Gone Phishing: My Search for Other Female Phish Fans
As an open fan of one the most obsessively followed yet widely despised bands in rock history, I know that a lot of people can't stand the music Phish makes. But what I didn't get was why women, apparently, can't stand Phish more than men.
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Aside from, perhaps, a gay bar or an old-school gentlemen's club, one of the only places in the world you'll find a significantly shorter line for the women's bathroom than for the men's is at a Phish show. Within the small community of female Phish fans, it's common knowledge that you could be tripping your face off, wearing some kind of complicated lace-up leotard that takes five minutes to free yourself from, and you'd still probably beat your guy friends out of the bathroom at set break.
It's a blessing to be able to piss in peace, but it's also a bit off-putting to look around at a sea of white dudes and realize that no, this isn't a Trump rally, but rather a community you love and have invested significant time and energy in. I've attended 35 shows, 14 of which were in the past year. Over the course of my evolution from casual fan to this "sorry, I used all my vacation days on Phish" person, I've found myself wondering why there aren't more female fans, and why many of the women I do encounter seem to be there at the behest of their boyfriends. I get that not everyone is down with Phish. As an open fan of one the most obsessively followed yet widely maligned bands in rock history, I am well aware that a lot of people fucking hate the music that Phish makes. But what I don't get is why women, apparently, fucking hate Phish more than men.
In an attempt to answer this question, I spoke to upwards of 30 people with varying tolerances for the band, spawned a thread with over 200 comments on a private Phish Facebook group, and even momentarily considered some of the seriously sexist hypotheses that populate various male-centric Phish message boards.
"It's something that I was exposed to through my boyfriend, but I no longer go just because of him. I would do it independently," says Norah, a 28-year-old graphic designer. "But I could understand how some people wouldn't be into it. I think a lot of it is that there's a big perception from the outside—everyone kind of has this weird idea of what Phish is."
Part of the "perception" Norah is referring to is the pervasive stereotype that everyone at a Phish show is some kind of dreadlocked, drug-addled monster who, in large quantities, could be annoying at best and dangerous at worst. As women, we're generally told to stay away from people and situations like this. I recall all the times my mother has told me, with great concern in her eyes, to "be safe" before I embark on a Phish run. I am not sure exactly what she thinks goes down at these concerts, but it seems like she believes them to be akin to some kind hedonistic free-for-all complete with everything but the ritual animal sacrifice. I am confident most men my age are not entreated to the same parental concern. They're more likely to receive a hearty pat on the back, a wink of the eye, and some half-hearted advice not to "do anything too crazy."
To deny that drugs—particularly psychedelics—are part of the Phish world would be a lie. In my experience, people attend shows in a variety of mental states, including dead sober, but perception of the band and its followers will always involve drugs. And while young men are often expected, if not quietly encouraged, to experiment with mind-altering drugs—according to a 2014 report, they are also three times more likely to be regular drug users—women are usually taught that doing so is both dangerous and unattractive.
It's not pretty or feminine to get down the way Phish girls like to get down.
"Men party a lot more than women do. Guys don't make a big deal about booze and drugs. Our women do," says Jeff, a 58-year-old Phish fan I met though Facebook. He also explains that, in his experience, the same gender gap exists with most "music-oriented bands."
"Men are more able to 'focus' and 'lose themselves' in the music," he says. "Seems to me, women prefer the big stage shows, costumes, and dancers that pop music brings."
I talked to Christy, a 40-year-old self-described Phish superfan who has attended a whopping 568 shows. She thinks the Phish gender gap comes down to the way music is marketed towards women—as something that's supposed to be dance-y and light and sexy, as opposed to, say, a religious experience that can inspire facial expressions like this.
"I think Phish can be too long and jammy for some girls. It's not pretty or feminine to get down the way Phish girls like to get down," she says. "As far as tour girls go, the ratio is skewed even more. Tour is hard, exhausting and dirty... I think some chicks aren't into the icky part of the road."
While Jeff and Christy are trading in sexist stereotypes (to varying degrees), it's true that there are many barriers to entry for Phish fans (often described as phans). Because jam bands are all about instrumental improvisation, and because Phish has a massive oeuvre that guarantees you'll never hear the same set on any two given nights, tours are the essence of the Phish community. With other bands, it's easy to become a casual fan listening on Spotify but never attending a show, but it's impossible to get the full Phish experience without seeing them live.
I certainly recall, as a new fan, feeling like the difficulty of scoring tickets to popular shows—which often sell out—was a major obstacle for me, though admittedly more of an economic and experiential one than something that arose because of my gender. But had I not had a crew of friends—many of them male—to attend shows with, I might not have felt comfortable doing things like camping, driving long distances, or staying in sketchy motels while on tour (and my mom definitely would have been even less cool with it).
The Phish community also hasn't done much to actively encourage diversity of any kind. The band, which is made up of four white men over the age of 50, isn't much for mainstream publicity or marketing; they have only ever made one music video, and they have always made money primarily through touring. It's a word-of-mouth thing, so the people who hear about it tend to be cut from the same (white, male, upper-middle class) cloth.
"On many levels, logistics and culture-wise, the Phish scene has historically and currently not always been inviting to women, even unsafe at times," notes Lily, a 37-year-old who has been going to the band's concerts since 1999. "I think there are a lot of 'access gates' that can make it tough for women to get into the scene on their own. Women seeking other female-positive Phan [Phish fan] connections—because they do the tour mostly with men—often feel various levels of alienation."
It's something that I was exposed to through my boyfriend, but I no longer go just because of him.
When you take all these factors into consideration, it makes total sense that many of the women at shows come at the behest of husbands or boyfriends. This phenomenon is so prevalent, there's even a term for it: the Phish Wife. Its first mainstream use was, improbably, in a 2015 Vogue article, in which writer Michelle Ruiz detailed a "calendar-consuming siege that hijacks most major holidays," a life of being dragged annually to places like Madison Square Garden and Saratoga Springs for shows she was tolerant of but far from ecstatic about.
But most of the women I spoke to felt strongly that too much is made of this stereotype. For starters, very few women who attend shows actually identify as Phish Wives, even if they do admit they probably wouldn't go to one without their significant other. "Phish Wife" kind of implies that you don't enjoy the band yourself, which for many of these women isn't the case at all. And those who got into the band on their own, as opposed to through a boyfriend or husband, seemed equally dismissive of the notion that there might be some kind of divide between the two camps.
"That Vogue article was a cute fluff piece (lots of my friends sent it to me when it came out!), but the concept of a Phish wife isn't a real issue among women who like Phish," says Jennifer, who has been seeing shows since 1999. "Who cares why people get into Phish? I'd be happy to preach to anyone about why I like the music, and it has nothing to do with gender."
And it's not to say that times aren't changing. Of the people I spoke to who have been attending shows since the 90s, most said they have noticed an uptick in women at shows in recent years. After all, the band's been together for 34 years, things are bound to evolve. The most promising evidence? The dawn of the Phish Husband.
"I don't think I'd attend a show without her," says 27-year-old Alex, a self-proclaimed Phish Husband who saw his first show with his girlfriend last year. "Admittedly at the time [of my first show] I was mostly just excited to be invited to something that I knew was important to her—I really liked her and I was hoping for things to keep moving forward.
"I remember one of the first thing she told me about attending Phish shows is that it's one of the few places on earth where the line for the men's room dwarfs the women's room line," he continues. "As for a reason why, I really don't know. I never got the impression that it was a stereotypically masculine kind of music, and a woman introduced me to their music, so I'm honestly unsure how that came to be."
Sounds like there just might be hope for girl power in the Phish community after all.