I am starting to do some work around feminism in indie-rock. This spring I’ll be road-testing some ideas, primarily through conference presentations on the music of The Ophelias. I’m sure I’ll write more about this band here at a later point, but I also want to think through where I see a band like The Ophelias fitting in a broader popular music context. To this point, my thinking on that context looks like this:
- In the earliest days of grunge, women were centrally involved in the genre both musically and politically. This is partially due to how grunge overlapped or was entwined with other genres (post-punk and post-rock, specifically, and later, what would become the riot grrrl movement).
- Popular music discourses (as they played out in mainstream institutions such as Rolling Stone, Billboard, etc) were unable/unwilling to deal with this complexity, and as a result bifurcated what was happening in rock, giving us two apparently mutually-exclusive categories (Strong 2011): grunge (written about and understood as a masculine genre space) and ‘riot grrrl’ (written about and understood as basically any women playing any type of rock music).
- From there, “rockism” continues to stand for rock writ-large, and remains popular music (arguably) until recently, when its hegemony at the top of the charts has been replaced by pop and hip-hop influenced music. Meanwhile, the riot grrrl movement was quickly appropriated (Spiers 2015; Schilt 2003), leading to the corporate, neoliberal version of (post)feminism that we are familiar with today.
In my head, the process can be represented as I have drawn below, where the black text represents an actually-existing complexity, and the colored texts (maroon, purple, pink) represent media framings that became reified. The most controversial point might be the blending of the purple line into the pink, or the idea that riot grrrl ‘gave way’ to neoliberal postfeminist music. The reason that I have represented the relationship in this way is only because of widely-known statements from Tobi Vail and others, attesting to the fact that their message had become perverted and commodified; that is to say, there seems to be awareness within the riot grrrl community itself that this shift had in fact taken place, even as the movement or elements of it continued to exist outside of mainstream appropriations.
- Most scholarship on women in 90s alternative rock has focused on the riot grrrl movement because of its explicitly feminist aesthetic and political project. But overlooked in this framing are the women playing rock who did not recognizably fall into the riot grrrl camp, whether considered from the media’s perspective, or from the way that these bands sounded. Riot grrrl bands were explicit about their politics, and more often than not, sounded their politics through an aggressive co-option of overtly masculine, punk-derived sounds. But women were active in other forms of rock all along, rock that was neither explicitly political, nor which sounded like riot grrrl rock. Whether post-rock, grunge, or otherwise, I am interested in thinking about women’s roles in these other alternative rock spaces, or put another way, in that other sound. I am also interested in tracking how that sound has continued, evolved, and influenced a current flourishing in women-centered rock bands (Wye Oak, Snail Mail, Land of Talk, The Ophelias, Girlpool, and others). In a pop-music world in which rockism has all-but collapsed, this flourishing that has existed outside of mainstream media attention has risen to the surface. That is: the sound of independent, local rock bands with women at the center is now the sound of rock period. And it warrants further study.
Gill, Rosalind. 2007. “Postfeminist media culture: elements of a sensibility”. European journal of cultural studies, vol. 10, no. 2: 147-166.
Kristen, Schilt. 2003. “’A Little Too Ironic’: The Appropriation and Packaging of Riot Grrrl Politics by Mainstream Female Musicians”. Popular Music and Society, Vol. 26, No. 1: 5-16.
Spiers, Emily. 2015. “‘Killing Ourselves is not Subversive’: Riot Grrrl from Zine to Screen and the Commodification of Female Transgression”. Women: A Cultural Review, vol. 26, no. 1-2: 1-21.
Strong, Catherine. 2011. “Grunge, Riot Grrrl and the Forgetting of Women in Popular Culture”. The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 44, No. 2: 398-416.