in mainstream music: Heralds of a new feminist wave?
(Editors Note: Naomi sent us this article after studying the 1999
Grammy Awards. The photo shows Naomi at a 1969 women's liberation
Did you watch
the Grammys this year? It was called the year of the woman.
Do I hear you snort, Big deal!? Do I hear you sneer, Doesnt
mean feminist. Doesnt mean progressive.? You knock back
some absinthe Just the standard pneumatic-no-voice jigglers
blinking in the headlights.
was the overwrought, abjectly feminine Celine Dion.
made you hope for a half-time show by the dykes on bikes from Fresno,
didnt it?, You quip.
, you shout.
yes, there was also the unspeakably undertalented Madonna, this time
femmed up Japanese style -
made you wish for a quarter-time show by the dykes on bikes from Fresno.
You get up to leave the room.
But.. . big but... wait a second! Sit down! Theres been a sea-change
in the pop-rock-rap music women not only sing but win
The music, both black and white, has become tough, furious, autonomous,
self-produced, feminist, womanist, and megasmart. Check out the infinitely
hip Sheryl Crow (best rock album); Garbages in-your-face-and-your-goneys..too
Shirley Manson (nominated); the still enraged Alanis Morissette (best
rock song); the gritty rock-blues Lotte Lenya legatee P.J. Harvey
(nominated). Even good ole girl Lee Anne Womack (nominated) pulls
off being pissed in the once strictly submissive reaches of country
& B /hip-hop/gospel/pop star Lauryn Hill! She won five Grammys
(a first for a woman) for her self-produced The Miseducation
of Lauryn Hill,t an album that manages to cram profound gender
criticism into stunningly moving tracks. Her Doo Wop (That Thing)
(Best R & B) apparently so genuinely shocked a Maryland shock
jock that he shot beyond what is currently considered acceptable
racism and sexism and said something so offensive that the CBS apologists
for the new radio bigotry just had to fire him on the spot.
he went over the top at these lyrics:
"... now you wonder why women hate men the sneaky silent men
domestic violence men
the quick to shoot the semen men..."
Mutineers in mainstream music: Its been a long time coming
* * *
out my dog! Totalled my van! He beat me up! I love my man
roared The Chicago Womens Liberation Rock Band twenty-five
years ago, parodying the masochistic lyrics expected of girl
vocalists in rock. We challenged all the demeaning imperatives
for women in music. We performed at the hurricane-high of the
radical second wave of feminism, and audiences danced, shouted
and sang along with our insurrection, mobbing the stage afterwards,
hugging us and our instruments--even our amplifiers.
1973 the band dissolved, and, for a long time afterwards (with
the splendid but marginalized exception of folkie womens
music), female vocalists sang endless litanies of Suffering
Abased Devotion to men. I despaired of the SAD songs, and mourned
for the politically energized audience that had resonated with
our mutinous performances.
then I couldnt listen at all. A catastrophic neurological
illness attacked me, and for years I have lain supine in a bed
without sound or light, the detritus of mass misogynist culture
humming in my head.
a new anti-seizure medication has enabled me to listen again,
in tiny bytes over many months--not recommended for music lovers,
but it gives you plenty of time to ponder the material. What
I hear astonishes me! By turns joyful, angry, moving, original,
and hilarious, a cadre of folkateers, funkateers, punkateers,
pop stars, rockers and rappers -- both black and white -- have
left gender church and are rebelling against the frenzied worship
of men that defined female popular song for so long.
musicians are furious -- finally. Did you forget about
me, Mr. Duplicity? asks Alanis Morissette in a tone-perfect
shriek, ...Im not gonna fade... You
thought I was a little mouse,.. .but now Im here, burning
down your house growls Shirley Manson of Garbage. Im
packing a rod and its all for you grunts mock-tough L7.
...fucking Napoleon, sneers whirling dervish Ani
DiFranco. Keep him on a leash cuz hes a D-O-G
snarl the usually amiable Salt n Pepa.
the new lyrics, if men are allowed to stick around, its
on terms:Lil Kim puts in her order: No dick tonight, eat
my pussy right. ... I need my car waxed and my
floor shellac/I need my back rubbed and da bubbles in the tub...
instructs ultra-cool hip-hopper M.C. Lyte. In the insult-your-competition
style carried over from the dozens, Lauryn Hill boasts: MC's
ain't ready/to take it to the Serengetti. Shes right,
in a way: MCs bad, but Lauryn Hill is both bad and profound.
few musical mutineers would out themselves as feminist,
or even womanist(currently tainted words), protest
against womens subjugation pervades the songs. Anti-Rape:
Did she ask you for it? Did she ask you nice? laments
alleged bubblehead Courtney Love of Hole. Anti-Harassment: Who
you calling bitch? demands Queen Latifah, (Now theres
someone really bad). Who you calling ho? Anti-Beauty
traps: You made me crazy Kathleen Hanna of Bikini
Kill shouts at her mirror. Ugly girl.. .do you hate her?
new lyrics do more than burn down the mans mission: they
build mansions above the ruins. Defying the heterosexual imperatives
of pop, some mutineers have celebrated lesbian love. If
you must dance, dance for me funkateer Meshell Ndegeocello
begs Mary Magdalene. I am your passion, your promise,
your end hard-rocking Mellissa Etheridge resoundingly
reassures her female partner
a stunning departure from anything that has ever gone before,
other female songwriters emphatically illuminate the lives of
women clearly not themselves. Joan Osborne elegizes a homeless
mother in St. Theresa Lolita, go on home,
Suzanne Vega advises a lovehungry teenager. In Ordinary
Morning, Sheryl Crow, the virtuoso of such empathic character
sketches, imagines herself a runaway housewife-turned-hooker
who is becoming psychotic Just an ordinary morning.. .Just
an ordinary day.. .Just an ordinary woman.. .slipping away.
