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rock writ-large, and remains popular music (arguably) until recently, when its hegemony at the top of the charts has been replaced by pop and hip-hop influenced music.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.
Right now I’m thinking a lot about music that doesn’t reach many people.
For many music scholars, one of the key reasons that music is important to study is in how it contributes to the battle over hegemony or the contestation over meaning. Music articulates what we might call its “meanings” (but which are complex combinations of vibrational/culturally coded affects) in many ways simultaneously: historically, musically, formally, semiotically, stylistically, and so on. In the weird bundle of forces that constitutes a piece of music, a cultural articulation is sounded into a discourse, a field, or a space where others can be affected by it. In reaching people, in forming intimate publics 1 music creates a shared sense of the world among certain groups of listeners. That shared sense can become the precondition that leads to action (political, say) or not; it can create or disallow possibility, or neither.
But what happens when the music that we are talking about doesn’t reach a lot of people? It’s obvious, for example, that Beyoncé’s music is having an impact on society, an impact that we can analyze through various lenses (critical race, feminist, and so on) even as we track its political economy. But what about music that we might similarly read as feminist, but which not many people know about or hear? If it doesn’t contribute to the broader cultural landscape, what is the significance of this small music?
Ethnographers will document the impacts that music has on people’s everyday lives and the contributions it makes to people’s sense of their own subjectivity. But as a methodological question, does a music’s limited or non-existent impact (culturally, broadly) mean that we can’t read it in the affective/semiological way that we can read truly popular music? What if a group’s reach is too small to actually create an intimate public? Beyond individuals who may nevertheless listen to this small music and may indeed be affected by it, what can we say is significant about it on a cultural scale? Is there a certain threshold of popularity required for a cultural phenomenon to form an intimate public? Put another way: of course we can still read small music for its meanings and affects. But the question is, do these meanings and affects matter or function in the same way as music that can be considered widely popular? Is there value in popular music scholars studying music that isn’t all that popular? Or is music’s very popularity its main indication that it has something significant to say about how our culture(s) construct and reflect meaning, to others and to ourselves?
One reason that I’m thinking about this is because there seems to be a ton of excellent indie-rock happening right now, specifically indie rock with women at the center. I’m wondering if one of the very reasons that this music seems to be flourishing right now is because “rock” as a genre (the white male rock of rockism) is no longer the world’s dominant popular music. Is there something about the diffuse and localized scene that indie-rock has become that is allowing certain kinds of musical and social possibilities to emerge?
1. I am referencing here Lauren Berlant’s well-known elaboration of “intimate publics” as “affect worlds” in which “one senses that matters of survival are at stake and that collective mediation through narration and audition might provide some routes out of the impasse and the struggle of the present, or at least some sense that there would be recognition were the participants in the room together.” Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 226. What interests me here in particular is the way in which the notion of an intimate public is caught up in a certain level of visibility. Berlant writes, “You do not need to audition for membership in it. Minimally, you need just to perform audition, to listen and to be interested in the scene’s visceral impact.” [Ibid.] And again just later, “But [participants] do not have to do anything to belong. They can be passive and lurk, deciding when to appear and disappear, and consider the freedom to come and go the exercise of sovereign freedom.” [Berlant, 227.] My question about small music is this, fundamentally: because it is not broadly popular, does it require a different level of participation in order to create a shared sense of public-ness, however small? Can participants afford to be passive if their passivity results in the dissolution of the sphere itself? Or, on the other hand, if a given band/song/scene corresponds with a much broader genre space that exists independently of that given band/song/scene (e.g. “girl bands” or “feminist rock”), is the intimate public maintained in any case, so long as the genre exists? Can a participant still afford to be passive if the genre will maintain itself irrespective of any particularly performed acts of fandom and belonging? Can you access an intimate public through any number of entry points?↩