Led by Alanis Morissette and Courtney Love, a whole new breed of feminism.
*From the June 3, 1996 issue of New York Magazine.
If the true test of social change is whether it’s reflected in the marketplace, then this year’s Grammy Awards were pretty compelling proof that feminism—at least a certain kind of feminism—is not dead at all. There was Mariah Carey—the type of standard-issue cream puff most commonly rewarded at this type of event—looking increasingly miffed as 21-year-old Alanis Morissette bounded onstage to receive five awards. Morissette’s debut album, Jagged Little Pill, has spent almost a year on the Billboard charts. Her breakout single, “You Oughta Know,” is a growly diatribe notable largely for stalkerlike lyrics that detail how she will make an ex-boyfriend pay for his betrayal. She is a woman who clearly has some issues with men, and she is beloved across the land.
Morissette’s got little credibility with critics, who point out that she got her start as a fluffy, Debbie Gibson-style singer in her native Canada; that Jagged Little Pill was produced by cheesemeister Glen Ballard (whose resume also includes such ultracommercial acts as Paula Abdul and Wilson Phillips); that she represents little more than a corporate expropriation of the kind of female-rage music that had been all but ignored by the music industry and the public for years. Whatever her musical pedigree, Morissette has inarguably marked the arrival to the mass-market of an entirely new female-rocker persona. A woman moving so far beyond delicate, weepy declarations of loss and longing to express explicit rage in the context of a sexual relationship does not, traditionally, a Top 40 single make. Susan Faludi has often pointed out that while our culture admires the angry young man, who is perceived as heroic and sexy, it can’t find anything but scorn for the angry young woman, who is seen as emasculating and bitter. That is, unless she is the kind of angry woman who, a la Camille Paglia, reserves her contempt for other women. Says Andrea Juno, editor of the forthcoming anthology Angry Women in Rock: “In the back of women’s heads, they were gonna be delibidinized: You’re unsexy, you won’t be loved, and you won’t get screwed.”
But with the unrepentantly unscrewed Morissette of “You Oughta Know,” a whole new palette of female emotions hitherto confined to college and alternative audiences has become acceptable—even admirable—to the lowest-common denominator record buyers whose tastes are reflected by the Grammys and the Billboard charts. The Morissette persona harks back to Fatal Attraction, says Nina Gordon of the female-fronted band Veruca Salt, but with a difference: “Nobody identified with the Glenn Close character—she was clearly the villain—whereas people are like, ‘You go girl!’ to Alanis.”
This does not mean that women everywhere can dance a happy jig to the end of the anti-feminist backlash. “But I think it probably reflects some growth in the consciousness of the audience, which translates into sales,” says Mercury Records president and CEO Danny Goldberg, whose own label has done brisk business this year with the bluesy folk-rocker Joan Osborne. “There’s no question that record companies, like any other business, are driven by business.” Shirley Manson, lead singer of the band Garbage, puts it a bit more bluntly. “Alanis,” she says, “has wiped the floor with the music industry, and I think that’s phenomenally exciting. Because I know now that there’s hundreds of A&R men running around trying to find the next Alanis.”
There have been certain moments in the past few decades when rebellion has been expressed most acutely through popular music, when artists have provided more complicated, pointed answers to what’s going on in the culture than self-styled thinkers. You don’t “read” pop music the way you read The Beauty Myth, of course, but Liz Phair—by design and by example—happens to be a much more interesting feminist thinker than, say, Rebecca Walker. So it makes a lot of sense that the generation that came of age in the shadow of feminism—that both reaped its rewards and paid for its shortcomings—is using rock as a vehicle to make some powerful and nuanced statements about gender.
I was born in 1964, which is long enough ago for me to have formed a vague firsthand impression of suburban, middle-class seventies feminism. I remember consciousness-raising groups, and the few daring wives in the neighborhood who insisted on being called Ms. I remember a book that my mother’s friend had given her husband as a joke: The title was What I Understand About Women, and all the pages were blank. What I didn’t understand about women—who as far as I could tell spent their days playing tennis and carpooling—was what they needed liberation from, except possibly boredom.
