Is 2013 The Year for Militant Feminism in Music?

Feminism has been mainly absent in popular music for the last decade, says Steph Kretowicz, until now...

Enough is enough. So goes the resounding message of contemporary feminism in 2013. An exasperated call for equality from Grimes ("I don’t want to have to compromise my morals in order to make a living"), a vocal condemnation of Greg Wilson’s patronising defence of Nina Kraviz’s sexuality and an unsubtle message from Planningtorock noisily declaring her objective in ‘Misogyny Drop Dead’. Even CocoRosie, usually defiantly numb to heteronormative authority while frolicking in a self-created gender queer bubble, join the chorus of change while promoting their latest Tales of A GrassWidow with Bianca Casady’s frank declaration, "Patriarchy is over".

There’s been a solid half-decade of relative quiet from women, politically, in music. Le Tigre fizzled out and Peaches’ influence dwindled sharply since her macho parodies Fatherfucker and Impeach My Bush mingled politics with electroclash. The insidious reach of sexual gender violence has continued to infiltrate the mainstream, with the exoneration of Chris Brown being one of many insidious examples. For too long the oblique strategies of neoliberalism have been suppressing society’s margins through atomisation, implication and ridicule.

Cue: The Knife, whose new album Shaking The Habitual is probably the most visible example of this current resurgence of feminist militancy in music. Explicit references to Butler, Foucault and Winterson abound, while Dreijer-Andresson hisses through the crackle of distortion, "not a vagina. It’s an option / the cock, had it coming" in ‘Full of Fire’, before dropping a 19-minute stream of uneasy, droning ambience under the revealing title ‘Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realised’. No longer the pop infiltrator of the past – licensing ‘Heartbeats’ to José Gonzáles, Sony and Entourage – The Knife seem to understand that collusion is not only futile but detrimental within a late capitalist system that thrives on co-opting and depoliticising its opposition. We’ve had a long run of marketable, and ultimately unhelpful, brands of "girl power" thanks to the Spice Girls and Pussycat Dolls, continuing to this day with Ke$ha’s sexy feminism and pole dancing classes. So, what changed?

Could it be that the blunting method of what Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism describes as a consumer culture of constant "sugary gratification" is no longer effective in the face of a bleak economic outlook, leaving its citizens to question free market capitalism’s very legitimacy as a system to function within? It was recently announced that the Eurozone recession would only get worse, the United States’ recovery from economic malaise has been described as the weakest since the Great Depression, and governments have responded with isolationist foreign policy and restrictive austerity measures. When times are tough the people who suffer most are those at the bottom, and it’s fairly apparent who they are. Ethnic minorities, the economically disadvantaged, queer groups and women are the ones victimised by rightist ideologies catering to the inevitable reactionary conservatism that comes with economic crisis. US Republican Todd Akin’s comments on "legitimate rape", conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh’s outrageous remarks equating contraception with promiscuity and David Cameron’s anti-immigration rhetoric would do nothing for their popularity amongst their scapegoats, and it’s showing. The Occupy movement, civil unrest and marriage equality marches are a response to a deep-seated discontent, and are building momentum as a social and political force.

There are clear parallels between the current global woes and the slump following the 1987 stock market crash: two wars in the Gulf, Thatcherite privatisation policies, Generation X graduating into a grim job market and the Christopher Glazek and Sean Monahan-coined "certainty of hopelessness" for Y to follow.

But this sense of déjà vu in the developed world is particularly apparent within music, and this year’s Meltdown Festival, which begins this week in London, is a case in point. Curated by Yoko Ono, the programme includes iconic women from recent history, including Patti Smith, Marianne Faithfull and Ikue Mori, but significantly Kim Gordon, Peaches and the Guerilla Girls – artists that emerged in those particular periods of recession, the ’80s and ’90s.

The programme will also include two collaborative weekend forums based around ‘Activism’ and ‘Future Now’. These two things seem to have been lost in the early ’00s in the face of Mayan doomsday despondence, perhaps in response to the political conditions that bred the fatalistic motto – credited to Slavoj Žižek and Fredric Jameson and explored by Fisher in Capitalist Realism – "it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism".

Pussy Riot, a band who draw heavily on a Riot Grrrl ethos, penetrated the public consciousness forcefully during their incarceration last year. At Meltdown, the ’80s-founded and gorilla-masked Guerilla Girls will appear alongside the launch of new book Let’s Start A Pussy Riot in the Activism Weekend program, having previously collected The Knife’s Grammy awards in protest of the male-dominated music industry in 2003.

The latter Swedish duo’s Shaking The Habitual, too, is peppered with references to an era that they themselves lived, as part of that early ’60s to early ’80s-born ‘Lost Generation’. Salt N Pepa’s groundbreaking 1991 hit ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’ is raised as a conversation that started more than 20 years ago, barely evolved and yet to reach a resolution, with Dreijer-Andersson barking, "let’s talk about gender baby / let’s talk about you and me" through a scrambled vocal filter in ‘Full of Fire’. There’s a nod to Fugazi in ‘Raging Lung’s "what a difference, a little difference would make", lifted from their 1990 Blueprint, which warned against the dangers of consumerism and the illusion of agency proliferated by free-trade propaganda ("never mind what’s been selling, it’s what you’re buying"). Fugazi were famous for their DIY ethics, and for remaining staunchly committed to their active, anti-corporate ideologies. The Knife carry on in the same tradition by releasing the album through their own label Rabid Records, hiring an almost all female tour crew and carrying the mantle of the third wave’s broadening of feminist thought in their dialetic.

Third wave feminism seeks to push beyond gender and encompass race, class, gender, ability and sexual orientation, among others, while seeking to redefine exactly what "woman" is. Inevitably, this focus on diversity in feminism has been criticised for its inherent ambiguity and lack of a single position, fragmenting the movement and stunting any real move toward positive action. The Knife, though, don’t let it stop the conversation from continuing in album track ‘Stay Out of Here’, featuring self-identified "young, gifted, gay, black female" and voice of New York’s Light Asylum, Shannon Funchess, and co-written by artist and writer Emily Roysdon. The latter is credited with developing the concept of "ecstatic resistance", a form of conscious activism that promotes unconventional and impractical responses to equally abstract problems.

Yoko Ono herself was a prototype emblem of modern intersectionality in feminism, where social experience is determined by a convergence of those various identities discussed above: gender, race, class, sexual orientation and more. It was for being Japanese and a woman that Ono doubtless provoked blame over the Beatles’ split in 1969. She famously coined the phrase "woman is the n*gger of the world" in an interview that same year, drawing parallels across minorities and the language used to subjugate them. Patti Smith built on that idea with 1978’s ‘Rock N Roll N*gger’, where she sought to redefine that deeply derogatory term as one standing for all outsiders. Both artists will appear at Meltdown as precursors to post-structural feminism, a philosophy that rejects essentialist ideas of gender subjectivity as a social construct. In a myopic present, where post-internet amnesia has fragmented our historical narrative into knee-jerk outrage and Twitter call-out culture – with its focus on denouncement, rather than discussion – it’s crucial that we look back and reconnect with past struggles in order to move forward.

Because it’s no coincidence that the Spice Girls emerged in 1994 – just when Riot Grrrl was at its height – when capitalism’s insatiable hunger for new markets inevitably led it to feminism, appropriating and commodifying its agenda into empty sloganeering. Nor that Cameron’s benefit cuts reflect Reagan’s policy of sending "the welfare bums back to work", if in not so blunt a fashion. Perhaps a microscopic and reductive focus on political language, as opposed to the greater cultural discourse, is not so constructive. Maybe, rather than using feminist writer Suzanne Moore’s transphobic comments to vilify and discount her entire body of work – despite being a significant voice in popular culture – we could encourage a dialogue surrounding those prejudices still pervasive within the media, including the so-called Liberal left. Journalist Paris Lees offered one of few pragmatic responses to the controversy in an open letter to Moore published in Diva magazine, entreating her to understand why so many trans people were so angry. The problem of defining the interrelation of multiple forms of discrimination has not yet been resolved – and to assume so can only harm any hopes of progress. Open, public discourse is key.

In Richard Linklater’s iconic 1991 film, Slacker, a character quotes an aphorism from Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies deck: "Withdrawal in disgust is not the same thing as apathy." It’s perhaps an apt descriptor for the previous generation, but for the 20 and 30-somethings of this century, that feeling of revulsion has come dangerously close to apathy. Ironic bigotry in popular culture, as a response to the implicit discrimination of modern political language, is becoming less countercultural and more counterproductive – vocalising and proliferating existing prejudices.

San Francisco’s Grass Widow, a guitar-based three piece, all women, were treated to a cynical helping of meta-sexism from US Vice writer Thomas Morton in 2012. Morton referenced none of their music, focussed on their "hips and breasts and asses", while rounding off with a frivolous reference to sexual assault ("I guess there’s the whole ‘rape thing’ to deal with, too, but let’s not split hairs here"). The band weren’t amused. "It’s like you’re asked to trash all of these feelings that you could have of being offended or being appalled and shocked at the stuff that they’re so casually promoting," guitarist Raven Mahon told me in an interview promoting their album, Internal Logic, last year. "There’s this air of anti-PC – ‘we’re beyond that, we’re like post-PC, so if you’re offended by this, that’s your problem.’ Isn’t that shock value just going to get old; that gimmick of trying to provoke people? Because underneath all that you still have this extremely misogynistic male-run scene that’s really hurtful, really harmful. It’s frustrating now to see that standing up to that seems futile."

It brings to mind the words of little-known Riot Grrrl band Fifth Column’s ‘All Women Are Bitches’: "Don’t you be so angry, honey, don’t you be sad. Don’t you be so angry, honey, things can’t be all that bad." It’s the sort of condescending attitude toward everyday discrimination that is still rife today. It’s a sentiment echoed by Grimes ("I’m tired of people assuming that just because something happens regularly, it’s ok") and the dismissive response from The Guardian‘s Sam Richards to Olof Dreijer of The Knife’s suggestion that history is manufactured, perpetuating a privileged, white male perspective ("Bet they don’t teach that at the Brit School").

These sorts of belittling attitudes are reflected in a recent video gone viral, Dirty Girls, by Michael Lucid. A 1996 documentary following a group of Santa Monica teenagers, identifying with Riot Grrrl and becoming alienated by their peers as a result, their crudely formed ideas regarding equality and rape culture are derided as "dime store feminism" by an older, more sophisticated, clique of would-be sisters. Unofficially appointed clan leader and Dirty Girl protagonist Amber counters, "a lot of the people that try to make fun of us, they think we’re stupid". With strong links to the third wave, Riot Grrrl’s emphasis on cultural politics, while actively promoting the perspectives of teen girls, recognised the importance of giving voice to a disenfranchised minority, however naïve. That movement, formed in reaction to the political and economic conditions of the time, turned out to be an influential force in modern feminist thought to this very day.

It’s telling, then, that Dirty Girls experienced such a surge of popularity this year. Beyond the obvious 90s nostalgia from a matured generation growing up in the era of grunge and punk, there’s also a sense of exhaustion with the immobilising over-analysis of post modern thought; a desire for truth, a purpose to hold on to. Performers like The Knife and events like Meltdown represent that. Because, when Claire Boucher laments, "I’m sad that it’s uncool or offensive to talk about environmental or human rights issues," she’s resisting the scepticism perpetuated by a system based around neoliberal rationality. That system doesn’t work, so no more excuses.

Yoko Ono’s Meltdown runs between June 14 and 23

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