[23 February 2010]
It seems almost impossible to write about a decade’s worth of influential female musicians, feminism and pop culture in six succinct chapters. Yet Marisa Meltzer’s Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music, does just that.
Meltzer is able to so concisely break down her subject partly because of her personal connection to it. She was 14 in 1991 when a group of young women in Olympia, Washington first coined the term “riot grrrl”/ As a teenager growing up in the suburbs, she identified with the riot grrrl images she saw in Sassy magazine, “girls in halter tops, torn fishnets, and smeared red lipstick,” (Meltzer is also coauthor of the book How Sassy Changed My Life.) Meltzer doesn’t let her personal experiences lead her into self-congratulatory tangents about all of the cool stuff she was into before anyone else, however. Instead, she keeps the tone conversational while also referencing academic sources.
Those inclined to pick up this book may be already familiar with the vibrant cultural and musical scene that was Olympia during the ‘90s. Meltzer even confesses that she went to the Evergreen State College in Olympia “at least partly because of riot grrrl superfandom.” Again though, she doesn’t rest on her memories to inform her discussion of what it meant to be a woman in that scene. Interviews with early riot grrrl musicians, fans, and feminist writers make the book a credible recap of the time.
Meltzer frames her book around the riot grrrl movement, and it’s clear she considers some of its founders, like Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vail and Kathleen Hanna, some of the coolest women around. Yet she also recognizes that riot grrrl was far from perfect, pointing out that the riot grrrl lifestyle was mainly targeted toward white, middle class youth. Ultimately, Meltzer’s take on riot grrrl gives the book a solid foundation for discussing everything that came after.
Surprisingly, some of the most interesting parts of the book are focused on mainstream musicians. Meltzer gives ample consideration to the ways female musicians came to dominate popular culture in the ‘90s, including the bands Hole and Babes in Toyland, whose raucous music earned them the label “angry women”. Likewise, singers such as Alanis Morrissete, Fiona Apple, and Liz Phair captured huge audiences with their angst-ridden lyrics that often spoke frankly about sex and love. Meltzer offers new insight into how their music both helped and hurt feminism.
As Meltzer moves further along in the decade, she reaches an inevitable subject: the Spice Girls. It’s with the Spice Girls that she is able to look at “girl power” in a whole different way.
The Spice Girls’ were in many ways the exact opposite of riot grrrls, as they were more concerned with branding “girl power” than espousing feminist ideals. That doesn’t mean Meltzer dismisses the group as not being positive influences on girls, pointing out ways the Spice Girls connected with young women through their messages of sisterhood. Yet Meltzer convincingly shows that the Spice Girls eventually outgrew themselves when their marketing of “girl power”, surpassed their own popularity.
Towards the end of the book, Meltzer reminds the reader of what popular culture looked like in the latter part of the decade: “Nineteen ninety-eight was the year Titanic swept the Oscars, Viagra went on sale and Britney Spears was introduced to the world.” With her consideration of pop stars like Spears and Christina Aguilera, Meltzer comes full circle in getting at how girl power evolved, for better or worse.
Meltzer’s background in magazine writing lends itself well to the book, as each chapter reads like a compelling feature story. She clearly loves the ‘90s, and her mix of nostalgia and in-depth research make it an entertaining read for anyone interested in a decade that seems like it happened both a long time ago, and just yesterday.