Wednesday, February 16, 2011

why 1996 REALLY IS the sweet spot of women-fronted rock music and not just because I'm a compulsive maniac

One of my less compelling qualities is that I'm obsessed with 1996. This is partly because some of the biggest and most positive changes in my entire 37 years on earth happened during that year. If you don't already know about these changes, I'm not going to tell you about them here, because this blog is a public place, but when we get home, or maybe in the car, I'll fill you in.

But really I think the utter bestness of 1996 transcends my navel-gazing. This was proven when I read the first few chapters of Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music by Marisa Meltzer.

She starts by going into the history of Riot Grrrl, followed by what was known as "foxcore," which meant Hole, L7, etc., followed by Alanis and Fiona and a bunch of angsty one-hit wonders like Heather Nova, Tracy Bonham, Patti Rothberg, Leah Andreone, and Poe. Also Garbage, with the album that had "Stupid Girl" on it and the song from Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (amazing soundtrack overall). Then after that, of course, we had the Spice Girls and the Lilith Fair ('97), and Meredith Brooks and Natalie Imbruglia ('98), which was when things really started to go south, and then Britney ('99). The way she narrates this trajectory shows that it reaches a high point in '96.

I was in college during Riot Grrrl, and my feelings (not my opinions, but my feelings) about Riot Grrrl were always that I liked it, I liked the music and the message, and I'm indebted to it for everything I love that came after, but it is not and has never been my most favorite thing. It didn't speak to me the way that, say, Fiona Apple's first album or Tracy Bonham's hit ("Mother Mother") spoke to me. The book presents the main difference between Fiona, etc. and her predecessors as that Fiona, etc. were pretty and nonthreatening and marketable, but that's never been the way I see it. I might even go as far as to say that Fiona, etc. were MORE THREATENING than their predecessors because they presented seeming paradoxes that threatened people's ability to put people in cliched boxes and their honesty made them vulnerable in potentially dangerous ways. And the fact that this was "marketable" was a miracle that only lasted for eight crazy nights, or thereabouts. (This is not to say that the book isn't fantastic, because it is, and just the very idea of having a retrospective of how 90s female rock artists influenced the future of music is something I have needed in my life for Quite Some Time, and the chance to mentally engage with these topics thrills me.)

You had to have riot grrrl first, obviously, but what always blocked me from feeling fully connected with it was that it was lacking in personal vulnerability. Riot Grrrl was angry and rebellious and we're-not-gonna-take-it-anymore and defiant and nigh-invulnerable. And me, I was vulnerable. I was angry, but also sweet. And my sweetness was not borne of chauvinistic ideas about how women should be quiet and deferential. I was raised (a) by feminists and (b) in New York, so I never internalized any ideas that women should be anything except pushy and loud, which sucked because I wasn't really pushy and loud, especially not in childhood. I was sweet, by my very nature, and sensitive, but also angry. Can't fight the seether.

So it was kind of frustrating to me that, until the mid-90s (as opposed to the early 90s) Chick Rock basically went two ways: (1) angry, pushy, invulnerable; (2) sweet, sentimental, saccharine. The first glimmers of a shift came with Liz Phair's "Exile in Guyville" (1993) and Hole's "Live Through This" (I've always related more to this album than to its predecessor, "Pretty on the Inside"), in which the artists did not shy away from all their own personal failings and fears and weaknesses and disappointments, and not just the ways they had been unfairly oppressed by other people. They took on the rather dicier proposition of taking a hard look at themselves rather than blaming others, but not in a maudlin "woe is me" way, in a complex, upfront, and somehow tough admission of their own fallibility.

Then Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know" came along in the summer of '95 and further changed the game (unfortunately, the rest of that album didn't live up to the promise of that song). Jill Sobule's hit "I Kissed a Girl" led me to get the whole album, which is WAY more brilliant than that song would imply, and made a lifelong Jill Sobule fan out of me (she's had plenty of other albums since then that are all excellent, and fuck you Katy Perry). One of the best songs on that Jill album was "Karen by Night," in which the narrator follows home her beautiful, cold, mysterious, icily friendly boss at work and finds that she moonlights as a badass motorcycle-riding drug dealer (or something). Suddenly, you didn't have to be the badass biker girl. You could be the somewhat less badass girl who wonders about the badass biker girl, and that could be interesting too. To use a 90s analogy, you didn't have to be Rayanne, you could be Angela.

And then in '96 there was a full-on explosion of these vulnerable chicks. Who wanted to go out into the world and have adventures and prevail, but most often what held them back was their own self-destructive tendencies and horrible secrets and doubts and unstoppable drive to do potentially harmful things that had some twisted logic behind them. And certainly it took into account the entrenched cultural oppression of women that led them to be in these situations in the first place, but it was always taken on from an introspective standpoint that had been missing before. It was an inner psychological battleground, as opposed to an outward, political battleground, and personally, my battles have usually been fought in the former place and not the latter. I'm hungry, I'm dirty, I'm losing my mind, everything's fine ("Mother Mother").

Now Bitch Magazine is saying the same thing about Tori Amos, who's pretty much a grande dame of this phenomenon, and whose best album, "Boys for Pele," came out in '96.

In 1997 the sweet spot started to devolve in two different directions: One, into the sugary pop of the Spice Girls (which, yes, I enjoyed, but not as much) and two, into the treacly ululations of Lilith Fair–style pop feminism (when Sarah McLachlan started to suck). After that you had your fake angry-sad girls, Meredith Brooks ("Bitch") and Natalie Imbruglia ("Torn"), and I've grown to enjoy those songs in more recent years in a kind of mindless nostalgic way but when they came out I felt stabbed in the gut by them. There was something really disingenuous and manipulative about the so-called pain or complexity expressed in those songs that was like taking real feelings and pretending to have them because now it was trendy and sexy in a Suicide Girls way. "Bitch" had a surface rebelliousness but was really about being the kind of slippery chameleon-girl who is anything but honest; "Torn" came across as a way of cloaking the one-dimensionally sexy line "lying naked on the floor" in faux angst.

(I also gotta say that in '96 I enjoyed Natalie Merchant's hit "Wonder" and considered it part of the same canon, but that was because I thought the lyrics were "with love, with patience, and with pain, she'll make her way." But later I found out that it wasn't "with pain;" it was "with faith," and ugh. The Lilith let me down.)

That same year, '98, Alanis let me down, with her new album about wondering whether she's pretty enough. The '96 girls' central worry was never about being pretty enough; it was other, darker things. And Courtney let me down too with "Celebrity Skin," another song I like now but at the time I felt lied to, as if Courtney was trying to make people think that these were her real problems when they were just what People Magazine was writing about her. And Woody Allen let me down too, while we're at it, with that movie "Celebrity." And then Britney happened and it all went to hell. It was no longer trendy and sexy even to pretend to have problems. Problems didn't exist.

But for that one brief fleeting moment, the culture was at that sweet spot, and it wasn't just me, it was 1996.

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