Feminism in Music: The 1990’s

Women in music were voicing their opinions on misogyny within the music industry far prior to the 1990’s. However, in the 1990’s, feminism was popularized within music through two movements: first, through “girl power” feminism within mainstream music, and second, through the riot grrrl movement within alternative music scenes. The term “girl power”, originally coined by riot grrrl band Bikini Kill, was used in the mainstream music industry by groups such as The Spice Girls, the British all-female pop group who rose to popularity within the global music market within the late 1990’s. However, these two movements within music were vastly different in their social and political messages.

Girl power, according to The Spice Girls, refers to an expression of strength, independence, power, and confidence; girl power is about, “standing up for your rights and dignity…[and] for one’s opinions and beliefs”, according to Dafna Lemish. However, girl power as defined by The Spice Girls is contradictory in that, first, The Spice Girls advocate for the power of women to make their own choices and be independent– but only if women fit into dominant notions of sexiness. Therefore, girl power as conveyed by The Spice Girls “is essentially a very narrowly defined sexual power”. In addition, The Spice Girls tell girls and women that they have the power to be anything they want, and the power to do anything they want. However, The Spice Girls don’t communicate what exactly it is that girls and women can aspire to; all that girls and women internalize are the images of The Spice Girls, of, “the glamorous sphere of female stardom, a world nourished by the female ‘look’”, and therefore, that is all they know of to aspire to. The Spice Girls’ version of feminism, shown through their expressions of girl power, is seemingly feminist and transgressive; however, closer analyses reveal that The Spice Girls’ version of feminism is structured to work under, and reinforce, the dominant discourses found within the corporate music industry, such as the sexual objectification of women’s bodies.

Compared to the mainstream music of the 1990’s, such as The Spice Girls, the riot grrrl movement was a direct challenge against the corporate music industry. In the early 1990’s, a group of women within the punk music scenes in Olympia, Washington and Washington, D.C. established the origins of what would be known as the riot grrrl movement, a social and cultural movement whose participants fought back against misogyny within both punk music scenes and the corporate music industry. The term “riot grrrl” was coined in the early 1990’s, inspired by antiracist riots in Washington D.C.; artist and musician Jen Smith wrote Alison Wolfe, vocalist of the riot grrrl band Bratmobile, a postcard related to the recent riots in which she expressed that they needed to start a “’girl riot’”, referencing the anger they felt towards a society and culture that dismissed women’s experiences. Then, in 1991, a zine was created by Molly Neuman, drummer of Bratmobile, with the name Riot Grrrl Zine; the term “riot grrrl” gained momentum and became the name of the movement. In the term “riot grrrl”, the word “girl” is meant to signify “girliness”, or girlhood; for those who participated in riot grrrl bands, exemplifying girliness within their music, dress, zines, and lyrics allowed for, “an aesthetic and political response to dominant representations of female sexuality produced by the corporate music industry”. By exemplifying girliness, riot grrrls were able to symbolically fight back against the corporate music industry’s practice of marketing women artists’ sexuality in order to promote their music.

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A quote and picture from Riot Grrrl band Bratmobile
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Example of a riot grrrl zine from the 1990’s

In addition, the riot grrrl movement wanted women to realize their own agency as cultural producers, in an attempt to include more women within the independent rock music scene. Riot grrrl’s advocacy of bands with only women in them was a response to “the practical recognition that rock ideology (e.g., the equation of rock guitar playing with phallic mastery) has dissuaded many young women from learning how to play ‘male’ instruments”. While the riot grrrl movement attempted to be inclusive of all people, the movement was largely white and middle to upper-class women. Early riot grrrl music and lyrics did address some issues related to race, in particular white privilege, however, this one-dimensional strategy of addressing racial oppression did not create coalitions with women of color within the movement. In addition, because the riot grrrl movement existed within the larger white, punk community, this made it difficult for women of color to relate to the participants of the movement.

Sources:

  • D’Angelica, Christa. “Beyond Bikini Kill: A History of Riot Grrl, from Grrls to Ladies.” Order No. 1468617 Sarah Lawrence College, 2009. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 7 May 2016.
  • Lemish, Dafna. “Spice World: Constructing Femininity The Popular Way.” Popular Music & Society 26.1 (2003): 17-29. Academic Search Complete. Web. 7 May 2016.

