Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music

Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music

by Marisa Meltzer

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In the early nineties, riot grrrl exploded onto the underground music scene, inspiring girls to pick up an instrument, create fanzines, and become politically active. Rejecting both traditional gender roles and their parents' brand of feminism, riot grrrls celebrated and deconstructed femininity. The media went into a titillated frenzy covering followers who wrote "slut" on their bodies, wore frilly dresses with combat boots, and talked openly about sexual politics.

The movement's message of "revolution girl-style now" soon filtered into the mainstream as "girl power," popularized by the Spice Girls and transformed into merchandising gold as shrunken T-shirts, lip glosses, and posable dolls. Though many criticized girl power as at best frivolous and at worst soulless and hypersexualized, Marisa Meltzer argues that it paved the way for today's generation of confident girls who are playing instruments and joining bands in record numbers.

Girl Power examines the role of women in rock since the riot grrrl revolution, weaving Meltzer's personal anecdotes with interviews with key players such as Tobi Vail from Bikini Kill and Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls. Chronicling the legacy of artists such as Bratmobile, Sleater-Kinney, Alanis Morissette, Britney Spears, and, yes, the Spice Girls, Girl Power points the way for the future of women in rock.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429933285
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 02/15/2010
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 176
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Marisa Meltzer is the coauthor of How Sassy Changed My Life (Faber, 2007). Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Slate, Elle, and Teen Vogue. She attended Evergreen State College and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Marisa Meltzer is the coauthor of How Sassy Changed My Life (2007) and author of Girl Power (2010). Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Slate, Elle, and Teen Vogue. She attended Evergreen State College and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Read an Excerpt

Girl Power

The Nineties Revolution in Music

By Marisa Meltzer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2010 Marisa Meltzer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-3328-5



The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, is the kind of university that offers neither grades nor majors. Its central quad is called Red Square; its concrete-block, riot-proof buildings are nestled among acres of forested land; and the chili in the main café is always vegan. As can be expected from its left-of-center reputation, the school has attracted a mix of outcast students since its inception in 1967: hippies, slackers, and punks. It's also my alma mater. And I count myself as one of them.

Olympia is the capital of Washington State. It's small — the population only about forty thousand — and some of the only decent jobs available to graduates who want to stick around are for the state government. But it was (and still is) cheap enough that a bohemian existence can be fairly easily cobbled together with part-time day jobs conducive to the lifestyle of a fledgling band. In the mid-eighties, an all -ages punk scene cropped up in the city, buoyed by a club called the Fabulous Tropicana; the student radio station KAOS; the music fanzine Op; and Calvin Johnson's label, K Records, and his band, Beat Happening.

To a certain kind of person, the Olympia lifestyle could seem ideal. The musician Tae Won Yu moved there from his native New York City in the spring of 1992 because it felt like "a paradise. I woke up every morning feeling like, 'I can't believe I'm in Olympia. It's like Paris in the thirties.'" The singer Mirah Zeitlyn describes early nineties life in Olympia: "We were all making rock operas and we had this huge theater we could use when we wanted. There are certain kinds of energy that maybe can't be replicated." Naturally, she organized her college music collection not alphabetically or by genre, but by gender. "I didn't think twice about it. Sometimes I want to listen to this stuff that men make and sometimes I want to listen to this stuff that women make."

The Olympia musician Lois Maffeo grew up in the cultural doldrums of Phoenix, Arizona, and heard about Evergreen through a high school friend who was being hassled by her hippie uncle to go there. "I was like, 'No grades? I'm so sold,'" she recalls. Maffeo had a by-the-books college paradigm shift: her first dorm mate was a punk girl with dyed blond hair and raccoon-like makeup. Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening helped Maffeo learn the guitar by drawing her a three-chord chart and saying, "People have done worse with more." She went to art shows at a space called Girl City and hosted a radio show of music entirely made by women called Your Dream Girl on KAOS. "I locked into the fact that girls just run this town," said Maffeo. "Going to an all-girl high school, there wasn't that constant trying to vie for the attention of boys. I felt like girls were rad. I didn't need to be convinced." The writer Mikki Halpin lived in Los Angeles but knew the town by reputation: "There were a lot of people who really would make a very convincing claim at that point in time that Olympia was a matriarchy."

