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9 Times Women Ruled ‘90s Rock ‘n’ Roll

Author of Don't Call It Nothing: The Lost History of '90s Roots, Rap & Rock 'n' Roll

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The late ‘60s and early ‘70s are typically heralded as the Golden Age of Rock and that may have been true if you were a white guy. Unfortunately, women were limited to being girl singers, folk singers, and groupies. It wasn’t until the rise of punk that you saw women participating in rock music in significant numbers. England produced The Slits, Poly Styrene (of the band X-Ray Spex), and Chrissie Hynde (who was American, but began The Pretenders in London). Meanwhile, American punk produced the likes of Joan Jett (initially with The Runaways and then solo), Debbie Harry (Blondie), Exene Cervenka (X), Poison Ivy (Cramps), and Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth).

The 1990s saw the arrival of the first generation of female rockers who grew up inspired by other female rockers. What I’ve done is compile several songs from the ‘90s that collectively showcase the depth of female talent beyond the commercial sector. Everyone knows Alanis Morissette, Courtney Love, and Gwen Stefani. What about the hundreds of women not fortunate enough to benefit from a massive marketing push? Here are nine of my favorites.

1. L7 – “Shove” (1990)

A perfect distillation of L7. Big riffs, deceptively poppy, and defiantly feminine, it’s punk by way of early Motley Crue. “Shove,” which was released as a single by Sub Pop in the summer of 1990 and also appeared on that year’s Smell The Magic EP, is the greatest song L7 ever committed to wax. Suzi Gardner (lead vocals, guitar) isn’t asking for permission to bring the rock. She snarls, “Get out of my way or I'm gonna shove,” and it was a metaphorical call to arms for female musicians in the ‘90s. Donita Sparks (Flying V guitar, backing vocals) unleashes a fuzzy solo from 1:28-1:47 as Jennifer Finch (bass) and Dee Plakas (drums, cowbell) keep the beat in front of them.

2. Gits – “Second Skin” (1991)

Released as a single in 1991, “Second Skin” is like old school, Orange County punk (think Social Distortion or Agent Orange) with bassist Matt Dresdner and drummer Steve Moriarty locked into a tight pocket and guitarist Andy Kessler (aka Joe Spleen) driving barre chords up and down the neck. But, The Gits were The Gits because of lead singer and songwriter, Mia Zapata. Her lyrics speak to anyone struggling with mental health issues, who can feel so overwhelmed, it’s like life itself is closing in.

I just tell myself, girl just let it breathe
It's a calmness I'm always searching for
But, the dirt it gets so heavy
It falls above my head
Seeping from under my feet
It just keeps on getting deeper

Unfortunately, it’s hard to read Zapata’s lyrics knowing how her life would play out. In the early morning hours of July 7, 1993, Mia was found lying in the street, beaten, raped, and strangled to death with the drawstrings of her own hoodie, a Gits hoodie. For a decade, a pall hung over the city’s music scene because no one was sure if her murderer was a fan or fellow musician. In 2003, a DNA hit revealed that her killer was a migrant worker who just happened to be living in Seattle at the time. He was sentenced to 36 years in prison, where he died in 2021.

3. Breeders – “Do You Love Me Now?” (1992)

“Do You Love Me Now?” is the pop side of rock ‘n’ roll and I love how it integrates the various instruments and voices. It’s hard to go wrong with a sexy Kim Deal vocal, but the way electric guitars and violin weave in and out of the arrangement (and each channel) is remarkable. Pay particular attention to how a distorted guitar solo begins at 1:38, a second, reverby guitar piggybacks in the left channel, a double-tracked fuzz guitar solo bleeds right into a violin part, and then Deal hits the chorus with guitars on either side. Her voice is then joined by a number of female harmonies, some of whom are herself. Masterful song building.

4. Bikini Kill – “Rebel Girl” (1993)

“When she talks, I hear the revolution
In her hips, there's revolution
When she walks, the revolution's coming
In her kiss, I taste the revolution”

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There are a few different versions of “Rebel Girl,” but the one from 1993’s “New Radio” single is the one to get. Joan Jett produced, plays guitar, and sings, but it’s all about lead singer, songwriter, feminist, and riot grrrl, Kathleen Hanna, putting repressed heteronormativity in a chokehold. One of the greatest anthems of the decade, “Rebel Girl” is the sound of women’s sexual, political, and social liberation, and Hanna’s voice breaking at “I taste the revolution” is everything.

