ROCK AND ROLL is being hijacked by angry girls with electric guitars. Tired of playing airbrushed pop dollies for salivating male voyeurs, women on both sides of the Atlantic have seized the traditional rock weapon of phallic oppression and made it their own.
More importantly, they have exploded the Ideal Feminine of pop by singing of sweat and blood, lust and menstruation, fear and self-loathing. Inger Lorre of LA’s infamous Nymphs quotes Rimbaud to the effect that when woman has thrown off her servitude she will “discover strange, unfathomable, repellent, delicious things” – which is precisely what acts as diverse as Hole, Belly, L7, Daisy Chainsaw, PJ Harvey, The Breeders, and Babes in Toyland are busy doing on their new releases.
The history of “female rock” has been a long and convoluted one. In the beginning, women were pouting marionettes, packaged body and soul by glorified pimps. No wonder a feminist sub-editor changed every reference to “girl groups” in early Seventies Rolling Stone piece to “women’s groups”. (You could argue that she was rather po-facedly missing the point, but then wasn’t the very term “girl group” demeaning? No one ever called The Beatles a boy group.) By the end of the Sixties it had become acceptable for women to step out of the shadows as bacchanalian tomboys (Janis Joplin) or willowy, introspective singer-songwriters (Joni Mitchell), but only with the release of Patti Smith’s Horses in 1976 was a hitherto repressed, aggressive female voice heard for the first time. For a generation of troubled teenage girls, Smith’s strident tones and asexual image were a splash in the face, waking them to the possibilities of a music that didn’t have to play on make expectations.
Nothing was quite the same after Smith, though her legacy has been a chequered one. Punk’s fallout gave us a clutch of overtly feminist bands (Slits, Raincoats, Au Pairs) and a multitude of Girls With Guitars who upset the Boys’ Own locker-room mentality which had always defined rock. But the image-obsessed ‘80s saw a regression to glamourpuss divas and upmarket disco dolls: even the bands (Go-Gos, Bangles) were tame. Madonna may have been outrageous, but her outrage was no less coded by male desire than, say, Debbie Harry’s. Only the lone voices of Lydia Lunch, Exene Cervenka and Diamanda Galas kept the flame burning through the relentless video packaging of the Sades and Tina Turners.
The first indications that women were once again shouting from the margins came from albums like Babes in Toyland’s Spanking Machine (1989) and The Breeders’ Pod (1990). If the Babes’ ‘Swamp Pussy’ didn’t spell it out, then ‘Vomit Heart’ and ‘Fork Down Throat’ certainly did. Kat Bjelland’s ugly scream of a voice wasn’t exactly ear candy but it made you sit up and pay attention. Pod featured songs equally unembarrassed in their preoccupation with abortion, overdoses, child molesters and ménages à trios. In the wake of these records have come other “babes”: Inger Lorre, Courtney Love of the engagingly-named Hole, Donita Sparks of the hardcore metal quartet L7, and on this side of the Atlantic PJ Harvey and Daisy Chainsaw’s Katie Jane Garside. What they all have in common is a willingness to shout about issues that matter to them: desire, drugs rape, anorexia – and the “balls” to shout about them to the accompaniment of loud guitars (Former cute popsie Siobhan Fahey’s Shakespeare’s Sister is a version of the same impulse.)
Rock’s psycho babes from hell can be seen as symptomatic of the new wave of post-feminist expression exemplified in the work of women like writer bell hooks and performance artist Karen Finley. In a new anthology, Angry Women (Re/Search £14.95), Finley is quoted, alongside Lydia Lunch, Diamanda Galas, Avital Ronnell and others, on the subject of the joyous, liberating physically of The Female: everything, in other words, that so terrifies and emasculates men. “When a woman is trying to express what she truly feels, a man will say, ‘That’s hysterical, perverted, domineering,” says Finley. “All these words reveal the existence of a double standard. It’s interesting that there’s no male word for nymphomaniac. There’s a lot of negativity and jealousy toward women’s sexual abilities: they don’t have to refuel!” Elsewhere in the book, Avital Ronnell decries “men’s horror of blood” and Diamanda Galas – whose blood chilling collection of blues and gospel songs, The Singer, was recently released by Mute Records – charges that “rock singing is just something men do to get laid after a gig.”
The anger in Angry Women, like that in the music of Hole or The Breeders, is bracing, humorous and infectious. “Anger is an emotion which must be reclaimed and legitimised as woman’s rightful, healthy expression”, writes Re/Search editor Andrea Juno, who decided a fitting cover for the book would be a depiction of Medusa. Like the Dionysian ultravixens Juno interviews, the Angry Young Women of ‘90s rock are glam Medusas turning men to stone with their pitiless gaze.
© Barney Hoskyns, Vogue, 1991