GrrlBeat @ the Feminist eZine RiotGrrl Archive
Welcome to GrrlBeat!
"GrrlBeat" was a series of women's music articles written by Leslie Harpold for RiotGrrl.com during the 1996 - 2001 period. Sadly RiotGrrl.com is no more. We have archived some of the articles here for research purposes and also because they are an enjoyable read. This is not a complete archive of every GrrlBeat article ever written, but it is enough to provide a sense of what GrrlBeat was.
The articles include:
Last year at this time, critics were falling all over themselves to herald Beck as the second coming, praise Sonic Youth's Washing Machine and talk about what great strides music was making at getting back on track. In 1996 we felt a couple of women, PJ Harvey with Dance Hall at Louse Point (with John Parish) and Gillian Welch's Revival made us sit up and take notice, and hope this was a sign of things to come - women had started making a dent again in the world of music.
This year, in fact was so bad, that I'm about say Sleater - Kinney was the closest thing we had to a rock grrl revelation. An all chick trip from Seattle, they put out a good record, have a unique sound, but the fact of the matter is that no ground was broken in the making of this record. All year long I've been waiting to go nuts and love something and when I heard about S-K I thought this would be the gem of the year I would deliver to you Riotgrrls, and was disappointed to say, I just wasn't that impressed. Shrill howling over a nice grungey beat has been done and done better. Still - if this is the top of the food chain for grrl rock in 1997, that should give you some indication of the state of things to come.
The brightest moment of the year was in HipHop, Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliot's debut solo record, (reviewed previously). She's not a talented "girl" in HipHop, she's a ground breaking producer, consummately skilled rapper and an incredibly savvy businesswoman. In a genre that was threatening to go stale this year, she revitalized it by changing the texture of the music and creating stand out, digable grooves that actually sounded unlike anything else. It gives me some measure of comfort that the best of the year was so multifaceted and admirable.
Unfortunately another disturbing trend is what leaves this inescapable tinny taste in my mouth. I will forever remember 1997 as the year of the Tiny Diva. The music industry is built on lemming like behavior and increasingly so each year. We were blessed this year with a new genre of performer simply because they were deemed saleable. I can picture the meeting that created this monster - "I want PJ Harvey, but less threatening, no swearing on the record, well, maybe on the B side, but not on the single. make her really cute and insure she looks good on television." And the fruits of this collective brain trust netted us, among others the likes of Jewel, Meredith Brooks, Fiona Apple, and Paula Cole. Who's responsible for this?
Sheryl Crow, who ironically, (truly ironically, not Alanis- 'ironically') put out the only Tiny Diva record worth a spin. The success of Tuesday Night Music Club brought record producers who's annual bonuses are contingent on points from record sales to their knees. So, they did their best to recreate - in Sheryl's image super cute teeny tiny girls who would look great in videos. Oddly enough, Sheryl her own baddself out a good record at the end of last year, and gets none of the glory of the Janey come latelys. Making her entree to the world of pop as a manufactured pop star cost her the credibility needed to be taken seriously until record three, so we'll see what happens. Keep your eyes peeled.
The most compelling thing in grrl rock this year was not in the studio, but on the stage. Sarah McLachlan's Lilith Fair proved grrls could not only sell tickets and draw a crowd, but the diversity of a line up didn't daunt concert goers. From folky Indigo Girls and Tracy Chapman to Lisa Loeb's - whatever it is that she does to Tori Amos, Letters to Cleo, and the baddest genuine Diva ever Emmylou Harris - there was room for everyone. Even the Tiny Divas were on the first leg of the tour. Well received by the audiences around the country and Canada, there are plans for a second tour and Sarah has started a phenomenon that will hopefully bring us next year a venue to showcase the contribution of women to an industry that sees them too much as pop star commodities and not artistic forces to be reckoned with.
Notice I haven?t aid anything about the Spice Girls? that's because my babies, that is not music. That's a pop culture icon. The two are wholly unrelated.
