Swagger Like Us: Thoughts on Women in Music, 2000-09

Tobi Vail

Tobi Vail. ((photo by Joaquin de la Puente)) hide caption

itoggle caption ((photo by Joaquin de la Puente))

At the end of the '90s, I got excited when I realized that young girls no longer needed to hang out with creepy record-collector guys in order to find out about cool music. Information was out there for everyone to access equally via the Internet. Knowledge about obscure records could no longer be hoarded and used as power. Previously out-of-print gems in the punk-girl canon — such as Dolly Mixture's Demonstration Tapes, The Raincoats' first record and the Teenage Jesus and the Jerks discography — had all been reissued on CD. Maybe we could stop flirting for mix tapes and just go to the record store without having to make nice to the know-it-all guy behind the counter who didn't treat us with respect.

Dolly Mixture "Step Close Now"

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I asked a younger friend of mine if he thought the Internet had eliminated the hierarchy of "cool," and he said, "Instead of hanging out with annoying record-collector guys, kids today just read that guy's blog, but the same guys still get to decide what's considered cool." I think he's right regarding hipster culture, where there does seem to be a handful of male-dominated music sites that exert a disproportionate influence over what's trendy. But women have thrived in the past 10 years, and our history is being documented and preserved like never before.

Mo-Dettes "White Mice"

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Today, previously hard-to-find records by '60s soul queens Irma Thomas, Marva Whitney and Betty Davis are readily available. People know who Betty Harris, Meredith Monk, Karen Dalton and Patty Waters are, and if they don't, they can easily find out once they hear a name. Listservs such as Typical Girls offer a place to share information about out-of-print recordings by esoteric post-punk groups like Y Pants, Bush Tetras, Fatal Microbes, The Mo-Dettes and Snatch. A new generation of all-female bands such as Erase Errata, Mika Miko, Wet Dog and Finally Punk were informed by this history. "Feminal" all-female punk groups The Raincoats and The Slits reunited, and still play to responsive crowds who know all the words to their old songs; original members of both groups are actively pursuing solo careers. ESG, Pylon and Young Marble Giants are groups everyone has heard of, if not heard. Yoko Ono has a new record out at 76!

Bush Tetras "Too Many Creeps"

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Erase Errata "Marathon"

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Mika Miko "Wild Bore"

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From Missy Elliott's sex-positive "Get Ur Freak On" to M.I.A.'s post-colonial feminist take on "Third World democracy" in Paper Planes, there have been some amazing moments for strong, independent women in pop and R&B. Beyonce modernized the woman-power of '70s soul divas like Chaka Khan and Labelle and took it to the next level by touring with an all-female backing band. Ciara's "Like a Boy" addressed gender politics directly, asking, "Would the same rules still apply" if tables were turned. Solange's ferocious "F—- the Industry (Signed Sincerely)" was one of the punkest songs of the decade. "No Drama" by Mary J. Blige became the anthem of countless women and girls who are sick of all the catty games and abuse. Alicia Keys sang the blues beautifully in "Fallin'," gave a shoutout to working moms in "Superwoman" and demanded respect in "A Woman's Worth." Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse and Estelle played with personae and femininity and exuded charisma in the Madonna style. Rye Rye, Yo Majesty and Santogold had underground dance hits that got the ladies on the floor.

Yo Majesty "Club Action"

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DJ Blaqstarr featuring Rye Rye "Shake It To The Ground"

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Santogold "Creator"

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At the end of the '90s, The Spice Girls watered-down version of "girl power" had me questioning whether there was a place for real independent women in mainstream pop culture, not to mention the effectiveness of the early-'90s riot-grrl movement in the face of this blatant co-option of our terminology. But by the end of this decade, not only have DIY feminists taken riot grrl to the next level with Ladyfest and Rock 'N' Roll Camp For Girls, but M.I.A. performed while nine months pregnant on the Grammys, challenging conventional notions of what it means to be a working mother and an artist in front of a mass audience on live TV. It's a great time to be a female musician and music fan. Let's hope the ladies keep ruling in the years to come. I think we will.

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