The Evolution of Riot Grrl and Girl Power in Music
From ‘girl power’ to ‘riot grrl’ and back again
The Spice Girls coined ‘girl power’ and it’s a fluffy term for a female perspective that deserves to be popularised but not cheapened. Music is a great platform for feminism. From the blues and Motown legends to Riot Grrls like Bikini Kill and modern Power Girls like Beth Ditto, Hayley Foster gives us a short and sweet history of musical girl power.
When the words ‘girl power’ are mentioned, it’s most people’s immediate reaction to automatically think of the Spice Girls.
But was it really the Spice Girls who started the ‘girl power’ movement? What about ‘girl power’ in the modern day? Does it still exist in music and who are the representatives of it now?
Even though the Spice Girls may have been one of the first bands to actually use the phrase ‘girl power’ and also be very commercially successful, I believe the roots of ‘girl power’ in music started a long time before.
How about back in 1952? She probably never even uttered the phrase, but surely Big Mama Thornton was a damn good start for ‘girl power’ in music to begin. For those who don’t know, Big Mama Thornton was actually the first artist to sing the song “Hound Dog”, which has now sadly been overshadowed by the Elvis Presley version. Her version was also very successful; it was number one on the Billboard R and B charts for seven weeks. Big Mama Thornton was a blues legend and is still relevant today. She was performing all her life, right up to her death. If that’s not ‘girl power’ then I don’t know what is.
The next stage in the evolution of ‘girl power’ was in the sixties. Of course, feminism was not at the stage it is now, but women in music were making a big impression. In the sixties, all the girl groups emerged, such as The Supremes and The Ronettes. The girls in these bands may not have been feminists, and were often controlled and severley limited by male music tycoons who churned the groups out one after another (think about the Motown exploitation process) but there’s no doubt about their success and popularity. Songs like “Baby Love” by The Supremes and “Dancing in the Street” by Martha and The Vandellas have lasted the test of time.
The nineties of course, were a turning point for ‘girl power’ in music. Most notably, The Spice Girls. However there were many more bands and artists that embodied ‘girl power’ in this decade and were perhaps truer to the ethos behind the phrase. The bands Bikini Kill, L7, Bratmobile and many others helped to create the genre ‘Riot Grrrl’.
‘Riot Grrrl’ was a true, organically-grown form of ‘girl power’. The artists associated with the Riot Grrrl movement were feminists, and not afraid to speak up for issues they believed in. They provided inspiration for women around the world with their political song lyrics and DIY philosophy. Riot Grrrl may not have been mainstream but it created a new stage in the evolution of ‘girl power’ in music. One where women were not only successful, but good role models for girls and women by just being themselves and not just women looking pretty. Riot Grrrl still exists now, although it is (still) not in the mainstream.
This could change though, with bands like The Gossip and The Noisettes becoming more successful. Beth Ditto, lead singer of The Gossip, is not your typical front woman. She’s large and proud of it, and is quite frankly a big squirrel-eating opinionated bi whose current boyfriend at the time of writing this article used to be a girl. Yet the media has embraced her, and she even posed naked on the cover of NME. In fact, NME journalists and readers voted her one of the sexiest women of the year. Although if we’re being honest they probably wouldn’t want to ask her out if she wasn’t famous, it’s great to see that her musical prowess and charisma provided a platform for feminism that even the NME would find incredibly attractive.
So, now we are in the noughties, what is the current state of ‘girl power’? I personally believe Beth Ditto is the front woman currently for this notion. She is happy with the way she looks, and is generally a good role model for girls (even writing an advice column in The Guardian newspaper).
Other than Beth, we have other ‘girl power’ artists like Lily Allen and Kate Nash. I know many people may argue it’s bands like Girls Aloud and Beyonce that are ‘girl power’. Yes, they may be successful but are they really good role models for girls? Girls Aloud lost lots of weight after becoming successful and yet only a few months ago they rated their bodies from a very low perspective and said they would consider plastic surgery in a magazine interview. Beyonce uses her bottom as a selling point. ‘girl power’? I don’t think so.
Singers like Lily Allen, Kate Nash and Remi Nicole write witty, intelligent lyrics. Lily Allen isn’t afraid to say what she thinks, and even though she at one point wrote on her MySpace blog that she was unhappy and considering plastic surgery, she later retracted this statement and stated there’s more to life than being thin. It’s good to see honest thought processes in action. I love the fact that at the recent V Festival she slated magazines like Heat for making women feel bad.
To conclude, ‘girl power’ in music has certainly come a long way. It’s not necessarily about shouting it from the rooftops. ‘girl power’ is about being a woman, respectful of and thoughtful about the female position, and successful. ‘girl power’ is not succumbing to fear about who you are and not giving in to what people think of you, but creating a positive image of yourself. Girls need role models to look up to who they can relate to. Music is a great way to influence them, so my message to women in music make yourself heard and believe in yourself!