So, 1997 will be the year Metallica went soft, Ozzy made a kickass comeback, Soundgarden broke up and there was precious little worth remembering about grrls in rock. The closest thing to a trend is this was the year it was set in stone hat if you didn't have a chick bass player at signing time, you already had two strikes against you. I can't decide if that makes me happy or makes me sick. But the bass player wave is another story for another column.
Okay, I'll admit it: I'm a Madonna fan.
Have been since her debut album. I wore all the tacky bracelets, floppy lace bows in my hair (which was, of course, permed within an inch of its life to match Madonna's frizzy 'do) and midriff-baring tees.
My mother, of course, vetoed the BoyToy belt. But that's another story for another time.
Regardless of her many imitators, though, nobody does Madonna like Madonna. This is a woman who has transformed herself and her craft at least a dozen times in as many years, each time touching off a ripple of new trends and outdoing her previous incarnation.
She is a savvy business woman without a doubt, but she has also done what many artists fail to accomplish quite so seamlessly: she has grown up and brought her music along for the ride.
Her latest effort, Ray of Light (click here to listen to a real audio clip of her first single Frozen), is a prime example ... a sophisticated blend of sexy techno-dance throb and intelligent lyrics, the disc is at once both hip and self-reflective.
You don't get that in one package very often. Normally you have to make do with one or the other - either dance music with insipid lyrics put there simply to add vocals no one really cares about anyway (think "Macarena") or syrupy-sweet ballads with the dullest of musical accompaniment (does the name Michael Bolton ring any bells?).
Not that Madonna herself hasn't been guilty of one or both of those things in the past. Hey, I said I was a fan, I didn't say I was blindly obsessed. She's had her share of misses.
One of her biggest hits, "Cherish," always made me feel I should be licking an enormous lollipop and have my hair in pigtails. I'm still seeing a therapist about that one.
Several of the songs on Ray of Light meld acoustical guitar and more modern studio production tricks. The title track begins sweetly enough and then launches into an almost retro disco sound, reminiscent of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love."
Poignant lyrics about the recent birth of her daughter make an appearance on a few tracks, but rather than being the kind of parental syrup that so often makes those of us without children reach for the "next" button on our CD players, most of the songs are nonspecific enough to be about any loved one and not necessarily a child.
"Little Star," though, could easily be a lullabye: "Butterfly, may the angels protect you and sadness forget you ... Little Star, there's no reason to weep, lay your head down to sleep ..."
Well, it would have to be a disco lullabye but maybe those of you with little ones could start a new trend by putting mirrored balls over their cribs.
In contrast to the aforementioned sentimentality, we have the usual sex-driven metaphors in many of the tracks (with song titles like "Skin" is there any doubt?), though the sultry rhythm of several others lends itself to a similar mood even without the words to guide us.
The cover photograph displays yet another "new" Madonna - gone is the previous harshness of black or bleached locks, replaced by flowingly windswept golden-tawny tresses. The complete and total embodiment of chic and the kind of "natural" that only thousands of dollars and a slew of hairdressers could hope to achieve, but gorgeous and charming nonetheless.
Much as I see the progression in Madonna's work from the mid-80s to Ray of Light, there will undoubtedly be those naysayers who feel it's yet another piece of musical fluff from the original material girl. True Madonna fans will love it, but even the casual listener should find it intriguing.
While it may not be an enormous departure, it's an eclectic mix of sounds and textures that only a seasoned veteran of the biz could pull off with such slick results.
If I hear one more time that the future of music is techno, my pretty blonde head may fly off. One of the most disturbing trends in popular culture today is the view that the future only has space for answer per category, when a quick glance around you will confirm the opposite is true. The future is wide open with infinite possibility. Music is no different.
Just as Lounge music did not take over the world (as I predicted), Techno also will not. The first myth that needs to be debunked is that techno is anything new. With it?s roots in the late 70s, modern techno-dance-acid house - call it what you will music owes a debt of gratitude to artists like Kraftwerk and Thomas Dolby. Yes, that ?Blinded Me With Science? guy who invented a plug in for the Internet.
