Survival Course

Portland's Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls: Where outcasts are mainstream and punk is sweet

Shawna Doral has mostly used music to manage her moods. When she feels awful, Doral, a lanky 12-year-old with a hot-pink stripe in her hair and braces on her teeth, goes into her room, slams her door, and plays her electric guitar. "It calms me down," Doral says, shrugging. But since she's come to the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, Oregon, Doral's been thinking of music another way: as a possible career. "I'm going to be in a band," Doral announces a few days after her arrival at camp, as if she's peering into a crystal ball and seeing herself onstage.

Rock camp is a place where the girls like Doral—girls who slip along the edge of school hallways lost in their headphones and have Dead Kennedys buttons pinned to their book bags—are in the mainstream. Indeed, there are so many studded-leather chokers, ripped fishnet stockings, and Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers at rock camp, they seem like the dress code rather than signals of anything alternative.

As a teen surfer and serious music fan, camp founder Misty McElroy wasn't particularly well received by her own classmates when she was growing up in Pensacola, Florida. "High school sucked bad," says McElroy, now 34 and sprawled on the floor of the former sewing factory that serves as rock camp's headquarters. After the alienation of high school, McElroy worked nine years as a roadie for bands big and small, which sucked in its own way. Being a roadie is hard, low-paying work for anyone. For the rare female who makes her living lugging amps and coiling mic cable, there is the added layer of sexual harassment and skepticism.

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Electric Warfare and the Wall Street Lunchables (from left: Emma Callahan, Leila Maloney, Maya Stoner, Meagan Provinsal)
photo: Julie Keefe
Given her pedigree, it makes a certain sense that McElroy ended up both providing comfort to young outcast rock girls and easing the way for those who want to brave working in the music industry rather than just being fans. Begun as McElroy's final project in a women's studies program, the camp has evolved into a sort of how-to-survive-the-rock-world course. In addition to instruction on bass, drums, guitar, vocals, and songwriting, rock camp offers girls between eight and 18 workshops in sound tech, the history of women in rock, and self-defense. And camp handouts include nitty-gritty instructions on recording and holding on to your music publishing rights. ("Consider tying the producer into a royalty rate based on the number of units," the camp's booklet advises.)

Young female rockers have responded to the opportunity as if it were an offer to tour with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. This year, more than 300 wannabe campers from almost every state and several countries applied for the two one-week sessions of camp, each of which could only accommodate 78 campers. Some who didn't get in were reportedly heartbroken.

The ones who make the cut—which is decided by McElroy's preference for a mix of ages, musical skill levels, instruments, race, and class—form bands (a delicate process for people of any age), collectively write a song (same), and perform it at the end-of-camp showcase. The first session's show, held in the sold-out, 650-seat Aladdin Theater in Portland on July 24, went surprisingly well, considering that many of the performers had learned to play their instruments just days before.

Maya Itkin-Hein and Maya Fulan-Yue, of the band M and M, started the big night a mess of nerves. Clinging to each other before the show, the two Mayas, as their fellow campers call them, admitted to being "really, really nervous." When they hit the stage, though, their performance of "Girl Power" was killing, at least judging from the reaction of one of their moms, who was jumping up and down in the moshpit throughout the song, pointing to the stage and screaming "That's my daughter!"

You could say the Mayas—best friends who go to the same school, share musical tastes, and were both adopted from China by lesbian couples in addition to being the same height and the same age (almost, anyway: Itkin-Hein is nine, while Fulan-Yue gives her age as "eight and three-quarters")—are a quintessential rock camp band. While they say they aim for a punk sound, having high-pitched voices and being a little over four feet tall adds an inescapable sweetness to their oeuvre. Like all the other showcase performances, M and M's was met with a chorus of high-pitched voices shrieking, "We love you" and "You Rock."

With its decidedly progressive population and sizable music scene, Portland may be the only place where a feminist rock camp would be so warmly received. Moms and dads vie for camp slots the way parents in other cities might try to get their kids into boarding school. Some mothers are clearly excited about being able to jam with their newly electrified daughters. And one bearded dad showed his gratitude toward the camp by making an unsolicited donation of several cases of beer.

Bands help too. Pearl Jam paid the first two months' rent on the sewing factory, which is covered with posters of Lauryn Hill, Luscious Jackson, Debbie Harry, and other female performers. The Northwest band Sleater-Kinney has performed three times since the camp opened in 2000. And Atmosphere, the Minneapolis-based rap duo, donated an entire setup of DJ equipment in honor of Marissa Mathy-Zvaifler, a 16-year-old who was raped and murdered by a janitor at one of their concerts in 2003. Sonic Youth and the Donnas have also taken part in a new Back Stage Pass program, in which girls participate in sound check and talk to technicians and roadies as well as the performers.

The camp needs more, though. Because it only charges $300 for the week-long session—and many of the girls' families can't afford the full fee—rock camp is a volunteer operation. None of the staff is on salary, including McElroy, who supports herself by babysitting and cleaning houses. "It's demoralizing to not get paid," admits McElroy. But as she's already expanded her academic exercise into an after-school program and is currently dreaming up plans for an all-girl rock 'n' roll high school, it seems she's willing to toil outside the music industry so the next generation of rock girls might have an easier time within it.

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