Feminism in Mainstream Music: The Present

The 1990’s saw the popularization of feminism within music, such as the notion of “girl power”; in the present-day, similar ideas  about feminism are spread throughout mainstream music by women pop stars, including Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift.

For instance, female pop star Miley Cyrus displays similar ideas about feminism within her music, live performances, and interviews; in a 2013 interview, shown above, Cyrus proclaimed that, “’I feel like I’m one of the biggest feminists in the world because I tell women not to be scared of anything…girls are beautiful. Guys get to show their titties on the beach, why can’t we?’”. This quote reveals Cyrus’s version of feminism– one that focuses on fearlessness, individual freedom, and sexuality. Alexandra Apolloni defines this version of feminism as “Miley feminism”, which is, “…about appropriating a masculine-coded kind of individual freedom: the freedom to not care, to show your titties on the beach, to party without consequences…”. Miley feminism rejects the rules of notions of girlhood that tell women they need to be modest, quiet, and passive; however, Miley feminism is about individual freedom. Miley feminism does not attempt to recognize the intersections of people’s identities, and does not attempt to combat the oppressive power structures that place values on certain intersections (such as the value placed on whiteness), while devaluing others. In this way, Miley feminism mirrors The Spice Girls’ version of feminism, “girl power”, in that both versions of feminism are focused on individual freedom, independence, and sexuality, while ignoring the intersections of oppression that different women experience, i.e., how gender intersects with other social categories such as race, class, and ability.

In addition to Miley Cyrus’s version of feminism, which focuses on individual freedom and independence, pop star Taylor Swift’s version of feminism also focuses solely on Taylor Swift’s experience as a woman– which is the experience of a white, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual, thin, and upper-class woman. Through a critical analysis of five of Swift’s music videos, Melissa A. Fabello demonstrates the ways in which Swift’s version of feminism is not intersectional or inclusive; rather, Fabello argues, Swift’s version of feminism could be called “white feminism”. White feminism does not describe all feminists who are white; instead, white feminism ignores a critical analysis of power hierarchies, related to race, class, ability, nationality, etc., and instead focuses solely on gender, thereby making white women the “default” of feminism. In Fabello’s analysis, she discusses Swift’s music videos and their relation to white feminism, i.e., Swift’s idea of girl power as surrounding yourself with other white, thin, wealthy women in the “Bad Blood” music video, shown below.

Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus are similar in their approaches to feminism in that they both view feminism solely as their own experiences as white women, thus silencing the experiences of women who are marginalized due to oppressive power structures. Swift and Cyrus’s versions of feminism are also an extension of 1990’s “girl power” feminism as demonstrated by The Spice Girls; in the current mainstream music industry, feminism is still utilized as a strategy of commerce for white women, which in turn sustains the white, patriarchal corporate music industry.

Sources:

  • Apolloni, Alexandra. “The Biggest Feminist In The World”: On Miley Cyrus, Feminism, And Intersectionality.” American Music Review 43.2 (2014): 1-5. Academic Search Complete. Web. 7 May 2016.
  • Fabello, Melissa A. “5 Ways Taylor Swift Exemplifies White Feminism – And Why That’s a Problem.” Everyday Feminism. N.p., 08 Sept. 2015. Web. 07 May 2016.

Feminism in Music: The Future

Currently, mainstream feminism rules the music industry– artists like Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus focus on individual empowerment for women, but don’t take into account the experiences of women who differ with regards to race, class, gender identity, nationality, etc. And, this mainstream feminism is a direct reflection of the “girl power” feminism found within the 1990’s. So, if we were to imagine a future where both mainstream and alternative music scenes were inclusive of all voices, especially of those who have been the most marginalized, what would that look like? What does the future of feminism within music look like? Below I’ve listed some bands and artists that are currently changing the face of feminism within music, and therefore, creating a future that attempts to eradicate the white, patriarchal, corporate music industry that is currently in place.

// PWR BTTM //

Queer punk duo PWR BTTM came out with Ugly Cherries last year, an album dedicated to the duo’s experiences with queerness, adulthood, and gender identity. For Liv and Ben, who make up PWR BTTM, their own personal experiences regarding gender identity and queerness are not detached from their lives as musicians, and therefore, the duo have asked for easily accessible gender neutral restrooms for everyone who goes to their shows. Liv of PWR BTTM notes in Fusion,

“We’ve talked a lot about this before, but Ben and I both used to feel like there wasn’t a place in the music world for anybody like us…In that sense, I feel good about the representation we’ve achieved. But it’s not enough. This restroom policy is exciting to me because there’s something concrete to make these punk and DIY spaces more welcoming for trans people.”

