Leading Ladies of '90s Rock
by Justin Farrar | August 29, 2012
I realized quickly when I knew I should
That the world was made up of this brotherhood of man...
For whatever that means.
--4 Non Blondes, "What's Up?"
Were the odds any less stacked against women in the '90s than other decades? Most definitely not. Yet there can be little argument that rock witnessed a fresh influx of female artists who helped smash molds they were long expected to conform to within the music industry's insidious patriarchy.
Leading the charge with vigor were the ladies who emerged from the "alternative nation" revolution of the early '90s. After years of sleazy hair metal objectifying women (basically turning them into busty fodder for music videos), along came P.J. Harvey, Hole, The Breeders, Babes in Toyland and Garbage. Rocking far harder than most dudes on MTV, they overturned the very definitions of beauty hair metal had propagated. Harvey, picking up where punk-era Patti Smith left off, just might've been the most talented, and extreme, of the lot. A mix of sweaty grunge passion and a hyper-sexuality that was utterly uncompromised and raw, she rewrote the book on female hard rock via a string of gritty releases, including Rid of Me, 4-Track Demos and To Bring You My Love.
Equally influential (though not nearly as loud and slathered in fuzz guitar) were the artists orbiting Lilith Fair, a tour and catch-all brand that served as a commercial flashpoint for womyn's music, the anti-folk scene, feminist-informed alternative pop and Wiccan/New Age fare. Co-headlining the original tour in 1997, Indigo Girls were true mavericks, helping as they did open the gates for the LGBT movement's entrance into mainstream discourse. Meanwhile, tour founder Sarah McLachlan and Lisa Loeb (who actually made the Nana Mouskouri look hip among American teenyboppers) projected a kind of nerdy intellectualism is the new sexy style that was, at the time, utterly novel in pop music. Moreover, their ruminations on both their interior and exterior worlds came from uniquely female perspectives that had to be accepted on their terms.
Then there were those ladies whose respective superstardom became a phenomenon unto itself: Sinead O'Connor, Tori Amos, Björk and Natalie Merchant. All radically eccentric individuals who inspired countless young musicians, including Fiona Apple and Alanis Morissette, both of whom conquered the nation's attention in the mid-'90s.
But maybe the most telltale signs that female artists had taken to the offensive in the '90s weren't to be found in rock's margins, but at its very core. Though not aligned with any hip subculture or alternative ideology, Bonnie Raitt, Melissa Etheridge and Sheryl Crow all achieved levels of classic-rock respectability that were -- with the exception of Janis Joplin, Heart and Stevie Nicks -- previously reserved for manly men like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger and John Mellencamp. Even the seemingly innocuous Amy Grant waged her own personal revolution by pushing aside God (civilization's reigning patriarch, mind you) in favor of meditations on the flesh-bound joys of love and tenderness in the here and now. That's really kind of badass!