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Feminist influences on Rock music culture

Rock music has been blasting out of every boom box ever since it entered the mainstream in the mid 1950’s. People bombard one another just to get their hands on Iron Maiden’s or Nirvana’s tickets, hoping to catch a momentary glimpse of Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl or Steve Harris, yes, such bands consisted of all these masculine entities. It is quite surprising to see that women rarely incorporate the role of playing the drums and guitars which together form a quartet. Unfortunately, rock was a male-dominated culture in which the opportunity to work as an instrumentalist became unfairly restricted by gender and only highlighted women’s vocal performances. Pop stars such as Madonna, Janet Jackson and Tori Amos have retained their legacies as the best-known women performers.

The empowerment of women within this guitar-smashing, maniacal stage behavior genre came in the 1970’s when punk and New Wave emerged within Britain and the United States. This bold punk era created a lot of opportunities for women where most bands consisted of women. Anyone could pick up a guitar in those days. So it wasn’t surprising to see that The Raincoats happened to be the first all female punk rock band, whose sole intention was to embody feministic ideals within their music, and to stomp on the traditional masculine grip on rock music. Although this era did cause the eroticization of women within rock music [a good example is Bjork’s orgasmic outburst of ecstasy in her hit song ‘Birthday (1988)], the members of The Raincoats refused to pass themselves off as sex symbols. It is quite appreciable to observe that women in earlier years did make ‘serious’ music, which is lacking nowadays, especially in the British rock music scene. Yet The Raincoats never really achieved fame in the first place and a large number of male performers made guest appearances on all their albums. So women remain neglected within this rock n’ roll domain and a storm was also brewing due to such limitations.

The arrival of Riot Grrl, a major feminist underground rock movement in the 1990’s, allowed the female voice to advocate unruly misconducts and confrontations. The female’s voice became a weapon, allowing women such as Courtney Love (who possessed a distorted face full of running mascara) to defy the conventional modes of feminism. Hence, female rock acts have become sexualized and even surveys have been done of female vocalists where the majority of the women claimed to be seen as sex objects on stage. Magazine covers placed women within the sexual spotlight where their breasts seemed to be the most important features. Riot Grrl conjured up girl band lyrics which exposed the alienation and distorted interiors of a female body.

So were women’s writings and vocals skills the only contributions to the rock and roll arena? A major breakthrough for this punk rock movement was the dissuasion of the ideology that women are incapable of learning male instruments. The electric bass, in today’s world of alternative rock, proved to be a woman’s instrument. Why? Because it was considered to be easily learnt? Or was it because of men’s rejection of such an instrument that women are now being allowed the opportunity to fiddle with it? Then again, women are also scrutinized for playing the bass guitar since their hands are small and it is such a heavy instrument. The reasons put forward here sound so reasonable, right? Sources do have differing viewpoints on how challenging the bass is because there happens to be an element of surprise when one plays such an instrument. Men learn to play instruments at a much earlier age than women. Statistics show that 87.5% of men joined bands before high school graduation which is a whopping figure compared to the 26% of women who joined bands during similar timeframes.

There are definitely other conspiracies working against these female wannabe virtuosos. The sight of a woman instrumentalist definitely disrupts the image of the ‘rock band’ which did start out as a male phenomenon. Consumer demand for a mixture of both boys and girls changed the visual scene of rock and roll. Bands’ appeals are further enhanced by the presence of attractive girls, even if they possess little talent. These women felt compelled to attire themselves in an overtly sexual manner and had a hard time proving themselves as ‘serious’ musicians. They played minimal parts in the bands’ decision-making processes and outrageously, their payments were low as well. Such disparities in rights clearly hindered women from reaching their zeniths. The female body generates such sexual tensions and hype among the audience members that they fail to look past the pretty face and continue absrobing the cute lyricisms popping out of the female vocalists’ mouths, even if their words make no sense. Authenticity of the artists are sometimes overlooked and more emphasis is given towards outward appearances of female performers, regardless of her position as an instrumentalist or vocalist, since men do want to identify in a sexual way with the girls of a hot rock n’ roll band.

The punk rock era has passed by and thankfully, it did manage to incorporate women into alternative rock bands- one of the biggest symbolical and practical breakthroughs in music. With sassy songs like ‘I’m just a girl,’ artists like Gwen Stefanie and Alanis Morissette found out that acting ‘like a girl’ promoted great ways of making women within rock music culturally visible. Bass became one of the first steps in legitimizing women as instrumental musicians, while simultaneously allowing women to build up professional and artistic careers for themselves, characterizing rock as a pop genre:

Cause I’m just a girl

Don’t let me out of your sight

I’m just a girl, all pretty and petite

So don’t let me have any rights.

Oh, I’ve had it up to here!

No Doubt, “I’m just a girl” from Tragic Kingdom

However, most bassists continue to be male and most rock bands are composed of men. Reality surely bites.

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One Response
  1. March 20, 2009

    I’m struggling to try to figure out what the main point of the paper is. I see that you’re trying to make a point about what punk rock did for women both in terms of vocals and in terms of playing instruments. I think what I’m interested in and what I’m not seeing here yet is a more of a contrast to “pop” music or earlier music or the masculine rock bands you reference. In what ways was female punk music disruptive of the status quo? In what ways was it a blip on the radar and we’re now back to a point where women are only vocalists or in what ways did it really transform how we think of female rock stars? Did these bands pave the way for Madonna and other big female stars? Or were they a separate strain?

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