You Oughta Know that (Music) is a Battlefield
Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music
Faber and Faber, Inc., 2010
When I was a little girl, Tina Turner was my idol. The way she growled and belted lyrics, shimmying and strutting across a stage – it intoxicated me. I admired her power, presence and confidence, which I attempted to emulate strutting around in my Wonder Woman Underoos. I wanted to be a survivor when I grew up, just like Tina. Music possesses transformative powers, conjuring memories, inciting hope or rebellion. To this day, if I hear Metallica’s “One,” I am again an angst-ridden outcast in junior high. Listening to Indigo Girls’ “Ghost,” makes me cry as I remember an ex-boyfriend with elusive emotions who broke my heart years ago. During times of strife, Tina’s anthems continually remind me of the strength I possess. So when Marisa Meltzer writes about the effect music has had on her life, I can relate.
In Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music, Meltzer intertwines personal stories of following her favorite punk and pop groups with reporting on how those women musicians changed the course of 90s pop culture. I wanted to like this book, I truly did. I’m a feminist, for crying out loud! I’m a NOW member, I donate to Planned Parenthood and I’ve volunteered at a domestic violence shelter. I wanted it to feel like Marisa and I were sitting down, having a glass of wine, just relaxing, reminiscing about growing up as teens in the 90s. But instead, I found myself wanting to drown myself in a bottle of Riesling just to numb the pain of her convoluted logic, uneven writing and her unhealthy obsession with the Spice Girls.
Within the first two pages of her book, Meltzer tackles “girl power” detractors and her intentions:
One of the most ubiquitous phrases of the nineties, “girl power” is Generation X’s version of the cheerful seventies slogan “Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History,” which reduced any of the social and political gains of the women’s movement to a mere catchphrase. Its empowerment seems limited to the power to consume. It’s tailor-made for baby tees…or tubes of lip gloss. It’s feminism reduced to the shallowest choices and devoid of collective action. Some people hear “girl power” and immediately think of the apocryphal sisterhood sold by girl groups like the Spice Girls. But, in my mind, the two words reflect both a feminist message and a changing feminism.
Meltzer traces the roots of the term “girl power” and female empowerment throughout the music of the 90s, focusing on riot grrrl, foxcore, girl groups and pop princesses. She begins by giving a brief history lesson on the roots of riot grrrl, a form of feminist music that grew out of and adapted from punk music. Just like musicians in punk bands, the women who joined riot grrrl bands didn’t always have formal training; theirs was an ethos of do-it-yourself, just pick up a guitar and play. Meltzer discusses feminist punk’s beginnings:
The idea of starting a girl gang or a girl riot had been percolating since punk’s inception. The sixties and seventies had seen a wave of fierce musicians who sang about their lady experience (meaning the whole spectrum – the good, the bad, the ugl y – of women’s lives) in a manner that was far more matter-of-fact than any music that had come before. Women like Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Carole King, Stevie Nicks, and Suzi Quatro achieved a level of success, some becoming household names, beyond being the muse or the groupie.
Musicians always build on the foundations created by their predecessors, and then in turn pave the way for the next generation. While she certainly mentions some artists like the British punk band The Slits, Meltzer fails to mention other notable bands, such as Goldie and the Gingerbreads (the first all-female band signed to a major label in the 60s) or the British punk band X-Ray Spex. She does not even discuss the impact of the infamous rock band Heart, fronted by sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson, the first popular band in which women were the singers, musicians and songwriters, possessing full creative control of their music. Meltzer ensures her allegiance to punk which shaped riot grrrl music:
Punk gave a generation of boys who didn’t fit the All-American Boy Scout type a new blueprint for masculinity and a license to be whatever they needed to be. Punk gave girls who never felt at home in the bows and dresses and canopy beds of traditional girlhood a new way of being female. Because musical skill wasn’t the point, it leveled the playing field, encouraging young women to join bands, get onstage, and learn to play as they went – even in front of audiences. It also wasn’t about singing nicely or quietly. During the late seventies, the women of punk were creating a new female archetype, borrowing notions of collective community responsibility from the women’s liberation movement and at the same time, taking the utmost pride not just in individuality but in being an outcast.
