Politics of Feminism and Sound

The political changes that have occurred in America during the last 100 years are intimately tied to music, the complex soundscape of our culture reflecting political upheaval and social change . As Jacques Attali said, “music is prophecy” (36), the mechanism through which a society’s fears, angers, and joys are refracted as sonic creation. One incident of music giving voice to a political movement was the connection between late 20th century feminists and the rising girl-rock scene blossoming in the punk underground. These women “made audible the new world” (36) that they wished to live in, a world where women are not only powerful, furious, and strong but understood and accepted as equal emotional and psychological beings. This research embodies the relationship between politics and sound because as a comparative study of the music and theories of feminists in the late 20th century, it illuminates the effect of an evolving sonic community on a crucial political movement.

This Clip of Bikini Kill Live is a prime example of how girl rockers of the punk underground were pioneering the political agenda of third wave feminists of the 80’s and 90’s. You can hear Kathleen Hanna, the band’s lead singer, shout “this is cellulite, this is what it look like…it’s real…you don’t see this on MTV!” before launching into “Don’t Need You”, a song about female autonomy. With words like “we don’t need your protection…does it scare you boys that we don’t need you?”  these women used music, a passionate and direct wire to raw emotion, to empower themselves as free-thinking, radically independent individuals.

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HELLO WORLD, I’M YOUR WILD GIRL: Third Wave Feminism as a Sonic Community

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.

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