"I feel very strongly about that: an alternative to the idea of women being a certain way." Janet Weiss, the drummer for Sleater-Kinney, was sitting on a leather green swivel chair three feet in front of me as she responded to a question from Broad City's Ilana Glazer about feminism. "The quiet, demure, soft-spoken sort of stereotype. The three of us get on stage and we really try to break that down and give people who feel differently than that a place to go and a place to express themselves."

It was a Friday night at the Ace Hotel in Chelsea, and there were five women sitting at the front of a basement room, commanding a small crowd: Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, stars of the Comedy Central hit show, Broad City, and Janet Weiss, Corin Tucker, and Carrie Brownstein, who make up the guitar-centric, socially aware '90s rock band Sleater-Kinney. After a nine-year hiatus, Sleater-Kinney has reunited with a new album and the effervescent Broad City duo was on site to pick their brains.

My friend and I arrived to the event a bit early. I scanned the room and found that my expectations lived up to my prediction: the crowd at the event was largely made up of women, probably close to a 3:1 ratio, the reason behind which was fairly obvious: both Broad City, with its honest portrayal of what young women's lives in New York look like, and Sleater-Kinney, whose music has unapologetically inserted the female perspective into rock music for two full decades, resonate strongly with a certain type of woman: one who is aware of her gender but who is eager to defy its constraints.

"Our culture has changed in the past twenty years. It's evolved a little bit and that's kinda rad," said Corin Tucker, one of Sleater-Kinney's two guitar-playing vocalists (the other is Carrie Brownstein), in response to a question from Glazer about the two iterations of the band: their riot grrrl origin versus their new "adult" version: a more polished sound with sharper aggression. What had changed for them and how?

"A lot has happened. A lot of people have worked really hard to include more people and to feel more inclusive and to feel more empathy for more kinds of people," Tucker continued. "We want everyone to feel comfortable, no matter how they identify."

The conversation among the five women was fluid and freeform, and while it was underlined by actual questions that Glazer and Jacobson had written on large-format index cards and loose scraps of paper, it more than once went off the rails when the women became engrossed in side tangents like they were the best of friends. Jacobson admitted she was something of a new S-K listener, but no one treated this admission with any disdain.

After Weiss pointed out that their new record, No Cities to Love, feels "desperate" and Brownstein added that she is aware of her "constant sense of agitation at the world," the women moved on to talked about their icons—Amy Poehler, Miranda July, Kim Gordon—and their inspirations—Anjelica Huston, HBO passwords, James Baldwin, each other. The result was a long syllabus of things that, for future feminists, needed to be read and watched.

When I was an editor of a music and culture website two years ago, I constantly felt like I was fighting against a current to feature women who played music or women who made art. I don't doubt that in the process, I was careless about how I labeled these acts or quantified their talent because they were not just talented, they were women, and that point—that so many of them were also fighting against a current themselves—was something to be proud of and celebrate.

The idea at the time was to focus as intently on female artists as possible, to give them a spotlight that was shining so brightly that no one could negate the fact that there were women making fantastic music. The quantification was meant to boost female artists by highlighting them and drawing attention to their gender, their feminism, their battle to earn respect. But this system only failed by limiting women musicians to certain constraints that meant nothing. Did they play music? Yes. Was it good? Yes. That was all anyone really needed to know.

When one of my best friends' bands (a postpunk trio made up of all women) played at CMJ this year, she texted me angrily about how one website had chosen to highlight a show they were playing with: "Girls, guitars, girls, guitars, girls, guitars, repeat." I found it infuriating. How could someone diminish my friend's music by using gender as a qualifier? And not just gender, but the presumption that "girls" (not women, which also drove me insane) were somehow alien for playing guitar? You would never see "men, guitars, men, guitars, men, guitars, repeat" written to describe a show, unless that preview was intended to turn you away.

Both my best friend and I have been playing guitar since we were teenagers, and there are women everywhere we go who have done the same. The number of female-only shows (on stage and in the crowd) that I attend and have played have only been increasing since I left my editing job, but there is a feeling of fragmentation that makes me uncomfortable. Which side am I on? Opting out of the male rock machine and embracing my inclination toward gender discussion and feminism? Or am I happier participating in it by denying that women in music deserve any more attention than men, and that the music is all that matters?

The same friend who had gotten mad about "girls, guitars, repeat" was describing to me an interview her band had done where the female journalist was pushing a lot of questions about feminism and "women in music." My friend was once again angry that she had to even dignify her questions with answers. "Why should this label be put on us?" she'd asked. A few weeks later, she knew that I would be interviewing a band made up of all women and encouraged me to ask them about feminism. "They like talking about that stuff," she said. That was when I started to recognize the in-or-out division, and I began seeing it everywhere.

On a song called "Surface Envy" on the new Sleater-Kinney record, the women sing: "We win / we lose / only together do we break the rules. We win / we lose / only together do we make the rules."

At a party in mid-December, I'd debated with another female friend, a music critic, about Nicki Minaj's new album, The Pinkprint. She was preparing to write her review, which was going to be long and positive, but I told her that the record had left me cold after a few listens. I loved Minaj's power when she was featured on tracks by other artists but her radio singles never resonated with me. I really wanted Minaj's album to be a concise gender-defying record of ten unassailable bangers to prove that she could come out and be the boss, woman or man. Maybe I'd gotten so weary of hearing "Fancy" in the summer of 2014 that I wished Minaj would come ether everyone. A radical act when it came from a woman.

I wanted Minaj to eviscerate a system that she seemed eager to set herself apart from.

But what Minaj released was a human, empathetic response to a fucked-up breakup, and it came loaded with braggadocio, courage, relief, and a personal narrative that couldn't be matched by any other album I'd listened to all year. When my friend's review went up a few days later, I had spent more time with The Pinkprint and noticed that my initial response: "Show them you can do what they do, but ten times better!" meant that I didn't want Minaj to embrace her gender and her feminine experience, in whatever form she felt comfortable. I wanted her to join the boys' club.

Not surprisingly, I began to seriously love and identify with the record. She spoke on experiences I'd had with men myself: "I can tell you lyin' / Get the fuck out / don't yell at me." She didn't hide from hurt and being herself. She was a woman who had felt pain. I had felt pain, too. What my friend had heard in this record—"a candid document of the ambivalent feelings and unexpected complications that can arise from female ambition, power, and success"—was a version of Minaj opting out of the male world, going her own way, and not caring who judged her for it. Being a part of the boys' club or doing what felt best to her—Nicki had the right to choose either way.

During a portion of the interview with Sleater-Kinney, Glazer and Jacobson asked the trio questions that they had sourced from their Twitter followers. A man named Michael Guerrero had submitted the best one: "Is it frustrating to be described with phrases like 'female-fronted' and 'female-centric'? In 2015, this needs to stop." The crowd erupted into cheers and excitement, recognition that what needed to be said most was said through a conduit. The pressure had been relieved, someone else had absorbed the burden of bringing up the thing most female bands hate to talk about.

"Nobody's ever asked the question, 'Why did you decide to be in a band with all men?'" Brownstein replied. Jacobson and Glazer were insistent that their brand of womanhood required "throwing it back" and displaying their "vag badges" t0 their potential audiences. The two attitudes counteracted each other.

"The all-women's issue. The women in rock. This ghetto that they put us in. You get the one issue a year. People always compare us to bands with female singers. Not that we don't love those bands, but it seems so narrow-minded to me," Weiss said.

"Who wants to be a white male? I know I don't." Brownstein went on to insist that she loves plenty of white men, but what she touched on was important: in the vein of Sleater-Kinney, Broad City, Nicki Minaj, and today's musicians and entertainers who choose to make art while happening to be female, the focus of what they do is not about the men with whom they relate. It's about them. It's about the human connections they make. It's about the women who are hearing them. It's about anyone who is hearing them talk about the female experience.

The evening concluded with a question-and-answer session with the audience. One young woman immediately sprang up and announced, her voice wavering, that her band was releasing their first album the following week. She was unsure about how to promote herself, and was hoping Sleater-Kinney could give her some advice.

"I don't want to stop playing music. I'm only seventeen, so it's kind of a shitty situation," she said, cradling the microphone in both hands.

Weiss took up responding for the group, first congratulating the young woman on releasing an album at her age—"I didn't start playing drums until I was 22!" she said.

"It's so hard to give advice because so much of doing this has to really come from within. You have to really find your strength," Weiss said. The room felt heavy with the dense reality of her guidance.

"If you need to do it, you'll find a way to do it."

Weiss looked right at the young woman, but really she could have been talking to any of us.

[Photo via Shorefire]