On the other side of the country, Washington, D.C., was a city known for its punk bands. It was also where Calvin Johnson had lived during high school. He had befriended many of the bands in D.C., and in the years after he moved back to his native Olympia to attend college, a kind of cultural exchange developed between the underground music scenes in the two cities.

In 1991, Maffeo was living in D.C.'s Mount Pleasant neighborhood when riots broke out following the shooting of a Salvadoran man by a black female police officer who had been trying to arrest him for disorderly conduct during a Cinco de Mayo celebration. "They went on for days. You'd run home from the bus stop hoping not to get hit by anything," says Maffeo. Watching the physical confrontation between a community and the police was oddly energizing, she remembers. "We realized you can push back, it's okay. It really was an exciting feeling." One day during the riots, her housemate Jen Smith ran into the house and said, "What we need is a girl riot."

The idea of starting a girl gang or a girl riot had been percolating since punk's inception. The sixties and seventies had seen a wave of fierce female musicians who sang about their lady experience (meaning the whole spectrum — the good, the bad, the ugly — of women's lives) in a manner that was far more matter-of-fact than any music that had come before. Women like Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Carole King, Stevie Nicks, and Suzi Quatro achieved a level of success, some becoming household names, beyond being the muse or the groupie. Others, like the women's liberation bands — utopian feminist music collectives founded across the United States that wrote songs with titles like "Abortion Song," "Ain't Gonna Marry," and "Papa Don't Lay That Shit on Me" — achieved a certain feminist notoriety. Yet mainstream rock remained resolutely, with some notable exceptions, a boys' club. The album had evolved into an art form in and of itself in the sixties, with albums like the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Rock was about virtuosity and, unless you're a diva, virtuosity has always been associated with being male. By the seventies, rock music had become a bloated and long-winded affair — look no further than prog bands like Yes and Genesis. And if writing twenty-minute opuses or incorporating lasers and flying pianos into their live shows was too manly, the guys could always just spurn it all for the gender ambiguity of glam rock — a movement that gave men a lot of room to play with their sexuality while still managing to leave little place for women. Women were so shut out as cultural creators that even when femininity was valued, men were still the vehicle.

Enter punk, a movement that rejected technical virtuosity and professionalism in favor of amateurishness, iconoclasm, and a do-it-yourself aesthetic. Punk gave a generation of boys who didn't fit the All-American Boy Scout type a new blueprint for masculinity and a license to be whatever they needed to be. Punk gave girls who never felt at home in the bows and dresses and canopy beds of traditional girlhood a new way of being female. Because musical skill wasn't the point, it leveled the playing field, encouraging young women to join bands, get onstage, and learn to play as they went — even in front of audiences. It also wasn't about singing nicely or quietly. During the late seventies, the women of punk were creating a new female archetype, borrowing notions of collective community responsibility from the women's liberation movement and, at the same time, taking the utmost pride not just in individuality but in being an outcast. The Slits, an all-girl punk band from London, disparaged normal female roles in their song "Typical Girls," asking "Who invented the typical girl?/Who's bringing out the new improved model?/And there's another marketing ploy/Typical girl gets the typical boy."

Ana da Silva spent her teen years listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in Portugal, where she grew up. She moved to England for college just as punk was beginning. "That informed the way I did things. People were saying it was so easy to start a band," she says. She began to go to shows around London, formed her own band, the Raincoats, and got to know the women in other bands, like the Slits. But she still found a certain amount of pigeonholing among women in that scene, where all-girl punk bands were still more obscure than their all-boy counterparts. "We did get put into a bag. We were always compared to the Slits whereas the biggest similarity was that we were actually women."