I was way too young to get it, of course, and by the time I got to my lefty college, I was reading the Robin Morgan anthology Sisterhood Is Powerful and going to Take Back the Night marches. But after graduation, I dropped any pretense of being part of a movement. I went to a Women’s Action Committee meeting once but was bored and annoyed by the main order of business, which was agreeing on the design of the T-shirt that the group would wear to the big pro-choice march on Washington. Outside of the collegiate petri dish, Big-F Feminism was revealed to be a pallid little affair, like American communism in the forties, that had little direct relevance to life as it is actually lived.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but a lot of what I—and other young lapsed feminists—thought and felt was reflected in the complexity and contradictions of pop music. And after a while I understood that it didn’t matter that my generation had no Gloria Steinems, Germaine Greers, or even Nancy Fridays or Erica Jongs. Because we have the Breeders, PJ Harvey, Liz Phair, Morissette, Courtney Love, Veruca Salt, Joan Osborne, Elastica, Tori Amos, and Tracy Bonham.
If these women constitute a movement, it’s a helter-skelter one. The Breeders are pool-playing, beer-drinking tough chicks, and they make music that rocks in a hard and murky way and top it off with pretty harmonies. Courtney Love is all about anger, excess, obsession, confession, and great melodies. Polly Jean Harvey is restrained, theatrical, a diva. All of them are dealing with issues that feminism has traditionally claimed but without trafficking in constricting, sexless Women’s Studies 101 dogma (and anyone who’s ever puzzled over why the talent booked at pro-choice rallies is so consistently lame can attest to the necessity for that). Eschewing the usual angry platitudes, they give full symphonic vent to the particular pleasures and terrors of being female. This is very good news indeed to those of us who love Liz Phair’s frisky, do-me lyrics and still think date-rape apologist Katie Roiphe is full of it.
“The future of rock belongs to women,” Kurt Cobain predicted in 1994, and it is partly due to him that this is turning out to be true. He not only redefined the genre but also provided an updated guy-in-rock prototype. First of all, he wasn’t a good: He was inward, vulnerable—he sometimes wore dresses!—and he didn’t seem to be in it for the money or the fame. And instead of dating models, Cobain married Courtney, showing himself to be the kind of man whose idea of masculinity involved loving a strong, opinionated woman, and carrying their baby in a Snugli.
“People like Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, Michael Stipe, and Billy Corgan are very, very different as symbols of maleness for adolescents than Axl Rose or Steven Tyler and some of the other more muscle-bound, macho figures that immediately preceded them,” says Danny Goldberg, who was a close friend of Cobain’s. “And I think that created a sort of consciousness on the part of the audience. Kurt was very outspoken about the need for women to be respected, and he was passionate in his belief in Courtney. I think what happened in male rock and roll five years earlier broke up the macho hegemony over the rock part of the culture and gave oxygen for some of the women to find an audience.”
Nirvana also fired the final shot at that lumbering beast known as classic rock. No longer were radio listeners exclusively showered with music by way-past-their-prime peacocks like the Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart: Stations that shifted to modern-rock playlists were freed up to play bands like the Breeders or Hole—along with the now inevitable Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots—without worrying quite so much that listeners would switch stations once they heard female vocals. “Radio had always been a little afraid of that before,” says Joan Osborne. “You know, they would play one Melissa Etheridge song in a four-hour slot and think that that was all they could do. Audiences I don’t think ever really cared that much about those kind of distinctions. They just want something good. But it took a while for the programmers and people like that to catch up to that idea.”
Furthermore, girls who loved music but had been too intimidated to pick up instruments—having somehow internalized the information that one had to possess some special boy gene in order to get behind a drum set—were inspired by Nirvana’s punk-rock do-it-yourself ethos. “People who couldn’t play anyway—boys—were doing it, and once that opened up, there was no reason not to be a girl and do it,” says Phair, whose career started after a tape of songs she’d recorded in her bedroom scored her a record deal. The band Veruca Salt, which is fronted by Gordon and Louise Post, inspired a major-label bidding war in 1994 when the single “Seether”—from a cheaply produced album on a tiny Chicago label—started getting radio play and heavy MTV rotation. They eventually signed with Geffen, which rereleased the album and sold 700,000 copies. “It is much less expensive to make a record than do anything else in the media, other than fanzines, but that doesn’t have the potential to plug into the mainstream culture the way a record can,” says Goldberg. “It’s not a moral thing, it’s not an aesthetic thing, it’s just an economic reality that that doorway exists in music. The nature of the medium is less top-down, it’s more decentralized, it’s more a vehicle for personal visions, and one of these visions has been women.”
“When we first started getting written about, people kept saying we were ‘angry post-feminists,’ and we were like, ‘Hmm…I guess, whatever.’ It was like, ‘Oh, thank you for reducing me to a little pat phrase that really means nothing to me.’ ”—Nina Gordon of Veruca Salt
A few years ago, I met some rock-critic friends for dinner before going to see a show at Irving Plaza. It was around the time PJ Harvey—who is sort of the Maria Callas of rock—re-released her first record, and we were talking about a profile in which she’d said she didn’t consider herself a feminist. As it happened, I had interviewed Miss America just that afternoon for a piece I was writing about how the pageant was trying to update its image, and we agreed that it is a strange world we live in, where Miss America will say she’s a feminist and PJ Harvey won’t.
Actually, though, it’s not so ironic. Increasingly, feminism itself has become a meaningless term: You’re now a victim feminist, a do-me feminist, a womanist. Then there are people like Miss America and swimsuit models who fashion themselves as feminists as a defense mechanism because the alternative would be too hard to countenance. Who can blame PJ Harvey for not wanting to sign herself up for that team?
Rock succeeds where textbook feminism has stalled for a variety of reasons. A huge question that sixties feminism failed to answer had to do with sex: Could a healthy heterosexual libido be reconciled with good movement politics? Were we tools of the patriarchy just because we enjoyed renting the occasional porno movie with our boyfriends? Or if we read Vogue and profoundly believed in the magic of Maybelline? The Big Thinkers famously recused themselves from such mundanities.
In the meantime, rock started providing ad hoc, provisional answers. The medium permitted contradiction; you could change your mind without having to justify it. And the more you broke the rules, the more likely you’d be rewarded. New images of strength and sexuality emerged out of the pop-cultural ooze. There was leather-clad, eyelinered Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, who beginning in the eighties projected a tough, almost-but-not-quite-bulletproof cool. “The thing I found so fascinating about Chrissie Hynde when I was growing up was that I found her incredibly sexy but she also embodied what I found attractive about men,” says Shirley Manson of Garbage. “She wasn’t wearing pretty skirts and being a victim and talking about love. She was standing at that microphone with her legs spread, she was playing her guitar, and she was the coolest sight I’d ever seen in my life. It was the first time I really connected with a woman like that.”
Exene Cervenka of the Los Angeles band X made it cool to be a punk chick; Cyndi Lauper made it okay to be a goofy party girl. And Madonna made it okay to be entirely about sex and still be in control. Though the brazen, brassiere-by-Gaultier look she presented ten years ago looks quaint by today’s standards, and her appeal never had much to do with her musicianship or songwriting abilities, it is amazing how many young rock women today proudly cite her as a role model.
The change Madonna wrought has been most visible on MTV. For the network’s first decade, the women shown in videos tended to be either big-hair pop goddesses like Taylor Dayne, or heavy-metal video extras, or Apollonia humping Prince’s thigh, or the zombie-ish Robert Palmer girls. “There are these sort of low moments—and there are plenty of them, believe me—at MTV,” says Judy McGrath, the network’s president and one of the handful of genuinely powerful women in an industry that is still largely run by men. She recalls a 1988 staff meeting during which a video for the song “Wild Thing”—in which Sam Kinison mudwrestled a bikini-clad Jessica Hahn—was screened. “The level of despair on the faces of the women was beyond description,” she says. “We haven’t gotten a video in the door in years that made you feel that way.
“There’s a certain exhilaration now, even from the guys here, about all these women,” McGrath continues. “There’s a guy in the music-programming department who is like, you know, he’s Mr. Rock. And he always says, ‘This rocks!’ And if you go into his office, he has a nine-foot picture of PJ Harvey plastered to his wall. I’ve seen a change in that regard. It isn’t like the Steven Tyler Hall of Fame in here anymore.”
McGrath believes that the fact that so many of these artists are giving voice to so many different perspectives on the female experience—and not doing it under the banner of revolution—is precisely why fans are so attracted to it. “I think this is a watershed moment,” she says. “When I was growing up, I knew the difference between Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem and so on, and you had to line up in one of those camps or you weren’t, you know, in the game. And now I think there are so many voices.”
If a woman is acting dolled up and sexy in a video these days, chances are it’s her own. But even when she’s not dolled up and sexy, it’s likely that she will be singing about sex in a way women have never sung about sex before. In one song, Elastica’s Justine Frischmann, sounding very male, bemoans the guy who can’t get it up when she’s in the mood. Shirley Manson of Garbage vamped around the stage last month at Roseland with a pink feather puff attached to the mike stand at precisely crotch level. Tori Amos is famous for straddling the piano bench suggestively while she plays.
Not everyone is hailing this as tremendous social progress. “There was some article in one of the British magazines about one of our shows saying that we set feminism back ten years, because Louise [Post] applied lipstick onstage,” says Veruca Salt’s Gordon. “And I remember thinking, ‘Who is this woman?’—it was a woman who wrote the article—‘Who is this woman who thinks it’s important to point that out?’ ”
She was probably a woman very much like Exene Cervenka, who doesn’t understand why PJ Harvey performs in evening gowns, or why Liz Phair poses for pictures wearing nothing but a slip dress. “I kind of call it ‘Rod Stewart Feminism,’ ” she says. “It’s kind of the same mentality, which is if it’s okay for guys to do it, it’s okay for girls to do it. Tori Amos straddling a piano bench—is that empowering women or is that Penthouse-ing women? I don’t know.”
It’s debatable whether men see this sexuality as edifying rather than merely hot. Writing about Maureen Dowd in The New Yorker a few weeks ago, James Wolcott bemoaned “one of the odd aftereffects of feminism…that it seems to have softened and juvenilized so much of women’s journalistic swagger.” He went on to cite other areas where he perceived the phenomenon to be occurring: “In pop music, a kooky singer-songwriter chick seems to surface every six months to be photographed barefoot for Spin.” Wolcott, presumably, would prefer they pose in sackcloth and ashes or, alternatively, in nothing at all. Would that clear up the confusion?
Of course, women have been all over Spin recently, generally shod. Only one of the Spin cover girls, Tori Amos, could be considered kooky—she named her most recent album after the goddess of creation and destruction and has said she was a Viking in another life. But she has also never shied away from hard topics, writing smart, can’t-free songs that deal with rape and the church’s oppression of women. “Tori’s no one to be messed or trifled with,” says Phair, whose music could not possibly be more different from hers. “She’s a goddess.”
Amos is a minister’s daughter; she’s got a song, “Icicle,” about being upstairs in her bedroom masturbating while the rest of the family is in the living room praying. The struggle to be at home with her sexuality has been too hard-won for her to care what anyone thinks about it. “Somebody made this really funny comment about me that I just giggled over: ‘You can’t fight the patriarchy in a tube top,’ ” she says. “So I went, ‘Okay, so why don’t I wait for that writer to fax me on what I should wear to fight the patriarchy?’ To me, when you cut yourself off—mentally, emotionally, or physically—then you’ve just been dominated by somebody else’s thought.”
Joan Osborne, 33, is one of the few female rockers who go out of their way to call themselves feminists. She aligns herself with mainstream feminist causes like NARAL, and performed on Saturday Night Live in a CHOICE T-shirt. She’s the most middle-of-the-road, VH-1—friendly artist of the group, and the sexuality she projects onstage and in videos is subdued. “Feminism as I always understood it—and I was somebody who read a lot of Germaine Greer and stuff like that—part of the manifesto was to find a way for women to reclaim their own sexuality, to not only be the object of male desire but discover what their own desire was about, and claim that for themselves,” she says. “And of course, an ingredient of rock has always been this sexual display, and women have been more and more finding out a way that they can do that. Instead of just being the chick in the spandex with the teased-up hair that all the guys want to screw, it’s more like, ‘Yeah, this is how I’m going to project my sexuality, and these are my desires.’ ”
It’s amazing how threatening that can still be to men. Liz Phair’s first album was a godsend to female fans because it communicated so explicitly the ambivalent knot of feelings that coexist with sexual desire. That this clean-scrubbed college graduate from Winnetka could think as dirty as any man floored a lot of people. “I heard a lot of men saying that they were listening to my album because someone told them they should, then one day they suddenly heard the words and it flipped them out,” says Phair. “They all expressed this powerful feeling of being both fired at and caught, like, for being what they are. And the women were like, ‘Well, I heard the words from the beginning, and they made perfect sense to me.’ ” She says she was shocked that men were shocked. “For me what it highlighted was how very rarely they had felt that before. Because there wasn’t anything that damning. And it just made me realize that women hadn’t nailed them before.”
