OTI Online
Spring 1996


THE LUNACHICKS WERE PLAYING AT A NEW YORK ClTY nightclub and I had to walk past a slew of bikers to get in. Given the bouncer's nod, I entered a huge dark room filled with people milling about the bar and seething on the dance floor. Some were dressed in black leather and chains and wore an array of hair color, everything from fuchsia and electric orange to ebony black and bleached white. Skin was pierced and tattooed, as decorated as the clothes.

From riot grrrls to Rasta reggae, political music in the '90s is raw and real.

I had on my usual inconspicuous black T-shirt, jeans, black boots, and baseball cap worn backward. Though I have been reporting on the music scene for several years, I wondered whether I was in the right place. It felt like a rite of passage.

Downstairs, in a split-level room, I could see the Lunachicks, four women bouncing and yelling onstage, their makeup purposely grotesque, screaming and screeching on guitars and drums in colorful baby-doll outfits that might have been designed by Betsey Johnson. People were dancing and yelling back at the stage. Suddenly one of the singers shouted into her mike: "Let the girls up front! Let the girls up front!"

I stood still at the back. A few "boys" groaned. A surge of "girls" moved forward, screaming and waving their fists. Rude, crude, and lewd, the Lunachicks sang,

Take this! Take that/But no one is ever going to take my/ fuckin' rights back./Don't touch us in the street/ 'Cause we ain't your tits & meat/ Just because we're fuckin' women/That's right.'

Momentum built to a crescendo. I got caught up in the fervor of the crowd of fans both male and female enraged, excited, outraged, and I found myself feeling more powerful than when I came in.

Where are the younger generation of feminists? people often ask me. Have we lost them? My answer is always the same: "You're looking in the wrong places."

There is a strong anti-sexist and anti-racist manifesto present in today's music. You don't have to be a teenager or a twenty something to appreciate it, and you don't have to be a rock and roller to respect it. All you have to do is listen it's where the pulse of young feminism beats.

Many of the artists don't call themselves feminists. They always consider themselves musicians first. Yet they sing about feminist themes often with an eerie sense of humor, as the Lunachicks do, decked out in wigs and platform shoes, in "Binge+Purge":

Mom won't let me eat too much/ But, in my room I go and stuff/ Ipecac¨ & Exlax are my best friends/ I'll have my head in the toilet 'till the end."

The Lunachicks, known to sing bluntly about bodily functions, are no model for politically correct jargon or theories. Yet like other bands today, they are compelled to make changes in attitudes and perceptions, dismantling old-fashioned images and role-playing. They sing about what they know.

When I went online to do research for this article I asked for leads to feminist musicians, no matter what genre I was overwhelmed by the response. Fans on listservs and newsgroups all over the Internet e-mailed me names of albums, songs, and bands that have yet to record an album. A generation ago, pop music with any politics was rarely found outside the ranks of earnest folkies. Not to disrespect those earlier balladeers, but today politicized voices are loud and angry and everywhere.

The riot grrrls, for instance (that's girl with an angry grrrowl), are a loose amalgam of bands and fans who identify with an outlook based on equality and grounded in feminism and rock. Among high school and college students, their message has spread like wildfire.

Fascinated by riot grrrls' dedication to one another, and addicted to much of their music, I talked online with Tamra, a member of the three-piece L.A. band Lucid Nation. I asked her what defines a riot grrrl. No one riot grrrl can speak for all riot grrrls, Tamra explained. "Riot grrrl is whatever it means to whoever hears it. I guess to me it's anybody who lives in the awareness that abuse is out of control in this country. Anybody who votes so that women can have the right to choose, anyone who works with us and treats us with respect, everyone who sees the world 'raw and wrong and real' anybody who knows our reality and works to change it is riot grrrl to me." Riot grrrl is also not gender specific. Kurt Cobain, the late lead singer of Nirvana, is deemed by many fans, including Tamra, a true riot grrrl.

BEING ON THE FRINGE IS JUST FINE WITH RIOT GRRRL BANDS (and many other recording artists). They don't trust much of anything in the mainstream and why should they? Active and deadly serious, riot grrrls network through fanzines, meetings, conventions, and the Net. At a riot grrrl concert you might find people collecting food and clothing for the homeless, raising money for a battered women's shelter or AIDS, and demonstrating self-defense techniques.

The riot grrrl phenomenon began in 1991 with two all-female punk rock bands. Kathleen Hanna, an ex-stripper and the lead singer of Bikini Kill, began communicating about the state of women in rock and roll with members of Bratmobile known by male musicians and fans as "fox-core." Molly Neuman of Bratmobile was studying women's issues at the University of Oregon when, with Hanna and fellow band member Allison Wolfe, they published the zine Riot Grrrl the first time the phrase appeared in print. The mass media have distorted riot grrrls' approach, described their music as an obnoxious fad, and dismissed them as man-haters. To Tamra, those are fighting words. "Anytime strong women assert equality, resistance intensifies."

They're not the only ones fired up. Feminist rock and roll, rap, reggae, and folk artists are in open rebellion against sexism and sexist slurs, dysfunctional family life including incest and child abuse date rape, media portrayals of violence against women, and the possible loss of reproductive rights. Some are angry musicians excluded from feminist politics because they are rockers or shut out of popular music because they are outspoken feminists and many are recording on independent labels, which are cropping up all over the country. For musicians pushing personal, often non mainstream, feminist agendas, this "indie" market is a perfect venue.

On The Issues Magazine - Lunachicks, Tribe 8, Ani DiFranco, Luscious Jackson, Tish Hinojosa, Skunk Anansie, Babes in Toyland, Rory Block
Stark raving rad: Lunachicks (center) and (clockwise from top left) Tribe 8, Ani DiFranco, Luscious Jackson, Tish Hinojosa, Skunk Anansie, Babes in Toyland, Rory Block.

But not all are on the fringe. Some like Tori Amos, L7, Luscious Jackson, and Babes in Toyland have crossed over to the mainstream and can be heard on radio. Amos's popular album Little Earthquakes includes a song about experiencing sexual assault, "Me and a Gun." A capella, Amos sings:

Yes I wore slinky red thing. /Does that mean I should spread... /for you, your friends, /your father, Mr. Ed?

With her subsequent album Under the Pink, Amos attempts to break the victim cycle and heal.

Punk-folk singer Ani DiFranco (pronounced AH-nee) has turned down several major recording contracts. Thumbing her nose at music-industry execs, whom she calls "heterosexist suits," she prefers to produce albums on her own label, Righteous Babe Records. At 24, she is so popular that her seven albums since 1990 have sold over 150,000 copies. Consistently performing for standing-room-only crowds, she delivers her chilling songs in a lyrical, yet insistent, voice. Her provocative "Out of Range," from her album by the same name, could well be a young feminist's anthem:

just the thought of our bed/makes me crumble like the plaster/where you punched the wall/beside my headland i try to draw the line/but it ends up running down the middle of me/most of the time/boys get locked up/in some prison/ girls get locked up/in some house/and it don't matter/ if it's a warden/or a lover or a spouse/you just can't talk to 'em/you just can't reason/you just can't leave/ and you just can't please 'em/i was locked/into being my mother's daughter/i was just eating bread and water/ thinking nothing ever changes/then i was shocked/ to see the mistakes of each generation/ will just fade like a radio station/if you drive out of range

if you're not angry/then you're just stupid/ or you don't care/how else can you react/ when you know/something's so unfair*

Some artists, and some fans too, find that playing by corporate rules usurps both power and message. But after recording for several years with indie labels, Consolidated, a San Francisco-based hip-hop band, decided to sign with London Records, and so far they seem to have maintained artistic control. The members of Consolidated are three straight white guys Adam Sherburne, Mark Pistel, and Philip Steir. A common misconception, they have said, is that because they are a "feminist, vegetarian, homo-supporting band," they must be wearing skirts or Birkenstocks. In fact their buffed, buzz-cut image comes closer to that of the hard-core band Danzig. Their music is confrontational and interactive, and their lyrics denounce violence against women, heterosexism and homophobia, racism, militarism, and animal cruelty. On Business of Punishment, Consolidated's first album for London, lead singer Sherburne does a rap disputing the pro-porn line on stripping ("No Answer for a Dancer"). Mixing that track, the band slipped in a "sample," or uncredited audio quote, from a speech by Andrea Dworkin.

THE RAPS ON RECORDINGS BY THE BRITISH BAND Fun>Da>Mental, another male-feminist hip-hop band, center on equality, sisterhood, female role models, getting rid of exploitive images of women, and speaking out against racism. Fun>Da>Mental is composed of Aki Nawaz and MC Mushtaq, both Asian, and Impi D and Hot Dog Dennis, both Afro-Caribbean. Their newest album, Seize the Time, draws correlations between racial inequality in Europe and in America ("Seize the Time") and attacks "money grubbing" religious hypocrites ("Dollars of Sense"). "Mother India," written and rapped by poet Subi Shah, pays homage to eastern women:

Brothers you can no more control those who love, /than you can control the path of love itself./Respect your mothers, sisters, lovers and daughters/for all they are, for all they give you/Beneath your mothers feet lies heaven.

Basic human rights and social rights, the group believes, are just fundamental and Nawaz has said that he's worried less about making the charts than about being murdered by Combat 18, a paramilitary arm of the far-right British National Party.

Strength and depth of conviction is not measured by beat and volume alone. Tish Hinojosa, a folk singer who identifies as Texas-Mexican and sings in both Spanish and English, is a Gloria Anzaldua of song. She speaks and sings of living in the psychological borderland between two countries, belonging to neither. When I heard her at the Bottom Line in Manhattan, the audience was clearly moved, especially when she sang "Something in the Rain," about a child of migrant worker parents who dies without proper health care. That night she dedicated the song to Cesar Chavez. In her liner notes on her album Culture Sunng, she asks her fans to "take a stand for human dignity and pesticide control at the table."

There is a whole range of liberal, radical, and socialist feminists who just happen to be recording musicians. They may be hard-pressed to tell you which type of feminism they believe, and they may not agree to be branded at all. Polly Jean, lead singer of the alternative band PJ Harvey, for instance, has written songs that are clearly anti-sexist but claims to be neither a feminist nor a man-hater an elision that annoys some of her fans.

The tough "queer-core" band Tribe 8 the name plays on tribade is not for the timid. Make no mistake, they want revenge and justice. In their song "frat pig" they vent:

You say she was a slut/she wanted group sex/she gave the quarterback head last week/she wore tight skirts/ she had big tits/so at the frat barb-q/you served her up some meat.

The refrain insists that if that was gang rape, they're "gonna play a little game called gang castrate."

Politics in contemporary music is not new. What's new is that for a generation ready to burst at the seams with the inequities in our world, it's the politics of feminism that have come to the forefront. Being a feminist, however one labels oneself, and whatever one's tastes or sensibilities, inherently means taking risks and chances. For me, it's also about discomfort while I confront my own feelings and prejudices, and I have found in the newest crop of '90s music a way to express and process my own anger. Sexual harassment, rape, incest, violence against women, sexual (and for that matter, any kind of) discrimination, racism, sexism, xenophobia the list goes on. And these feelings, this music, this message it's raw.

MARGARET R. SARACO writes frequently on the arts and entertainment and is the music editor for Real People magazine.

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