Third Wave: Women and Music in the 90s

Credit: Feral78 via Wikimedia Commons.

While this may sound like the ultimate in stupid, I never have applied nor will I ever l apply my fairly respectable skills in marketing analytics to drive traffic to this site. Sure, I want people to read my stuff, but marketing analytics and strategy is what I do to pay the bills—something I’d rather minimize and forget. I write about music because I love listening to music and I learn a lot in the process of writing about it.

But I do find statistics endlessly interesting. Last week I published my 500th post and thought I’d check my all-time stats to see how the browsing public has responded to my efforts. The data I found most fascinating is contained in a table that shows posts in descending order of hits. My marketing instincts immediately took over and I found myself looking for patterns in the data. In this case, the patterns were obvious—the data told me exactly how to drive people to altrockchick.com and how to scare them away:

Traffic Drivers:

  1. Graphic sexual content
  2. Reviews of ’60s and ’70s music

Traffic Inhibitors:

  1. Reviews of women artists
  2. Reviews of ’90s music

Analysis:

  • Graphic Sexual Content: My most-read posts are no longer available on the site: a four-part history of how I got into BDSM. All four of those posts outperformed any of my music reviews; the post with the most hits (the one with graphic descriptions of an all-night multi-participant BDSM scene with graphic photos of moi) received four times as many hits as my most-read music review (The Kinks’ Preservation albums). However, some of my highest-charting music reviews contain more than just a touch of erotica: The J. Geils’ Band’s Full House Live (#9) and Sade’s Love Deluxe (#16) in particular. Sex sells. Duh.
  • Reviews by Decade: Of the top 20 reviews, 8 are from the ’60s, 10 from the ’70s, 1 from the ’90s, 1 from the 00s. I’ve written more reviews of ’70s music than any other decade, then the ’60s, then the ’90s. Given the ratio of output to response, the ’60s are my best-performing decade; the ’90s are my worst.
  • Women Artists: Sade’s #16 is the highest-performing review by a woman, but that lofty status is compromised by the abundant sexual content. Next comes PJ Harvey at #30, Sinead O’Connor at #54, then Dusty Springfield at #74. Of the 20 worst-performing reviews, 8 cover the work of women artists. Joni Mitchell, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, Patsy Cline—fugghedaboutit.

Conclusions:

  • Keys to Increasing Traffic: Stick with the ’60s and ’70s. Ramp up the tits-and-ass routine. Don’t do ’90s reviews until millennials reach retirement age. Avoid female musicians like the Coronavirus.
  • What’s Next on Altrockchick.com: A seven-part series on Women Musicians of the ’90s. Fuck the stats.

*****

The decision to do the series was inspired by a tweet I read arguing that women heads of state are doing a far better job of managing the pandemic than leaders sporting a penis.

I agree with that assessment, but it’s not as impressive an achievement as one might think. When your competition is Trump, Boris Johnson and Xi Jinping . . . shit, my dog could have done a better job than those clowns.

I have long believed that the world would be a happier place if women were in charge, though my vision of the perfect future involves female sexual domination and keeping men on a very short leash so they don’t start fighting with each other and blowing things up. For now, I’d be happy to compromise for that elusive state called “equality,” but as is true in any situation involving power, those in power (men) have little motivation to give it up. I don’t expect to be treated as an equal during my lifetime. That sucks.

My mother began schooling me in feminism at an early age with particular emphasis on Camille Paglia’s “anti-feminist feminism.” The main message was that human culture has long repressed and restricted the manifestation of the human potential in those unlucky souls equipped with vaginas and that I should prepare myself to expect that the majority of men would attempt to diminish me and keep me in my place. Maman urged me to fight every insult, every act of discrimination and every stereotype that promulgated the notion of male superiority. She also encouraged me not to hate men, as most of them were just trying to live up to societal expectations of manliness and didn’t really have their hearts into the machismo thing.

That was good advice, but the constant strain of having to justify one’s existence and fight off the assholes who view you as nothing more than another piece of ass develops into a low-grade fever that always stays with you. And while most of the men I interact with treat me with respect, my years of volunteer work at domestic violence shelters in three countries tells me that toxic masculinity still qualifies as acceptable social behavior. Women are always at least subliminally aware that the rapist, frustrated incel or wife-beater can turn up in their lives at any time.

Some women embrace the submissive role because it gives them a sense of security or syncs with their religious beliefs. Most women I know resent it but learn to temper their response and consider the slings and arrows the price of admission to the employment market and its not-very-solid promise of economic independence. You learn to suck it up and move on.

But way back in the early ’90s a motley crew of young women decided the whole suck-it-up thing was bullshit. Some of them formed bands or pursued independent music careers and sung about their experiences as women in a patriarchy. To varying degrees, they expressed the rage that many women felt but wouldn’t dare express in polite company. The first wave came out of the Pacific Northwest, a punk movement tagged with the label Riot grrrl, with an emphasis on the “grrr.” Soon, other women protesting the status quo would emerge in both the US and UK, some with styles more suited to mainstream audiences.

This series will explore the music and messages of a fairly diverse group of female musicians who, along with Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, helped ignite what was called “third-wave feminism.” I should disclose that I have a hard time identifying myself as a “feminist” or associating myself with any “movement” because all such movements devolve into factions marked by trivial arguments over dogma and who-gives-a-shit power struggles. If you’re unclear about my position regarding these questionable agents for social change, I refer you to the greatest religious film ever made, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and the People’s Front of Judea.

The six albums I’ll be reviewing in this series are:

11 responses

  1. This looks to be fucking fantastic…can’t wait! And my apologies, I have read many of your “reviews” (in parenthesis because they are always so much more than that) w/o leaving any comments. Your recent review of “A Love Supreme”, which should be included with every physical copy of that album, being one example. Hope you and your loved ones are riding this damned plague out. Here in the USA…well, injecting oneself with disinfectant…you know.

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    1. Thank you! Actually, I screwed up—it’s a 7-part series. I left out Ani DiFranco’s Not a Pretty Girll due to coronavirus-related brain freeze. Correction made.

      Things are kind of unclear here. The government has divided the country into red, orange and green zones to determine the relaxation of restrictions. The Alpes-Maritimes was an orange zone when the colors were first published, then our mayor bitched about it and now we’re green. That means I should be able to visit my parents again on May 11 but the information coming out of the health ministry has been ambiguous and contradictory, so no one knows for sure—they update the map daily, and it could go either way. Despite the stereotype of the French having a c’est la vie orientation towards life, they actually loathe uncertainty, which is why the government’s handling of the crisis is 62% negative. Then again, the French bitch about everything. I think the government is doing as well as they can, and certainly better than Trumpistan.

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  2. Sex may sell, but it’s everywhere. On the other hand, good, thoughtful music writing is rare. I don’t come back to this site for the tits and ass. Enough said.

    Looking forward to these seven.

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  3. thatrecordgotmehigh | Reply

    I see a notification for Bikini Kill, but the link is broken. We did this record early on, and I was looking forward to your more thoughtful discussion.

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    1. Sorry–I hit the PUBLISH button instead of SAVE DRAFT. Should be ready in a few days.

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  4. This is a late reply, but I’ve been thinking about this subject, and I figured I would chime in. I am one of those people who respond to many of your 60s and 70s reviews, but not so much to the other stuff. Here’s the thing: I am not a fan of many female musicians, and I’m not sure why that is. I like women, I’ve had female friends ever since I went to college, I am happily married to a woman (who oddly is not a fan of many female musicians herself), and I work in a human services profession with mostly female colleagues, whom I’ve always gotten along with great, with very few exceptions.

