As predicted, I am winding up the series on 90s nostalgia with a post on the feminism of 90s rock music. Remember, come to WAM! Prom tonight and you can hear the genres discussed in this series, plus others (including a variety of rock, hip-hop, pop, electronic dance music, and maybe even a novelty song, if I get bored or think the audience has it coming), as well as a mash-up set by DJ Marc Faletti.
Riot Grrrl gets all the academic attention, in part because they had feminist theory going on and in part because they actually left a unique written record, but for most people that weren’t plugged into the D.C. or West Coast underground, they weren’t the first feminist rock musicians that they came across. If you were lucky enough to be a rock fan of record-buying age in the early 90s, that was more likely to be bands like L7, the Breeders, or Hole. If you were a hip-hop fan, you had Salt ‘N’ Pepa, MC Lyte, or TLC. Bjork came crashing onto the scene. Looking back, it really does seem the early 90s was a brief moment where a feminist vision of what it should be like for women was shimmering into view. You could be angry. You could be weird. You could wear what you wanted without being overly worried that you weren’t hot enough. You could talk about sex from a subjective point of view, and you didn’t have to prove anything about your own desirability to “earn” that right. Those of us who came of age during that time were, looking back on it, really lucky. We had Sassy. We had Janet Jackson in military uniforms. We had Rock for Choice. We had Left-Eye running around with a condom taped over her eye with a confidence that belied how confrontational she was being. Yes, we also had stupid hats. Not everything was perfect, but it was still very good.
As with alternative rock radio, the forces of suck, however, will reassert themselves, and the backlash at the time was, looking back, a bit traumatic for me—probably one of the most significant learning experiences I’ve had in terms of learning how much the world will fight back when women just try to do their thing unmolested. It would be easy to focus on the increasing levels of pressure to have sexual objectification in videos, but that would be a bit dishonest from me, because on a purely emotional level, that wasn’t even at the top of my list of concerns. It was much, much more than that, a sense that women who were creating from an honest point of view were being slowly squeezed out of popular music and being replaced with women whose voices seemed less fun, more stereotyped, and less human to me. That’s if they got to be in the room at all.
As long time readers know, Alanis Morissette looms in my imagination as the symbol of this. The angry female rock bands that I knew and loved by late 1995 when “You Oughta Know” came out had songs about shit you should be angry about: Sexual harassment, sexism, clueless older people who want you to be a good little girl, religion. But here Morissette was being touted as this scary angry woman rocker and her big, scary, angry song was about….a dude dumping her and her pathetic inability to get over it. To make it even more insidious, the song was supposed to be some kind of breakthrough in women singing frankly about sex, but in actuality, there’s no female sexual desire outside of wanting male validation anywhere in that song. She talks about sex, sure, but only as a performance women put on to cater to male desires, and now she’s mad because she put out and didn’t get the payment she expected for a job well done. The only reason people mistook it for “feminist” is because people have this stereotype of feminists as angry man-haters who are bent on revenge for rejection. The feminist rock musicians I knew, on the other hand, gave me a feeling of self-confidence that women are just fine whether they’re currently being paid attention to by men or not. Some songs, especially by Hole, even went as far as to portray an obsession with getting male validation as a sickness that will eat you up from the inside.
By the time the Lilith Fair came around, I was completely demoralized. R&B and hip-hop still had some great women doing cool stuff or trying to take a big picture point of view—Missy Elliott, Lauryn Hill, Eryka Badu—but mainstream rock had effectively silenced most women singing too forcefully from a feminist point of view. Lilith Fair was a palatable form of feminism, a “let’s all braid hair and worship the goddess” kind of retreat, instead of my preferred form of feminism, the “put on your Docs and lets go kick the patriarchy’s ass” one. Needless to say, the bro-ification of “alternative rock” just made it worse.
This story has a happy ending, however. Going through my music collection to put together a DJ set, I was strongly reminded of how feminist women regrouped in no time in indie underground, where they could experiment with new sounds and blend rock with other genres without having to interact with “alternative” music at all. Sleater-Kinney had a great late 90s run with four classic records from 1996-2000. Peaches put her first record out in 1999, as did Le Tigre, kicking off the indie dance music thing. In the grand scheme of things, the length of time between watching it all burn down and watching the green shoots rise up again wasn’t that long. It just felt like it, because when you’re a teenager, you’re living life in dog years. So here’s some of the bands that made my little rock geek heart soar in the early 90s:
And the underground stuff from the time that I missed until I got out of small town West Texas: