A while back, we asked what makes a feminist song. But now everyone from Joan Jett to Jezebel contributor Marisa Meltzer is weighing in on another question: what's "girl power," and which rock acts really promote it?
Writing in Reason, Tim Cavanaugh reveals that if the world of music at times seems balkanized (his word), the world of feminist music criticism is even more so. After tossing off some amusing tid-bits like "Broadly speaking, girl groups correlate with economic expansion, boy bands with stagnation," he launches into a review of Meltzer's Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music. He writes that Meltzer "claims her heart is with the riot grrrl movement, privileging that group's view over those of either aging-boomer Lilith Fair acolytes or a music movement Meltzer mostly regrets-the late '90s 'pop tart invasion' of girl acts packaged by major labels." More specifically, he takes issue with her portrayal of the Spice Girls:
The Spice Girls, she snorts, "were preconceived and prepackaged." Yet the very quality the era's hipsters mocked-their air of cheerful solidarity-made the Spice Girls' version of girl power plausible. The idea that women are all one big team runs through their breakout hit "Wannabe" and their movie Spice World, in the course of which the girls take a break from plot advancement to help out a pregnant friend-just the kind of thing you would not expect to see in A Hard Day's Night.
So were the Spice Girls icons of sisterhood, or glossy products of the patriarchy? Writing in the Guardian, Jude Rogers suggests the latter. Summarizing Lucy O'Brien's She-Bop: The Definitive History of Women in Rock, Pop and Soul, she writes,
[T]hen came the Spice Girls, appropriating the vocabulary of riot grrrl, and proclaiming "Girl Power", but within the conventional model of the pop group manufactured by men for young girls. "Everything became sophisticated and sanitised after that, and the industry has never got over it," O'Brien says.
Rogers also quotes Tahitha Bulmer of the band New Young Pony Club, who says, "In the past 20 years, young women have accepted a particular kind of persona if they want to be a musician. There's the sense that you have to be obsessed with fame, and looking conventional or sexual." Bulmer is far from the first to complain about the sexualization of young musicians (or really, female artists of any stripe), and yet this sexualization remains rampant. Cavanaugh quotes Spice Girl Geri Halliwell's tart observation that "male-dominated newspapers" couldn't seem to "realize that five women in short skirts have got a brain," but there's a difference between thinking cute girls are stupid and asking all girls in music to be cute in the same way — which, encouraging counterexamples like Beth Ditto aside, is still the status quo. Even Lady Gaga, who usually dresses like the child of a spaceship and a wedding cake, apparently says "Pop stars should not eat."
It's not possible to determine what a feminist rock star would look like or sing like, but a feminist world (appreciably different, I'd argue, from a Spice one), would allow female artists to choose what kind of sexuality to project in their performances, and whether to project sexuality at all. How do we get there, in an era where it's increasingly hard for musical act to make money, and where female musicians are routinely asked to double as pinups? Well (and I'm going to start uttering this phrase daily), why don't we ask Joan Jett:
I think we're coming back to that fertile ground where people have had enough of the way things are, I can feel it. Those girls are out there, in every city, banging around – and when they find their outlet, it's going to be just like it was for me. A new generation picking up guitars and drums and saying, 'I'm here! Let's go!'