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.

But my nostalgia for that era only goes so far—I will stop short of calling them feminists. With the label of feminism comes intention, and I'm not sure that the Spice Girls or Alanis held subverting gender norms or promoting equality as their No. 1 concerns. I'm curious what debt you think these post-Riot Grrrl musicians—from Alanis to Miley—owe Riot Grrrl. Was the Spice Girls' message of girl power a watered-down (but still potent) version of the Riot Grrrl call for "revolution girl-style now"? Or was it just soulless packaging?

S.M.: Yes, the Spice Girls were clearly a direct Rosemary's Baby–esque spawn of Riot Grrrl; likewise, Alanis and her "Angry Women in Pop" ilk arose as a radio-ready counterpart to the underground's dissonant tones. I'd love to try to claim some credit for the Dixie Chicks, too. (As for Miley Cyrus, I'm not so sure. The girl-rocker-with-a-double-life television genre predates the '90s by several years—and unlike Miley, Jem and the Holograms even got to play their own instruments.)

As you point out, though, the "angry woman/girl power" pose in pop vanished as quickly as it had arisen. Small wonder, because it was never more than a backing track of focus-grouped "rage" overdubbed onto the same old song as ever and gradually faded back down to zero. Note how even the Alanis line you quoted leaves intact the tired trope of women competing with each other for the almighty fuck—hardly material fit for the Riot Grrrl canon.

I admire the work you did in reading all these cultural manifestations and charting the speculative genealogies, but I'll be honest: I'm much more interested in girl shredders like Screaming Females' Marissa Paternoster and against-the-odds pop icons like Le Tigre's JD Samson and the Gossip's Beth Ditto. * If we're hunting for Riot Grrrl's legacy, I believe the movement has had a more lasting and meaningful impact on less-commercial music than it has on mass culture. Women's roles in the upper echelons of pop music are evolving ever so slowly (if at all), while most independent-music scenes are much more female-friendlynow than they were 20 years ago. Riot Grrrl's most enduring impact on mass culture is in all the women who are working as artists and writers and musicians today—you and me included—who were encouraged at a pivotal age by the movement's message of empowerment and self-expression.

M.M.: You're right that one of the most positive legacies of Riot Grrrl is all the women who grew up listening to the music and are now coming into their own. I also see it in the films, writing, and performances of Miranda July or the stand-up comedy of Aubrey Plaza or Charlene Yi. I see the legacy in the rock camps like New York's Willie Mae Rock Camp for girls that are teaching 8-year-olds—who might not have ever heard of Bratmobile—how to play instruments, form bands, and market themselves.

The key phrase you used was mass culture. The difference between some of the underground icons you've pointed to, like Beth Ditto or JD Samson and the original Riot Grrrls, is a willingness to work with the mainstream. Ditto designed a line of plus-size clothes for a major British retailer and is signed to a major label; Samson and her Le Tigre bandmates are producing songs for Christina Aguilera's next record. They're retaining their feminist-punk ethos but not shutting out the mainstream. A decade or two ago, they might have been accused of selling out, but that's a debate that seems to have faded.

I am curious about the impact of nontraditional pop stars like Ditto or Samson or even Sia or, to use a more ubiquitous example, Lady Gaga, on adolescent culture. Pop music today is full of strong women, like Gaga, Beyonce, Rihanna, and Taylor Swift. And yet we have a long way to go until feminism is fully integrated into music. I'm curious what lessons you think music's mainstream can learn from the underground? And does the underground even exist anymore?

S.M.: To slightly rephrase your question about the mainstream: What kind of mega pop-stars do I want to see more of? I want a fat pop star. I want a pop star who doesn't care about becoming rich (I know: Yeah, right). I want a butch-dyke pop star with hairy pits (and a femme-dyke pop star, too, for that matter, one who doesn't have to spectacularly self-destruct). I want a sissy-boy pop star in a dress (ditto on the not self-destructing). I want a transgender pop star, and I want a new-tomboy pop star, one who doesn't sing, "I don't like your girlfriend," like Avril Lavigne, and who maybe even (OMG!) doesn't wear eyeliner. Above all, I want female pop stars who get attention more for their talent and originality as musicians than for their skill as crafters of personae. When that happens, adolescent girls—and boys, and all of us—will be way better off.

Mass culture always contains cleaned-up, camera-ready variations on the underground, incorporating just enough of what's "edgy" to maintain its own relevance. Sometimes this infuriates me, but I have to admit that the mainstream would be infinitely more boring without it. Hopefully kids who see pop culture that hints at the existence of something more complex will be emboldened to go off in search of it, and to create their own additions to the conversation. In my perfect world, though, complicated, messy, smart, irreducible artists who tell me things I don't already know about love/loss/friendship/sex/politics would get just as much attention as the slickly holographic versions.

Of course, musical undergrounds still exist, even if you and I now go to sleep too early to explore them adequately. But the boundaries have definitely grown more porous of late, particularly between undergrounds and a newly expanded cultural middle ground: Artists on K Records are getting songs on TV (indie-songstress Mirah on So You Think You Can Dance!), and Vampire Weekend's new, indie-released album recently hit No. 1. Everything is more flexible: Artists can increase their audience without compromising creative control, the once-bright line between being on an indie label and signing to a major no longer exists, and listeners can access a broad range of music even if they're 15 and stuck in the exurbs.

A lot of these changes—maybe even all of them—are thanks to the Internet, which for all intents and purposes didn't exist in the days of Riot Grrrl. How has the rise of online culture changed what it's like to be a girl from the '90s to the present day?

M.M.: One of my favorite quotes about the female adolescent experience comes from the musician Rachel Carns, who said in an interview that "girls have this private thing about themselves—diaries, your room—that is really isolated and you don't share it with anybody else." If the second wave of feminism was about getting wives out of the kitchen, then maybe Riot Grrrl was about trying to get girls out of the bedroom and into something more like action.

The Internet has made being a teenage girl a potentially less isolating experience. It's simple to start a blog or a Tumblr or join Twitter and suddenly belong to your own Internet cohort that gets all your references to hating Justin Bieber and loving the movie Daisies.

But the Internet can only go so far. Sara, I have to share an anecdote that reveals us both to be total nerds: Just the other night at a party, you and I launched into a rendition— from memory, I might add—of the Riot Grrrl self-defense anthem, "Eyes, Knees, Groin, Throat." I love that we both spent our teen years listening to that song and I wish we had known each other then. But I guess my point is that singing it together in person was so much more joyous and gratifying than any gushing we could have done over the Internet about it.

I hope that the interest in what happened to women and music in the '90s sparks curiosity in young women and that the Internet helps them make connections, but that they'll take it a step further. Some of them already are. Tavi Gevinson, the teenage blogger who has become a fashion-world celebrity, wrote that the day after finishing Girl Power, she proposed a feminist club to her school principal. That's the kind of DIY action that's going to make lasting changes in the lives of teen girls.

Correction, Feb. 15, 2010: This article originally and incorrectly referred to the Screaming Females' Melissa Paternoster. Paternoster's first name is Marissa. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

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Sara Marcus' first book, Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, will be published in October

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