Why “Girl Bands” is Not a Viable Term
Toward the end of last week’s “All Songs Considered” show on NPR, the question of gender and music arose when the DJs introduced Heavy Cream’s song “’79.” They first labeled Heavy Cream a “girl band,” then quickly backed away from it, asking each other (and the audience) “do we still use this term?” The phrase “girl band” slights the female artist, typically suggesting disrespect, which was not NPR’s intent. It also implies that a “band” is male, unless otherwise specified.
There is an unmistakable maleness surrounding the rock and roll genre, particularly in the pre-grunge era. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame points to 1954 as the beginning of the period. As such, music history reflects the fact that during the 1950s most women were struggling to survive in the kitchen, unconcerned with finding their way to the stage. Glancing through the Rock Hall inductees, there are The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix. It forces you to wonder, where are the women?
During that era, they were in Motown, mostly. There was Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, and the Supremes, and it’s difficult to imagine Motown without them. But, from a pure rock and roll genre perspective, only Janis Joplin and Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane exist. Sure, during this time there was also Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon. These women were poetic, but they were also quiet. They did not employ a driving guitar or fast-paced drums, and they did have a demanding vocal presence. I would classify their music not as rock but as “polite folk.” Generally, folk music has been a more embracing genre of the female voice. Folk music sounds less aggressive, so the possible anger/questioning in the lyrics can be disguised within the melody, like Simon’s “You’re So Vain.” Is that why an all-female rock group never emerged? Is there something in aggressive assertiveness that rock demands that was unappealing for women to produce during those early days?
Let’s skip ahead to 1975 and the start of the Sex Pistols. Punk was the child of economic disentrancement and social stratification. The defining bands are the Ramones, the Clash, the Dead Kennedys, the Dead Boys. From this era, Patti Smith emerges. Punk musicians and critics love her; Rolling Stone ranked her 47 on its “100 Greatest Artists” list, behind three women, Joplin (46), Madonna (36), and Franklin (9). She takes up space at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And yet, she doesn’t sound as much punk as she does folk. Her songs are lyrics focused; they are complex, delicate, and personal—adjectives I would never apply to The Clash. She is essential to the punk music scene, but also an anomaly. In the article, Shirley Mason writes, “She is a folk artist . . . And she knew how powerful her image was—that she was really sexy—and how to manipulate that for her art.”
An all-female rock/punk music movement didn’t really exist until Riot Grrrl in the early 1990s. One could claim I’m using the term “rock” loosely, but Bikini Kill’s first album is rooted in fast guitar pace with loud, aggressive lyrics. Their content and vocal pitch, ranging from sexual assault to finding a voice, are distinctly feminine. This can be contrasted with an artist like Joan Jett or, later on, the Donnas. These artists are women expressing a rock and roll male persona, which in itself challenges the genre but doesn’t expand it.
Riot Grrrl focused on creating music that subverted the assumption that rock and roll was not a sufficient medium for the female voice. The first line of its manifesto reads: “Because us girls crave records and books and fanzines that speak to US that WE feel included in and can understand in our own ways.” Given the underrepresentation of women in mainstream rock before 1990, Riot Grrrl’s frustration with the genre is warranted.
The grunge movement was partially born from this frustration. The union of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love demonstrates an unprecedented closeness between the next evolution in rock and roll and the female voice. Nirvana tackled issues of sexism in songs like “Been a Son.” Cobain himself was friends with members of Bikini Kill and performed with Love’s band Hole, which has challenged the role of female objectification and victimization in culture since 1989. 1989, in fact, was a significant year: Ani DiFranco created Righteous Babe records and the following year released her first album. While leaning heavily on the folk genre, she also attempts to toy with the tropes of rock. Similar to Riot Grrrl artists, Ani refuses to bury her message within her music, but instead talks and even screams over it. Though Grudge was male-heavy, it was not male-dominated.
While Riot Grrrl has generally been forgotten, the space they created in the music industry has had a permanent effect. In bands like Florence + the Machine, Metric, Tegan and Sara, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, women loudly and unapologetically take center stage, as if that’s where they have always belonged. Even if the term “girl band,” hasn’t changed, the role of women in music has. Perhaps twenty-five years from now at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, female artists will be celebrated in the limelight.