In addition, the duo is also having conversations about how to promote consensual moshing at their shows. The band’s manager, Jeanette Wall, said that they’re looking to making wheelchair accessibility at venues a priority as well. Check out PWR BTTM’S NPR Tiny Desk Concert below:

// MITSKI //

In Jael Goldfine’s article entitled “The Thriving, Redefined Girl Power of Mitski”, Goldfine argues that Japanese-American indie artist Mitski is redefining the concept of “girl power”; while girl power, popularized in the music industry by artists such as The Spice Girls and Miley Cyrus, has widely been understood as a projection of independence, confidence, and power, Mitski is redefining girl power in, “the way she, subtly yet so vividly, evokes and interrogates distinctly female realities, particularly those seen as shameful or weak or dumb things to be and to feel”. While the dominant performance of girl power by women musicians has been defined as being strong and confident, Mitski does not turn to this version of girl power within her music or press; instead of acting strong, confident, and unbreakable, or, the stereotypical traits of masculinity, Mitski’s music tells listeners, and more importantly, girls and women, that there is strength in vulnerability, and that girl power should be about the validation of “the full range of female experiences and emotions”, not just independence and confidence.

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Mitski

In “Your Best American Girl”, off Mitski’s forthcoming album Puberty 2, Mitski sings about her experience as a Japanese-American woman:

“But this song is quite autobiographical because I didn’t grow up in the U.S. I am half Japanese, and it came from wanting to just fit into this very American person’s life and simply not being able to. Just fundamentally being from a different place and feeling like I would just get in the way of their progression if their life, because I could just never get to wherever they’re naturally going.”

// SPEEDY ORTIZ //

Massachusetts-based band Speedy Ortiz is actively working to make shows, and music, more inclusive for concertgoers. The band recently announced their new help hotline, seen in the flier posted to their Facebook page below, which will take texts and emails from concertgoers who want to report any form of discrimination or harassment inflicted on them or other concertgoers.

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Sadie Dupuis, the front-woman of Speedy Ortiz, explains in Noisey that she decided this hotline was necessary when she experienced “three separate moments of harassment during a festival within the span of an hour and a half”, and realized that similar experiences were happening to concertgoers. Dupuis realized that the privilege she was granted as a performer could be used to try to hopefully eradicate the harassment that she and other concertgoers had experienced. This hotline, monitored by the band themselves, is appropriate in the sense that concertgoers might feel more comfortable reporting acts of harassment or discrimination if they feel that the people they’re confiding this information in genuinely care about their well-being and safety, something that many Americans feel that cops are not accomplishing.

// G.L.O.S.S. //

Punk band G.L.O.S.S. (who’s name stands for Girls Living Outside of Society’s Shit) is slowly destroying the largely white, male, heterosexual, and cisgender demographic that punk music has been known for. All of the members of the band identify as trans* or queer, and most of G.L.O.S.S.’s music reflects those experiences. For instance, on Lined Lips and Spiked Bats, front-woman Sadie screams:

“THEY WANTED ME/TO BE A MAN/THEY WANTED ME TO BECOME ONE OF THEM/STRAIGHT AND REPRESSED/EMOTIONS GROTESQUE/READY FOR WAR AND THE CUBICLE DESK/STRAIGHT AMERICA YOU WON’T RUIN ME!”

G.L.O.S.S. is revolutionary in that, in a society that alienates trans* people, especially trans* women, punk is represented in a new light through the first-hand experiences of members of G.L.O.S.S. , their lyrics, and the safe spaces they create at their shows. Front-woman Sadie comments on the feedback she’s received for their music:

“I have been brought to tears many times from letters, emails and conversations at our shows with other queer and trans folks who have been impacted by our songs… I think for trans women to be honest about their lives there [will] be a lot of pain and a lot of shit to dig up. Singing in G.L.O.S.S. is kind of like getting to be a superhero, like weaponizing a lifetime of anguish and alienation.”

Check out G.L.O.S.S.’s song “G.L.O.S.S. (We’re From the Future) below: