Today is International Women’s Day and what better way to mark the occasion than paying homage to some of rock and roll’s most influential and fierce female artists.
Let’s not waste any time here.
The archetypal strong woman in rock’n’roll, Patti Smith has been an permanent presence within music since 1975 debut Horses. While never actively part of the feminist movement herself, as she was in her own words “more concerned with my own mental pursuits”, she has nevertheless inspired many young women with her zero fucks attitude toward femininity – best summed up by the following quote about her personal style. “My style says, ‘Look at me, don’t look at me.'”
While some might argue that as she started out with The Fugees, Lauryn Hill is more of a hip hop than a rock’n’roll artist, I would counter that her solo work draws as much from the tradition of rock as it does from hip hop. However while her solo work is plenty full of powerful lyrics on womanhood and femininity, nothing encapsulates her boss, no shit taking qualities than the iconic final lines of her verse on The Fugees’ hit Ready Or Not.
“So while you’re imitating Al Capone / I’ll be Nina Simone / And defecating on your microphone.”
Lead singer/guitarist of southern rock powerhouse Alabama Shakes, Brittany Howard has a reputation as a fierce and soul-baring vocalist and live performer.
Never fitting the music industry mold, she’s also got some great insight for women (and men, really) who feel different. “Embrace that you’re different” she told Billboard. “Don’t you already know that you’re going to be something wonderful because you already feel it?”
One of the most original and uniquely Australian voices to emerge in recent years, Courtney Barnett has also done a lot for advancing perceptions for female songwriters. Proving nihilistic disaffection with social mores and ’90s style slacker rock wasn’t just the domain of stove pipe clad Nick Cave wannabes, she’s led a female charge directly into rock’n’roll’s often man dominated heartland.
Not only that though but she’s even joined on to mentor girls at Australia’s first ‘Girls Rock’ music camp.
Four for the price of one with this entry, but it would just be wrong not to divide the credit between Bikini Kill‘s Kathleen Hanna (vocals), Billy Karren (guitar), Kathi Wilcox (bass), and Tobi Vail (drums). Pioneering the riot grrrl movement, the bands’ explosive and female centric live shows are legendary, especially because of Hanna’s tendency to dive into the crowd and forcibly remove male hecklers – of which there were many.
Speaking about taking power in rock’n’roll as a woman, Hanna sums up what the band proved when she said “you learn that the only way to get rock-star power as a girl is to be a groupie and bare your breasts and get chosen for the night. We learn that the only way to get anywhere is through men. And it’s a lie.”
Speaking out against the wave of online misogyny she and other female artists face daily, lead signer of CHVRCHES Lauren Mayberry has become a role model for women everywhere who are sick of being treated as objects or targets of sexual abuse.
“But why should women ‘deal’ with this?” she asked in an op-ed she wrote for The Guardian in 2013. “I do not accept…that it is all right for people to make comments ranging from ‘a bit sexist but generally harmless’ to openly sexually aggressive. That it is something that ‘just happens”‘. Is the casual objectification of women so commonplace that we should all just suck it up, roll over and accept defeat? I hope not. Objectification, whatever its form, is not something anyone should have to ‘just deal with’.”
Another archetypal strong woman of rock n roll, Joan Jett alongside Patti Smith was one of the first women to show that punk rock wasn’t just a boys only club. With her bands Joan Jett & The Runaways and Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, Jett has been a symbol of female strength and rebellion ever since the success of The Runaway’s first hit Cherry Bomb.
Still, that was never a status she sought ought as she has pointed out before. “Other people will call me a rebel, but I just feel like I’m living my life and doing what I want to do. Sometimes people call that rebellion, especially when you’re a woman.”
Another member of the riot grrl movement, Sleater Kinney are very much the Nirvana to Bikini Kill’s Sonic Youth. The three piece consisting of Corin Tucker (vocals and guitar), Carrie Brownstein (guitar and vocals), and Janet Weiss (drums) have proven timeless, still touring to this day playing recently at the Sydney Opera House.
An artist very much in her own league, Björk has built a reputation for herself as a challenging musician and performer that is constantly pushing the boundaries of music and art toward their limits. While much of her music is highly abstract in subject matter, her latest album Vulnicura, dealing with her and longtime partner Matthew Barney’s breakup, gave us an opportunity to gain some insight into how she sees herself as a woman when she spoke to Pitchfork.
“That’s what women do a lot—they’re the glue between a lot of things. Not only artists, but whatever job they do: in the office, or homemakers… It’s like the end scene in Mary Poppins, when she’s made everyone friends, and the father realizes that kids are more important than money—and [then] she has to leave. [chokes up] It’s a strange moment. Women are the glue. It’s invisible, what women do. It’s not rewarded as much.”
The lead singer of The Divinyls, Chrissy Amphlett was one of the most exciting frontpersons of any gender to grace the stages of the world. Known for her histrionic performances and enormous voice, her risque songwriting on hits like I Touch Myself did great work in bringing female sexuality into the mainstream, especially in hyper masculine Australia.
Finishing on a controversial note, whatever you may think about Courtney Love and her many problems with drugs and the law, she has never been afraid of inviting criticism and has always had the strength to give back as much as she’s gotten.
I think she said it best with: “It took a special kind of guts to be a fuck up as a woman, I thought. To say to hell with being the nice girl, the responsible one, the one who makes sure the man takes care of himself and eats properly and doesn’t take too many drugs. To be just as nihilistic and self-destructive as a man, knowing all along that you’ll get crucified for it, because somehow, the world will make everything your fault. He’ll be a martyr, and you’ll be a succubus. He’ll be a genius and you’ll be a groupie, He’ll be a hero, and you’ll be an ugly fat crack whore who deserves to die.”