5. Iris DeMent – “Wasteland Of The Free” (1996)

“Some of what I’ve said will make some people mad. It might even make some people hate me. I don’t like the idea of being hated and I’ve lost a little sleep lately thinking about it. But, if I hid the truth about how I think and feel in order to be liked I would hate myself, and I like that idea even less.”
–Iris Dement

“Wasteland Of The Free” is a minor miracle. It isn’t just that someone wrote a song cataloging Christian hypocrisy, empty gesture patriotism, the poverty to prison pipeline, capitalism undermining democracy and the social safety net, children programmed to be consumers, and the arrogance of a society that tolerates social injustice. It’s that Iris DeMent used country music as the platform to deliver a surgical strike to the heart of America’s most conservative genre. Can you imagine the faces of the old white men in Nashville hearing this song for the first time?!?! That alone makes this one of the purest rock ‘n’ roll gestures of the decade.

“We call ourselves the advanced civilization
That sounds like crap to me
And it feels like I am
Living in the wasteland of the free”

6. Muffs – “Outer Space” (1997)

“Happy Birthday To Me was what propelled me into producing and that is a big deal to me. The fact that I was encouraged to give the production credit to the whole band, and not to me individually, was sexist and it stunk. And later I was happy we were going to be dropped because they didn’t understand us and not being understood bummed me out more than being dropped.”
–Kim Shattuck in the Happy Birthday reissue liner notes, September 2016

It was hard to choose just one Muffs song because they released four outstanding albums and a number of equally compelling singles during the decade. “Outer Space” checks all the boxes. It exists in that nexus of ‘60s Britpop and punk not unlike Green Day, with singer/guitarist Kim Shattuck’s brilliant songwriting evoking heartbreak and fuck you in equal measure. That Shattuck occasionally punctuates verses with the greatest scream in rock ‘n’ roll history is a bonus. This live version features a brief introduction by Drew Carey from his Mr. Vegas' All-Night Party HBO special. Drummer Roy McDonald is worth noting because his heavy drum sound and massive fills are evocative of Keith Moon, helping give the Muffs some of their Britpop flavor.

7. Geraldine Fibbers – “California Tuffy” (1997)

Geraldine Fibbers aren’t particularly concerned with your comfort, from their explosive arrangements to their unwillingness to fit inside a tidy genre box to their brutally honest content. The lyrics tackle sexual abuse, misogyny, incest, gender identiry, and sexual identity, and the music reflects this dark tone. “California Tuffy” is country music wrapped inside the Velvet Underground trapped inside early ‘60s AM radio. Lead singer/rhythm guitarist/principal songwriter Carla Bozulich can switch from croon to scream at the drop of a hat, but her abiding asset is her vocal control and intensity. Filling out the band is Nel Cline on divebomb electric guitar, Jessy Greene on violin and backup vocals, Bill Tutton on bass and Kevin Fitzgerald on drums. Given the album’s violent arcs, it took a very sympathetic rhythm section to power the Geraldine medicine show.

8. Meat Purveyors – “Go Out Smokin’” (1998)

The Meat Purveyors are what I loved about 1990s alt.country. They took a stodgy, hyper-conservative genre like bluegrass and paid it heartfelt homage, but weren’t scared to drop a fake turd in the punchbowl. They transform Pocket Fishrmen’s pro-pot anthem, “Go Out Smokin’,” into gangsta thrashgrass. Jo Walston isn’t a great singer, but she’s a good singer with maximum charisma and Cherilyn DiMond (standup bass) is a good vocal foil. The syncopation between Bill Anderson’s chugging rhythm guitar, Pete Stiles’ fiery mandolin, and Darcie Deaville’s sawing fiddle is the song’s engine room.

9. Le Tigre – “Deceptacon” (1999)

After Bikini Kill broke up in 1996, Kathleen Hanna applied her smart agitpunk sensibility to electronica, famously saying, “We want to write political pop songs and be the dance party after the protest.” With zinester Johanna Fateman and experimental filmmaker Sadie Benning, the trio figured out how integrate drum machines and samplers with electric guitar and turntables. “Deceptacon” is less like riot grrrl than it is the B-52s, with a simple four-note bassline, sampled handclaps, a guitar riff, and Hanna’s gunshot lyrics.

“There’s none of what you’re supposed to have to build excitement in a pop song. There is none of the pathos of a key change. It’s on or off. That’s the structure. We were trying to make different kinds of songs about different feelings and different ideas that weren’t in pop music or punk music at that time.”
--Joanna Fateman to Sasha Green, Red Bull Music Academy Daily, March 2019

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