Scream with the She-Rebels

WHILE ROCK’N’ROLL abounds with angry young men, female rage has always been a scarce commodity. There’s been the gleeful anarchy of the Slits, Patti Smith’s beatnik delinquency, the taboo-shattering lyrics and confrontational stance of Lydia Lunch, the forbidding aloofness of Siouxsie and Sinead O’Connor. But there’s never really been any she-rebel equivalent to insurrectionary figures like Johnny Rotten, Axl Rose, or Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain.

All that is changing, however, with the rise of a new wave of anti-heroines in rock. The Minneapolis all-woman trio Babes In Toyland can claim to be trailblazers of the trend with their jagged guitar assault, psychotic rockabilly rhythms, and singer Kat Bjelland’s banshee howl.

After winning a cult following and critical acclaim with their albums, Spanking Machine and To Mother, Babes In Toy-land recently signed to Warner Brothers and are currently recording a new album.

From Los Angeles, Hole offer a similarly gruelling cauldron of negative emotions and abrasive noise. This 75 per cent female quartet is fronted by the charismatic Courtney Love, who was once a friend and musical collaborator with Kat Bjelland. After the success of Hole’s debut album, Pretty On The Inside, the group is currently being wooed by major record companies, including Madonna’s new label.

Both Babes In Toyland and Hole take confessional song-writing beyond soul-baring and into the realm of emotional nudism. Feelings of bodily disgust are depicted in stark, visceral language.

Babes In Toyland’s idea of the cathartic role of art is emblazoned in song titles like ‘Vomit Heart’ and ‘Fork Down Throat’. “It’s scream therapy,” says Bjelland. “It’s akin to the way you feel better after you’ve thrown up. That’s why I’m so well-adjusted now. Before I made music, I used to walk around in silence for days, or do obnoxious things to myself.”

If there’s a fundamental difference between the new female angst-rockers and their male counterparts, it’s probably connected with the theory that female anger is implosive where male rage is explosive. Men are more likely to project their aggression outwards as violence or vandalism; women tend to direct it against themselves, in practices such as anorexia, bulimia or “delicate self-cutting”.

In the wake of Hole and Babes In Toyland, a legion of female grunge bands have sprung up in America, the foremost being L7, Mudwimmin, Come, and Calamity Jane. On a more commercial level, there’s the Los Angeles-based Nymphs, an art-metal group featuring the haunting vocals and manic-depressive lyrics of Inger Lorre. Lorre is surely unique in that her record label, Geffen, refused to let the group record their debut album until she’d undergone psychiatric treatment.

In Britain, there’s P.J. Harvey, whose tortured folk-rock has been showered with critical garlands in recent months. Her debut album, Dry, will be released in a couple of weeks. And there’s Daisy Chainsaw, who recently scarred the Top 30 with their ‘Lovesick Pleasure’ EP.

Daisy Chainsaw vocalist Katie-Jane Garside’s deranged stage persona (she performs dressed in rags with her limbs streaked with mud) has been compared to Ophelia’s derangement in Hamlet.

One common thread that connects many of these angry female rockers is that they take punk and heavy metal’s adolescent tantrums back even further to childhood traumas. Babes In Toyland’s name, the album title Spanking Machine and Kat Bjelland’s childlike clothing, all suggest some kind of regression is at work.

According to Inger Lorre, the Nymphs song ‘Just One Happy Day’ is written from the viewpoint of a five-year-old girl who can’t articulate her despair, while ‘The River’ is about a neglected eight-year-old who drowns trying to reach the kingdom of heaven, which he believes lies at the bottom of the river.

Both Kat Bjelland and Courtney Love say they identify not so much with glamorous outsiders as outcasts: “underdogs, scapegoats, geeks, the sort of people who get picked on at school”.

Why are these angry young women getting so much attention right now? Perhaps it’s because rock ‘n’ roll has been around so long that every permutation of male emotion has been exhausted. The only new frontier left for rock is the exploration of female experience.

© Simon ReynoldsThe Observer, 15 March 1992

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