By Neva Chonin
THOSE LIPS, THOSE eyes--there was no escaping them. In 1994, Courtney Love's ubiquitous mug graced the covers of no fewer than four glossies, including mega-mags Spin and Rolling Stone. She wasn't the only female rocker who kept a high profile: L.A.'s L7 were Lollapalooza's favored camera candy, and candid shots of Liz Phair sparked heated bidding wars among the titans of music media. The year also saw an unprecedented explosion of all-women groups, from Seattle's raucous 7 Year Bitch to New York's cool and funky Luscious Jackson. And in San Francisco hardly a weekend passed without a show by a band featuring at least one woman in its lineup.
Things weren't always so rosy for women in the rock biz. Twenty years ago hard-rocking Suzi Quatro was considered a freakish anomaly and the pubescent Runaways a vapid marketing ploy (which, with the exception of Joan Jett and possibly Lita Ford, they were). In 1976 Patti Smith and Talking Heads bass player Tina Weymouth broke new ground, but still dropped jaws when touring middle America. Even in the '80s, postpunk bands like the Slits and the Raincoats barely dented the charts, while successful performers like Chrissie Hynde, Siouxsie Sioux, and Exene Cervenka fronted male bands. Mainstream exceptions either offered inoffensive pop rock--the Go-Go's, the Bangles, Bananarama--or greased their way to the top with heavy applications of top-40 schlock a la Heart and Pat Benatar. But in the enlightened '90s, judging by the number of magazine features, the tide has turned and women rockers are finally sitting pretty on the spoils of success.
Or are they? A quick check of the November 12 issue of Billboard yields the following stats: Of the country's top 40 albums, a paltry six were by solo women artists; of these, only one--Sheryl Crow--could be called rock; and only three bands--Smashing Pumpkins, Ace of Base and the Cranberries--had mixed-gender lineups. That's a total of nine out of 40 listings, and not one all-women band among them. For all the media brouhaha, in 1994 critically acclaimed but abrasive talents such as Courtney Love were seen, but not heard, outside the parameters of the indie music scene. When it comes down to brass tacks like sales and distribution, not a hell of a lot has changed. Girls ruled the rock mags, sure, but not the charts. Ever the lucrative ornaments, their images sold everyone's product but their own.
Tradition dies hard, and tradition says rock and roll is a boy thing. "There's definitely a prejudice when women rock," agrees cover girl Liz Phair (she's a musician too, incidentally). "There's definitely this sense of 'I don't know, do we let you in the club? Are you going to be our toy or are you trying to kick our ass? Are you going to turn all soft on the inside, do you really want it?' "
Change can be threatening at both industry and audience levels. What does it mean when L7 is plagued by male audience-members yelling "Show us your tits!" and Courtney Love by shouts of "You're fat!"? Things aren't so friendly down in the mosh pit, either, where the friendly slamming of a decade ago has degenerated into a raging testosterone-driven endurance test. Try crashing the pit at the next Offspring show, girlfriends, and tell me I'm wrong.
Hoping to refocus attention on the music rather than the sex of the musicians, bands like L7 studiously avoid engaging in gender debates. But there are hefty drawbacks to this approach: silence can be read as denial, with women conveniently censoring themselves for the privilege of playing like the boys (call it the Camille Paglia syndrome). But they're not boys and--barring surgical readjustment--never will be. And as girls raised in a stratified culture, they harbor internalized assumptions about power and entitlement that are often radically different from those of men. It's a double bind, in which acknowledging contextual difference risks marginalization, while denying it creates a reflexive misogyny where "femininity" is shunned like sexual leprosy.
So what's a grrrl to do? Heck, we're in a new year, so let's be optimistic. Women in the indie underground have begun to redefine femininity with their lace-and-jackboots appropriation of girlish paradigms. Now it remains to take this reclaimed identity out of the magazines and onto the charts. "To break a stereotype, you have to show the logic of the alternate vision," Phair points out. "And you do that by living the way your instincts tell you." Who knows, someday women rock bands--soft, hard, alternative and mainstream--might be so pervasive that the issue of "women in rock" will cease to be an issue at all. Could happen. The bottom line is to keep rocking, even if integration proves sluggish. The glass ceiling's just begging for the touch of some kinderwhore's steel-toed boot.
This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
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