I didn’t see a female-fronted band until I was 19, after a year and a half of rabid gig-attending once I was of age – even though I saw literally every international band that came to Australia. ‘Life-changing’ would probably be underselling that particular experience for me. As soon as I saw the incredibly cool-looking girl jumping around the stage in insane outfits and a mile-wide smile I wanted to run out and start my own band.
Though my own band (Sheila and the Radicals for lyfe) never moved beyond two-and-a-half practices and the same amount of songs (zero shows RIP), it’s still one of my favourite early-twenties memories. The idea of three girls sitting in a bedroom translating individual experiences into words and lyrics that would theoretically be performed in public, for the world, was exciting and empowering, though for me the instrument-playing was always a tad mystifying – I didn’t quite get how people turned lyrics into actual songs.
After reading musician Kristin Hersh’s Rat Girl, which I read partly for the awesome cover art by Gilbert Hernandez and partly because Patron Saint of Riot Grrrl Kathleen Hanna told me via blogland it was awesome, I was reminded of my previous desire to front a band and that I love women who do it.
In Rat Girl, Hersh rewrites the diary from her eighteenth year. The way she talks about music in the book is unique and personal, as well as envy-inducing. Hersh describes seeing chords and notes in vivid colour, mixed together in song to make a whole rainbow, which sounds like the dream of artistic calling that all wannabe artists fantasise about. Then she goes on to describe songs as ‘devils … that grab your face and shout at it’, filling her mind with their noise until she writes them and burning her skin until she performs them – a.k.a. the downside.
I had never listened to Hersh’s band Throwing Muses or seen Hersh live prior to reading Rat Girl, and I didn’t until I finished the book. Hersh’s relationship to music and her description of it was such a unique and moving one that it felt completely relatable nonetheless. She describes her music as noise and as poetry (among other things) and I didn’t want my critical-music-fan mind to muddy up her descriptions – and I was just scared I wouldn’t like it.
Hersh’s rewriting of her diary is still diary-like – confessional, zig-zagging, with obvious gaping holes of history – focusing instead on feelings, experiences and thoughts that matter more to the writer than the reader. The best thing that Hersh’s book does, though, is give a true and honest picture of a less-than-normal teen incapable of being anything but true to herself, not unlike Patti Smith’s Just Kids.
The last third of the book covers Hersh’s bipolar syndrome and her pregnancy. She deals with both in her own way, matter-of-factly taking motherhood and mania in her stride, seeing babies as ‘so punk rock: bald and drooling, yelling and grinning’. The book finishes with her releasing her first album and giving birth to her first child, at what seems to be the official end of Hersh’s teens.
Marisa Meltzer’s book Girl Power is a part-historical, part-personal account ranging from the nineties music scene, Riot Grrrl to the Spice Girls, to now – from Avril Lavigne to Taylor Swift. Meltzer is a musician herself (she was in short-lived band The Skirts) but she reads more like a fan – as we all know, it’s hard to be a true fan and not try your hand at something!
Besides the similar subject matter, women in music, Rat Girl and Girl Power also talk about music in a similar way – as all-encompassing. They also discuss its importance to teenagers, specifically teenage girls, as this is the age when music is so important – when they are young and angry.
Meltzer states in the book that her own life was partly defined by music, and I can say she’s not the only one. Why else would it be so important to me and so many others how many female artists there are in Rolling Stone’s ‘best of’ lists? Why else would there be so much outcry at Triple J’s ‘Hottest 100 of all time’ list, which, disappointingly, featured no female artists? In fact, for me it’s hard to talk about gender and not talk about popular culture, or music: from the subtler misogyny and racism in the rock band world – where every music festival line-up comprises mostly caucasian straight males – and the more obvious homophobia and misogyny in the pop charts, to the times I make someone a mix tape and they don’t like it because there are too many girl singers.
A fascinating aspect of Girl Power is female musicians talking about becoming female musicians. Unlike boys, who instinctively pick up guitars and drumsticks and make noise without thinking, girls may be more inclined to pick higher-pitch instruments like piano and harp and practice for years before even thinking about taking the stage. Khaela Maricich of The Blow is quoted as saying: ‘my experience of being a girl is that you don’t want to show off in front of people unless you really know what you’re doing. That’s a huge dividing line between girls and boys. Guys just do it without thinking. They’re so balls out, they just keep throwing shit out there.’ But what would the music scene look like if every girl got a guitar on her fifteenth birthday like Corrine Burns from Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains wanted? Would more girls be drumming if they didn’t have to go against the instinct to suck in their guts and not make stupid faces while playing, or deal with issues like the young, pregnant Hersh, who had to learn to play guitar over her pregnant stomach?
Meltzer also makes excellent points about the disadvantages of the Riot Grrrl 1992 media black-out, which followed one too many caricature stories of the movement, and the unfortunate elitism of the DIY lounge-room show circuit, which to Meltzer not only felt exclusive and cliquey, but also meant one had to be in the know to even, well, know about the shows (though the media and cultural elitism of the nineties, also known as the pre-internet-democracy age, is less relevant now). After all, there was a reason I had both Kelis and Alanis Morissette’s debut albums before I got Bikini Kill’s. For me Kaleidoscope and Jagged Little Pill were stepping stones to other female musicians that eventually led me to read feminist authors like Naomi Wolf and Germaine Greer. Though I know this is not necessarily the case for everyone, one would hope that modern accessible female musicians offer some sort of female empowerment to their listeners – as comedian David Walliams said – ‘Not everyone has read The Female Eunuch, but everyone’s heard of Geri Halliwell saying “Girl Power”.’
One of the best aspects of Meltzer’s discussion of women and music is how she generates a positive discussion about the helpful aspects of popular music instead of taking the easier and more obvious potshots. She looks at the vilified Spice Girls in a different light, considering that their songs were aimed at tweens and provided a tween version of feminism in the form of ‘Girl Power’. Rarely have the Spice Girls been praised alongside comparatively unheralded indie scenes like Riot Grrrl and Foxcore. I can say that I was just as devastated about the Destiny’s Child break-up as I was about indie rock band Sleater-Kinney’s, though Beyoncé never said anything as incendiary as Corin Tucker’s statement, ‘We’re not here to fuck the band. We are the band!’ in the nineties. You’d hope that, today, we wouldn’t have to.