Lady Gaga, Grrrl Power, and Rock’n’Roll Feminism


The massive internet crush to see Lady Gaga and Beyoncé’s new video, “Telephone,” (a bizarre, inconsistent confection of beguiling and derivative imagery) last week, heralded Gaga’s coronation as a pop star the likes of which we haven’t seen since the days of Michael Jackson and Madonna, one who has taken the commercial form and infused it with a kind of art and unpredictability, rendering a release of a new music video an “Event.” (Meanwhile, her songs are still garden variety dance tunes.)

But there’s more to it than that — both pop starlets, but especially Gaga, constantly play with gender, the notion of female power and the expectations we have for female bodies. And whether or not we like their message, feminists can’t help but be intrigued by pseudo-feminist pop music, since it brings a discussion of our pet issues to an audience millions of times larger than of our own sizable but niche community. Whether Beyonce’s dressing up like a man or Gaga is turning her nearly-bare body into a canvas we can’t help but tune in.

Feminists long to embrace Gaga as one of our own. First Gaga dismissed feminism while espousing its ideas, deeply disappointing us, then admitted she was “a bit of a feminist” prompting cheers. Her interpretation of her own brand of feminism via music video — beyond illustrating the commodification of the female form — seems to involve a lot of women killing men. Whatever. The reason feminists appreciate Gaga over a somewhat more overtly political pop artist like Pink is that Gaga’s art itself is far more subversive, even if its ideology lacks a distinct focus.

Just as the hubbub over “Telephone” was breaking, I happened to be making my way through Marissa Meltzer’s book “Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music” chronicling the evolution of femme-centric music in the era of the author’s youth, from Riot Grrrl to Lilith Fair to the Spice Girls and Britney Spears. Meltzer gives us a fast-paced history of the way “girl power” music moved from blatantly feminist and organic to vaguely “empowering” and mainstream. She presents a positive spin even while critiquing uber-corporate groups like The Spice Girls or singers like Miley Cyrus. Meltzer sees the mere presence of confident-seeming young women belting out songs and dance numbers as a great intuitive, emotional way for young fans to connect with ideals of independence, self-esteem and sisterhood, whether or not that message includes true anti-patriarchy undertones.

What It Feels Like For A Girl

Melter makes a compelling argument about the girlish trappings that accompanied many of these musical movements, from the barrettes and schoolgirl skirts sported by the punky, feminist Riot Grrrls to the pink glitter favored by pop tarts. Meltzer refers back to the theories of feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan, calling this obsession with the trappings of girlhood “a nod to their joyous youth.”

“…when girls are little, they are true to their beliefs, speaking their minds and getting angry. They’re confident, they’re proud of being different, they’re happy to resist authority. According to Gilligan, girls go through a crisis of confidence at puberty; their self-esteem plummets and they never fully recover.”

It’s a concept that resonates, explaining why those of us who abhor gender norms remain nostalgic for the period of our lives in which we may have embraced frills, pastels, dolls and other super-feminine signifiers while also indulging in “tomboyish” behavior — because neither of these gendered extremes were loaded. They were natural and fun.

Meltzer implies that pop, rock and hip-hop stars stars who strut and gyrate across the stage adorned in the accessories of their childhood, from pacifiers to kilts to headbands, are merging the confidence of girlhood with the sexual maturity of adulthood, daring us to stop them. The far-reaching arm of the term and concept is evident in feminist-tinged songs like No Doubt’s “Just a Girl,” Garbage’s “Stupid Girl,” Madonna’s “What It Feels Like for a Girl” and Liz Phair’s “Girls! Girls! Girls!”

The term “girl power,” which has now fully entered the vocabulary, was coined by the explicitly third-wave feminist Riot Grrrl movement. Over time the term stuck, particularly after the Spice Girls adopted it as their official motto, and got watered down further — Meltzer even notes that conservative groups use it now. Girl Power has become an official term for feminism lite. Meanwhile Meltzer writes of the Spice Girls choice to use their sassy, pro-girl message to hawk products rather than raise consciousness: “the meaning behind the words [girl power] became depoliticized and diluted to the point that they became just another faddish catchphrase.”

I wasn’t aware of the music scene during the Riot Grrrl era and only appreciated those groups later on, but I do remember distinctly being in 8th grade and seeing the era of mainstream rockers with a feminist bent like Meredith Brooks, Shawn Colvin and Paula Cole get upended and replaced by a combination of media backlash and the Spice Girls’ unstoppable march onto the world stage. At 14, I was torn between a burgeoning feminist disgust for these platform-boot wearing, peace-sign flashing Brits, and a conformist middle-school inability to resist the hypnotic, catchy, spreading-like-wildfire message of “girl power.”

Who is a feminist musician?

Thanks to the Spice Girls, says Meltzer, we’ve seen a dissemination of the girl power mantra to the whole universe. This has its positive and negative side — every female star wants to espouse a form of girl power, but when boy-toy groups like the Pussycat Dolls claim to be feminist, the messages get way too garbled.

Still, the results of the girl power music revolution, both indie and corporate, are clearly felt today, and they’re mostly positive. This weekend, the Onion’s AV club released a list of feminist songs that, in the authors’ opinion, missed the boat on being legitimately feminist. The fact that there are now professional critics debating faux-feminism vs. real feminism in music shows the legacy of the 90s. We can have our true feminist artists like Bikini Kill, Ani DiFranco, and more, while powerful female pop artists can mix strains of feminism into mega hits that reach bedrooms in every household in America.

The AV Club’s list prompted a spirited thread on Jezebel in which commenter after commenter presented his or her own favorite feminist anthems, from pop songs to lesser-known indie fare, from punk to rap to hip-hop and beyond. Jill Filipovic at Feministe and the community there responded in kind, noting that there’s more choice than ever for a pro-woman playlist.

Rock and Roll can be, and often is, political. But even acts like the Beatles, Dylan and Stones frequently mangled their revolutionary philosophies  in their attempts to be incendiary. Very few artists have a clear-cut coherent political agenda, and those that do often perform on the margins. But it’s almost besides the point. Music has an unquantifiable quality in its rhythm, production and melody that can add to, or detract from or even create a political message — and broadcast it further than any other medium. Lady Gaga’s music is  dance-pop, but her appearance and style have vaulted her to another level of challenging the status quo. While an overtly feminist pop star hasn’t come around yet — and may be a contradiction in terms — feminist dialogue about music will flourish more and more as female musicians take control of their message and the girl power phenomenon continues to evolve.

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  • dadumdumdada

    When Patti Smith released her album “Horses,” she didn’t have any explicit references to feminism in the lyrics. However, by dressing in men’s clothing on the cover, she initiated a sea-change: no longer did women in rock’n’roll need to be relegated to the stereotypical “chick singer” role.

    Since that time the field of rock’n’roll opened-up vastly for women, yet many women are still able to be stereotyped via the image that they project. Lady Gaga is a prime example of the backwards-notion of the “chick singer,” whose value lies entirely in their role as a sex-object.

    Rather than waste time defending what you readily admit is “garden variety dance music,” I think you would benefit yourself more to further explore Riot Grrrl, as well as it’s offshoots. Kathleen Hanna’s post-Bikini Kill projects, her solo “Julie Ruin” CD as well as Le Tigre, would be an excellent place to start. You can then progress to Sleater-Kinney and Sarah Doughter, then make new, exciting discoveries on your own.

    Life is too short and precious to waste on “pop tarts.” Why settle for second-best, or third-rate? Get real!

  • courtneyesmith

    You did a good job bring disparate incidents together here. You also reminded me why I hated the fashion of riot grrrl while loving the music — I wanted so badly, as a junior high and high school student in the ’90s, to dress like a grown up and embrace the independence anthems. The infantilizing fashions always drove me nuts. I wanted Courtney Love to be dressed like Joan Jett instead of a demented baby doll. Just personal preference, I guess.