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Feminism, Amplified

It’s All A Phair game

The Bold Soprano

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Led by Alanis Morissette and Courtney Love, a whole new breed of angry, funny, complicated women rockers with attitude is standing atop the pop-cultural heap. They are the real daughters of Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem.

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 can 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 actually lived.

I didn’t realize 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, [Alanis] Morrisette, 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 had 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.

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 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 [Danny] 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 had been women.”

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 Cervanka, 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, cant- 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 more different from hers. “She’s a goddess.”

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, and 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 being just a 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 has 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 the 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.”

[Courtney] 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’s actually watched a million guys do that, sticking your foot up there, and she is saying, ‘Fuck you, I’m the front guy now; 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 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 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.”

By Kim France
New York, June 3, 1996

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