The Best Women in Rock of 2011
In 2011, Tori Amos, Björk, and PJ Harvey turned the clock back to their mid-'90s heyday.
"We have tits. We have three holes. That's what we have in common," Tori Amos famously told Q Magazine's Adrian Deevoy in May 1994. That interview was the cover story featuring Amos, Björk, and PJ Harvey, all wearing white beneath the headline "Hips. Lips. Tits. Power." That interview was a time capsule featuring each of the artists near the beginning of her respective recording career; Amos and Harvey each had two solo albums out, and Björk was still riding high from the success of Debut, her first post-Sugarcubes effort. Despite Amos' rightful assertion that the music industry and press were quick to lump women together -- if not pit them against one another outright, especially in terms of airplay and award nominations -- these three women did collectively change the face of rock 'n' roll in the '90s, literally and musically speaking.
And they're still doing it. Two thousand and eleven turned out to be a landmark year for all three women, seeing the release of vital new albums by each: Harvey's Mercury Prize winning Let England Shake, Björk's Biophilia from, and Amos' Night of Hunters. In the 17 years since the 1994 interview, each woman has pushed herself to keep changing, and the results have generally paid off. Though not every album has been a hit with their respective followings, all three have retained the cult fanbases that helped define them from the start.
But what was it about these three artists -- or the culture of the '90s -- that led them to achieve mainstream status in the first place? While none of them are grunge, the grunge scene may have helped open up the field for them. Just as the men of grunge got to advertise their pain in an aggressive way, so too was that suddenly an option for women. Historically, the music industry had allowed women to be "confessional" provided they were doing it à la Joni Mitchell. With kind of stark, introspective lyrics being spouted by the likes of Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain, it was simply a matter of time before Harvey was on the radio singing, "You leave me dry," or Amos could gain fame for lyrics like "Boy you best pray that I bleed real soon" and her stirring a cappella song ("Me and a Gun") about her own rape.
And none of the three has ever been shy about her sexuality -- "He explores the taste of her arousal," Björk sings in "Venus as a Boy", while, at a around the same time, Harvey was singing, "Lick my legs I'm on fire / Lick my legs of desire." Amos, meanwhile, was exploring subjects like masturbation in church on "Icicle": "Getting off, getting off / While they are all downstairs / Singing prayers."
Known for their direct lyrics, frank sexuality, and business sense, the three have held on over the years; in 2007 Amos even released a single, "Big Wheel" touting herself as a MILF. But of the three, only Amos has ever referred to herself as a feminist. In contrast, Harvey has consistently attempted to distance herself from the term and the movement, even when she's released singles such as "When Under Ether", which is quite likely about abortion. In 2005, Björk told the Guardian's Liz Hoggard that she was beginning to be more interested in women's rights:
Will it inspire new songs? It's definitely brewing inside me. Maybe if Medulla was my personal, idiosyncratic statement about politics, whatever I do next is going to be my eccentric view of feminism. It's like any major upheaval, whether it's the revolution in France or punk for me in the 1970s, you break up all the corruption and fuck up all the bad things, so you can start really fresh. But it's the law of nature that it all settles again, so you have to keep checking yourself. You can't ever say, "OK, we sorted out corruption and everyone is equal." So I might become a feminist in my old age!
That same year, Amos talked to BUST's Tracie Egan not just about her own feminism, but her concerns about splintering within the feminist movement:
[Being a femiphobic feminist] is no different than those who are running the patriarchy who think certain aspects of femininity are worthy and some aren't. It's the same thinking. It's been a fascination that I have -- how some [feminists] are very similar in their tactics to the right wing, how they attack and control. That isn't, to me, transcendent feminism. That's just angry women. They are rejecting pieces of the feminine because they don't need to claim them for themselves. There's certain music that I don't play, but it doesn't mean that I need to dis it. I really find that when you're inclusive, then you’ve really done your work on yourself.
Amos and Björk are also the two of the three who have experimented the most with technology and audiovisual components to their songs. Amos' 2002 release Scarlet's Walk featured an online world unlocked by the CD entitled "Scarlet's Web". Björk, of course, has always been known for her multimedia explorations and innovative videos, often directed by venerated filmmakers like Spike Jonze or Michael Gondry. Her 2011 release, Biophilia, featured iPad apps for each song, funded in a way the artist described to The Quietus' Luke Turner as punk: "But then the app builders, they just said OK, everyone works for free, and then we split the profit 50/50. So this is how we did it back in the punk days, the indie label system." Biophilia further harnessed technology by featuring the formation of whole new instruments made to be used on an iPad, including the gameleste, a cross between a gamelan and a celeste; a Tesla coil was also used as a musical instrument on the album. Still, Biophilia features tender, emotive songwriting, with many songs functioning on multiple levels, such as the biological and romantic interpretations of "Virus:" "Like a virus needs a body / As soft tissue feeds on blood / Some day I'll find you."
Two thousand and eleven also found Harvey and Amos revitalizing their careers further, though by digging deeper into more traditional forms. Harvey dug into British and military history with a vengeance to create Let England Shake (which was, by the way, recorded in a church, just like Amos's Boys for Pele). This record also found Harvey branching out musically with that same zeal. For the first time, Harvey tried using the autoharp on record. Similarly, she played the saxophone, something she'd only done rarely in the 20 years. As she told the Onion's AV Club reporter Sam Adams:
It’s so much in me to want to keep experimenting all the time. It’s just inherent. Therefore I keep reaching for instruments I don’t particularly know how to play, and then I become excited. That gives me energy to want to make new things, and it forces me to hear things in new ways, which then can only help to say things in a new way.
In addition to playing new instruments, Let England Shake was a pivotal moment for Harvey because she shed the mature, deep vocal style she had spent her career perfecting for a voice often described in reviews as childlike. Harvey told The Quietus' Ben Hewitt that she was not after any soundm but "more a purity of voice -- not trying to adopt anything, particularly. And not trying to adopt any sort of role other than the narrator of the story." The stories on Let England Shake had been perhaps hinted at on "The Soldiers," a track from Harvey's second official compilation with John Parrish, A Woman a Man Walked By.
While Harvey was knee-deep in war history, it was musical history that was pushing Amos's buttons. Released on the venerable classical label Deutsche Grammophon Records, Night of Hunters is, as described by Amos, a 21st century song cycle inspired by older compositions. Indeed Hunters takes melodies of compositions by composers as disparate as Satie, Bach, Debussy, and Schubert, and adapts them into more contemporary pieces that tell the dusk-till-dawn story of a woman fighting with a lover. The Onion's AV Club's Michael Tedder cited it as Amos's "most enjoyable album in years." "That is not my blood on the bedroom floor," the album begins, kicking off with "Shattering Sea", a song which features sharper songwriting and more refined production than Amos' work has seen in quite some time. This year also found Amos touring with a string quartet for the first time, featuring drastically reworked versions of older songs such as "Cruel" and "Spring Haze" in addition to true-to-record arrangements of songs from Hunters.
Though Amos, Harvey and Björk may have denied explicitly feminist identities, all three have definitely served as musical icons who happen to be women, giving inspiration and hope to would-be musicians and human beings all over the gender spectrum. This year found women richly carrying on and building on that legacy, as forward-thinking artists like Florence Welch and Annie Clark were lavished with critical praise and commercial success. In a strange turn of events, Kate Bush, in some ways a forerunner to all these artists, was back in the limelight, receiving glowing reviews for her 2011 releases Director's Cut and 50 Words for Snow. While Amos, Harvey, and Björk may not be the first genius female musicians, their influence is undeniable, whether it be in 1994 or 2011.