A friend of mine, knowing my interest in both music and academia, forwarded an announcement of a Midwestern conference titled “Chicks Rock: Women in the Face of Rock and Roll.” My first thought was: oh boy, how obsolete can you get? Is there anything left to say about women’s strong and exciting contributions to rock? I’d say they’ve made their place, they’re in the rock world and there’s nothing remarkable about that anymore. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or an academic) to see that Patti Smith is as powerful and compelling a rock figure as any male you could name. Or that Madonna and Bjork cut their swathes in the pop world with as much talent and charisma as Elvis P. or Michael Jackson. Now, the Donnas are a fun (if retro) punk/pop band and Sleater-Kinney is one of the best contemporary rock bands in the world. Is there a difference in what these rock musicians/bands do and what male rock bands/musicians do?
But I always want to get in on these things, so I rack my brains for an angle that might work for a paper. One question in the conference write-up is, “How are women changing culture through music?” Well, they’re showing up on the charts in record numbers, if that means anything, and it should—the latest Billboard Top 100 lists the Dixie Chicks, Norah Jones and Avril Lavigne in the top three. But as for actively changing culture, it seems like only the divas of hip hop, like Missy Elliott, are offering strong role models lately—if role modelship should still be a question where women artists are concerned. Just two days ago, I read that good ol’ Madonna has made an anti-war video, and good for her for speaking up during this Dubya-influenced cultural lull we seem to be experiencing. But—and I’m not as much of a pop culture observer as my colleagues here at Glono—haven’t things gone backwards of late? The chart-rulers are often the navel-exposing sex kittens we deplore (yet follow in sick fascination). For female figures of real strength, we’ve celebrated the same rock figureheads—Kim Gordon, Joni Mitchell, Chrissie Hynde, Sleater-Kinney, Siouxie Sioux, Marianne Faithfull, Ani DeFranco—in ‘Women in Rock’ books time and again.
I want to say: Women musicians are writing their songs and performing and expressing themselves, the same as male musicians. Is it harder for them to get somewhere? Well, that’s another question and doesn’t seem to be the focus of the conference. Wouldn’t a better subject be the one raised by Joni Mitchell in a recent edition of Rolling Stone that asks, why are female musicians not venerated with the same seriousness that males are? Why does the industry seem geared against them appearing as human beings instead of in a restricted handful of personas: angry punk, soulful sensitive warbler, angry/soulful warbler, and that’s about it. Kristin Hersh commented some time ago that you’re always supposed to be angry as a female performer. Why has the full range of human emotions been open to male musicians while women are framed (by this conference too, even) as representing something essentially female rather than human?
I don’t think about these questions much anymore, though. One’s thoughts are dominated by Britney Spears and the problems she engenders. I think about a documentary I saw on PBS about the problem of conformity among teenage girls. Following Britney, they seem anxious to project a sexuality they may not yet feel or understand. This dreary faking preempts the process of self-discovery—something not only essential to being human, but which usually produces the best art, too. Of course, there’s fun in inauthenticity, and nothing wrong with parading around in a persona. Pop icons have always done it. But personas who don’t acknowledge that they are personas (compare Britney to the archly self-aware Boy George) are swallowed whole by naïve teenagers. Maybe it’s not dangerous, but the falsity makes it, at the very least, banal.
But running my mind over my admittedly sketchy knowledge of contemporary rock, I find a figure who seems to represent some degree of individuality: Meg White. Yeah, Meg White! There she sits, bashing away on the drums while her dramatic older brother/ex-husband howls his way through the White Stripes’ brilliant, dirty-sounding blues/rock. Meg White is not like that other female drummer of a brother-sister duo, Karen Carpenter who, tragically, tried to starve herself into the culture’s ideal of feminine beauty. Meg seems happy with her appearance and hasn’t done anything to make it conform more closely to magazine-style prettiness. Her lank brown hair hasn’t been given a trendy cut, and her outfits are still the goofy red-and-white, ’60s carhop-type mini-dresses that she and Jack must have decided on at the beginning. Now, will Jack’s dominance begin to assert a terrible pressure on Meg? Karen Carpenter was, as a recent two-hour E! True Hollywood Story made clear, only slowly taken over by a feeling of helplessness. But one senses—or E! made you see—that she was troubled by shaky self-esteem from the beginning. Meg doesn’t seem to be, but who knows. But for the moment, she will be my academic sacrificial lamb.
So here goes (warning, jargon coming): Meg White embodies an ironic response to the male gaze by appropriating the costume of a subjugated female—i.e., the classic 60s figure of the carhop—but occupying a traditional site of male power—i.e., the seat behind the drum kit. Meg’s lack of ‘voice’ in the band is balanced by her assumption of rhythmic power. Framing herself as an archetype, she is simultaneously subverting that archetype…
You know, none of that is untrue. It’s just out-of-date language, and I know it comes across as incredibly nasty. But isn’t it condescending to rope all women-in-rock together as one comprehensive group? British author Margaret Drabble refuses to allow her writing to appear in anthologies of women’s writing, simply because she considers herself a writer, period. I’m not saying feminism has won every battle it was fighting—in fact, ground has been lost, and we need to keep fighting. But this women-in-rock thing is as annoying to me as the editing in the movie The Hours, which showed eggs being cracked into a bowl in Virginia Woolf’s London, and then in Julianne Moore’s suburban America! The point was valid, but it hit you over the head. Wow! Eggs, cracked by women, in different decades! Like, women, playing guitar, wow!