    A few years ago, I made a list of all of my favorite bands and musicians in rank order, which was great fun by the way, and I’ve been tweaking the list ever since I made it. One side effect of this list is that it really drove home the fact that my musical preferences are extremely male-oriented. As of right now, there are 96 bands and musicians on the list, and here are the ones that are female to a significant extent:

    30. Fleetwood Mac (2/3 female singer-songwriters in their 70s heyday)
    36. Richard and Linda Thompson (1/2 female vocals, male songwriter)
    69. Aimee Mann
    70. The Essex Green (about 1/2 female vocals and songwriting)
    91. Mazzy Star (all female vocals, songwriting shared with a male)
    96. Judee Sill

    I could give an honorable mention to Beth Orton, mainly for her album Central Reservation, and maybe a few other female or partially female acts, like Cowboy Junkies, who weren’t quite significant enough for me to put on this list. (Many male acts missed the cut for the same reason.) And Judee Sill is an oddball who just barely made it and may not stick.

    So what the hell happened anyway? I honestly don’t know. In general, I don’t like dance music, which eliminates a lot of female artists. Sometimes I think that the language of pop and rock music has been defined by males to such an extent that people like me don’t even give consideration to females. But that hasn’t stopped lots of other people from having a deep appreciation of many female artists. And there are loads of them whom I SHOULD be a big fan of, but I’m not. Some examples: Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush, Laura Nyro, Chrissie Hynde (I like the Pretenders’ hits, but the album tracks never did much for me), Blondie (same thing), and many, many more.

    So I guess I am stumped. When I hosted a college radio show a few years ago, I made a strong effort to work female artists into the rotation (without mentioning it), and I was able to find a good number of songs to play, but none of those artists stuck with me. Maybe it’s because when I listen to music, I tend to put myself in the place of the singer, and that’s hard to do with a woman, because I’m not a woman. So maybe it’s a lack of imagination. More specifically, it could be a lack of gender fluidity. I’m not macho by any means, but I am firmly on the male side of the spectrum and heterosexual. I support those who are LGBT, and I’ve often enjoyed their company, but I’ve never really fit in with them and don’t understand what makes them tick.

    I wish I had more insight for you, but that’s where I’m at.

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    1. After reading your comments, I went back to my Desert Island Disks post, and of the 34 selections (20 albums and 14 singles), only six were by female artists. Four pure singers (Sade, Patsy Cline, Billie Holliday and June Tabor) and two singer-guitarists (Brody Dalle and St. Vincent). There is no question in my mind that there has never been a female musician or band who has come close to The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks, Radiohead and dozens of other male bands in terms of consistent quality output.

      My theory is that the disparity arises from the long history of traditional gender roles that limited musical training for women (at least those in better families) to piano, church organ and singing and further restricted them to recital rather than composition. While there were some women who made behind-the-scenes compositional contributions (Elsie McWilliams for Jimmie Rodgers, Mary Lou Williams for many jazz combos), their efforts were often hidden from public view, so they weren’t in a position to inspire women to follow in their footsteps. Looking at women instrumentalists, there were a few women like Maybelle Carter who influenced guitar stylings, but female guitarists were pretty much limited to folk and country. When rock ‘n’ roll emerged, the few women who entered the fray were vocalists; when The Honeycombs featured Honey Lantree on drums back in 1963-64, it was considered a gimmick more than anything else. Twenty-five years later it was still a big deal (pun intended) when the Pixies featured a female bass player.

      Point one: pure singers don’t have many compositional credits to their names because their focus is on melody; they’re not trained to look at the big picture. I just checked and Frank Sinatra has a grand total of seven songwriting credits to his name, all co-written and most of his contributions involved lyrical changes to facilitate singing. The vast majority of female musicians have been singers, not instrumentalists, and that tradition has put them at a compositional disadvantage. Women have written some good songs, just not in the volume of their male counterparts.

      And because most female artists who do compose fall into the singer-songwriter camp, their creations tend to be more reflective and introverted—nice to hear on a rainy Sunday afternoon but not something you’re going to add to your favorites playlist. Few extend their instrumental reach beyond guitar or piano and they tend to write songs that focus on the capabilities of the instruments they know in the styles they’re used to playing. Joni Mitchell spices her music with alternate tunings and the addition of jazz musicians; St. Vincent with electronics; but women are just beginning to experiment with compositional possibilities and still have a long way to go.

