Editor of Spinditty & Reel Rundown. Author of Don't Call It Nothing: The Lost History of '90s Roots, Rap & Rock 'n' Roll.
This article is a sequel of sorts to “9 Times Women Ruled ‘90s Rock ‘n’ Roll,” my first post as music editor of Spinditty (linked at bottom). You don’t have to read these sequentially. Both articles stand on their own as celebrations of the rock ‘n’ roll revolution led by women during the 1990s.
For years, the idea of rock ‘n’ roll was a playground of white male fantasy. There was no place for women, except as groupies, or maybe if she was cute enough, a singer. The one exception is Janis Joplin, and I find her tortured blackface routine bereft. By and large, the history of rock ‘n’ roll through the mid-to-late 1970s is one white dude after another.
Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex is the 2.0 moment for rock ‘n’ roll. It’s not that there weren’t women rockers before her. No one’s more rock ‘n’ roll than Sister Rosetta Tharpe and she was slaying in the 1940s! But, me saying that is a symbolic statement as much as anything. Despite her proto-Chuck Berry guitar magnificence, Sister Rosetta saw herself as a gospel singer first and foremost.
By contrast, Poly Styrene (born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said) was fully aware that she was writing punk rock songs in 1977–78. She was inspired to start X-Ray Spex while watching the Sex Pistols. And you can hear that influence, but her voice is like a trumpet, an actual instrument and not just a sneer. Add Lora Logic’s killer sax and a light dusting of reggae and dub and no one else sounded like X-Ray Spex in England at the time.
OG rock critics marketed rock ‘n’ roll as the music of rebellion and revolution. But, “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” isn’t rebellious. That’s Friday. Poly singing about patriarchy ("Oh Bondage Up Yours!"), consumerism ("Art-I-Ficial"), the environment (“The Day the World Turned Day-Glo,” “Plastic Bag”), and growing up half-white and half-Somali in a white world (“Identity”) is fundamentally antiestablishment because not only is a woman speaking her truth, but it’s a mixed race woman telling white men, “Nah. It’s like this.”
The women who ruled rock ‘n’ roll in the 1990s were the first generation to grow up in a post-Poly Styrene world, and this matters. X-Ray Spex, The Slits, Chrissie Hynde, Joan Jett, Debbie Harry, Exene Cervenka (X), Alice Bag (The Bags), and Poison Ivy (Cramps) gave Gen X women permission to rock out on their terms.
In my first article, I compiled nine songs from the ‘90s that showcased several of my favorite bands with women in leading roles. To demonstrate the depth of the decade, I’m not allowing myself any repeats. No Muffs. No Bikini Kill. Instead, here are nine different artists, all of whom feature women writing brilliant songs that deserve to be remembered.
9 More Times Women Ruled ‘90s Rock ‘n’ Roll
- Sonic Youth – “Tunic (Song For Karen)” (1990)
- Red Aunts – “Freakathon” (1995)
- PJ Harvey – “Sheela-Na-Gig” (1992)
- Throwing Muses – “Not Too Soon” (1991)
- Prissteens – “Beat You Up” (1998)
- Elastica – “Connection + Blue + Vaseline” (1995)
- Maria McKee – “I'm Awake” (1996)
- Bettie Serveert – “Tom Boy” (1993)
- Sleater-Kinney – “Burn, Don't Freeze” (1999)
1. Sonic Youth – “Tunic (Song For Karen)” (1990)
I want to begin at the start of the decade with arguably the most recognizable woman in indie rock at that time: Kim Gordon, bassist of Sonic Youth. “Tunic” is from the band’s brilliant 1990 album, Goo, and it’s a haunting, strangely beautiful elegy to Karen Carpenter, the ‘70s pop singer who passed away in 1983 due to complications from anorexia.
As a woman who spent much of her career being asked, “What’s it like being a girl in a band?”—to the point that her 2015 autobiography was called Girl in a Band—Gordon was ideally situated to discuss Carpenter. She was a prominent female musician existing within an ecosystem of mostly male control, and she was writing about an earlier female musician who contributed to an ecosystem of mostly male control.
“I could make up a lot of reasons why the song was called ‘Tunic’,” Gordon explains. “The most obvious is that Karen was so thin from starving herself that her clothes hung on her bones like flowing biblical robes. She couldn’t make peace with her own body’s curves. She would never get the love she craved from her mother, who favored her brother, or from her brother himself.”