phenomenon-manipulators have not ignored these feminist developments
in pop music. For a couple of years now theyve been hype-ranting
girl power, a mindless cheer that rises up for anything
that seems to reflect a new girl identity, whether
progressive or appallingly retrograde. Articles in such places
as Spin Magazine applaud lawsuits against dress codes, on the
one hand; but theyre also happy over cleavage-crashing
wonder brassieres, pierced nipples, and adoration
of Titanics Leonardo DiCaprio, on the other.
are the phenomenon-manipulators actually creating the feminist
developments in music that Ive described? Have the six
megacorporations that virtually own entertainment only now realized
that transgression is the cash crop of rock and rap, and that,
to reverse the current disastrous sag in music sales, they should
start encouraging women to fuss? (Followed, of course, in five
minutes, by a campaign to dress women musicians in little see-thru
slave uniforms, and encourage them to be gush?) Or is there
such widespread resistance to the old minification that the
industry is helpless to contain it?
both. Its a development from above, and from below. Some
mutineer women are heavily promoted. (And, still, the baby voices,
make-nice end of the spectrum --Jewel, Sarah McLaughlin, Paula
Cole -- usually -- until this exciting Grammy year -- have gotten
the most play.) But a new energy is also present in audiences
-- an explosion of youthful anti-sexist, proautonomy consciousness.
This emerging market empowers female rebels to kick out.
the story of the interaction between womens musical mutiny
and the passionate audience that is supporting it is almost
a feminist fantasy of how political change can work.
is a brief history. For women, breaking into rock and roll was
harder than winning a trip to Mars (and just as independent
of talent). Performance tours didnt include women (except
for the last two summers wildly successful Lillith Fair,
they still dont); labels wouldnt sign them; and
the radio would air only one woman per playlist.
Rana Ross, the bassist for Phantom Blue and Vixen (easily the
decades two tightest hard-rock girl bands): A few
years ago, a rock superstar was auditioning players. I sent
in my bio and tape, but no picture. I got an excited call, but
when they found out I was female, they wouldnt even let
me audition. My tape was good enough, but my gender wasnt.
recounts American History professor Rachel Devlin, about ten
years ago a sudden tornado of militant feminist musicians blew
away anti-woman business-as-usual. Riot Grrrls, Foxcore groups
and others organized shoe-string production companies and friends-of-friends
distribution networks, spreading their openly confrontational
music from city to city.
independents, with their zines and punk bars, might just have
ended up as another exercise in the marginality of anti-sexist
rock but -- mirabile dictu!--the acts got hot. To give an example
of how hot, Ani DiFranco, the most successful Indie yet, male
or female, played to a sold-out crowd at Jones Beach for the
last two summers with -- Zowie!--Bob Dylan! [She is] ]
. .One of the decades defining voices raved Rolling
mutineers followed on the heels of the Indies. The Indies..
. influenced and set the stage for Alanis, Sheryl, and Lauryn,
says Devlin. Minimally, Indies influenced some labels to record
some women, if only as weirdo novelty acts to revive dying revenues.
Maximally, they struck forked terror into the hearts of Megalopolated
insurrection marched into mainstream music because the fans
devoured it. Receipts soared. Alanis Morissettes debut
album sold 15 million units. (Platinum is a million). Jewels
debut sold 5 million units. Erykah Badus goodbye rap to
the boyfriend (Tyrone) got so popular with women
that some black radio stations started calling it the
female national anthem. And as noted, Former Fugee Lauryn
Hills first solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn
Hill, walked off with five Grammies. This is crazy
because this is hip-hop music gasped Hill in disbelief.
The NY Times, reports that the slump in record sales
was broken two summers ago due primarily to mutineer albums.
for mutineers act more like theyre at a political rally
than at a mere concert. Overwhelmingly female (the ratio of
girls to boys at Lillith Fair is 3:1), theyre wildly participatory
and proprietary.(and what I want to know is: when did girls
realize it wasnt unspeakably shameful to go out without
a male date on a Saturday night? This is progress!) Fans shout
angrily at Ani DiFranco when her attitude sags.
these audiences are at a political rally. Female rebels are
singing to the anger, confusion, and aspirations of a generation
of young women now coming of age in a mean and clueless time,
where utopian desire has been gagged and even the very recent
past has been erased. But despite the relentless attempt by
the rest of the media to ridicule and suppress feminist ideas,
and raise victim-blaming to religion, these young women suspect,
or know already, that they live in a violent, often woman-hating
world. They cannot count on lovers to love them or husbands
to honor them. Romance lies bleeding in a battered womens
shelter. They seek feminist truths and female heroes, and theyre
finding them on the soundstages across America.
critic Ben Kim, of Illinois Entertainer, wrote of our band several
years ago that it was the ...mother of . . .any rock by
women who ask no quarter. Maybe hes right. Certainly
hes right about the audiences. The intensity of todays
crowds reminds me--happily-of the ecstatic performances of my
rock band so many years ago. People might call it girl
power this time--or some other cute phrase that simultaneously
trivializes, commodifies and distances it from feminism -- but
I believe that we are poised for a renewed surge of womens
militance in the world. From what I hear, some restless folks
are gathering at the gates.