Late 2017, like super-late, like I'm still digesting the turkey and potatoes, Rolling Stone prints their annual interview with U2 front-bug Bono. On the surface it's a fluffernutter to promote the band's 700th album, free ad space that should probably have been given over to a younger, more sonically interesting act. Covertly, it provided one of rock's longest-running figureheads a chance to bitch and moan about how "girly" the genre had become. Insinuating that A) men in rock must meet certain standards in appearance and execution to qualify as worthy and B) women in rock just don't cut the mustard.
Well, it's like my mother says: "If you can cut mustard, throw it away."
Bono's lament is summarized thus: "In the end, what is rock 'n' roll? Rage is at the heart of it." Sure. But it's possible to maintain a heartbeat with no brain wave activity. You can technically be alive, and unable to live. Other qualities--nuance, compassion, curiosity--made the body move. And move and move and move.
The assumption that rock must necessarily project anger is as foolhardy as the assumption that women in rock are not angry. They are. A woman's anger, furthermore, is not to be misunderstood as a repudiation or a representation of a collective. Has any person listened to an all-male band like U2 and thought, "This is how all men are"? Is "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" the Irish national anthem?
Blame it on Bey. The year before Bono cried in Jann Wenner's right arm, Lemonade snatched up the lease and turned the world's most iconic living rapper into a lawn gnome. In her wake, more female performers assumed spotlight roles and dominated all manner of music charts: Solange, SZA, Lorde, Taylor Swift. Responses ranged from "About time" to "Fuck this."
The old endearments are the new endurances. Girls grown wary of glorifying and/or defying the "bad boy" and bored of communicating strictly with pants and moans. When the muzzles come off, all barks become bites, and an integral element becomes a neighborhood nuisance.
Women, as the shoulders of the world, are also entitled to anger over issues both grave and goofy. Men are also entitled to inquire as to the source of that anger. If the answer proves unsettling, well, that's their squabble to quell. Not every guy handles this responsibility well, particularly those sent into apoplectic fits over seeing themselves depicted in the media less frequently (a cultural shift they interpret as a portent of a world where the benefits of masculinity are construed as detriments and their individual voices will be quashed for the sins of a collective).
Beware--the decision to obey the creative urge leaves one open to obloquy courtesy of well-salted nuts wishing their jars had lids. Decency is, by definition, harder to detect. Failure to meet the demands of some well-defined segment inspires puzzlement at the very least. Make 'em think, make 'em feel, and maybe you make 'em mad, mad enough to shore up a restless defense of a rigid values system they don't even fully value.
That applies to so much…let's keep it music.
Complexity ruins rock music, the wisdom wails. Keep it tough, keep it basic, say "hey" whole bunches. The only thing worse than a man exploring the Parisian catacombs of his masculinity is a woman treating her femininity like a toy store.(Dare to play fast and loose with gender identity and run the risk of exposing suspected allies as gone Terfin' USA, eager combatants in spoon fights over scorching bowls of Alpha-Beta soup. Then again society is still somehow befuddled by how bisexuality works.)
My ever-shrinking patience with the demonizers justifies its own post. I get it, I got it, they'e frazzled, I'm frazzled, we are all frazzled. We ain't gonna agree, but we gotta get along, meaning--stop spitting in my mouth the second you see the opening.
Speaking of nasty mouth business…twenty-five years ago, when I was slobbering around the sweet spot of my adolescence, it happened. The Angry Woman In Rock became trendy. Liz Phair, who just the year prior sent indie underthings into overdrive with her sharp and profane debut Exile In Guyville, was set to release her inevitably-disappointing sophomore album. Rolling Stone magazine featured her on the cover of an issue also containing an article on "Women In Rock," which asked the likes of Courtney Love, Kim Gordon, Joan Jett and Madonna about family, feminism, and fucking fragrances.
Speaking of nasty stink business…1994 saw another follow-up album from a relentlessly thoughtful woman. Courtney Love and her cohorts in Hole released Live Through This one week after the suicide of Love's superstar husband. More beloved by critics than audiences (selling less than two million copies to date in the United States), the twelve song collection is a fine representation of a scuzzy bombshell buffeting back at the world. Courtney's very existence wrenched forth the best and worst in people, not a one of whom seemed capable of a reasonable reaction to the grieving widow.
Not nearly enough attention was paid to L7, an L.A. band who, unlike Hole, were all tits all the time. They were flying the flannel and dying the follicles, pranking and yanking with the vigor of the boys, and oh yeah, playing great fucking physical music. (And boasted a Jennifer.) Never got as lachrymose as Hole, though, which I suppose indicated a stunted development (or a fierce dedication, let's not quibble). Butch Vig behind the boards, appearances on big talk shows and a cameo in the last great John Waters film, L7 were poised to reign as queens of the grunge movement.
Millions were lulled into a naivete no less charming for its ultimate heaving absurdity. New York mag, in the summer of 1996, informed perusers "Feminism Rocks," even as the article focused heavily on Courtney's shenanigans and Alanis Morissette's recent ascension, the only mention of riot grrrl coming with Liz Phair's insistence music is powerless to create social change.
