The Girl Issue

Rolling Stone

The 30th Anniversary Issue: Women of Rock

By Monica Kendrick

I didn’t want to write this article. I didn’t even want to read these magazines. I saw little of interest in Fiona Apple’s waif-me face or the already overexposed Courtney Love and Madonna flashing skin and flanking one-woman authenticity factory Tina Turner. Frankly, I was hoping a man might write this essay. It would do my heart good to see that women aren’t the only ones thinking about issues of gender, as though we were the only ones who had it. But here I am, for many of the same reasons most women do the housework and change the diapers: it has to be done, and no one else is gonna do it right.

The new hype about women in rock differs only in some of the names from the hoo-ha I remember from when I was a pubescent all amped up on the power of Debbie Harry, Joan Jett, Pat Benatar, Annie Lennox, Chrissie Hynde, and the Go-Go’s (while outside the mainstream toiled Lydia Lunch, Exene Cervenka, X-Ray Spex, the Slits, Siouxsie Sioux, the Raincoats, Lene Lovich, Nina Hagen, Black Flag’s Kira, the Cramps’ Poison Ivy Rorschach, and Wendy O. Williams, whose exploding TVs and Cadillacs and electrical-taped nipples set a still-unmatched standard for women proud to be aggressive, noisy, tasteless, and spectacular). My mother fondly remembers an early 70s version, a bit more demure but no less savvy, with Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, and a young Bonnie Raitt. And at that point the 60s white folk- and blues-rock divas–Joan, Janis, Grace, Buffy Sainte-Marie–were hardly forgotten. Meanwhile there was never a shortage of Great Ladies of Soul: from Diana, Dionne, Aretha, and foul-mouthed Millie Jackson (putting Isaac Hayes in his place on their 1979 duet album) all the way down through Donna Summer and Chaka Khan and Gloria Gaynor, who does indeed survive. There’s even a mini tradition of R & B female singer-drummers that includes Sheila E. and Sophie B. Hawkins.

The Year of the Woman drivel has come especially fast and furious in the last decade or so: the year Tracy Chapman hit it big, the year Queen Latifah and Monie Love and Yo Yo bum rushed the boys’ club of hip-hop, the year the mainstream press got wind of Liz Phair and Hole and L7–those were the Year of the Woman too. Are we–women musicians, women music fans–really supposed to believe this is good news? Should we thank sugar daddy Jann Wenner for his generosity in giving the gals one issue all to themselves (all the writers as well as the subjects are women) in 30 years? Is Spin safe again now that the little Gooch has copped his feels and cut his losses? Can his transgressions be redeemed by hot pink pages that list self-mutilation, Christina Ricci (“in The Ice Storm, now out”), and Kurt Cobain as defining aspects of “Girl Culture”?

This is not to say that presenting a history of women in rock ‘n’ roll is necessarily a bad idea or even unnecessary. There’s an argument to be made that we need to work harder to write ourselves back into history since we have been so often written out. But there’s also a fine line between special recognition and marginalization, and that fine line will define itself when the mainstream music press goes back to pretending that women only achieve in periodic waves as interchangeable members of trends, that female artists are somehow more dependent on the zeitgeist for their survival than male ones.

For all its self-congratulatory smugness, Rolling Stone’s special issue is far superior to Spin’s. The writers dug deep to provide pages of fairly solid history in small type, with loving attention paid to female pioneers in blues and country music, unearthing evidence aplenty that many of these ladies were in fact smart businesswomen who practiced a lot–and giving early rock ‘n’ roll singer Wanda Jackson something resembling her due. But as history creeps up on the present day, the cases get shakier and Rolling Stone once again displays its chronic inability to “get” anything lurking in the depths below Billboard’s top 20.

Wenner admits in the introduction to the issue that “our list will not please every music fan.” He explains that Patti Smith, “a seminal figure who modeled her life on the great men of rock–and even wanted to be one,” declined to be interviewed because she thinks a special issue on women “genderizes the music.” But he neglects to explain why we get a mention and photo of Nico from her premusic modeling career but nary a word about the Velvet Underground’s short-haired, makeup-free, unmistakably female drummer, Moe Tucker–who is, after all, a member of Wenner’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Not a word for Rorschach either, who’s not only the Cramps’ guitarist but one of the nation’s best-respected rockabilly archivists. And how can any discussion of music by women in the 70s not even nod to the by-wimmin-for-wimmin Olivia Records and its cofounder June Millington? Millington started out as the guitarist for the relatively hard-rocking Fanny, whose name connoted in British slang roughly what Harry Pussy–another woman-driven band far outside Rolling Stone’s ken–means in ours. And when Kim Gordon inexplicably states that “women haven’t really explored experimental music,” nobody even bothers with the obligatory list of female experimenters– Gordon’s band Sonic Youth being about as close as Rolling Stone ever gets to any experimental musicians these days.

I could continue to drive sports utility vehicles through its holes, but Rolling Stone’s special issue has a few more things going for it, not least of which are stories on women in the music business and essays questioning the value of the very hype the issue perpetuates. Spin makes no such pretense with its “Girl Culture” shopping list, which also includes snowboarding, spine tattoos, Contempo Casuals, toe rings, body glitter, and Frida Kahlo.

Ann Powers’s keynote essay is thoughtful in fits and starts, but her vision of “girl power” acknowledges little before or outside of MTV and comes to revolve around the notion that girls have at last been acknowledged as a profitable market: “girls’ power to shape trends.” Hers is a strange “postfeminist” world in which the old tools of oppression–the makeup table, the casting couch–are recast as places of power, without any fundamental change in the power structure, in who ultimately profits. It isn’t the girls plucking their eyebrows and upchucking their meals to look like the Spice Girls, that’s for sure.

“Feminism gave women critical tools, but it never offered enough fantasy,” Powers writes, “and the images it did produce–earth-hugging virgin goddesses like the Venus of Willendorf or sensibly dressed Susan B. Anthony types–don’t cut it in this high-speed, cold-blooded age. What girls want now is what boys have always found in ancient tales of sword and sorcery, in the cowboy’s laconic visage, in Schwarzenegger’s muscle–and in rock ‘n’ roll’s swaggering satyrs, Elvis, Jagger, Prince.” True enough, I suppose (though how anyone could think the obviously fecund, prehistoric Venus of Willendorf is a “virgin” figure is beyond me), but there’s no true empowerment in purchasing ready-made figures of fantasy. The boy whose identity hinges on his affinity for John Wayne or Billy Corgan or Michael Jordan is every bit as pathetic as the girl with no role models.

At the end of the piece Powers becomes a shill for her own position as taste shaper, contending that advertising and fashion have actually created social movements, instead of capitalizing on and trivializing them. She also claims the Gibson Girl advertisements of the turn of the century “begat the Suffragette and won women the vote.” But if Powers had spent more time reading about Susan B. Anthony’s life and less time critiquing her wardrobe, she would know that the suffragette movement began earlier, a direct outgrowth of the abolitionist movement (in which Anthony and many other prominent suffragettes learned to agitate and organize), the urban housing and labor reform movements, and the temperance movement. She claims the fashionable, hedonistic flapper of the 20s had something to do with women entering factories in record numbers during the 40s–never mind that working-class women had always been there (providing the bulk of the labor in certain industries like textiles), or that with World War II on there simply wasn’t anyone else to do the work. At any rate, Rosie the Riveter’s “redefining” of the role of women in the workplace was short-lived: middle-class women were herded back into the kitchen by the nagging voices of advertising as soon as the war ended, and if you watch any channel but MTV, you know they still have to rush back there after work to pop giant cookies into the oven for their hapless families. Such glib revisionism shows that Spin has no real interest in or insight into those aspects of “Girl Culture” that might complicate its demographic research.

The other articles in the Girl Issue include a story on a teenage model who was ostracized after her picture ran in a date-rape confessional in YM; a feature on Fiona Apple in which we learn that both she and Gwen Stefani still live with their parents and that Apple’s qualms about writhing around in her underwear in the “Criminal” video were quieted by a producer who told her, “It’s tongue-in-cheek”; and a story on teenage mothers who’ve killed their babies. Spin’s pseudosympathetic capitalization on the voyeuristic and paternalistic media obsession with the sexual behavior of girls is about as much in the girls’ interest as a Virginia Slims ad. Obviously the girls who want to know really useful things, like how Lil’ Kim gets away with saying the things she does, or what kind of effects pedals Tara Key uses, are going to have to look elsewhere.

Perhaps the most offensive thing about Spin is that it completely bypasses the issue of why a teenage girl might love rock ‘n’ roll in the first place. Powers tries to get at why it is empowering to hear women who rock; she comes close, but backs away from the logical conclusion: “Like this moment’s other pivotal figures–athletes like Mia Hamm and Gabrielle Reese [who’s also a model] and action babes like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena–the most popular girl rockers tap into a power that seems a little beyond their own control. Although Apple pounds away at the piano, most of these women aren’t serious instrumentalists. Girl Culture isn’t interested in such technical mastery. It revels in the excitement of power that hasn’t yet been refined.”

Not only does she obnoxiously reinforce the stereotypes of women as hysterical and mechanically inept, but she fails to acknowledge that from its very beginnings, rock ‘n’ roll itself has reveled in the excitement of power not yet refined. Was Kurt Cobain a serious instrumentalist? The power of Bikini Kill is the power of the Sex Pistols is the power of the early Beatles is the power of youthful energy. Just because the rock industry did plenty to send the message that “girls can’t rock” doesn’t mean that rule wasn’t just as doomed to be broken as “white kids shouldn’t dance to black music” or “you shouldn’t play music if you can’t read music.”

A few years ago Powers coedited the wonderful, thick anthology Rock She Wrote, but I wonder if she’s read it, particularly Lori Twersky’s brilliant essay, which starts, “Say there, bright eyes. As long as male rock critics are suddenly evaluating Women In Rock onstage, why don’t we also take a few minutes to reevaluate Women In Rock offstage, i.e., the female rock audience, about whom an inordinate amount of drivel has been written,” and which concludes in part: “Ultimately, the female rock audience can no more be defined than can the male rock audience. The sooner rock writers unburden themselves of their accumulations of cliches, the sooner we’ll have intelligent writing–on any audience.” Her words were originally published in Trouser Press in 1981. To judge by Spin, you’d think the world had stood still since.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Archer Prewitt/ magazine covers.