclusiveness had been won, and society would eventually express that, so we were not harming anything with contrarianism, shock, sarcasm or irony.
“I admit that I was deaf to a lot of women’s issues at the time, and that’s on me. Within our circles, within the music scene, within the musical underground, a lot of cultural problems were deemed already solved — meaning, you didn’t care if your friends were queer. Of course women had an equal place, an equal role to play in our circles. The music scene was broadly inclusive. So for us, we felt like those problems had been solved. And that was an ignorant perception.
“That’s the way a lot of straight white guys think of the world — they think that it requires an active hatred on your part to be prejudiced, bigoted or to be a participant in white supremacy. The notion is that if you’re not actively doing something to oppress somebody, then you’re not part of the problem. As opposed to quietly enjoying all of the privilege that’s been bestowed on you by generations of this dominance.
“That was the fundamental failure of my perception. It’s been a process of enlightenment for me to realise and accept that my very status as a white guy in America is the product of institutional prejudices, that I’ve enjoyed the benefits of them, passively and actively. And I’m responsible for accepting my role in the patriarchy, and in white supremacy, and in the subjugation and abuse of minorities of all kinds.”
Gilla Band’s apology doesn’t seem to have any of the depth or self-awareness that Albini brings to his. It’s not apples to apples, as there’s pretty much no comparison between a term like Girl Band and a term like Rapeman, but Albini was willing to acknowledge his ignorance beyond simply pointing it out and trying to move on. There doesn’t seem to be any desire to do that on Gilla Band’s part.
What’s more important: the perception of change, or actually changing? Gilla Band have now set themselves in a necessary position to prove that they actually care about the potential effects that their name change has. If they simply go on like they always have, the same band with a slightly new name, it will become clear that they didn’t actually have any stake at all in the issues that were brought to them.
In fact, changing the name might do more to harm inclusion than to help it. The only people they’re misgendering with the name is themselves, and if it took external pressure rather than internal observation to change the name, then they don’t seem to have any real desire to address the real divisions within the crossroads of music and culture. Acknowledging changing times is a good thing, but doing it in a self-serving fashion isn’t.