But punk music still suffered from sexism. The women who formed riot grrrl bands, such as Bikini Kill, Huggy Bear and Bratmobile, wanted to create a safe space for women and to increase feminist activism. They picked up instruments, teaching themselves to play, and wrote their own songs. Tobi Vail, a musician in the influential riot grrrl band Bikini Kill, says:
One of the ideas we were working with in Bikini Kill was that if girls started bands, it would transform culture – and not just empower them as individuals, but change society. It would not just put them in a position of power, but the world would actually change. As a young girl who was frustrated by a lack of women in music who called themselves feminists, I saw a need to change that.
They wanted to express themselves, as Meltzer says to sing about topics women faced such as “incest, rape and eating disorders” that were not typically discussed in music. In “Feels Blind,” Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of Bikini Kill, sings, “As a woman I was taught to always be hungry/yeah women are well acquainted with thirst/we could eat just about anything/we’d even eat your hate up like love.” In their anthemic song “Rebel Girl,” Hanna sings about female friendship: “Rebel girl/you’re the queen of my world/I think I want to take you home/I want to try on your clothes.” In “Her Jazz,” Huggy Bear singer Chris Rowley sings, “This is happening without your permission/The arrival of a new renegade.” The song lyrics seem tame by today’s standards. Yet the performances and lyrics exude an anger at the status quo and a yearning for female camaraderie. Riot grrrl bands wanted their fans to assert their identity and express themselves.
Beyond self-expression, they yearned to raise political consciousness by organizing and writing zines (self-published magazines) to spread the riot grrrl message. Meltzer argues that the message of “girl power married the optimism of their pre-adolescent years with the sense of activism and, sometimes, rage that they felt as adults.” Their concerts were women-only spaces, refreshing to young girls wishing to escape the misogyny of society. Meltzer describes her own feelings of awe and worship for riot grrrl musicians:
I was a suburban teenager whose life was changed by riot grrrl. I didn’t have any siblings to be my personal ambassadors to good music, and so I was someone who benefited from riot grrrl’s media onslaught – I read about it in Sassy magazine. I can’t think of anything more exciting to my nascent feminist fourteen-year-old self than photos of girls in halter tops, torn fishnets, and smeared red lipstick. They weren’t much older than I was but already had bands and manifestas of their own. At a time when I was dying to differentiate myself from my Ms.-reading, Phoebe Snow-obsessed mom, and boys scared me so much that the easiest thing to feel toward them was resentment, riot grrrl felt like the answer.
Riot grrrl bands garnered a lot of media attention for their scantily clad outfits and angry lyrics often writing “whore” or “slut” across their stomachs. Meltzer writes that “to the mainstream media, a bunch of angry but still sexy twenty-something women was irresistible, and they were quick to descend upon the scene.” The movement fused artistic expression and activism, not a new concept since the folk musicians of the 60s did the same thing, but it brought in a new generation of young activists and gave voice to adolescent girls. Meltzer credits riot grrrl bands with sparking third-wave feminism (feminism from the early 90s through today). However, any self-proclaimed feminist like Meltzer shouldn’t ignore other important factors dividing second- and third-wave feminism, such as the pivotal Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas sexual harassment trial in 1991, which dominated the media’s attention for months.
While their mark on culture is undeniable, riot grrrls preached a universal feminism with the mantra “every girl’s a riot grrrl” (which ironically is a theme more akin to second-wave feminism) yet simultaneously encouraging “cliquishness.” The movement also infantilized women, always referring to themselves as girls and wearing a “uniform” of baby doll dresses. However, Meltzer claims their costumes and terminology were “a nod to their joyous youth.” Riot grrrl began on college campuses by word of mouth, which meant the movement’s original audience was well-educated and typically lacked racial and class diversity. Meltzer astutely points out that it was a “movement started largely by and for white, middle-class women.” After a few years, tired of the media warping their message, all riot grrrl bands decided to put a unilateral ban on communication with the media. Their message went further underground, just as the riot grrrl bands themselves did. The problem is that many young girls who needed to hear a feminist message never got the chance. But as Meltzer states, their influence cannot be ignored:
Riot grrrl, like feminism, punk rock, or any number of movements and subcultures, did not overthrow the patriarchy. But that doesn’t discount its importance – and isn’t an effective means of judging its success…So maybe the legacy of riot grrrl – as a feminist movement, as a revolution within punk rock, and as a musical harbinger for the rest of the decade – is best understood in other ways…Riot grrrl had a butterfly effect on nineties girl music. In other words, before we could have girl power, we had to have revolution girl-style now.
I grew up in a strip mall suburb, not knowing much about riot grrrl music, so this part of Girl Power was a quick intro to their profound impact on music and pop culture. Now, let’s trudge on to the more infuriating parts of the book shall we?
After discussing the empowering-yet-elitist riot grrrl movement, Meltzer moves on to “angry womyn music,” which includes foxcore, a form of female-focused grunge, with bands such as Hole, L7 and Babes in Toyland at its forefront. Like riot grrrls, these were women or women-fronted bands, singing loud, rage-tinted lyrics:
If riot grrrl was about emotional exhibitionism – making public via a zine or a song your own abuse or body issues – then the foxcore bands’ exhibitionism was more corporeal…The foxcore bands were unafraid of a grand gesture…drawing attention to parts of the body that had previously been considered too shameful and certainly too feminine for rock.
Meltzer then relays an infamous tale of Donita Sparks, L7’s guitarist, allegedly taking out her used tampon and flinging into the audience, all while screaming “Eat my used tampon, a**holes!” You want to prescribe her something.
If Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of Bikini Kill was riot grrrl’s leader, Courtney Love, lead singer of Hole, was this burgeoning genre’s rancid poster child. When looking for a bass player, she advertised “…No more pussies, No more fake girls, I want a whore from hell.” As notorious for her antics then as she is today, she never shied away from fame and success, which separated Love from most musicians in the riot grrrl movement. But even more successful than Love was the next wave of mainstream “angry” female singers, like Alanis Morissette, Fiona Apple, Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco. Meltzer derides Morissette for being too mainstream and Apple for being too provocative. Meltzer does admit, and I agree with her, that “the nineties was about the normalization of female rage…Morissette’s popularity went a long way toward creating a template for the acceptably angry woman in rock.” But I liked that Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” was mainstream. I remember hearing it for the first time in my car; it was refreshing to hear rage from a woman on the radio, particularly since riot grrrl music wasn’t played on any radio stations in my neighborhood. Meltzer bashes Apple for her “slutty masterpiece” (the hit song “Criminal”) and for “flaunting her sexuality,” which seems catty and ironic, considering her adoration of Madonna, Britney Spears and the Spice Girls. Tori Amos, who sings confessional songs about her life (including her own rape) and founded RAINN (a rape and incest crisis hotline), and Ani DiFranco, who sings frankly about sexuality and patriarchy, receive praise from Meltzer for the social activism. Yet the Lollapalooza of female musicians and empowerment that Meltzer disdains — which shocks me — is Lilith Fair.
Lilith Fair, created by singers Sarah McLachlan and Paula Cole, is a famous music fest of female musicians held from 1997 to 1999 and much to my delight, it will return in the summer of 2010. Meltzer brushes the social significance of Lilith Fair aside, saying it was too mainstream, “the music seemed too self-consciously feminine, the sense of community contrived,” and too much like her “mother’s generation of music.” Lilith Fair showcased women musicians, something that promoters didn’t believe could be lucrative, and it proved those promoters wrong. Self-proclaimed feminist McLachlan and Cole ensured the event’s activist agenda, donating over $10 million dollars to national and local non-profits, including women’s shelters. At least Meltzer concedes one positive about Lilith Fair:
Perhaps most important, it enacted one of the hallmarks of feminism by creating one of the few women-centric spaces for the mainstream. Radicals, riot grrrls, and women from various subcultures had access to such separatist women-only spaces, and had benefited from the experience of life without men, whether that meant speaking more freely, carrying oneself differently, feeling a sense of safety, or escaping sexual commodification. Most women rarely got these opportunities, and McLachlan offered them a version of collective feminist activity that was missing from mainstream music.
Meltzer keeps arguing that what made riot grrrl music so unique and profound was that its activist message transcended the music. Yet she criticizes a far more thoughtful and successful feminist/activist music fest. It boggles my mind how any feminist, even if not a fan of the music, would not be more supportive of Lilith Fair.
My opinion of Meltzer continued to slide as she devoted a whole chapter to…wait for it…the Spice Girls – a band (if you can call them that) created by a father and son (two men!), Chris and Bob Herbert, by placing an ad in a British newspaper looking for girls. In her previous chapter, she chastises singers for being too mainstream and showcasing “feminist-flavored rock” rather than “real feminism.” Yet here, she defends the constructed band’s mantra of “girl power” because they made it palatable to young girls:
One of the keys to the success of the Spice Girls was that it was easy for girls to imagine being one of them. It didn’t matter that the five women weren’t particularly talented singers or dancers; it was their appearance of ordinariness – along with their message of total empowerment – that was their greatest asset…Their take on feminism was heavy on the sisterhood and the inherent badass-ness of being a girl – and the Spices should be lauded for that message.
Thankfully, Meltzer admits that no political consciousness, no social activism accompanied their message. She also admits that the Spice Girls persuaded their fans to participate in their world through buying their merchandise. Imagine my disgust when Meltzer describes how Ginger Spice compares Nelson Mandela’s struggle through apartheid to what the Spice Girls have overcome:
Ginger Spice was lambasted by the media when, on a tour of South Africa, she likened Nelson Mandela’s struggle to girl power, saying that while some might find her claim arrogant, ‘everyone has their fight for freedom, and this is our little quest. I’ve read his biography, and he admires anyone that’s fighting for a cause. The only comparison between us is triumph over adversity.’ Halliwell [Ginger Spice], to her credit, has a point; though the five women were hardly poster girls for struggling and the quote is a bit blithe, the fight for global women’s rights is certainly a valid one.
Hmmm…so when the Spice Girls were figuring out which scantily clad outfit to wear, raking in millions of dollars, I’m sure they knew exactly what it felt like to be in a prison cell for 27 years The Spice Girls are certainly not the ambassadors of feminism.
The fact that a whole chapter is devoted to the vapid Spice Girls while others like singers Grace Slick, Joan Jett, or Pat Benatar only get brief mentions is appalling. The Indigo Girls, stalwarts of feminism who achieved financial success, are politically active and philanthropic. They cracked the mainstream radio airwaves while still retaining their integrity (and my personal favorite band!), yet they only have a couple of paragraphs and a quote devoted to them. Meltzer overlooks actual artists, preferring to focus the second-half of her book on advertising robots Meltzer could have compared the Spice Girls to the 70s teen female band The Runaways, with band members Joan Jett, Cherie Currie and Lita Ford. As Currie just wrote a new memoir, Neon Angel, and a film starring Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart based on the band’s lives was just released, it would have been great if Meltzer had spent more time focusing on the influence and social significance of a band that could actually sing, play instruments and write their own music. While the Spice Girls’ message of solidarity is positive in the name of female friendship and women supporting one another, they also reduce women to types (five to be exact) rather than showcasing and supporting their individuality. Meltzer supports this “banding together” camaraderie. Women do need to support one another, but not in the name of conformity and at the expense of individuality. Meltzer takes this notion to the point of lunacy by applauding Miley Cyrus as a good role model on her popular ‘tween TV show Hannah Montana because she resides in two “worlds”: as Miley, the ‘ordinary’ goofy girl and as Hannah Montana, the pop star:
Pop culture, especially when it comes to female stars, is stuck in a tired virgin-whore divide. Cyrus is offering up a more challenging version of female identity by taking a cue from her own show and leading a double life. She has placed herself firmly in a gray area between the ‘good’ and ‘naughty’ labels, refusing to settle in one camp. But she’s not ducking labels as much as she is wearing as many of them as she desires, and all at the same time.
Meltzer asserts that this refusal to choose one type shows girls that they can be whoever they want to be. But complex personalities and true individuality cannot be reduced to dichotomies, which doesn’t empower girls, boost their self-esteem nor help them forge their identities. On top of it all, Miley lies about her identity…how empowering is that! I miss the days of TV shows like Reading Rainbow and Mr. Wizard…sigh.
Pop princesses are up next, namely Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson and Mandy Moore. Here, Meltzer makes a fitting albeit clichéd observation regarding the connection between these pop singers and the princess explosion in culture:
Like so many shiny red apples proffered by witches in fairy tales, there is a little bit of poison hidden inside the princess paradigm. If there was real empowerment behind princesses, they’d be a powerful tool for girls’ self-actualization. A princess is special, but her uniqueness is always discovered by another character; she never finds it within herself. Princess narratives say that women can’t be princesses without society-approved standards of beauty and a prince to save them. As pop stars morph into real-life versions of royalty, with fantastic, untenable standards of fancy clothes and cars and perfect bodies and relationships, we get further from any hint of real-life vulnerability…
I agree; society continuously tells women that they must control their bodies, by any means necessary through diet, exercise and hair removal. But where I disagree with Meltzer the positive connotation she associates with pop singers exposing their bodies (stomachs in particular as was common in the 90s) as it conveyed “body confidence.” While I agree that women should be confident in their appearance, I’m not sure how the over-sexualization of teenaged women is empowering or beneficial for their self-esteem. Society judges women’s worth based on their attractiveness.
Meltzer acknowledges the powerful influence of 80s pop stars Cyndi Lauper and Madonna as role models for young women who paved the way for the pop princesses:
Eighties pop divas like Lauper and Madonna gave girls who weren’t old enough, cool enough, or urban enough to dig deeper into the counterculture a fantasy of liberation – which would hopefully turn into real independence – that would be echoed again and again by pop singers around the world.
The difference between Lauper and Madonna and the pop princesses of the 90s is that Lauper embraced her unique individuality and Madonna embraced and owned her sexuality. Many of the ‘princesses’ merely embraced conformity.
The whole time reading, I kept waiting for a verbal smackdown of Britney Spears, with her sexist lyrics, revealing schoolgirl outfits and lack of musicality. But after chronicling Spears’ notorious exploits, Meltzer states “the need for feminism” in Spears’ life and declares that Spears is “more self-aware” than people “give her credit for.” Yet Meltzer criticizes the pop singer Pink for cutting down other girls rather than the system which creates vapid girls in the song “Stupid Girls.” But Pink is also politically active, which she displays in her song with the Indigo Girls “Dear Mr. President.” In her song, “Conversations with My 13-Year-Old Self,” she captures the vulnerability, alienation and turmoil of a teenage girl. While she is quick to decry other females, such as Paris Hilton, in her songs, she is equally as quick to turn her scathing criticism inwards on songs such as “Don’t Let Me Get Me” and “Sober.” Meltzer seems to laud conformist singers while criticizing those who actually provide social commentary. As some of her idols could have told her, you can’t have it both ways.