Part of Liz Phair’s appeal is how heady her lyrics are. She and many of the other women in rock right now are quite self-evidently overqualified for the job intellectually—though alternative rock these days seems increasingly to be performed by and for slumming grad students—and their songs have a truth-telling complexity and confidence that was hardly available on vinyl twenty years ago. Joni Mitchell was wonderful, but she was comparatively little to say to the proverbial just-dumped 16-year-old that Liz Phair cannot say better. Today’s teenage girls simply have it over their elders in the tell-it-sister department. “I didn’t have high self-esteem when I was a teenager,” Morissette told the New York Times. “I used to think I was alone in that. Oh, man, I wish I had me to listen to when I was 14.”
One of the best things about going to see PJ Harvey or Hole or Elastica or Veruca Salt is witnessing the hordes of teenage girls who force their way into the mosh pit. The fact that they’re not climbing on their boyfriend’s shoulders and whipping off their halter tops—but rocking out to a woman wailing on her guitar—changes everything. “It’s like having someone in a movie that you can follow,” says Phair. “It’s like having a character you can live through. And for so long, they didn’t. You go to a rock show because you want the guy to stare at you. You want to be noticed and singled out as an object. And this time, they are watching someone and pretending they are her. And that’s a very good experience, I think, for the self-esteem of the young American girl.”
Those looking for role models, however, will be as disappointed as basketball fans who wish Dennis Rodman would stop showing his butt to the kids. But since when have pop musicians had to be role models? (At precisely the same moment as women and rap stars started selling records, it would appear.) The personal has always made for better rock music than the straightforwardly political has, and that’s a lesson these artists have taken to heart. “I don’t want to be anyone’s revolutionary,” says Liz Phair. “I don’t want to lead a movement. I mean, it turns me off so much. I never saw music as a way—and a lot of people do, especially riot grrrls—to make change happen. I never, ever saw it that way. I still don’t. Anyone with any kind of sensitivity beyond their general age group knows you can’t tidy life up like that.”
No one is less tidy than Courtney Love. Experiencing Love, onstage or on CD, in the gossip pages or on the Internet (where, most recently, she was bitterly railed against Morissette), one can’t help but notice that the line between her art and her life is hopelessly blurred. The raw, exposed manner in which she makes her music and conducts her affairs has made her the most loved/loathed figure in rock today. “I’m a huge admirer of Courtney Love,” says Garbage’s Manson. “She’s vulnerable and I warm to that. She’s incredibly intelligent and incredibly articulate and she’s not afraid to open her mouth up and attack anybody and anything. She’s neither black nor white and that’s why, I think, she irritates a lot of people, but that’s what I find endearing about her.”
Cervenka, predictably, is not as impressed. “People who are pathologically insane don’t interest me,” she says. “Courtney has nothing to do with reality as far as I’m concerned. You’ve got to talk about people who are sober, who can raise their children, and who are not involved in all kinds of scandalous tabloid-style gimmicks in order to become famous.”
Still, as wild as she’s been, Courtney certainly hasn’t done anything that would have raised eyebrows backstage at a Led Zeppelin show, and those guys just got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Plus, she’s a whole lot more interesting than Robert Plant. Love is a walking Rorschach test. Either a liberating angel or the Yoko Ono of alternative rock, she has quite improbably become an embodiment of all that is interesting, exciting, and depressing about being a young woman now. (Teenage boys in online chat groups, grossed out by her schizo aggressiveness and anti-pinup mien, often suggest that she has no right to be alive.)
