X-Ray Spex at CBGB’s, New York. March 1978.
Back row, L-R: Chrissie Hyde, Debbie Harry, Viv Albertine, Siouxsie Sioux
Front row, L-R: Poly Styrene, Pauline Black. 1977
By Megan Hein on July 6, 2012
I got into riot grrrl music nearly ten years after it happened (I was a toddler in the early ’90s ) but I remember listening to the music and feeling validated and empowered by hearing angry young women. So much of what I heard on the radio was misogynistic hip hop or Top 40 pop songs that all sounded the same and portrayed women as hypersexual sex kittens. I didn’t limit myself to one scene: I loved (and still do) a lot of ’90s rock music made by women, and not just riot grrrl: Courtney Love and Hole, Sleater-Kinney, PJ Harvey, Babes in Toyland, Bratmobile, Garbage, Liz Phair. Of course, when most people think of ’90s women in rock they think of the Lilith Fair. The angriest woman they imagine is Alanis Morissette. But these above-mentioned women, such Kathleen Hanna, were far more interesting, more controversial. I can’t tell you what listening to this music did for me as an angst-ridden teenage girl.
I remember getting teased for listening to Bikini Kill, whom one of my guy friends disparaged as “man-hating lesbian music.” Courtney Love and Hole were another laughing matter, but more for her notorious public image than her music. “Does she sing like Joan Jett?” a friend’s brother snickered (apparently singing like Joan Jett was a bad thing). Each of these women represented differing images of what women in rock could be, and yet each one was dismissed, written off as a joke. Even Alanis Morissette (whose voice I incidentally can’t stand) has been called a “man-hating hag” which is kind of funny, when Jagged Little Pill was pretty much the ramblings of a heart-broken and confused 20-something. Is it remotely political? Nope, no more than Adele’s music. But for some people, listening to a pissed off woman might as well be. A woman interviewed in Gillian G. Gaar’s She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll believes it’s harder for women in rock to come through because anger and sexual aggression, two characteristics prominent in rock music, are thought of as predominantly male.
I think I gravitated towards riot grrrl and other angry female alt rockers, because adolescence is frightening: the transition from girl to woman (or boy to man) has a lot of complexities and implications that we don’t fully understand at the time. The world now views us in a different light and we need to learn how to adjust to that. Add your healthy dose of adolescent angst, immature high school kids, constricting small-town life, and you get a good stomping ground for needing a release. This music provided that.
After my binge of ‘90s female alt rock in my teens, it’s kind of ironic that nowadays two of my favorite bands are entirely male: The Jesus & Mary Chain and The Smiths. Obviously, great music transcends all boundaries: sex, class, race, and time. Pain and emotion always remain universal.
Marion Elliot, in the late ’70s. Lead singer of X-Ray Spex, one of the first female-fronted punk bands. Nicknamed herself “Poly Styrene.”
“By not being thin, white, or conventionally “feminine,” Styrene’s mere presence in a rock band was enough to challenge convention, and her songs, which cheerfully attacked the materialism of the modern world, added to that challenge.”-Gillian G. Garr, She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll