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Lilith Fair, Riot grrrls and Kurt Cobain: WTF happened to '90s feminism in music?

Andrea Warner

I thrive on the nostalgic warm fuzzies of pop culture’s cannibalistic, self-referential nature. As someone born in 1979, I was excited to take a look back for CBC Music’s ’90s week. It was a really personal and interesting decade for me: I went from being an 11-year-old who hadn’t figured out bras to a 21-year-old roughly navigating how to self-publish an alt-women’s magazine, with all the crushing formative lows and rarified highs that youth, hormones and rebellion bring.

But looking back means taking stock of what’s around you now. It’s impossible not to compare the two musical climates — and at first glance, holy hell, we’re in trouble. From Sinéad O’Connor, Kathleen Hanna and Kurt Cobain to riot grrrls and Lilith Fair, why did feminism rule the ’90s, and WTF happened?

Over the last 15 years, criticism and critical thinking became (wrongly) synonymous with bullying and aggression. People replaced politics with patriotism. Marketing speak infiltrated each corner of our waking lives, with personae and brands dominating our online interactions, thereby applying a veneer of shiny, bland banality to our everyday actions. This is where the ’90s went to die.

There’s an ongoing battle right now about what it means to be a feminist in 2014, but setting out a bunch of checkmarks won’t solve this particular riddle. One of the modern interpretations is that women have to stick together, otherwise you’re one of those Mean Girls, right — a real Heather? Um, no, probably not. Unwavering, obedient support is the MO of cult leaders and totalitarian regimes. Feminism stemmed from critical dialogues and evaluations of injustice, outrage and demands for equality/representation. Feminism isn’t silence; rather it’s about asking questions that challenge the status quo.

That was the guiding principle of the feminist punk rock groups from the late ’70s and early ’80s that influenced the ’90s. A few specific acts in the late ’80s laid the groundwork for ’90s music benchmarks: political activism, critical thinking and no-nonsense anger. In 1986, Salt-n-Pepa burst onto the rap scene as one of the first female rap groups, with songs that emphasized sexual agency and choice. In 1988, Sarah McLachlan’s debut, Touch, triggered the new feminist folk revival. In 1989, a 19-year-old Queen Latifah released her debut album, All Hail the Queen, which featured the anthem “Ladies First,” a feminist reckoning for hip-hop.

Sinéad O’Connor doesn’t get enough credit, but she was absolutely at the forefront of ’90s feminism. She certainly changed my life, even though I didn’t realize it at the time. I could appreciate how hard it was to be different, but I didn’t yet know just how hard it was to be different and a girl. Her entire being was a collision of identities, and it was fascinating to watch her negotiate industry desires with her own strong command of morals and ethics.

O’Connor’s shaved head and refusal to shut up gave the perfect visual to the ’90s resuscitation of every woman’s favourite trope: the Angry Feminist. It was a label many wore proudly, defiantly, and it was perfect fodder for the riot grrrl movement brewing in Olympia, Wash. Bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile put out records called Pussy Whipped and Pottymouthed. It was punk rock made by and for women and it took up space; it staked a claim. The music was frenetic, chaotic, fierce. Every line was a fist. It was the sound of freedom.

Riot grrrl bands demanded equality between men and women, lashed out at sexual violence, advocated sexual agency and kept its politics at the forefront. It was exhilarating to be angry, to allow one’s self to feel angry. It was vindication that injustice was real and not just hormonal lady imagination run amok. To complain, challenge legacy and convention, or reject sexual advances was to be an Angry Feminist.

But that was (and is) a pretty simplistic label. Ani DiFranco, one of the protest-folk heroes of the early to mid-’90s raised a valid point in her song “Not a Pretty Girl.”

“I am not an angry girl,
But it seems like I've got everyone fooled,
Every time I say something they find hard to hear,
They chalk it up to my anger and never to their own fear.”

Liz Phair, Hole, Alanis Morissette, Salt-n-Pepa, Tori Amos, Meshell Ndegeocello, McLachlan, Meredith Brooks, Fiona Apple, Bif Naked and Sleater-Kinney were all “angry” throughout the ’90s and it’s almost laughable now how many people were genuinely afraid of these women asserting an alternative narrative regarding the female experience.

Kurt Cobain was an early and outspoken self-identified feminist. He was a critical ally and role model who called out rock icons like Axl Rose and championed women-centric bands. He spoke out against rape, sexism, homophobia and racism. These simple principles shouldn’t make him special, and yet even to this day, only a handful of male musicians speak publicly on such topics (Talib Kweli, Ben Gibbard, Shad and Joel Plaskett among them). Some will argue that male voices don’t belong in the fray, but the more people who advocate equality, the more equality becomes the rule rather than the exception. Who would be the modern Cobain equivalent that could rally generations? I don’t know that we have one, and that sucks.

There’s also a fairly clear distinction between Kathleen Hanna’s ’90s feminism and Taylor Swift’s 2013 feminism. Even now, rather than shy away from criticism regarding the lack of diversity and representation in early ’90s feminism, Hanna’s taking the challenge head on and maintains an eagerness to see riot grrrl expand and evolve to be more inclusive and relevant. Alternatively, Swift borrows a quote Katie Couric once told her about how “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women,” ultimately demanding unconditional support and cheerleading for every woman, based solely on the presence of one's lady parts.

I don’t know if Swift identifies as feminist, but a lot of her actions can be ascribed to feminism: she makes her own music, runs her own business and champions feminist acts (Tegan and Sara). Her vision of feminism, as stated above, is limited, but she’s acquainted herself with Lorde, the 17-year-old Grammy winner who’s just one of a handful of incredible, outspoken, self-identified feminists making music today.

It’s a pretty lonely landscape in the pop superstar realm though, as “feminist” remains some kind of dirty word. Katy Perry and Kelly Clarkson have famously said they’re not feminists. Beyoncé recently penned an essay calling out the myth of gender equality, but she also shied away from identifying as feminist in the 2013 British Vogue, stating “that word can be very extreme.”

Feminist isn’t an extreme word but, sure, there are feminists who tend to the extreme. Looking back to the latter half of the ’90s, the increasing opposition towards feminism was evident. Women were “strident” if they were too vocal, too critical. Lilith Fair, for all of its amazingly cool lineups and intentions, became an object of ridicule and scorn relatively quickly. As ironic detachment began to invade pop culture, a contradictory earnestness developed that sapped feminist music of its more jolting, subversive tendencies.

Thankfully, we may very well be on the eve of a feminist resurgence. There’s the aforementioned Lorde, and Tegan and Sara have never been more popular. Folk-blues artist Valerie June is unstoppable. Grimes and Janelle Monáe are massive inspirations. Beth Ditto and Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Karen O. persevere. And Meredith Graves’s new punk band mashes up fresh rage and total lyrical vulnerability. How fitting that the potential Riot Grrrl 2.0 comes courtesy of a band called Perfect Pussy.

Follow Andrea Warner on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner