Mainstreaming feminist punk didn’t really do us any favors
I staged my intervention in comments, but I thought I would share, to open up a larger discussion here. Matt, while linking to Erin Polgreen’s book review of a history of women in music in the 90s, criticizes Erin for picking “Wargasm” as a representative L7 song. And suggests instead that their best song is “Pretend We’re Dead”. This simply cannot stand. “Pretend We’re Dead” is an okay song, but it represents the dark underbelly of the 90s alternative rock revolution, which is the inevitable watering down process. I don’t know why they wrote and performed this song, but I believe the common and probably correct assumption was that it was a straight-up attempt to sell out, to grab a piece of the Pearl Jam market for themselves. “Pretend We’re Dead” is the worst song you could pick of L7’s, if you’re talking about them in a historical context, because it tells you nothing about what they sound like. Other suggestions were “Shove” and “Shitlist”, with me gunning for “Fast and Frightening”.
But what I found kind of surprising was that Erin also picked “Dance Song ’97” for the representative Sleater Kinney song. On a list that includes “Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill, I thought you’d probably go for a more iconic song than that. “Words and Guitars” would be my starter song, with “Dig Me Out” as a second pick.
The book in question is Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music, and I’m halfway through it right now. It’s a breezy, quick read, but I’m not done because I’m sadly juggling a bunch of books right now. What’s interesting is author Marisa Meltzer actually tackles the question of selling out and dumbing down, and how ideas that started in riot grrl were dumbed down until the Spice Girls were yelling “Girl power!” Meltzer takes a more generous approach to this than I do, arguing that perhaps a little Alanis Morrisette would lead you down the road towards harder stuff. I appreciate that argument, but my sense is that it’s just too hopeful. What Morrisette and those like her did by cleaning up riot grrl and making it palatable for the mainstream was to make the female rage in it meaningless. Rage about sexism and sexual violence is scary, but there’s really nothing that interesting or rebellious about a woman being pissed because she was rejected, and unable to get over it. The big sell out of the genuine punk rockness of the early 90s has meant that, outside of feminist and music geek circles, the explosion of women in music in the 90s is mostly remembered in a distorted way, such as thinking that “Pretend We’re Dead” is the iconic L7 song.