“Their approval meant everything,” she continues. “How was she not the quintessential woman in our culture, compulsively pleasing others in order to achieve some degree of perfection and power that’s forever just around the corner, out of reach? It was easier for her to disappear, to free herself finally from that body, to find a perfection in dying.”
The genius of Sonic Youth was that beneath the spidery guitars, noisy textures, and wall of sound, was a beating heart that radiated empathy. That was largely Kim Gordon’s influence. You think her peers in noise rock—Birthday Party, Butthole Surfers, Scratch Acid, and Pussy Galore, e.g.—could’ve written a song like “Tunic”? Hell no. There would’ve been layers of irony and performative distance.
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Gordon makes you FEEL Carpenter’s dissolution. You FEEL her “disappearing, getting smaller every day.” But, it never feels exploitative. If anything, Kim’s masterstroke is allowing us to empathize with Karen Carpenter. So much so, that when she’s liberated in heaven, reporting back with hopeful optimism, it feels like a psychic victory.
2. Red Aunts – “Freakathon” (1995)
And then sometimes women just wanna rock the F out. “Freakathon” is the first track on #1 Chicken, a rock 'n' roll masterpiece and one of the most underrated albums of the 1990s. Guitarist Kerry Davis sings/shrieks lead, but I love how different voices jump in throughout, both doubling Kerry’s voice (not sure if it’s Kerry herself or bassist Debi Martini), as well as singing counterpoint.
I love how Davis and Terri Wahl use their guitars throughout #1 Chicken, and “Freakathon” is no exception. Lots of riffs. Wahl wasn’t gonna wow you with notes, but she had a keen ear for texture and used the guitar more as a percussive instrument. This attack dovetailed nicely with drummer Lesley Ishino, who spent the bulk of this album conjuring the spirit of Jerry Nolan (New York Dolls/Heartbreakers).
3. PJ Harvey – “Sheela-Na-Gig” (1992)
“Look at these, my child-bearing hips
Look at these, my ruby-red ruby lips
Look at these, my work strong-arms
You’ve got to see my bottle full of charm”
Polly Jean Harvey (lead vocals, electric guitar), Stephen Vaughan (bass), and Rob Ellis (drums) work up a mutated version of the blues that sounds influenced by punk, as much in spirit as in actual musical values. “Sheela-Na-Gig” gives us massive guitar, a sweet slap-n-slide bassline, and lots of open space and fluctuating dynamics, mirroring Harvey’s feather/sledgehammer vocals.
I love this performance from the 1992 Reading Festival because you can tell Polly is blown away by the crowd going nuts. The trio’s disastrous first show was only 16 months earlier, so to go from that to killing at Reading in less than a year and a half must’ve been surreal.
4. Throwing Muses – “Not Too Soon” (1991)
Tanya Donelly was shortly to leave Throwing Muses to start Belly, and was still part of The Breeders, the side project she formed with Kim Deal of the Pixies. However, as this performance from Düsseldorf, Germany (March 31, 1991) demonstrates, Donelly had plenty in the tank for the Muses.
I love her vocals on “Not Too Soon” because she gains steam over the course of the song, punctuated in the hysterical, growly bear choruses. Drummer David Narcizo subtly pushes and pulls with Tanya, so much so that I almost feel like this is a duet between the singer and drum kit.
5. Prissteens – “Beat You Up” (1998)
Like the Muffs crossed with the Ronettes, the Prissteens stuck around just long enough to release one album of punk rock girl group magnificence. Bassist Lori Yorkman was from the Joan Jett school of lead vocal swoon ‘n’ snarl, while guitarists Leslie Day and Tina Canellas traded riffs, leads, and sweet vocal harmonies. The secret weapon is drummer Mighty Joe Vincent (Devil Dogs), whose heavy right hand and monster fills take these arrangements to another level.
“I Don’t Cry” might be Yorkman’s best vocal performance and Vincent’s best drumming performance. I love the kaleidoscopic vocals in the back half of the song, and the tasteful guitar solo from 1:26-1:45.
If Vincent was the band’s secret weapon, producer Richard Gottehrer filled that role for the recording itself. He produced “My Boyfriend’s Back,” “Hang On Sloopy,” and “I Want Candy” in the 1960s, so he understood the fundamentals of vocal harmony, especially within a girl group context.
“Richard Gottehrer was incredible to work with. His ear for music was unequaled by anything I’ve seen before or since. He was able to discern a flat note in a recording that featured nine voices stacked. He suggested arrangements that seemed simple but made the songs infinitely better. It was a privilege to study at the feet of a master.”
–Joe Vincent to Eric Davidson, Rock & Roll Globe, March 20, 2020
6. Elastica – “Connection + Blue + Vaseline” (1995)
From about 1994–96, there might not have been a bigger band in England than Elastica. Maybe Oasis. These three songs from the 1995 Glastonbury Festival show the band at the height of their indie rock powers—and judging by the undulating mass of pogo, I think the crowd agrees.
“Connection” was a massive worldwide hit, herky-jerky guitar pop that repurposes the guitar riff from Wire's "Three Girl Rhumba," while also harkening back to ‘80s new wave like The Cars and Romeo Void. But, the secret sauce was Justine Frischmann’s sexy, Chrissie Hynde-esque vocal delivery. She didn’t really sound like anyone else in Britpop, and she sang with a sense of control (and fun) that was refreshing.
“Blue” is half-duet ballad between Frischmann and guitarist Donna Matthews (who wrote the song) and half-rock ‘n’ roll catharsis. “Vaseline” is more singalong punk rock, and as it was Elastica’s final song at Glastonbury, the band is joined on stage by a friendly neighborhood streaker—oh, you cheeky Brits.
7. Maria McKee – “I'm Awake” (1996)
Maria McKee began her career in the mid-‘80s as singer and songwriter for Lone Justice, an L.A. band that started out as badass trad country purists, but slowly became corrupted by show business. Maria was pretty, blonde, charming, and insanely talented: Lone Justice never had a chance. Once the handlers got involved, the band went from scrappy alt.country underdogs to Springsteen wannabes.
The band imploded in 1987, Maria released her solo debut in 1989 (proto-Lilith Fair), and she followed it up with a roots-rock masterpiece, 1993’s You Gotta Sin To Get Saved. If you were hoping for more honky in your tonk, Life Is Sweet is decidedly not that. Instead of exploring the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, Maria was deep in space with fuzz guitars, floating in a tin can with David Bowie.
I interviewed Maria when she toured Seattle behind this album. Obviously, I wanted to know how she went from echoing Doug Sahm to echoing Ziggy Stardust. She said:
“I think the reason why this album echoes (Bowie) so much is because I was listening to Mick Ronson (Bowie’s lead guitarist and main artistic foil from 1970-73) constantly when I started playing lead guitar. He was the only lead guitar player I could identify with as somebody whose technique was very spare, and I really related to his sense of melody and tone, the way the guitar’s countermelody worked with the strings and the vocal, and how the guitar was approached like another lead voice.”
—Maria McKee to Lance Davis, The Stranger, 1996
8. Bettie Serveert – “Tom Boy” (1993)
Bettie Serveert is the name of the band, not the singer. Carol Van Dijk is the singer, and what made her presence exceptional at the 1993 Pinkpop Festival (Landgraaf, The Netherlands), is that she was one of only three women playing the festival.
When I say “three women,” I don’t mean there were three bands fronted by women or three different female singers on the bill. I mean that if you put all the musicians playing Pinkpop in a room, there would be three women in that room.
- Cindy Blackman Santana, drummer for Lenny Kravitz
- Karen Grotberg, keyboard player for The Jayhawks
- Carol Van Dijk, singer/guitarist for Bettie Serveert
This generation of women were trailblazers, laying the groundwork for the post-2010 world of rock ‘n’ roll in which female musicians dominate. The 1990s was the pivot point in the history of the genre, but because the industry is so inherently male-centric, this revolution went largely unnoticed.
Bettie Serveert is like if Dinosaur Jr had Debbie Harry singing, writing, and playing guitar. The band’s use of wide open space, fluctuating dynamics, and Peter Visser’s pile-driving guitar reminds me, too, of mid-90s Neil Young at his Crazy Horsiest. I also hear a lot of Robert Smith in Van Dijk’s ability to give the listener a melancholy pop life raft amidst swells of dissonance.
