A discussion about Liz Phair, Riot Grrrls, and other '90s women in rock.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Feb. 11 2010 9:36 AM

Exile from Grrrlville

What happened to all the angry, powerful women in '90s rock?

Girl Power by Marisa Meltzer.

Marisa Meltzer: It appears the '90s are back. The signs are everywhere: Plaid shirts are ubiquitous (I'm wearing one as I write this), the Seattle band Soundgarden is re-forming after 12 years' hiatus, and SoapNet devotes three hours a day to reruns of Beverly Hills, 90210. I came of age during the grunge years and have helped perpetuate '90s nostalgia as much as anyone—my latest book about the decade, Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music, was published yesterday—so I have to admit I'm delighted by all of it.

The '90s were a good time for my two primary obsessions: girlhood and music. Bands that were unapologetically feminist, that made music that was angry and challenging—music that would have been relegated to the underground in the '80s—became mainstream. It was acceptable to be angry and sexy, and in pop culture there were finally a bunch of role models: Courtney Love, Liz Phair, and Kathleen Hanna, to name just a few. Sadly, that potent combination of female rage and sex appeal has slipped out of the mainstream. During the last decade we worried about the antics of Britney Spears or Miley Cyrus and whether it would leave our daughters oversexed, but I still miss the brash and uncompromising musical heroines of my adolescence.

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Since Courtney Love and her band Hole have a new album coming out in the spring and the traveling women's music festival Lilith Fair is set to return this summer, I'm wondering if the sexy-angry-rocker woman is ripe for a resurrection and also—as I slip on my Betsey Johnson babydoll dress—whether my '90s obsession is a little out of hand. Sara, what do you think?

Sara Marcus: Hmm. Was Kathleen Hanna really mainstream in the '90s? Or Courtney Love—God help us all—a role model? Still, I see where you're headed with this. It's not that today's music lacks brash, unapologetic female stars—Lady Gaga, hello!—but everything about them, from their antics to their songs' production, feels so calculated, doesn't it? Rock stars in the '90s seemed less packaged, less sculpted than they are today (the latter being literally true in Love's case and also Phair's).I don't see that pendulum swinging back anytime soon; mainstream pop music is now practically synonymous with an overtly constructed persona, especially where female artists are concerned.

I think the '90s were an unusual estuary: Some underground culture was flowing into the mainstream and hadn't yet been completely diluted or transformed by it. And a vibrant, cohesive, self-sufficient, actual underground existed for people who weren't satisfied with the crossover acts. The '90s were something special that we haven't seen since, which contributes to and flavors the upswing in nostalgia that we're seeing now.

I would never deny you the pleasure of your flannels and babydolls, Marisa, but I think '90s nostalgia is problematic. This may sound odd coming from someone who has just finished writing a book that takes place in that decade. ( Girls to the Front, my history of the Riot Grrrl movement—a punk feminist uprising of young women in the '90s—will be published in October.) But the major animating value of the era and of Riot Grrrl was DIY: Create your own art, culture, and communities rooted in the realities of your life and what affects you in the here and now. Nostalgia for a bygone era kind of misses the point.

It's easy enough for feminists like us to think fondly on the days of Bikini Kill tours and Heavens to Betsy 7-inches. But something that really interests me in your book is that you aim to rehabilitate the decade's most prepackaged iterations of female "empowerment"—Alanis Morissette, Lilith Fair, and, of course, the Spice Girls. Do you consider these projects to have been "feminist"—or even just good for women?

M.M: It was nostalgia that prompted me to revisit Scary, Ginger, Baby, Sporty, and Posh in the first place. I was writing Girl Power during a particularly sad time for women and music; the Pussycat Dolls' 2005 debut album went platinum, and even Paris Hilton had her own hit (although I will defend the brilliance of Hilton's single "Stars Are Blind" to the end). I was looking back on music—the Spices, Alanis, Lilith Fair—that I had dismissed during my teen years as too prepackaged or not authentically angry enough and realized it seemed radical in comparison to what was being released just one decade later.

If you look at the lyrics to Alanis' biggest hit, "You Oughta Know" (recently covered by Beyoncé at the Grammys, a '90s moment that thrilled me), they'd fit right into the Riot Grrrl canon: "It was a slap in the face how quickly I was replaced/ Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?" And who could deny the feminism implied in Sporty Spice's definition of the group's ethos: "Girl Power is about being able to do things just as well as the boys—if not better—and being who you wanna be."

Of course, Alanis was a former child star, and the Spices were a prepackaged group recruited from an ad that asked, "R U 18-23 with the ability to sing/dance? R U streetwise, ambitious, outgoing and determined?" But I think both acts' popularity went a long way toward creating a template for the acceptably angry and brash woman in rock and pop.