As the Nineties progressed, alternative's influence fizzled out. Enter, finally, 1999. An annus horribilis for the books. Hyper-masculine hybrid tunes ruled, dudes and their deals reclaimed their rightful combative stances and conflated every wrong in their lives into the last straw. Meanwhile I'm jamming a Missy Elliott cassette in my best friend's dark green Chevelle, an antidote to the scuzziness.
Everybody knew Missy, though. She wore trash bags and rolled with a guy named after footwear. Smaller radars detected drizzles of hope. Music in no danger of earning RIAA plaques or climbing Billboard charts. Music performed by women who struck raw poses to humble crowds. Where pizazz lacked, passion abounded. Yes, of course Sleater-Kinney, but I also mean the less-heralded likes of Erase Errata and Electrelane. Their rage was real--and unrecognizable to eyes conditioned to equate rage with a particular form, tone and timbre.
I've always considered Sleater-Kinney to be Team Dresch with more patience, tighter record collections and a nicer view. They garnered even more critical praise than Hole, and even less commercial success. No bass and competing vocals, one voice clinging to the side of the speeding railway car, the other attempting to lift the tracks clean off the ground via audiokinesis. And I'm like, fuck, this is as good as it gets. Women were still rocking, and electroclash handled the roll.
New days, new waves, new ways to stay safe and warm in a blizzard. The new stars of stage, screen and Spotify, oh fuck me release day is Friday now? Also, we're eating charcoal? Christ a'mighty.
Facing threats from the lowest common denominator to the highest courts, middling around is a less-sexy option than ever. When I think women in music these days, I think of two letters: e-x. Exhausting, exhaustive, exasperating, examination, exhilarating. Excellence, experimentation.
Ex Hex. Great new album.
Who are you listening to? An épicène artiste, a fierce-brained naturalist, or a merrily mediocre fantasist. Skip the razzmatazz and give 'em their deserved fair evaluation. Lady Gaga, at her apex, was the new Madonna. St. Vincent, apex still pending, is the new Bowie. (Her electric twinning with Dua Lipa is the glorious opposite of whatever the hell happened in the video for "Dancing In The Streets.")
Now's the time to be worked into an audible froth, to let the chirping circles become part of your daily soundtrack, and who can do it quite like a woman. Virtually all the dazzlers in the maligned rock genre are female. Snail Mail, Japanese Breakfast, Camp Cope. Red foxes in the forest, each one. Courtney Barnett's supreme songcraft compels me to sit by a swamp and sketch out a week's worth of remembered reveries.
Anyone yearning for the Missy, a sizzling amalgam of pop, hip-hop and funk, had to be patient. Forget Nicki Minaj and Cardi B, bogged down by quizzical beefs and serious oversharing. Remember Lizzo. 'Cause I sure did.
I became aware of the wild-haired, bodily-blessed black woman from flyover country in 2015, when she opened up two shows for Sleater-Kinney at DC's 9:30 Club, throwing out cookies and reminding pasty faces how black lives matter. Three years on, she's an Ellen-approved star, truly the new Missy. Shit, maybe she's Sister Rosetta Tharpe with a flute.
(Janelle Monae, artier and more angular, will never receive the mainstream due she deserves, alas.)
I've been looking at Lizzo and thinking, "Missy." Maybe I need to be thinking, "L7."
Away from the salt mines, L7 showed their support for women's reproductive rights by starting up Rock For Choice in 1991. A series of nationwide concerts raised money and awareness for the specific cause and for the importance of the youth vote in general. The final show took place in 2001. I'm telling you, we gotta bring it back.
Musical innovators, L7 were not. Respected and abetted by their male peers, L7 certainly were. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Fugazi--progressive-minded dudes sympathetic and sensitive to their travails. "Feminism" became a buzzword, again. (Yes, hesitate to hand out huzzahs for obvious righteousness, but hearing Kurt Cobain--the uncontested face of the genre--insist, "The future of rock belongs to women" meant something more than just a cursory acknowledgment of the right to pursue the life more solvent.) They wore flannel instead of blouses and crushed beer cans instead of rose petals, and they were proud to be women with a voice. They tossed blood at bored Brits (whose own music scene desperately needed estrogen) and galvanized overlooked segments of the American population.
We need that again.
Women in music are "between Nirvana and nothing," to quote Chuck D. Conjurers of the furious sound, signifying sweet and sour everything. Fuck the writers who spin in crude circles while asking questions that ceased to be pertinent a decade ago: Is she pretty? Is she ugly? Will she fuck me? Can I ever talk about her without feeling dizzy? (Smooth out the knots in your noodles or get rolled past.)
There's all kinds of niches for all kinds of bitches. Women are natural protesters, natural reshapers, and much like cheetahs cover great distances in impressive times. Some women are contented with being whimpering wives-in-waiting or fetching mistresses who mewl in key. Some women would rather die. We all sit side by side, spices in an endless rack. Diversification works, or it doesn't. Results will vary. The sine qua non is passion.
Ignore the useless and embrace the useful. Never listen to the person who throws out all the forks in the drawer just because one is bent.
Oh oh, yeah. Change the brassy bellow of the excited towards the exalted. No more, "You go, girl!"
Keep going, girls.