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Mutineers in mainstream music: Heralds of a new feminist wave?

By Naomi Weisstein 1999

(Note: Naomi wrote this article after studying the 1999 Grammy Awards.)

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, “Doesn’t mean feminist. Doesn’t mean progressive.”? You knock back some absinthe “Just the standard pneumatic-no-voice jigglers blinking in the headlights.”


Yes, there was the overwrought, abjectly feminine Celine Dion.

“Kinda made you hope for a half-time show by the dykes on bikes from Fresno, didn’t it?”, You quip.


“Madonna! “, you shout.

Okay, yes, there was also the unspeakably undertalented Madonna, this time femmed up Japanese style -

“Kinda 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! There’s been a sea-change in the pop-rock-rap music women not only sing but win awards for.

Really! 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); Garbage’s 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 music.

And R & 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.

Perhaps he went over the top at these lyrics:

"... now you wonder why women hate men the sneaky silent men the punk domestic violence men the quick to shoot the semen men..."

Mutineers in mainstream music: It’s been a long time coming

* * *

“Punched out my dog! Totalled my van! He beat me up! I love my man” roared The Chicago Women’s 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.

“In 1973 the band dissolved, and, for a long time afterwards (with the splendid but marginalized exception of folkie “women’s 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.

And then I couldn’t 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.

Recently, 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.

Women musicians are furious -- finally. “Did you forget about me, Mr. Duplicity?” asks Alanis Morissette in a tone-perfect shriek, “...I’m not gonna fade...” “You thought I was a little mouse,.. .but now I’m here, burning down your house” growls Shirley Manson of Garbage. “I’m 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 he’s a D-O-G” snarl the usually amiable Salt ‘n Pepa.

In the new lyrics, if men are allowed to stick around, it’s 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.” She’s right, in a way: MC’s bad, but Lauryn Hill is both bad and profound.

While few musical mutineers would out themselves as “feminist”, or even “womanist”(currently tainted words), protest against women’s 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 there’s 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?” rails Jewel.

The new lyrics do more than burn down the man’s 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 Me’shell Ndegeocello begs Mary Magdalene. “I am your passion, your promise, your end” hard-rocking Mellissa Etheridge resoundingly reassures her female partner

In 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 love—hungry 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”.

The phenomenon-manipulators have not ignored these feminist developments in pop music. For a couple of years now they’ve 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 they’re also happy over cleavage-crashing “wonder” brassieres, pierced nipples, and adoration of Titanic’s Leonardo DiCaprio, on the other.

But are the phenomenon-manipulators actually creating the feminist developments in music that I’ve 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?

It’s both. It’s 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.

Indeed, the story of the interaction between women’s musical mutiny and the passionate audience that is supporting it is almost a feminist fantasy of how political change can work.

Here 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 didn’t include women (except for the last two summers’ wildly successful Lillith Fair, they still don’t); labels wouldn’t sign them; and ‘the radio would air only one woman per playlist.

Recalls Rana Ross, the bassist for Phantom Blue and Vixen (easily the decade’s 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 wouldn’t even let me audition. My tape was good enough, but my gender wasn’t”.

Then, 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.

These 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 decade’s defining voices” raved Rolling Stone magazine.

Mainstream 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 Entertainment.

Ultimately, insurrection marched into mainstream music because the fans devoured it. Receipts soared. Alanis Morissette’s debut album sold 15 million units. (Platinum is a million). Jewel’s debut sold 5 million units. Erykah Badu’s 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 Hill’s 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.

Audiences for mutineers act more like they’re at a political rally than at a mere concert. Overwhelmingly female (the ratio of girls to boys at Lillith Fair is 3:1), they’re wildly participatory and proprietary.(and what I want to know is: when did girls realize it wasn’t 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.

Indeed, 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 women’s shelter. They seek feminist truths and female heroes, and they’re finding them on the soundstages across America.

Music 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 he’s right. Certainly he’s right about the audiences. The intensity of today’s 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 women’s militance in the world. From what I hear, some restless folks are gathering at the gates.

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