While the book devotes a great deal of attention to the pop princesses, the pop divas of the 90s, who exuded power and confidence onstage (Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, En Vogue, Destiny’s Child, Mary J. Blige), are nowhere to be found. And while Meltzer prefers to stick with the genres of punk and pop, many R&B artists made it on the pop charts. TLC dealt with unrealistic beauty standards with their song “Unpretty.” Destiny’s Child’s songs “Survivor,” about a woman’s resilience after a break-up and “Independent Woman,” about fiscally self-sufficient women with lyrics including “I depend on me,” showcase female empowerment. I never thought I would see the day I would have to defend Destiny’s Child songs … all in the name of feminism! Folk singer Tracy Chapman (a lesbian feminist whose song “Fast Car” made it on the pop charts and who sings of racism, apartheid, poverty, and women’s oppression) reignited the folk singer/songwriter trend in the late 80s. Yet she receives only a mention in a litany of artists who performed at Lilith Fair. Other artists such as Queen Latifah, Erykah Badu and Me’shell Ndegeocello, only receive glancing attention as well. Meltzer’s glaring omission to profile women of color is hypocritical as she criticized riot grrrls for their lack of diversity. Her disclaimer to only focus on music she enjoys leaves a gaping hole in her argument for “girl power” and women musicians, since her tastes cover only a portion of the spectrum. But while she focuses on the inherent sexism and patriarchy of the music industry and society at large, Meltzer misses the opportunity to explore the intersecting problems of sexism, racism and classism.
Meltzer ends on an upbeat note by talking about the next generation girls and music. She describes start-up band camps for girls, like the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls, Rosie’s Girls and the Willie Mae Camp. Here adolescent girls attend workshops on songwriting, singing and playing instruments. It’s nice to know that the next generation of women is ready to express themselves and take the rock helm. Meltzer sums up the importance of “girl power”:
Girl power recognizes that not everything is pure: it delights in ambiguous gray areas. It’s not just about testing out your own relationship to feminism, but about finding your identity in the world. But girl power’s ‘do-it-yourself’ message of ‘you can do anything’ is a powerful entrée to feminis, especially because its simplicity brings in the very young. If the third wave was in part about reclaiming a sense of the purely feminine in feminism, then we need to look toward the fourth wave to not let that get out of control to the point where we forget how we got here. Girl power is a way station, not an endpoint, and a gateway, I hope, to a more profound equality of the sexes.
I hope Meltzer is right, that more girls start believing in themselves and the power they wield to create change for a better more equitable world. In the book Manifesta, co-authors Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards write, “The presence of feminism in our lives is taken for granted. For our generation, feminism is like fluoride. We scarcely notice we have it—it’s simply in the water.” Many women my age and younger have taken the previous generations’ struggles of Roe v. Wade, the right to vote, etc. for granted. Many strong, independent women do not even call themselves feminists, despite their support for feminist issues. Just as the term “girl power” started with riot grrrl in a raw, pure state, subsequent artists like the Spice Girls diluted the message to be a merchandising slogan and eventually a punchline. In some ways, feminism has suffered the same fate. I’m glad that throughout her book, Meltzer acknowledges the importance of feminism for women, particularly young women’s lives. But what is most puzzling to me is that Meltzer criticizes feminist musicians for the same reasons she applauds many conformist, non-activist ones. It’s as if she is wearing a token-feminism rather than promoting true female empowerment. I wished Meltzer had been more vocal in her critique of sexism and feminism’s role in pop culture and society.
Girl Power succeeds best when Meltzer allows those on the front lines to tell their own stories, such as Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail from the band Bikini Kill. The brevity of the book (a mere 151 pages) and the breadth of topics covered virtually guarantees that none truly receive the attention or analysis they deserve. The problem with Girl Power is that there is so much contradictory and faulty logic which undermines the valid points Meltzer does make. I think this is an important feminist book that needed to be written … by someone else. As for this feminist, these days I may listen to a bit more folk and indie rock: Indigo Girls, Kate Nash, Regina Spektor and The Airborne Toxic Event. But I always make time to sing loud and strut proud, releasing my inner diva (my inner Tina!) to the world.
Megan Kearns lives in Boston and works at Harvard Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Program.