      As a B in the LGBT acronym, I can fully understand the challenges related to gender identity—gender defines us from birth, gender patterns are implanted in our brains early on and most of our gender-related behavior has become instinctual. I get completely disoriented when I misread the WC sign, open the door and see a urinal. As far as its impact on identifying with female-composed lyrics is concerned, I don’t think there’s anything “wrong” with you; I think that we’re in a period when women composers are focusing on issues of greater relevance to women. I think it would be pretty hard for a guy to put a whole lot of feeling into the lines in St. Vincent’s “Birth in Reverse” that read: “It’s just an ordinary day/Take out the garbage, masturbate.” I really feel it when I listen to Bikini Kill or Sleater-Kinney whereas my dad says “meh.” You’ll be okay!

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  5. I think you are right that it is mostly a supply problem: There just aren’t that many prominent female acts in the rock/folk field. It really is uncanny when you think of it. While we can’t expect a female equivalent to the Beatles or Stones, can’t we at least have a female Billy Joel or Gordon Lightfoot? Heck, I would even settle for a female Raspberries. Wouldn’t it be awesome (to guys like me, at least), if one of the quintessential power pop bands was female? Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith are the two women that stand out to me as having staked out their own significant territory, and maybe it’s just a coincidence that I have no interest in Joni Mitchell and only a passing interest in Patti Smith. Horses is a really powerful album that I thought was pretty cool when I first heard it. I still own my copy. It has its place in rock and roll history. But I haven’t listened to it in years. The two bands that I like from that New York 70s CBGB’s scene are Television and Talking Heads. I do like Patti Smith a lot more than I like the Ramones or Richard Hell, and they are male, so it’s not just a gender preference thing.

    You give a lot of good reasons for why females tend to not have prominent roles in popular music. I’m sure you’ll agree that it runs deeper than that, though. I’ve read lots of rock star biographies (all male artists, of course), and something that almost all of them seem to have in common is that they had mothers who doted on them and gave them constant support in their pursuit of music as a career. (Fathers could go either way, but mostly they hoped their sons would do something more pragmatic.) I think it takes a special relationship between a mother and son to build up that rock star ego to such enormous proportions, and maybe that dynamic does not arise between a mother and a daughter, or a father and daughter for that matter. The moral double standard probably has a lot do do with it. How many parents want their daughter to perform music in sleazy bars night after night? And when a mother does throw her support behind her daughter’s showbiz career aspirations, it often seems to turn into that weird stage-mom phenomenon, where the two of them become enmeshed and never really break free of each other. But males have to break free of their families and go out on their own. Society demands it. So these moms are willing to look the other way while their “golden boy” sons are sleeping around and doing drugs, while daughters, no matter how talented, are expected to find a good man and raise a family, sooner rather than later. In general, there is more pressure on females to normalize. Males have that same pressure, but not as much, and in some cases their egos get built up to such an extent that they are able to break free.

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    1. Excellent points! I agree that men are expected to make their way in the world while women . . . well, it’s a little more complicated nowadays. I think of the character of Meadow Soprano as a good example—she’s smart, she’s getting her Ivy League degree and her parents are proud of her for that but both Tony and Carmela are more excited about the possibility of marriage and grandchildren. Neither of the women who lead Sleater-Kinney had active support from either mom or dad as they embarked on their careers in rock; their main support came from a community of like-minded women out to break barriers. They’re probably the most successful female rock band but still a niche act for late-stage feminists and the NPR crowd. It will probably take a couple of generations for that kind of parental support to become the norm, and by then, will be still be listening to rock ‘n’ roll?

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  6. […] combination of a spur-of-the-moment trip and the effort required by The Third Wave Series left me with no reviews in the hopper and little in the way of background research on any of the […]

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  7. […] combination of a spur-of-the-moment trip and the effort required by The Third Wave Series left me with no reviews in the hopper and little in the way of background research on any of the […]

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