Love is obviously well aware of her role. She has said that she was moved to name her band Hole by a line from Euripides’ Medea: “There’s a hole that pierces right through me.” She once told a writer from Spin the band’s name also refers to something her mother, a hippie feminist of the Our Bodies, Ourselves era, used to say: “You can’t walk around with a big hole inside yourself.”
Things are never that simple in Love-land. The song “Asking For It” was inspired, she told an interviewer, by the experience of stage-diving into the crowd at a show: “Suddenly, it was like my dress was being torn off me, my underwear was being torn off me, people were putting their fingers inside of me and grabbing my breasts really hard.” The worst thing, she went on, was seeing a photograph of herself later “and I had a big smile on my face like I was pretending it wasn’t happening. I can’t compare it to rape because it isn’t the same. But in a way it was. I was raped by an audience—figuratively, literally, and yet, was I asking for it?” The song is a more nuanced treatment than any ten essays about date rape of the way women can feel torn between the desire to be driven by their sexuality and the horror that the desire might ultimately degrade or even destroy them.
Love has also taken prototypically male gestures, transformed them into female ones, and made them powerful again and new. When a male artist, for instance, props his leg up on a monitor and launches into a guitar solo these days, he looks stupid—like he’s playing in a Foghat cover band at some Bleecker Street tourist club. But when Love, wearing torn stockings, props a stiletto-heeled leg up on a monitor, the entire gesture changes—it is undeniably theatrical and brazen, but it’s certainly interesting.
I share this theory of mine with Phair, who wonders whether I’m not getting a little carried away. “There is something that is rock itself, and it is an attitude that is genderless, and it is what is appealing about rock,” she says. When Courtney does that thing with the monitor, she continues, “that’s her just being infected with this thing called Rock. But probably I’m wrong, and she actually watched a million guys do that, sticking your foot up there, and she is saying, ‘Fuck you, I’m the front guy; deal with my frontalness.’ ”
Phair pauses, then sighs. “I’m wondering, would Courtney Love really think about doing that gesture, or is it just like a way to really, you know, crunch into her guitar?…I’ll bet she’s just like, ‘Why shouldn’t I be right up at the edge of the stage?’ She’s just free in her mind. It’s not so much that she has something. It’s that she doesn’t have something, which is the fear that traditionally keeps women in their place.”
It’s tempting, sometimes, to think that women are being allowed this moment only because we have seen every conceivable rock pose many times over from men, and the one thing that really feels fresh right now is a chick jabbing her stiletto heel into a monitor. And for all of their bravado, none of the artists I spoke to felt like a fundamental transformation had occurred; they thought the odds were about even that next year the charts will be ruled by guys again. “The industry still views bands fronted by women as novelties,” says Nina Gordon. “It seems like to me that right now women are entitled to just one shining moment.”
But Cervenka, the progressive-rock darling of 1982, was by far the most cold-eyed. “There’s always some woman who is the new angry young woman,” she said. “It was me, and it was someone else, and it was someone else. But as far as selling millions and millions of records, to me that’s no validation whatsoever. It means nothing. If it means anything to me, it means it’s not okay to be an angry young woman—it’s cute to be an angry young woman; it’s trendy to be an angry young woman.” But is Love-ism really just the flavor of the month?
“I want to be the girl with the most cake,” she sings on “Doll Parts.” Women love that line; it’s all about authorizing desire, and about winning, which remain as tricky as ever for a woman. And when I start thinking that Ms. Magazine-era feminism has nothing to do with my life, I think about another person who wanted to be the girl with the most cake—Sylvia Plath’s Esther, in The Bell Jar. There’s that passage where she sees all of her options—wife and mother, famous writer, magazine editor—as figs on a tree. But she can choose only one, and she can’t make up her mind, and the figs all wither and die.
Women, of course, have it better than they did when Plath wrote that book in 1963, but how much has really changed? You could argue that our culture still isn’t rewarding women who try to stake out new territory. But Courtney Love is an object lesson in the punishments and rewards that come to a woman who tries. “Courtney’s got the kind of ambition most people would associate with a male rock star,” says Justine Frischmann. “One thing you have to admire her for is that she refuses—just refuses—to be overlooked in any way.