Saturday, February 9, 2008

We Need Rock! We Need Choice! Music Needs a Woman's Voice!

When 16-year-old Jamie-Lynn Spears announced that she would be continuing her unplanned pregancy, the same Bible-thumpers who blamed her for "America's crumbling morality" suddenly found a reason to play nice. Anti-choice zealot Mike Huckabee was the first of the presidential candidates to chime in on the pop-culture controversy: "Apparently she's going to have the child and I think that's the right decision, a good decision, and I respect and appreciate it." Huckabee was never asked what he thought about her decision against having an abortion. But, being a stalwart of the religious right, he couldn't resist the temptation to turn Spears into some kind of poster child for the crusade against women's right to control their bodies.

And so it seems fitting that Jamie-Lynn's older sister Britney personifies women's role in the modern music business. Britney Spears' present function is not so much to be heard as seen (more like ogled). Only in a society where women are viewed, first and foremost, as sex objects could such an artist become one of the highest-selling female singers of all time. Never has there been a more pressing need for a new women's rights movement in music and the world at large. Never has there been a more pressing need for the return Rock 4 Choice.

"Rock For Huh?" "Who For Choice?" Perhaps I should back up a little. Let's go back about fifteen years to the early nineties (do you feel old yet?). The Soviet Union had fallen, and the US had taken its place as the world's only superpower. An economic boom was underway, and all the mouthpieces were shouting about how lucky we are to be living in such a superpower. And those same mouthpieces had finally found the perfect label for the generation coming of age: "Generation X." Thinking back, the moniker still leaves a bad taste. That "X" was their way of writing us off as the do-nothing generation. We were lazy, self-centered, apathetic, and simply didn't appreciate "all the things we had."

Such platitudes were pure bollocks. If the same pundits had bothered to scratch beneath the surface, they would have found very palpable anger, and some very good reasons for not wanting to buy into the system. Young people were the last to share in the new economy. They were the first to be sent to Iraq in America's first post-Soviet war. They were the first to take to the streets of LA in the outrage following the Rodney King verdict. And many of the gains made by the movements of the '60s, which young people would have benefited from, had been rolled back during the '80s.

This was just as true for the gains of the women's movement which had fought through the 1970s. Susan Faludi, in her book Backlash, describes the phenomenon beginning in the '80s: "Just when women's quest for equal rights seemed closest to achieving its objectives, the backlash struck it down. Just when a 'gender gap' at the voting booth surfaced in 1980, and women in politics began to talk of capitalizing on it, the Republican party elevated Ronald Reagan and both political parties began to shunt women's rights off their platforms. Just when support for feminism and the Equal Rights Amendment reached a record high in 1981, the amendment was defeated the following year... Just when women racked up their largest percentage ever supporting the right to abortion, the U.S. Supreme Court moved toward reconsidering it."

It was in this atmosphere of trying to shake off all the repression of the '80s that Rock 4 Choice came into being. If credit were to be given to one band for its existence, it would no doubt be the all-female punk group L7. L7 were the kind of group that completely shook up the accepted notions of women in music. They were tattooed, loud, brash, and man could they rock! Uncompromising feminists, they were the kind of group that wore the enmity of the Christian right as a badge of pride.

In 1991 they told LA Times journalist Sue Cummings that they were horrified by the rash of clinic bombings by anti-abortion groups. In typically in-your-face fashion, they announced they were organizing a "Rock for Coat Hangers" benefit, the proceeds of which would go to a local pro-choice group. Cummings was inspired, and encouraged the group to bring other artists on board. After meeting with the Feminist Majority Foundation, the idea found enthusiastic support, and the first Rock 4 Choice show was held in LA in October of '91 with L7, Sister Double Happiness, Hole, and Nirvana.

The inclusion of many of grunge's biggest names wasn't accidental. Grunge's raw intensity and back-to-basics, DIY approach had pushed the decadence of hair metal and synth-pop to the sidelines. In doing so it also had created space, a pressure release valve for all the frustrations of Gen-Xers. Even groups like L7, who weren't technically considered part of the genre but shared in its confrontational spririt, began to find the recognition they had been denied in the '80s. For that reason, Rock For Choice sought to tap into grunge's anger and incorporate it as a platform for their message.

Donita Sparks, L7's lead singer, elaborated the need to mobilize young people with their own music: "It used to bum me out as a kid when I would go to peace or ERA rallies with my mother, and there would be people singing 'Kum Ba Ya, my sister, Kum Ba Ya,' it was so unmotivating. So we decided that we just had to rock the house. That was a good way to get more people involved..."