9. Sleater-Kinney – “Burn, Don't Freeze” (1999)
I wasn’t necessarily trying to save the best for last, but Sleater-Kinney is like Patti Smith, Television, and The Who rolled into one, but without the awful boomer indulgences. The band was already good, but this performance at RCKNDY in Seattle (February 26, 1999) captures them when they were making the jump from great indie rock band to one of the greatest rock bands ever.
Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein use their voices like their guitars, as tools for badass counterpoint harmony. Granted, it helps to have Janet Weiss on drums, a Bonham-esque powerhouse who affords Corin and Carrie the luxury of playing spidery, exploratory guitar leads in addition to pile-driving riffs. In fact, Weiss’ command of the low end is so resolute Sleater-Kinney doesn’t need a bass player!
All Hands on the Bad One (2000) is a flawless masterpiece and arguably the last great album of the 20th century. Sleater followed it up with a pair of bangers—One Beat (2002) and The Woods (2005)—before going on hiatus for just under a decade.
Brownstein was interviewed in 2019 and was asked why no band filled Sleater-Kinney’s footsteps in the wake of their career pause.
“I think we’re a hard act to follow. We certainly have predecessors in terms of influence and inspiration, but I think one thing that’s special about us is that it is hard to emulate the alchemy. There’s something ineffable about the three of us. The way Corin sings, the way our voices meld together, the way we build up a musical language around each other. It’s one thing I really noticed when we went on hiatus for eight or so years. When you create something you think that someone will come up and overtake us, and in some ways you want that. You want to seed inspiration. But then I thought that no one came along and sounded like us, so I guess we should keep going. That was one of the main impetuses of moving on and forward.”
—Carrie Brownstein to NME, August 13, 2019
I dream of a day that the 1990s will properly be understood as the beginning of the third great revolution in rock ‘n’ roll—after its origin in the 1950s and subsequent mid-‘70s revival. (The ‘60s abandoned rock ‘n’ roll for Important Rock.) The difference in the ‘90s was that women were leading the charge for the first time in significant numbers.
Now, when I say “significant,” it’s with the understanding that women were still wildly outnumbered by men in the 1990s—as intimated in the Bettie Serveert passage. The significance of this generation of female rockers transcends the raw data.
The idea of rock ‘n’ roll has always been heavily gatekept by white dudes, especially boomers, a generation with little use for women or Gen Xers. So, when Gen X badasses like the Red Aunts, Elastica, and Sleater-Kinney raised the bar for rock ‘n’ roll, these old heads had no idea what to do with them. Just like they had no idea what to do with The Muffs, Bikini Kill, or Geraldine Fibbers, whom I wrote about last time.
The Next Generation of Women Rockers
The women who ruled ‘90s rock ‘n’ roll set the stage for the generation of female musicians collectively saving rock ‘n’ roll’s ass in the 2010s–20s:
- Sabrina Ellis (A Giant Dog, Sweet Spirit, Bobby Jealousy)
- Shannon Shaw (Shannon and The Clams, Hunx And His Punx)
- Katie Park and Emma Cleveland (Bad Moves)
- Marissa Paternoster (Screaming Females)
- Betsy Wright and Laura King (Bat Fangs)
- Bree McKenna, Emily Nokes, and Lelah Maupin (TacocaT)
- Kait Eldridge (Big Eyes)
- Liz Stokes (The Beths)
- Thao Nguyen (Thao & The Get Down Stay Down)
- Linda Lindas (awesome tween punks from L.A.)
- Kathy Foster and Maggie Vail (Hurry Up, ex-Thermals, ex-Bangs)
Importantly, two all-female bands in the 2010s merged (label pun!) the best of the ‘90s with the ‘10s.
- Wild Flag: A rock supergroup featuring Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney), Mary Timony (Helium, ‘90s indie rockers), and Rebecca Cole (The Minders, a fun Elephant 6 pop band from Denver).
- Ex Hex: A rock/pop band featuring Mary Timony, Betsy Wright (Bat Fangs), and Laura Harris.
- 9 Times Women Ruled ‘90s Rock ‘n’ Roll, Lance Davis, Spinditty, April 3, 2022
- The tragic song Sonic Youth wrote about Karen Carpenter, Tyler Golson, Far Out Magazine, January 19, 2022
- Carrie Brownstein: “You have to start with your own body as an act of resistance,” Emma Madden, NME, August 13, 2019