Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney shows how a feminist artistic career can transcend trendiness (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Sleater-Kinney, Bjork and PJ Harvey are back. And they have something to teach the new wave of ‘feminist’ artists.
According to just about every reputable source, we live in a golden age of feminist music. TIME magazine declared 2014 “the year of pop feminism”; Carl Wilson, in Billboard, called 2014 “Pop Music’s ‘End of Men’ Moment”; VICE, meanwhile, has dubbed 2014 “The Year Feminism Reclaimed Pop.” This is all well-deserved. Beyoncé’s choice to sample a feminist lecture by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie—complete with definition of the term—was a watershed moment even before the pop star stood in front of a gigantic, glaring “FEMINIST” sign at the VMAs.
Beyoncé made feminism fashionable. Lorde, Charli XCX, Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift have since claimed the term; even the nominally apolitical Meghan Trainor made her name with a song about fat-shaming and Photoshop abuse, topics that used to be the exclusive province of feminist blogs.
All of this—coupled with pop culture's 20-year nostalgia cycle—has created the perfect climate for legacy feminist musicians to get more serious attention than they have in years. We’re only a month into 2015 and already, Sleater-Kinney has released its first album in ten years, Björk unexpectedly dropped a new album, and PJ Harvey began recording a new album as a live exhibit in Somerset House, a London art space.
But feminism's dominance can be a precarious thing. The very names Sleater-Kinney and Björk ought to remind us that—in the immortal words of Battlestar Galactica—all of this has happened before, and it will happen again. Feminism “reclaimed” mainstream music two decades ago and was hailed as a conquering force, only to be wiped off the map by the next hot trend. Musically, 2015 looks a lot like 1995.
Let's begin, then, with the cautionary tale of the last Age of the Musical Feminist. It started in the Pacific Northwest with riot grrrl’s challenge to the ingrained sexism of punk rock. (Sleater-Kinney were notable, and relatively late, arrivals on this scene.) But, like many great ideas, it cropped up in multiple places simultaneously. In 1992 and 1993, we saw the release of several foundational albums—Tori Amos’ Little Earthquakes, PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me, Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville—all of which had a distinctly feminist outlook. It wasn’t just a white-cool-kid thing either. Women of color were also making amazing pro-woman music: Witness “Let’s Talk About Sex,” a sex-positive polemic on reproductive health from Salt-n-Pepa, and Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.“
Thus it became clear: Women sold. Before long, you had former teen starlets with grunge makeovers (Alanis Morissette), brooding sex symbols backed by an army of super-producers (Shirley Manson) and a bevy of cut-and-paste, forgettable semi-stars (Jewel, Paula Cole, and the whole folk-rock-on-Xanax bummer that was Lilith Fair) getting in on the hot “new” trend of being a woman who could play an instrument. These were, the Meghan Trainors, so to speak, of the ‘90s: They had the look and feel, but lacked some of the substance. Still, it was easy to ignore the designer knock-offs and bad stuff, simply because, if you were a feminist music fan in the '90s, you got so much stuff: magazine covers, special issues about Women In Music, books about the importance of female musicians and songwriters, blockbuster all-female music festivals. Throughout the ‘90s, female authenticity was big business. It felt profound. It felt permanent. It felt validating. And it vanished overnight—due, arguably, to one hit song.
The “Women In Music” trend was big, but not big enough to withstand Hurricane Britney. With “Baby One More Time,” producers Max Martin et al single-handedly decimated the mainstream feminist zeitgeist with three minutes and a carefully chosen schoolgirl outfit. (Not to deny Britney agency, but it’s hard to blame her for any of this; she was a child at the time, and if pop was cruel to the granola-girl zeitgeist, it was far crueler to her.) The logic of the market—and of the mainstream music press—dictated that, since this sold even better than that “feminism” stuff that had been popular last year, especially among the crucial youth demographic, it must therefore be more worthy of attention and validation. The male end of things, too, was increasingly populated by misogynist reactionaries—Eminem, Fred Durst—who also sold very well, and thus rendered sensitive, feminist-allying Kurt Cobain types old-fashioned and wimpy. In the 21st century, the New Woman was a teenager in a transparent leotard who begged you to hit her again, and the New Man was an angry white guy who screamed about raping her after he'd hit her enough. (Or, as in the case of Fred Durst, continued playing a show as women were raped directly in front of him.)
And so the bubble burst. Feminism in music was quickly rendered irrelevant and archaic by the same corporate media that it had come to rely upon. Many of us hadn't questioned that market when it was kind to us; we hadn't wondered whether the beneficence of suits could be relied upon to maintain a controversial political position past its sell-by date. If you were a teenager, and in your experience Rolling Stone always had published in praise of feminists and feminism, you naturally assumed it always would, that “women are humans” wasn't something a publication could reasonably change its mind about. The hagiographic profiles of Eminem and the kiddie-porn-inspired Britney photoshoot were painful not least because they were so totally unexpected, like being slapped in the face by your best friend. And so, those of us who’d bought in to the Decade of Women In Music were left with nothing but a bunch of old concert t-shirts and the sense that, somehow, somewhere along the line, we’d been told a very big lie.
So how do we keep the history from repeating? How do we save the empowered teenage Lorde fans of 2015 from becoming the betrayed and embittered cynics of 2035? Well, to begin with, we look to the women who survived the last crash—who stuck to their guns, and deepened their palettes, and broadened our definition of what “feminist music” careers could look like. Beyoncé is one of them; she was just starting to rise as the Lilith Fair empire fell. (Side note: She and I are the same age, and when I heard “***Flawless,” I was reminded that Beyoncé benefited from the same early exposure to a pro-feminist pop climate that I did; it's probably not a coincidence that the “***Flawless” video looks so exactly like an alt-rock video from 1994.) But it’s also worth looking at the long-term survivors, the ones who arose with the era and lived beyond it. Consider, then, the survival tactics of Sleater-Kinney, Harvey and Björk.
The natural trend of the market is to go from complex, difficult, risky ideas (an entire definition of feminism smack in the middle of your song) to safe, easy oversimplifications (“my momma told me don't worry about your size”). But all three of these artists have defied this arc by getting more complicated.
In the ‘90s, as now, pop’s “feminism” could be a pretty simple thing, one that was mostly about sex and self-esteem: You didn't want to be sexually assaulted, you didn't want to be shamed for being sexually active or queer, you didn't want people to call you ugly or tell you how to dress, you didn't want to be treated as lesser-than or weak or stupid. Loving yourself good, mean boys bad. It's true, as far as it goes, but it's also partial. The smart feminist survivors now are taking their feminism further; they're attaching it to every corner of political life.
Consider the fine women of Sleater-Kinney: Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss. Who, working through the familiar Pacific Northwest shamble-punk idiom, open their new album No Cities To Love with a lesson on capitalism and the global economy:
We never really checked, we never checked the price tag
When the cost comes in, it’s going to be high
We love our bargains, we love the prices, so low
With the good jobs gone, it’s going to be rough
In other words, the American working classes don’t have good jobs, so they’re stuck buying “cheap” products, which are cheap because they rely on exploited third-world labor rather than American manufacturers, which is why these American working-class people don’t have good jobs. Try fitting that on a Katy Perry single.
But “Price Tag” is also an intensely feminist song: The narrator punches into work, yes, but she also has to cook for her family, dress her children, and do the shopping. The problem of traditionally female labor and the problem of labor aren’t segregated: They’re the same thing. Her shitty job and her shopping cart inform each other, just as they do in the lives of real women.
Meanwhile, consider what Harvey is trying to do over there in Somerset House: The program notes for her exhibit (she records the album with her team in a glass-walled studio; visitors can see in, but she can’t see out) promise songs about “social inequality and injustice, the politics of poverty, anxiety and paranoia about terrorism and the way that hate breeds hate among generations,” just for starters, with song titles like “Near The Memorials To Vietnam And Lincoln,” “The Age Of The Dollar,” and “The Ministry Of Defence” already on the table.
If it were anyone else but Harvey, you’d be worried: It’s such big, urgent material that the result seems bound to be preachy. Then again, on her last album, Harvey literally sang lines from war reportage and old military propaganda in order to give a concise summation of England’s military history, and the result was an anti-war album that was disturbing, politically effective, and, of all things, danceable.
In the days when Harvey was piled on to the Women In Rock bandwagon, she was the easiest to cast in the castrating, bloody-minded witch-woman role, in part because she actually did write songs about taking men apart with chainsaws. But as her vision has matured and ripened, it’s become clear that her interest in brutal sexual conflict was, at heart, an interest in conflict. The violence inflicted by nations and classes is not beyond her, and doesn’t erase her portraits of the violence men and women inflict upon each other: They all belong in the same big picture of how human brutality operates.
There’s also just a gut-level thrill in knowing that a woman can do this stuff, and do it authoritatively. As awful as bad boyfriends are, it’s liberating to know that songs about bad boyfriends don’t have to comprise women’s sole means of musical resistance.
Which brings us to Björk and her new album, Vulnicura, about a bad boyfriend. But even here, there’s something richer at work: This is the break-up of a relationship of more than a decade, not a Tinder misfire. They have children. As raw as it is (at last, the world knows what it’s like to have break-up sex with contemporary artist Matthew Barney) it’s not simplistic: It’s the part of the love story that we cut away from at the end of the movie. How great loves die of old age; how a mother fears failing her child by ending a bad relationship; what it’s like to be a 49-year-old single mother with no new partner in sight.
And the fact is, Björk has earned the right to a simple break-up album—although the vast, amorphous symphonic landscapes she creates are anything but simple—because she’s spent the last decade of her career writing exclusively about global and impersonal issues. Her last two albums, Biophilia and Volta, both expanded the “ethereal and quirky” label that had been used to trivialize Björk into realms of politics, environmentalism and technology. When Björk puts a line like “I propose an atom dance” into a love song, she’s not being precious: She wrote a whole concept album about the natural sciences. Atomic dynamics are just something she writes about. Essentially, she’s performing the same move as Sleater-Kinney and Harvey, but in reverse; they began with the self to map the world, and Björk has mapped the world, which makes her return to the self fuller and more resonant. For all of these women, inner life and romantic life are a sub-set of political life; subjectivity is part of the territory, and not the territory itself.
There’s no way to know when or if our current Age of Musical Feminism will evaporate. To stick, it has to be more than a trend; it has to represent a full, lived, intellectually grounded set of values that are more than skin-deep, and will always matter more than what is popular or profitable at the time. If we keep repeating the same simple “empowerment” messages, the public can and will get bored and move on to the next thing; if we don't make it clear that every topic is a feminist topic, it will be easy to ignore us when the world “moves on.”
Sleater-Kinney, Björk and Harvey offer a vision of what the future might be: How feminist artists can grow and develop beyond the simple two-tone palette of musical feminism (loving yourself, good; mean boys, bad) to a complex and all-encompassing political engagement that ditches personal “empowerment” in favor of social consciousness. It’s up to the new generation of Women In Music to take up this call. Some already have. The ones who join them—and here’s hoping that’s all of them—will resonate for the next generation, regardless of which politics are in this season.
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