In preparation for this blog post, my last weeks have been filled with thoughts about women in music, tough ladies so to speak. For as long as I can remember, girls and women with a badass attitude fascinated me. Now I feel troubled. I don’t want to write about feminism, sexism, women’s rights or similar (political) topics. But can you write about tough ladies in music ignoring this discourse?
Put a woman on stage with a microphone. Sweet, strong, cool, rocking or whatever style or expression she has: this is what we’ve been used to since day one in popular music history. It can definitely be a cool thing but there’s nothing special about it, it’s conventional.
Give that lady an electric guitar and let her play some dark riffs or a solo; now we’re getting there! Are women tough when they do something we’re used to seeing men do or does the instrument emphasize a certain attitude? I can’t answer that. I know it’s plain and I admit to derive straight from the cave: guitars are the most beautifully known penis extension (m/f) and can upgrade anyone with a certain attitude to damn f***ing hot & sexy.
When I was a teenager there weren’t many female instrumentalists in music. The cool boys played, looked and felt sexy with their guitars and basses. The Joan Jett and Suzi Quatro days were over by then, and the first Riot Grrls hadn’t shaken up the music world yet. In my home country there was an all-female band in the end of the 80s called Miss B Haven playing great pop/rock music with amazing lyrics and a slight country music influence. I know how crazy I was about the bass player of Miss B Haven. She looked feminine and tough at the same time. One summer I went to a one-day music festival with some friends. A local guy who was dressing like Axl Rose came along. He was a huge fan of Miss B Haven and had met the ladies on several occasions. He managed to get us back stage and just sat down with them like he was at home, chatted and had the ladies sign his t-shirt and arms. It was pretty cool to be so close to one of my favorite bands at the time, but I was completely intimidated. Just stood around trying to look cool, not really daring to look anyone in the eye, particularly not the cool bass player Lene. I remember sneaking my cheap plastic camera out of the bag and taking a picture secretly, hoping no one would notice.
When Kathleen Hanna called all girls to the front of the stage and asked the men in the audience to go to the back in Olympia, WA in 1990, the attitude of her band Bikini Kill was pretty clear. The Riot Grrls “reclaimed the stage” with harsh words and loud DIY music. A feminist tornado whirling about lots of angry young women with angry words, uninhibited, badass, in a way too much, but free of convention. Refreshing, no doubt, some of these girls were dynamite on stage, and fun. But musically not my thing – and not really sexy, either. The movement crushed itself shortly after it started; too many strong opinions I guess. It’s ironic that a lot of people think Courtney Love was one of the pioneers of the movement. Her attitude was similar, but she wasn’t politically involved, and she had an ongoing feud with Kathleen Hanna. In the Hole song “Olympia”, she even makes fun of Riot Grrls.
What Courtney Love has become is another story; in the mid-90s I thought she was pretty cool: badass, sexy, strong, fucked up and not afraid to admit it. The album Live Through This, recorded in 1993 and released in 1994 a few days after Kurt Cobain killed himself, became one of my favorites at the time. To me it was a relief that the music was about life and not about political issues.
I was never really connected to a political scene, but back then I started hanging out with some radical feminists known for beating up men that had hurt women. Kind of cool, I thought, watching their action from the sideline. At a point I started writing for a feminist fanzine called “Mohawk Beaver.” I was never much of a feminist myself though. I did a series called “Taboo of the Issue.” Today I am ashamed to tell which themes I wrote about; let’s just say that I tried to be as shocking as possible…
When I first heard PJ Harvey’s debut album Dry in 1992, it was love at first sight. What still blows me away about Polly Jean is her fragile expression. Soft and tough, warm and cold at the same time, somewhat angry but in despair. She truly is the master of that contrast and you believe every word she sings. Her guitar playing is mostly simple but what a sound and energy. Epic. I moved to Budapest in the beginning of 1993 and brought a few music cassettes along. I often hung out at a next-door bar/live venue, drinking vörös fröccs (red wine with sparkling water). The barman was happy to play my PJ Harvey cassette all day. When I came to pick it up the next day, someone had stolen it. That was ok. Budapest was slowly turning western back then, and the young were poor. I of course saw it as recognition of my music taste.
In Budapest I heard Sonic Youth for the first time. The album Dirty started an everlasting love affair with Kim Gordon, who for me has always been the reason to like Sonic Youth more than other bands. It’s the band I’ve seen live the most times and at every show I would watch Kim, trying to find out what it is that makes her so cool. Of course she is beautiful, but it’s not that. In a way she seems restrained, concentrated, inside the music, her face not showing much emotion. But yet, you feel her presence in the room strongly, intimidating even. The way she plays the bass or the guitar doesn’t look that feminine, but she does. The way she sings is more a snarling or a whispering, tough. She’s out of reach in a way, on a whole other level. What fascinates me the most is that she’s been playing in the “boys’ league” for all these years without making a statement of it. She’s just a “Girl in a Band.” And no matter how noisy the music gets, she never abandons her femininity. She truly makes me proud to be a woman.
I find it hard to believe that men have more talent than women when it comes to playing an instrument. In the 80s and 90s, female instrumentalists were often added to a band as an eye-cather (Prince, Michael Jackson, Lenny Kravitz, etc.). Today these women are the bands. My favorite example is the coolest lady in music at the moment: Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes. Her talent is unbelievable, her presence on stage breathtaking. She makes no point of pushing the boys in her band to the back, but next to her even Slash would look like a schoolboy.
To all the tough ladies out there: keep on rocking. We love you and we need you!
I’ve put together a playlist with some of the cool ladies from now and then:
Truth, Tears & Rock’n’Roll is a blog about life with the fascination of and thoughts about music, and all the truth, tears and fun that comes with it. It is written by Christina, a long time music lover and music industry worker, based in Berlin, Germany, who has a weakness for melancholy, tough ladies in music, gardening, Netflix and vodka on the rocks.
You can read more of her stories here: https://truthtearsandrocknroll.wordpress.com
Check out a variety of Spotify playlists curated by Christina:
Connect with Truth, Tears & Rock’n’Roll on Facebook: