Marissa Meltzer spreads Girl Power

Cover to Marisa Meltzer's Girl Power (Faber & Faber, 2010); image courtesy of

Do kids still go to book fairs? I hope so. In grade school, I always anticipated them. It was at book fairs that I got some of my favorite titles, including Dyan Sheldon’s Tall, Thin, and Blonde, Sherryl Jordan’s Winter of Fire, and selections from Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series. Well, that and the odd Garfield digest because dammit if that lasagna-eating tabby didn’t garner my affection at an early age. But I’d also grab those biographies and user-friendly historical surveys about Beethoven or alternative rock. Hence why I bring up book fairs for a post on Marissa Meltzer’s Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music–it’s great for the sixth grader who’s just starting to pick up a guitar or headphones and wants some direction toward ladies who rocked when his/her parents were coming of age. If I could assign readings for my Girls Rock Camp music history workshops, I would. Perhaps I’ll tell them to consult their local library or give it a skim on Google Books. Not that I endorse Google as an intermediary.

However, I’m not sure Girl Power will do much for folks who were there or have a deeper understanding of women’s contributions to alternative rock, riot grrrl, Lilith Fair, and pop music in the 1990s. I anticipated how sentences would end before my eyes registered closing punctuation marks. Like, I was there when everyone bought Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. I’ve seen Courtney Love . . . evolve. I wore barrettes and black nail polish and made bedroom wallpaper fashioned from magazine images. I remember when girls pretended to be the Spice Girls at junior high talent shows. I didn’t know about riot grrrl in 1993, but after college and student radio, I think I could teach an undergrad course on it.

This isn’t to dismiss Meltzer’s efforts, as she succinctly outlines the players, the period, and the stakes with user-friendly, assured prose that evinces her success as a music journalist. However, I wasn’t surprised by any of her findings and was frustrated by how little there was for me to latch onto. I do commend Meltzer for attempting not to present the decade as a halcyon era whose promise hasn’t been fulfilled in subsequent generations of female musicians. However, I would have appreciated more context about why this decade is especially significant to the development of women in popular music beyond being the time in which Meltzer, some of her respondents, and her peers experienced and identified with music for the first time. At roughly 140 pages, there’s little room to explore these issues.

I certainly appreciate Meltzer’s acknowledgment that riot grrrl and alternative rock were largely the pursuits of white, middle-class musicians and that these subgenres are often privileged by third wave feminists, who reflect these racial and class identities. I empathize with her surreptitious attitude toward women’s music’s earnestness, its influence on the development of Lilith Fair, and the transphobic practices of some women’s music festivals. However, I don’t think she does a good job presenting counterexamples. Her chapter on girl groups focuses almost exclusively on the Spice Girls, without addressing the group’s racial make-up or discussing black female vocal groups like En Vogue, SWV, TLC, or Destiny’s Child. When she talks about solo artists, she inadvertently constructs a binary between commercially friendly confessional singer-songwriters like Fiona Apple or jailbait bubblegum starlets like Britney Spears. Hip hop reached its peak during the decade and several female emcees were responsible for its success, but folks like Salt-N-Pepa, Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliott, Da Brat, Foxy Brown, Lady of Rage, and Sistah Souljah get at-best minimal attention. R&B artists like Adina Howard and Aaliyah confronted and challenged cultural assumptions of black female sexuality. Selena’s influence continues to grow. Here’s hoping subsequent editions of the book include them.

This book is a good start, but begs to be dialogued with books like Sara Marcus’ Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution. I’d love to get feedback on what seventh grade musicians thinks about how these books represent their musical periods. Better yet, let’s hear how they might be honoring, improving upon, or dispensing with their legacies altogether. I have a hunch Meltzer and Marcus wanna know too.


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  2. Kathy

    I certainly appreciate Meltzer’s acknowledgment that riot grrrl and alternative rock were largely the pursuits of white, middle-class musicians and that these subgenres are often privileged by third wave feminists, who reflect these racial and class identities.

    This has been my primary criticism of not only riot grrrl but the current deluge of 90s nostalgia, and I feel like I’m shouting down a well whenever I mention it. I’m glad she acknowledged it, but Meltzer could have definitely explored it more. I’ve really come to resent the narrative that riot grrrl was intrinsically tied to feminism, and one does not exist without the other. You mentioned TLC. I wrote something recently about how I drew more strength from “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” than anything Bikini Kill did, at least then as an 18 or 19-year-old. Maybe I denial, but the feminist punk rock of the early 90s made me feel more like a victim.

    • Alyx Vesey

      I’ve heard that statement about feminist punk rock making folks feel more victimized from a few people, so I definitely don’t think it’s just you Kathy. Also, hell yes TLC’s “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” gave me strength too (as did “No Scrubs”).

      • Kathy

        I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I was in my late teens or early twenties in the 90s when Bikini Kill, Hole, Liz Phair and even Alanis Morrisette were out there making records, giving voice to a lot of young women, and I still feel some sort of disconnect from all that. I’ve always felt like those artists were good at naming the problem but not giving girls the tools to fix the problem. Maybe that’s the point: we weren’t supposed to go out and dismantle the patriarchy because Liz Phair dropped the f-bomb.

        Also, and I go into this with some trepidation, I, and most of my friends listened to hip-hop, and when I think of music from my teens or early twenties that gave me some sort of agency, it’s usually hip-hop. I’m not a POC, so in a way, I feel as though adopting a culture that isn’t mine, but it’s hard to deny that for someone growing up without a lot of resources (no zines, few independent record stores, college radio stations), turning on MTV and having Queen Latifah tell me it’s okay to punch my harassers “dead in the eye,” well, that’s pretty powerful.

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