The History and Future of Female Rock

In the fall of 1990 in the sleepy town of Olympia, WA, just south of Seattle, a new music scene was blossoming. Then college junior at Evergreen State College, Kathleen Hanna, was itching to have her feminist voice be heard. So, Hanna did what any rad 90s girl would do—she started a band. Said band, Bikini Kill, would go on to ignite an entire movement of radical feminist rock known as the riot grrrl movement.

Hanna, inspired by her adolescent idols Kim Gordon and Kathy Acker, led the riot grrrl movement with Bikini Kill and her punk zine of the same name, paving the way for the many female musicians that would follow in her wake. A year later, fellow Evergreen State student Corin Tucker would form the band Heavens to Betsy, also pivotal to the riot grrrl movement. Meanwhile, in Redmond, WA, high school senior Carrie Brownstein received her acceptance to Evergreen State College.

Brownstein went on to attend Evergreen State and as a freshman she formed the band Excuse-17, adding to the ever-growing list of third-wave feminist bands on campus. A year later, both Excuse-17 and Heavens to Betsy split up and Brownstein and Tucker came together to form Sleater-Kinney in 1994. They immediately went on tour in Australia and before they returned to the United States they pulled an all-nighter and recorded their self-titled debut album.

A little over a week ago and more than 21 years after their formation, Sleater-Kinney played the mainstage at Sasquatch Festival at the Gorge Ampitheater, less than 200 miles from their alma mater in Olympia. It was almost surreal to see Tucker, Brownstein, and Weiss onstage together, rocking out with an audience filled with people half their age. Yet, their reemergence as a band coincides perfectly with a stronger-than-ever revival of female rock. The 40-something year-old women of Sleater-Kinney were the forerunners for the younger generation of female rockers that are leaving their mark on 2015.

Another legendary female performer, Jenny Lewis, appeared two days later on the same stage. With a prolific music career of her own, Lewis had an aura of wisdom and poise as she sang her sleepy pop-rock songs off her latest album The Voyager. Lewis, like her Sleater-Kinney compadres, captured the mainstage audience with her musical prowess and superiorly smooth vocals. Veterans like Brownstein and Lewis are harbingers for the newer ladies to hit the scene like Courtney Barnett. It’s been a breakout year for the Australian rocker whose songwriting abilities have been compared to those of Neil Young.

Barnett stands out from the crowd because she’s making some of the most honest rock n’ roll out there. She combines the best of garage and folk to create her slurred, messy sound that somehow gets it just right. Her no-frills vocal stylings and acerbic lyrics undoubtedly make for a great studio album, but her live show proves her worth as an artist. She’s a whiz at guitar and a captivating performer in the humblest way. Her quirky Australian accent doesn’t hurt either.

Barnett is one of the most exciting new artists on the landscape, joined by St. Vincent, Ex Hex, Torres, Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz, and Kate Tempest, to name a few. With so many talented women, 2015 seems to be the year of female rockers—thanks in part to the festival circuit that gives new artists like Kate Tempest and Ex Hex an opportunity to gain new fans and garner media attention. As music festival attendance becomes equally divided among the sexes, the demand for female performers increases as well. True to the law of supply and demand, we see more female bands popping up.

Take the ladies of Ex Hex, for example. Mary Timony, Betsy Wright, and Laura Harris are all seasoned musicians with a laundry list of other bands to each of their names. Yet, they’ve come together in the last 18 months to form the rock trio Ex Hex—channeling all their heroes from Joan Jett to Led Zeppelin.

They’re adamant in interviews that they want to be taken seriously as a band, and not just a girl band. With so many female acts playing the summer festival circuit it appears as though change is in the water for the way we talk about and receive female musicians.

The ghettoization of these bands as “female rock acts” seems backwards and counter-productive in an industry as liberal as the music industry, especially in 2015. If we categorize these bands as “female” before anything else we fail to make the most important comparisons. When these female bands become just a ‘band’ then we can compare them to their male counterparts; it is these comparisons have the power to jettison bands to greater success.

Of course these ladies are the best in rock; they’re the only ladies in rock.

Gone are the days of women needing to find a group of dudes worthy of starting a band with. We live in a world where the female performer reigns supreme: Beyonce, Taylor Swift, and Lana del Rey all perform sold-out stadium shows and have had multi-platinum albums. Nicky Minaj and Meghan Trainor have liberated and destigmatized rearends everywhere. In pop music, the gender lines seem less derisive than they do in rock, but with this new slew of female acts there is hope that the face of rock can change. With Sleater-Kinney as predecessors and Courtney Barnett as the future, rock can only become more androgynous, more empowering and more inclusive of X chromosomes.

text by: Stephanie Roush

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