Friday, May 21, 2010

Elvis Dances Like a Girl and Shirley Manson Scowls Like a Man

I feel very fortunate to have come into adulthood in the 90's in part because there were some pretty kickass women finding success in the traditionally male dominated world of rock.  To be fair, I've always loved male driven rock for its cock-centric focus. I mean, I'm a heterosexual woman, and seeing such male-ness spotlighted is undeniably appealing.  But, I've never bought into the idea that rock music and culture are innately male in form.  In fact, far from strident reinforcement of male/female roles, rock's most interesting artistic contribution to modern society has been it's rebellion against traditional gender codes.  This goes back to Elvis's Ed Sullivan performance, when the network refused to show Elvis from the waist down because of his inappropriate dance style.  His fearless display of solo dancing, an activity seen as feminine in the 50s, felt threatening to a society built on strict gender-based behavioral codes.  Elvis's desire to be watched as he engaged in such gender-bending behavior, only further feminized him...and threatened the very behavioral codes on which 50's culture relied.

Even at it's most masculine, rock 'n' roll has always been a little more feminine than is usually suggested in analytical texts.  Having said that, it has usually been men who enjoyed the most success as performers, while women, aside from the a few chosen ones like Janis Joplin and Grace Slick, were viewed as novelty acts. However, in the 90's, it really felt like women were starting to gain legitimacy as performers.  The Riotgrrl movement receives lots of press in feminist circles.  But the 90's also saw a slew of female rockers transcend such "movements" and find grand scale success.  This was important because movements are usually  marginalized.  Moreover, Riotgrrl was largely a regional I learned of only years later.  As such, I feel little more than mild kinship with the movement.  But the women that follow mattered to those of us who weren't fortunate enough to grow up in hotbeds of feminist subversion.      

Shirley Manson - Garbage.  My personal favorite performer from the 90's by a long long shot.  Her style wasn't that iconic but her presence was equal parts menacing and enticing.  True she had a powerhouse band of boys behind her.  But she was the real star when all was said and done.  She continues to growl and prowl with the best of them.

Courtney Love - I know she has a lot of enemies.  And I know she's always relied on outside help to write songs...whether she was stealing Kurt Cobain's riffs, or "co-writing" with Billy Corgan.  But she has a great big rock 'n' roll personality that rivals any guy that ever played; and anybody who tells you that doesn't matter or shouldn't matter is full of shit. 

Gwen Stefani - to be honest, I've never been a big fan of Gwen's voice.  But her pairing of tomboyish fashion and energy with extremely feminine hair and makeup created a symbolic link between girlishness and strength and expanded the conceptual understanding of femininity; and that was inspiring and important.

Liz Phair - "Everytime I see your face I think of things unpure unchaste.  I want to fuck you like a dog, I'll take you home and make you like."  Gotta love Liz for that lyric alone.  She was a little wisp of a thing that talked like a lot lizard and dared to write an entire album offering a female counterpoint to the Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street.  This is subversion at its finest. 

PJ Harvey - she has become the mark against which every dark haired girl who plays rock guitar with blues influences gets compared...because you know we're all alike.  But hey, if we're gonna get compared to someone, we couldn't ask for anyone better.

Tina Turner - Ain't no one who's rocked harder or for longer than Tina Turner - male or female.

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