The media and the music industry dump terabytes of content onto the masses constantly, from music to images to the sordid details of its star’s lives. This content undeniably changes its consumer’s soundscape and sonic pallet. Music is, however, also political, historically embodying and vocalizing the sociological state of the union.
The emergence of females as powerful sound sources in pop culture and the music industry signified a change for women everywhere. With women like Cherie Currie and Joan Jett writhing around on stages screaming their lungs out, or later Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill smashing guitars and squeezing her leg fat, proclaiming self-love in front of large rowdy crowds, the soundscape of what is meant to be a female in the western world was fundamentally changing. Sonic content touched the feminist movement in a unique way, shaping the way the thinking, feeling woman was perceived.
For example, the stereotype of women as being intrinsically weak and puny has only recently begun to be digested by feminist ideology. Could the first major chunk have been cleaved from this obstacle due largely in part to the efforts of she-rockers? Take the emergence of powerful women in the music industry and compare them to the changing role of a woman in society, and what do you see? Kathleen Hanna once said that “everywhere I looked, I saw sexism. I had never been looking before. And once I had that lens on, I just got more and more rageful.” Her role as a female creator of sonic content allowed her to translate her dissatisfaction and anger into something that could be consumed by the population and affect its perception.
Music, according to Jacques Attali, is “a herald, for change is inscribed in noise faster than it transforms a society.” The emergence of women as sonic powerhouses in rock & roll and pop culture projected the sprouting and growth of women’s rights in America. As these iconic women showcased the anger and rage at their oppression they felt through music, the masses were in turn exposed to women in a new light. Angry, powerful women changed the public’s perception of feminism, altering it fundamentally through its growth and elevating the focus from merely seeking political and legal equality to understanding women as dynamic human beings with a full range of emotions.
The angry noise of 80’s and 90’s girl rockers, or riot grrrls as they were called, added new energy and body to second wave feminism, giving birth to the third wave. This second wave, the politically charged movement that took hold in the early 60’s, was based mainly on obtaining equality in the technical sense. It grew from the suffrage-focused first wave of the early 20th century. These women fought for legal rights, such as owning property, abolition of de facto inequalities, reproductive rights, and against domestic abuse. However, when women brought their desire for equality into the sonic realm, it changed the goals of feminism, focusing it more on understanding and accepting the emotional and psychological side of women rather than just equalizing them in legal terms. This is because music is intimately emotional, a direct wire to pure feeling that could now be tapped into in order to understand women in a new way.
The sonic community of third wave feminism was loud and furious; wailing guitars, smashing drums and powerful, crude lyrics rejecting classical ideas of femininity. Bands with names like “The Butchies” or “Jack off Jill” sonically cut their hearts out on stage, singing about issues like rape, violence, homophobia, and misogyny. They weren’t just playing the boy’s game, they were making it their own. Third wave feminism focused mainly on female empowerment, and the sound of riot grrrls embodied feminine rage. How did these two closely-linked worlds interact? The purpose of this research project is to explore the dynamic relationship between sound and feminism as it emerged in the emotionally-charged third wave. What barriers did these women break down? Where did they place their efforts and what was the nature of their relationship with feminism, in scholarly theory or street protest alike? To what extent did the music of powerful women affect how females were perceived or how they perceived themselves? Through a comparative study of the sounds and theories of feminism in the late 20th century, I hope to illuminate the effect of an evolving sonic community on it’s constituents.
1. Berkers, P. (2012), Rock Against Gender Roles: Performing Femininities and Doing Feminism Among Women Punk Performers in the Netherlands, 1976–1982. Journal of Popular Music Studies, 24: 155–175. doi: 10.1111/j.1533-1598.2012.01323.x
This articles focuses on the culture and politics surrounding a modern riot grrrl-esque “Rock Against Gender Roles” festival held in the Netherlands. While the festival’s goal is to react to the gender disparity of the music industry, it explores third wave feminism and the rise of the riot grrrl movement in depth. The article discusses how woman’s emancipation has affected popular music and the politics surrounding the rise of female-dominated rock and roll and punk scenes. The article’s juxtaposition of the events at the festival and current politics surrounding issues of gender-binary with the riot grrrl scene in the 90’s and 80’s offers a thoughtful analysis of an evolving sonic community
2. Richards, Chris. “Bikini Kill Was a Girl Punk Group Ahead of Its Time.” Www. Articles.washingtonpost.com. The Washington Post, 18 Nov. 2012. Web. 13 Mar. 2013.
Here, pop culture critic Chris Richards of the New York Times offers a historical and sociological analysis of the third wave feminism roots and riot grrrl band, Bikini Kill. It most specifically focuses on the life of Kathleen Hanna, arguably the face of female punk rock and the third wave movement. He mostly focuses on how she communicated with her audience and how she affected and added to the sonic community of feminism.
3. Arrow M. ‘It Has Become My Personal Anthem’: ‘I Am Woman,’ Popular Culture and 1970s Feminism. Australian Feminist Studies [serial online]. July 2007;22(53):213-230.
This article focuses on how music in the 70’s and the culture surrounding it affected feminist ideology. This article is interesting because it offers a look at the relationship between feminism and its sonic community before the riot grrrl and third wave feminist musicians were established. Ths relationship is relevant to how the goal of feminism shifted because of the change in the sonic community during the 80’s and 90’s with the emergence of punk and rock girl groups
4. McClary S. Women and Music on the Verge of the New Millennium. Signs: Journal Of Women In Culture & Society [serial online]. Summer2000 2000;25(4):1283. Available from: Academic Search Premier, Ipswich, MA. Accessed March 13, 2013
This article is a scholarly study on music infused with feminism and how it evolved in a fashion that mirrored the progression of feminism from the mid to late 20th century. She explains in detail how the tone of feminism changed with the emergence of women in rock and roll.
5. McCARTHY, K. (2006), Not Pretty Girls?: Sexuality, Spirituality, and Gender Construction in Women’s Rock Music. The Journal of Popular Culture, 39: 69–94. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-5931.2006.00204.x
In this Article, McCarthy analyzes riot grrrl and third wave feminist theory in the context of the of the cultural construction of female bodies and identity. Her article is focused on the emotional and spiritual psyche of women and how it is expressed in music and feminist culture. Feminism has reclaimed sonic experience as a source of sacred meaning and power. In the process, this music is establishing itself as an important root of third wave feminism. Her article offers a fascinating example of how the sonic community of riot grrrl and women rockers influenced feminist theory.