Chicks Rock: No Shit, Sherlock

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!

12 thoughts on “Chicks Rock: No Shit, Sherlock”

  1. In case you didn’t notice, Meg did change her appearance after The White Stripes started gaining popularity….she lost about thirty pounds.

  2. I’m sorry, but how is Meg White ‘saving’ this for you? Yes she is the drummer, although Jack White is the group’s musicial innovator (writing, producing, etc)and she rarely speaks in interviews, and Jack has made comments regarding her as ‘innocent’ ‘childlike’ and the like. She’s merely an inanimate object/muse.

  3. Don’t get me wrong, I really like the new girl “rock” groups, even if they are Runaway clones. But I agree with this article in that girls have already proven they can play as hard as the boys. What’s with the male bashing/slut/faux female empowerment of the cheap Donna’s lyrics? I’d rather listen to All Girl Summer Fun Band…or Turbonegro…or both.

  4. well…. I am , by no means, a fan of pop, BUT there are some decent female role models there, take Brandy for one….she married young, kept her baby (her mother told MTV that she even questioned Brandy on that) and is enjoying her new life….same with those Spice girls…same with that Dixie Chick…I think that for so long all the women were walking skeletons, injected with some silicone boobs, and now at least some (Madonna) are showing young women that it is a great thing to be in love and extend your family. I’m certainly not saying that I hope 14 year olds do this, but women in their 20’s, that should be BEYOND all of that stereotyping bullshit of being a pam anderson clone, should be happy with themselves , and I think that the above women are setting a great example for us.

    Now, on to the music. Well, like I said, I am no fan of pop…so no comment there. As much as I dislike Courteney Love as a person, I love her music. I think the Corrs are pretty talented. I have no use for Britney, Christina, Ashanti, etc. I play 4 instruments myself and I feel that any music act should at least have SOME musical ability. Alicia Keys is great, she should be a role model to the young black woman, you can be pretty, skinny and have TALENT.

  5. Matthew, you’re right that Meg has an infantilized image, but to me it’s so obviously an act. The hair in bunches, the minidresses– no one would imitate her, because it’s already a put-on. I think she’s only an inanimate object in interviews, and those aren’t always true representations of people.

    But you make a good point in that she’s pushed to the back by Jack in many ways, and she seems compliant.

    She does play drums really well. I was sort of kidding in choosing her, rather arbitrarily, to embody female strength. Those arguments about subverting traditional sexual imagery while at the same time using it wholeheartedly, which bloomed around Madonna in the 80s, are so well worn that I wanted to spoof them.

    Crystal, I agree that there are some good role models in the pop/rock world. I hope they DO give the message to young women that they should be happy with themselves. Too much in the media gives them the message that they should reshape themselves into other, slicker, often airbrushed images.

  6. in response to some girl:

    as a huge-ass white stripes fan, i have (obviously) seen many pictures of them. i would argue that meg did not lose 30 pounds. in fact, she looks about the same in all the pictures I’ve seen–1999 to present day.

  7. Having seen Meg hanging out in Detroit on various occasions over the years, I can confirm the ridiculousness of the 30 pounds allegation. She looks exactly the same today as she did before anyone outside of the D knew who the Stripes were. Unsurprisingly, when I’ve seen her hanging with friends, she hasn’t been putting on the innocent act or playing the Meg White character that’s part of the band’s schtick.

  8. why would the writer of this article (kristy) “jokingly” refer to meg as a female role model? why would she mention her at all? why do women in rock have to be singled out for being dickless??? why can’t we look up to guys but still be feminine? when was five i wanted to be davod bowie. i still sorta of do. i don’t really need a “strong female role model” to feel okay about having a clit. meg white seems like an interesting PERSON… if that had been the purpose of the article it would have made some sense… although i can think of about fifty MORE interesting people!

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