The XX Factor

More Out There Than Lady Gaga

The most amusing part of this Jezebel post asking what makes a feminist rock star has got to be the link to Tim Cavanaugh sniffily mansplaining to the women writing about women in music that their work is very cute, if missing a critical economic analysis that supposedly is the master mover of all musical trends, a theory that requires him to pretend America as a whole embraced bands like Huggy Bear and Excuse 17 that worked in a boom time.  But I should give him and Anna N. of Jezebel credit for at least asking what conditions we’ll accept before we call someone a feminist rock star. As a feminist and music fan, it’s an issue that I obsess over to no small degree.

Anna suggested that female musicians who want to be stars nowadays have to accept a persona of starved, sexually available, and cookie-cutter cute, offering Beth Ditto as the exception that proves the rule. I sat down and made a list of female musicians I think escape this trap with grace and style, but I had to throw it out because outside of Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, none were contemporary or popular enough to really offer a counterbalance. I’m forced to conclude sadly that we do live in a backlash era of music, when the most powerful female pop music icons are Beyoncé singing songs of wedding-ring desperation and Lady Gaga, with her rapidly shrinking thighs.

But let’s face it; I don’t see a whole lot of feminists doing the work of pushing back. Feminist icons aren’t handed to you on a silver platter. You have to follow their careers, go to their shows, and buy their records. Instead, I see a lot of feminist bloggers obsess over Lady Gaga’s latest video that does have admittedly campy humor, but also plays it way too safe both music-wise and image-wise to really be as subversive as we hoped it would be. Lady Gaga has a remarkable ability to suck all the oxygen out of the room, but that’s because everyone lets her do it.

I went to South by Southwest this year, as I try to do every year, and I promise you there was no shortage of badass women rocking out in exactly the ways that feminists would like to see. I saw bands reminiscent of foxcore , ones that channeled Le Tigre’s wry sense of dance pop humor , bands recapturing the Cyndi Lauper-esque ‘80s sound,  garage rock post-punk , and artsy queercore . No one was trying to win the audience over by being non-hreatening, no one looked like she was about to pass out from hunger, and I didn’t hear a single song lyric trying to imply that women are born desperate for male validation.

Tim Cavanaugh would have you believe that the interest in female-heavy and even feminist music is simply a product of economic tides, but I’d argue that it’s the result of actual women knowing what they like and going after it. Pop music in the ‘90s became feminist-friendly because it had to-the labels were trying to poach the pro-feminist audience that was carefully built by alternative rock acts like L7, the Breeders, and Sonic Youth that incorporated feminist themes and female musicians. Even Beth Ditto didn’t fall out of the sky into people’s laps but was supported in the underground by fans buying the many Gossip albums that came out before they hit it big. Few things illustrate the Gandhi maxim “Be the change you seek” better than music. If we wait around for a male-dominated music industry to hand it to us, we’ll be waiting for a very long time.