Five Songs: A (Sort Of) Feminist Playlist

Several readers directed us to The AV Club's list of "well-intended yet misguided feminist anthems" — inspiring us to list a few more successful ditties, and to wonder what makes a feminist song anyway.

The AV Club's list tars 17 songs with the brush of Feminism Fail. Of Pink's "Stupid Girls," for instance, authors Jason Heller, Genevieve Koski, Leonard Pierce, Tasha Robinson, Kyle Ryan, Emily Withrow, and Claire Zulkey write, "While in theory the song's message about being yourself and avoiding destructive superficiality is admirable, it's distressingly black-and-white and dismissive: Girls are either smart or stupid, girly or tomboy-ish, and those who don't fit Pink's mold of 'feminism' should be derided." Fair enough — but the list inspired us to try to come up with a playlist of Feminist Win. It's been done before, but as we soon realized, it's harder than it looks.

1. "You Oughta Know," Alanis Morisette

I guess this is the time to admit that I still really like Alanis Morissette. Yes, much of her post-Jagged Little Pill work has sucked, and yes, that album had some low moments too (critics at the time correctly noted that many of the situations in "Ironic" were, in fact, merely unpleasant). But anyone who was a teenager in the mid-nineties will recall the force with which JLP burst onto the scene, demanding if not admiration, then certainly attention. You could say that "You Oughta Know," at its base a revenge fantasy, is simply classic woman-scorned music, but the way Morisette snarls about scratching her nails down someone else's back still makes me feel like she's scratching mine. And that snarl felt pretty awesome when I was a teenager raised primarily on grungy boy-whine. Also, LA radio station KROQ apparently catapulted Jagged Little Pill into Billboard's top 20 by playing "You Oughta Know." Remember when radio did that? LA readers, remember when KROQ didn't blow?

2. "Girls! Girls! Girls!," Liz Phair

Some would say all of Exile in Guyville qualifies as feminist. Famously a female rocker's response to Exile on Main Street, and also famously Liz Phair's big critical success before a somewhat scattershot later career, the album includes plenty of songs that could be said to have a feminist message — or not. "Fuck and Run," in which Phair sings, "I want a boyfriend," appears to decry hookup culture — but whether this is empowering or reductive is sort of an open question these days. Of course, "taking advantage of every man you meet," as Phair sings in "Girls! Girls! Girls!" isn't necessarily the best feminist goal. But Exile in Guyville is in some sense about turning the tables, and "Girls! Girls! Girls!" exemplifies that.

3. "Right Hand Man," Joan Osborne

Okay, I still like Joan Osborne too. And while her album Relish hasn't achieved the lasting popularity of Jagged Little Pill, I submit that "Right Hand Man" ought to remain a classic of female masturbation music. It is, of course, much subtler than the classic masturbanthem "Darling Nikki" — so subtle, in fact, that it might actually be about a drug dealer. You be the judge.

4. "Been A Son," Nirvana

Nirvana inspired a lot of the guy-whine filling the airwaves in the mid-nineties, but they still have a strong claim to being the best band to exist in my lifetime. Kurt Cobain's gender-play (wearing a dress onstage, etc.) didn't necessarily make him a feminist, but his lyrics did often show a surprising empathy with women and girls. "Been A Son" is a pretty smart exploration of the impossible expectations placed on young women, but to call it that sort of over-intellectualizes the song's pain. Any given Nirvana song is more about the black spaces of the human soul than about any political message, but Cobain deserves praise for writing not just about existential despair but also about assault and prejudice — and even abortion.

5. "Survivor," Destiny's Child

Need a pick-me-up now? How about "Survivor," a paean to female resilience illustrated with Flintstones-style outfits? The song's not original (cf. "I Will Survive," subject of a pretty entertaining gender-bending cover by Cake), but it does have a message of self-sufficiency not always in evidence in girl-pop. Beyonce has gone on to produce hits of questionable feminism — The AV Club calls out "Single Ladies" for being "focused on that all-important wedding ring, and the myths that surround it-for instance, that Beyoncé is just a passive 'it' that can be claimed with a ring, and that even if the relationship is already bad, that ring has the talismanic power to guarantee a happy ending." Again, a fair criticism — so is Beyoncé a fearless go-getter or an apologist for outdated traditions? And more to the point, what is a feminist song?

Other staffers nominated No Doubt's "Just A Girl," Janet Jackson's "Control," Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation," and "pretty much anything by Ani DiFranco" to this list, but many songs have both feminist and anti-feminist readings, and ultimately a song's message is probably less important than whether it's awesome or not. This is not to say that girls and women can't be inspired and empowered by music — just that we shouldn't necessarily restrict ourselves to music that directly expresses our politics. Probably the best feminist approach to music is to demand that female artists have creative and economic control over their careers — and to add women's voices to what can often seem like the man's world of music journalism and criticism. Art doesn't always have to be politically palatable to be great, but everyone should have the same opportunity to create great art, to be appreciated for it, and to participate in the public conversation about it — without being branded "stupid girls."

A Soundproofed Room Of One's Own: 17 Well-Intended Yet Misguided Feminist Anthems [The AV Club]