Sharon Cheslow grew up in the D.C. area and, as a teenager in the late seventies, learned about punk from the pages of Seventeen magazine, The Washington Post, and Creem magazine. The music was similar to the rock she had loved in the sixties — simple and lacking the overwrought theatrics of the arena rock that dominated the radio — and she was drawn to its musicians. "I saw images of the women who were gender benders. That's what really caught my eye. These were women who were not afraid to say, 'We're not traditional women and we're going to create in a way women aren't encouraged to create.'" Even in punk's rejection of gender norms, it was relatively rare to see an all-female band. After seeing the Mo-dettes — a girl punk band from London formed by one of the original members of the Slits — at D.C.'s 9:30 Club, Cheslow went to talk to the singer, Ramona Carlier. "I'll never forget the advice she gave me. She said, 'You can't deny the fact that you're a woman, but the most important thing is to focus on creating music.' "

Cheslow had been encouraged to take up guitar by her folk-music-loving parents, but couldn't find anyone to play music with because none of the boys her age wanted to be in a band with a female electric guitar player. "When I first started playing guitar, I really felt like I could be one of the guys or for the guys. I rebelled against that. I wasn't interested in joining some other culture — I wanted to create my own culture. That's what punk had taught me, that I should be free to create as a girl. Not to support a guy or be one of them, but to be respected by the guys." By the early eighties, she had started Chalk Circle, the first all-girl band in D.C.

Even though punk had made many inroads for women, it was rarely disputed that there was room for improvement. Punk may have been a source of liberation for some women, but it wasn't always explicitly feminist. Patti Smith, the most famous woman to emerge from New York's nascent punk scene, which was led by bands like the Ramones and Television, had always allied herself with men rather than supporting a sisterhood. She didn't hesitate to disavow the feminist movement as a whole, telling one interviewer, "I ain't no women's-lib chick." There were only a few token women in punk, and to identify themselves as feminists would only make their non-maleness more central — it was hard enough just being accepted as a musician.

It's also possible that the women's liberation movement was too mainstream for the outsider women of punk. The rise of punk rock was happening at the same time as the second wave of feminism in America. Feminism's so-called first wave was a movement christened retroactively, referring primarily to the late-nineteenth-and-early-twentieth-century fight for women's suffrage. The second wave of American feminism began in the early sixties and focused on social and legal rights, like the legalization of abortion and equal pay. Solidifying events like the birth control pill being approved for marketing in 1960, the formation of the National Organization for Women in 1966, 1968's demonstrations against the Miss America pageant, the first women's studies courses being taught at Cornell University, Roe v. Wade legalizing abortion, and the 1972 passing of Title IX (which made discrimination by sex illegal for any government-funded educational program or activity) all happened during the second wave's sixties and seventies heyday. The women's liberation movement always harbored radicals at its fringes, but as it became an established part of American politics, perhaps it wasn't cool enough for the underground.

Sexual harassment, one of the issues around which the second wave sought to create awareness, was alive and well in the punk community. When Chalk Circle played shows, men in the audience would wolf whistle, yell at them to take off their clothes, call them bimbos, or resort to the tired adage that they were "good for girls." After the first influx of punk in the late seventies, which had some degree of gender parity, the scene had grown increasingly macho. Heather Lewis's gender was a source of constant comment for people who saw Beat Happening, her early eighties band with Calvin Johnson and Bret Lunsford. But the Olympia trio was already something that, as Maffeo tells it, "made people mad." People who saw them were irked that the band didn't, at least in a conventional sense, rock; it lacked a bass player and wrote songs about rabbits and bananas. While the band rotated instruments, Lewis mainly played the drums and, as the only girl, would frequently be the subject of hecklers at shows. "Some guy would yell, 'Nice flannel shirt. Are you a lesbian?'" says Maffeo.

Slowly, a space for gender discourse was forming. Maffeo watched Lewis take on her hecklers firsthand. "That's a situation where so many would crumple, but she would not break stride. She'd say, 'You sound like you've got some emotional problems.' She would take it slow, defuse the situation, and she wouldn't yell back. She would think about it for a second and answer them really calmly. You couldn't defy the power of that moment." In D.C., there had been attempts to address sexism in the local punk community, which had become nationally known with the success of bands like Minor Threat on the Dischord Records label. Cheslow, Cynthia Connolly, Amy Pickering, and Lydia Ely organized discussion groups to talk about women in punk for a 1988 issue of the seminal punk zine Maximumrocknroll. At the same time, both men and women in the D.C. scene were becoming increasingly aware of issues like sexual harassment and rape. In 1990, Fugazi, a D.C. band that was arguably one of the most well-known and respected indie bands in the country, wrote the song "Suggestion" from the point of view of a woman. "Why can't I walk down the street free of suggestion?/Is my body the only trait in the eyes of men?"

As it became more common for girls to form bands, go on tour, or release records, a network of girls in the punk scene was developing not just in D.C., but across the country. It was a community that wasn't just based on playing an instrument; many of the women were also writers or activists. It's no coincidence that this was a group of women either in or recently graduated from college, with memories of their first radicalizing moments still fresh. As Bitch magazine's cofounder Andi Zeisler points out, "You're at the age where militancy is paramount, like when someone takes a women's studies class and realizes, 'I'm not the only one who's bummed out when my boyfriend asks me to hold his jacket when he goes into the mosh pit.'" Rather than waiting for the playing field to become level, women were realizing that they could start their own league. For Cheslow, it was a relief to see younger girls questioning many of the same things she had dealt with years earlier. "By then I had given up playing in bands. I had actually gotten too discouraged. It was too much of a battle for me being this lone female guitarist and I got burnt out." Hanging out with them gave her the sense that they looked up to her as someone who had been through it before. "To have these girls with this fighting spirit, who thought you shouldn't give up, it renewed my own spirit," she remembers. "It gave me so much energy that it's lasted to this day."

So by 1991, when Jen Smith called for a girl riot, the time was ripe for women in punk to band together. Tobi Vail, an Olympia native, was in an all-girl band in high school called Doris and in another band with Calvin Johnson, the Go Team, in the late eighties. In the fall of 1990, her latest project was a band called Bikini Kill with Kathleen Hanna, Billie Karen, and Kathi Wilcox. "One of the ideas we were working with in Bikini Kill was that if girls started bands, it would transform culture — and not just empower them as individuals, but change society. It would not just put them in a position of power, but the world would actually change. As a young girl who was frustrated by a lack of women in music who called themselves feminists, I saw a need to change that."

These women were reacting to issues within the relatively insular punk community, but also tapping into a larger cultural moment. The late eighties had been a particularly dark moment for feminism, and the decade became a kind of grab bag for feminist gains and losses. Time magazine's "Women Face the '90s" story, published in December 1989, featured a cover image of a woman with a baby in one arm and a briefcase in the other. The text read, "In the '80s they tried to have it all. Now they've just plain had it. Is there a future for feminism?" This story came just a few years after the coining of the term "postfeminism" to describe a new generation of women benefiting from the gains of the women's liberation movement. The vogue for the word was disheartening — the prefix of "post" implied not only that all the work of feminism had been accomplished, but that feminism itself was passé.

The generation of women that followed the second wave had reaped the benefits but were coming of age on their own and beginning to critique the past twenty years. Third wave feminism was both a resurgence and a reaction to the second wave. Third wave feminism was about embracing the individual, and acknowledging that feminism could be different for everyone, and was not some monolithic force. Its core texts — Rebecca Walker's 1991 Ms. story "Becoming the Third Wave" and two other books that came out that same year, Naomi Wolfe's The Beauty Myth and Susan Faludi's Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women — struck huge chords for young women seeking to define their own brand of feminism. The ideas behind the third wave, which might once have been sequestered in the underground or on college campuses, were converging and often breaking through to the mainstream. Nineteen ninety-two was the inaugural year of the Ms. Foundation's Take Your Daughter to Work Day (known more inclusively since 2003 as Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day). "Even the Girl Scouts of America was rethinking its approach to girlhood with updated literature and a newfound focus on finding your voice and self-esteem issues," says Lyn Mikel Brown, a professor at Colby College who studies media and marketing to girls. "It felt like an exciting moment." Activism was everywhere again, whether it was the Rock the Vote campaign to encourage young voters to become politically active, Take Back the Night rallies on college campuses to protest campus rape, ACT UP and Queer Nation raising AIDS awareness in the gay community, or the Million Man March on Washington for the black community. Riots made headlines not just in Mount Pleasant but also in Los Angeles after the verdict in the Rodney King trial.


Excerpted from Girl Power by Marisa Meltzer. Copyright © 2010 Marisa Meltzer. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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