Before you send me more of that ?You old geezer!? hate mail, which I so dearly love let?s all take a deep cleansing breath. This isn?t going to be one of those articles where I go on and on about someone who really did something first. Today, I?m talking about phenomenology and music. Mostly music, although the two are very closely tied. Having them tied is a good thing too, since without that I wouldn?t have a column.
Back to my point about Techno and how it's not taking over.
In the simplest possible terms it will meld and influence, and already has. The advances in technology in the arena of music production were felt throughout the 80s with the New Wave scene. Synthesizer and drum machine driven, the music was - to borrow from The Art of Noise ?Looking for the Perfect Beat?. All that perfection was a little much to bear too long, and that?s why things got grubby. I?m sorry, grungey.
There is a law of physics that says ?For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction?. There?s another natural law called coincidentally called ?The Law of Homeostasis? that my chemistry teacher Mr. Heald impressed upon me diligently in my youth. Roughly, it says that everything is constantly trying to stay the same. Striving toward a constant even state of sameness.
I don?t like hating records. I love loving them. Unfortunately when music goes through an ugly teenage period, which it is wont to do every five to seven years or so, it?s hard to get excited while I sit around listening to one average record after another, waiting for someone to break out of the box with something to get my attention. It happens far too rarely and I wish I could have it happen say - 26 times a year. Any more and I would have my head explode for different reasons, too much candy will make you sick. I need time to obsess after all.
Near Bristol in England is a town called Portishead. Not much happens there, as best I can tell without going myself. So, I?ll take the rumors as truth for now. (Unless you?d like to sponsor my journey, in which case I?ll be happy to explore for you.) One notable citizen of this down is Geoff Barrow who wasn?t all that enchanted with the extreme homeostasis that that town was going through. So he decided to start a band.
That?s where Portishead (the band now, not the town) was born. With vocalist Beth Gibbons, and band members Dave McDonald and Adrian Utley they form the foursome that actually managed to break me out my recent ?where have all the flowers gone? funk. As a matter of fact, it took me into a whole new realm of funk altogether.
The eponymously titled album has shreds and innuendo of older tech but not in the tired ?drag out grampa for giggles? sense. Shades of James Bond themes past, samples of old half forgotten guitar riffs melt seamlessly under smooth highly stylized vocals. Distinctly techno sounds meet rough edged guitar riffs and create a new level of enlightened homeostasis, the mixture of action and it?s equal and opposite reaction to achieve the perfect state of homeostasis necessary to shake up my hears and get me humming something new. Finally. So, techno isn?t taking over, but it?s getting added to the mix. No, no don?t use the melting pot metaphor, grrls, they?re British, remember?
Just go get this record. Even if you hate Chumbawumba. (Did you know he?s been making records since 1983, by the way? Just another notch in my ?techno isn?t new? bedpost. Chemical Brothers since 1982 hello!) I?ll remind you one more time that it?s called Portishead and it?s by Portishead. Buy it if you hate techno. Buy it if you hate to dance. Buy it if you sweat that one day Zeppelin is gonna make a comeback. Really. If you love techno and can?t wait to rave, and you don?t already have this little gem, get it. If you do, listen to it one more time and right at the point your left hip slides out to make that little move before you throw your head to the side so you can make your nose ring move in that really cute way you do, grab on to your bigpants and admit that this isn?t all about techno is it? It?s about music and songs. It?s a good record, not just a couple good songs with some other stuff thrown in for good measure.
Can I give a more direct endorsement? No. Zero sum in the world of science means you have a perfect balance. Portishead, just like the town they named themselves after achieve balance and homeostasis. The band just gets it on a higher, more thoroughly modern plain. For all the whining about records I hate and artists I am bored by, I am that excited and that enthusiastic about Portishead.
All that science and no quiz? Of course, because I like you, specifically - (your name here).