Saturday, September 13, 2008

Mainstream Feminist Rock? The Donnas vs. The Runaways

Are there any feminists in mainstream music?

Try this experiment: Turn on a radio. Tune to your local mainstream rock station. What do you hear? A male voice. Change to the classic rock station. Another male voice. How about a country or rap station? Guess what! Try top 40. There you'll probably hear a vapid-sounding woman singing about her (ex-)boyfriend, or about how sexy she is. Repeat this until you're good and mad. There aren't many women on the radio (except DJs), let alone feminism. Now, I know that radio isn't as important as it used to be. So, try looking through a list of top mp3 sales. At the time I'm writing this, there are only 4-5 non girly-pop* female songs in the top 100 - although a Pink song is currently #1. (If anyone gets different results, by the way, I'd like to know.)

Still, I'm going to start here at Fourth Wave by writing about feminism and rock music.

As it turns out, of course, there are excellent women musicians in the music industry. Some are even quite popular. Not all pop singers are intolerable. Sarah Mclachlan, Madonna, and my personal favorite, Idina Menzel all spring to mind. If you listen to a classic rock station for very long, you'll hear some Heart. And then there's the Queen of Rock herself, Joan Jett.

Now, before Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Jett was in a band called the Runaways. If you've never heard of them, the Runaways are often considered the first really successful all-female band. They were forerunners of later all-female bands, including more feminist bands (riotgrrrl bands, L7 and Babes in Toyland, female queercore bands, etc.) The Runaways, though, were not feminist. At all. They were a rock and roll band - they sang about sex (with boys), rebellion, drugs, and rock and roll itself.

As much as I love feminist musicians, very few feminist bands have anything like mainstream success. The question, therefore, is: What effect, if any, has feminism and feminist music had on the women in mainstream rock? How has it changed since the Runaways?

I originally meant to compare the Runaways to the most popular all-female band in any genre, but the most popular band turned out to be the Dixie Chicks, and there didn't seem to be much to say. So, I went with another popular band, the Donnas. As far as I can tell, the Donnas are the most popular all-female rock band currently performing, and one of the most popular all-female bands in any genre. They are also perfect for our purposes; they were directly influenced by the Runaways. Like the Runaways, the Donnas sing mostly about sex, drugs, and rock and roll. There are about 20 years between the bands - the Runaways disbanded in 1979, and the Donnas started to see real success in 1999 or so. Let's listen to a couple of songs:

First, the Runaways, "Cherry Bomb":

No, they didn't always perform in lingerie. But the whole 'trashy teenage jail-bait' look was essentially the selling point of the band. One of the big problems with the Runaways was with their manager, Kim Fowley, who over-managed and over-hyped the band until they appeared to be a cheap exploitation act put together by men. Nobody is really sure how much this was the case, but it certainly taint their perception.

Now for the Donnas, "Take It Off":

As far as I know, the Donnas have never performed in lingerie. Many reviewers claim they started with a the trashy jail-bait look, but nearly every video that I have seen features them in jeans and tank-tops or t-shirts - fairly neutral outfits. If they once had a trashy look, they've certainly dropped it by now.

Notice also the difference in the front-women's dancing. The Runaways' Currie is obviously playing up to her outfit, and while the Runaways are not the Pussycat Dolls (by a long shot), their sex appeal was an important part of their act. The Donnas' Anderson rarely does anything like this. Her dancing consists primarily of fist shaking, headbanging, and the occasional side-to-side movement that looks like a swagger as often as it looks sensual.

And that is the difference between the two bands. The Donnas are certainly very sexual, but theirs is an aggressive, almost masculine sexuality. The Runaways sing,

Here you are a superstar
But I sing and play in my own way
You got your fans and I got mine
But I need your love that's the bottom line


Don't abuse me
Now you listen to what I say
If you're tryin' to use me
Why don't you just go away

But the Donnas?

Spendin every night in a different state
Spendin every night with a different date
Forty boys in forty nights
I got no time to see the sights

And also:

Boy, don't try to slow me down
You're not the only one that's on my mind
Got, enough to go around
If you can't take it you'll be left behind

The Runaways may be tough aggressive rockers, but in the end they seemingly need a man just like other women. The Donnas don't need men at all - they use them for sex, just like male rock stars use the women in their songs. (Note: the Donnas aren't totally consistent in this - the songs do tend to use female terms to describe relationships, but this is also kind of the point - they're female, just not feminine)

In the end, the Donnas are about as feminist as straight-up hetro rock and roll can be. There is one problem, though. While they are confident and strong in themselves, they really don't care about other women very much:

You've been talking trash again, oh no
Don't pretend you're not my friend, oh no

And the repeated line in the same song:

G-I-R-L T-A-L-K, the girls talk

Yeah, yeah, we know. Girls don't like each other. It's two steps and one step back, really:

  • Strong, independent, sexually confident = good

  • Tearing down other women = bad

I do think that there is overall progress, though. We've come quite a way since the Runaways. The Donnas even parted with their first manager to avoid a Fowley-type scandal. Their latest album was released on their own label, and still charted.

Perhaps in another 10-20 years, the songs we hear on the radio (or whatever finally replaces it) will have as many female voices as male voices.

*By the way, please don't think I hate pop music or musicians. It just seems that much of it tends to reinforce stereotypes of dependent, weak women with breathy high-pitched voices who think about men all the time. The over-production often makes them sound fake to my ears, as well.

4 comments: said...

Great post! As someone who--sadly--doesn't know much about music (rock or otherwise), your analysis was especially compelling. I definitely see the difference in the outfits. I had heard of the Donnas before, but never really listened to them that extensively. I'll have to check them out!

Lucija said...

Interestingly enough, Joan Jett is a lesbian, and probably Sandy West was too, and Cherie Currie is bisexual. Just thought it ironic regarding the lyrics and the whole hetero-rock thing.

Fowley was a bastard. Nuff said.

And musically, The Runaways rocked. The Donnas suck. I mean, c'mon, they claim to be influenced by the, what?!where?!
Take It Off is a nice poppy song, but the rest of their stuff is yuck, unfortunately...

Lucija said...

Oh and...forgot to mention just how much The Runaways were victims of the patriarchy. Constantly under threats of sacking, most band members were forced to have sex with managers etc. They were accepted in the LA punk scene and toured, for example, with the Ramones, but there were also male bands who wouldn't even let them sound-check. Heartbreaking stuff really, nothing like the fuck-it-all fun rock n'roll image the band cultivated.

Anonymous said...

Well... The Runaways have songs about casual sex too. Like "Take it or Leave it" and "You Drive me Wild" and "Gotta Get Out". I´m not sure if all their songs are so explicity heterossexual. And if they are, what´s the problem? They´re about women´s sexual freedom and that what really matters. The idea is having a choice: you can choose have sex with man.

The main point about the Runaways is that they wanted to write songs like the boys wrote. Very "I wanna be where the boys are"-like. They lived in the 70s and a gilr in lingerie was an afront. It was not abut being sexy, it was about being wild. It was about saying "Look at me! I love having sex just like you do". Cherie Currie´s dacing was all about this too. It´s not only an outfit.

The Runaways as victims of patriarchy? For sure. Kim Fowley was a jerk and sold them like they were some sexy porn stars... Look at Lita Ford now! But they were more than that, and they really proved him wrong in every live performance. They were talented, they wanted to shock...

Of course that each one of them followed this feminist central idea in a different way. And proabably Joan was the most consistant of them. But they were great and they sang about women´s liberation. In 1975. Doing hard rock. That´s fantastic!