Rock 4 Choice grew in the '90s. Eddie Vedder's outspoken support for abortion rights pushed Pearl Jam to become early supporters. "[A]ll these men trying to control women's bodies are really starting to piss me off," Vedder told Rolling Stone. "They're talking from a bubble, they're not talking from the street, and they're not in touch with what's real. Well, I'm fucking mean, and I'm ugly, and my name is reality." It actually was impressive how many male rock bands were willing to lend their voice. Along with Pearl Jam and Nirvana, there were alternative mainstays like Stone Temple Pilots and Red Hot Chilli Peppers, punk groups like Rancid and Fugazi, even Iggy Pop wanted to--and did--play Rock 4 Choice benefits.

But because the group was dedicated to fighting for and protecting women's rights, it rightfully incorporated female acts that could rock just as hard as (if not harder than) the guys. Along with L7, Babes in Toyland, 7 Year Bitch, Liz Phair, Joan Jett and many others were front and center in promoting Rock 4 Choice. This wasn't so much a tactic as a center-piece of R4C's politics: women's voices in favor of the right to control their bodies. It was so effective that R4C was often mentioned in the same breath as the burgeoning Riot Grrrl movement. Though Bikini Kill were the only band from that sub-culture to regularly play shows for Rock 4 Choice, such a connection speaks volumes about the common mission of both movements. As the decade progressed, artists from outside the "alternative rock" crowd became involved. Sarah McLachlan became a proponent. Inlcusion of the newly out-of-the-closet Melissa Etheridge illustrated a common interest between women's rights and those of the LGBT community.

If one criticism could be levelled against the group, it would be that it was almost lily white. Just as grunge had galvinized the discontent of white youth, so had the insurgent sounds of hip-hop in the black community. Though rap was hardly a new concept, it had taken over a decade to shake the mainstream perception of of the music as a novelty. The gutter-level racism that characterized the Reagan '80s had certainly given rap artists a great deal to lash out against. But aside from the inclusion of Salt n' Pepa, the best-known female rap group of the time, the potential for making Rock 4 Choice into a multi-racial musical force was barely explored.

Nonetheless, Rock 4 Choice had clearly found plenty of artists willing to, well, rock for choice. The LA show in '91 became an annual event, bigger and more dynamic each year. The concerts were covered and debated in Rolling Stone and on MTV, leading music fans to ask themselves why some of their favorite artists were supporting this cause. At its height, R4C wasn't just a collection of artists, it was a platform. Such groups, though, can only be truly effective when allied with a strong movement. Rock Against Racism had been vastly successful fifteen years before, but that was because it had teamed up with the Anti-Nazi League, who had as its mission the literal elimination of fascist groups from the streets of England.

An in-the-streets movement to protect abortion rights was definitely needed in the '90s. Bill Clinton's election to the presidency had rightly been welcomed after twelve years of Reagan and Bush the first. However, Clinton began backing down on many of his campaign promises from the very beginning. His Freedom of Choice Act, which had earned him the endorsement of the biggest women's groupts, was never even mentioned after he took office. This emboldened the anti-choice right to chip away at Roe v. Wade, passing one restriction after another. In the last days of the Clinton administration, it had become more difficult for a woman to have an abortion than it had been under twelve years of Republican rule.

Unfortunately, most of the mainstream women's rights groups did not mobilize for fear of alienating the president. Even as a wave of "partial birth" bans swept the country, opening the door for even more restrictions, groups like the National Organization for Women and NARAL Pro-Choice America urged the movement not demonstrate. By the end of the 1990s, much of the pro-choice movement had switched tactics to finding "common ground" with abortion opponents. As the movement became drawn further away from the streets and deeper into the back-rooms of congress, Rock 4 Choice faded from public view.

Today, the group still exists, though it limits itself to small, local concerts, and even then only as a fundraiser for Feminist Majority. Indeed, the last annual concert Rock 4 Choice held was in 2001. The irony of this is that while the group made its voice heard the loudest under a nominally pro-choice president, they have remained totally out of the spotlight under a very openly anti-choice one. George W Bush's presidency has seen even further erosion of abortion rights. His two nominations to the Supreme Court have stated openly their willingness to overturn the Roe decision. Today, 87% of US counties have no abortion provider. Despite the very real possibility of Hillary Clinton becoming the first woman president this election season, abortion rights haven't even been mentioned on the campaign trail. And mainstream pro-choice groups are so withdrawn from the streets that when thousands of anti-abortion protesters marched in Washington on the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, no call was made for a counter-demonstration.

When women are denied the right to control their bodies, the repercussions are felt throughout society. They are felt in the workplaces, in the homes, and, yes, in our music too. Today the airwaves are choked by dime-a-dozen divas: the Britneys, the Jessicas, the Mariahs. The dominance of such artists sends the message that if women want to make in music, then their talents come secondary to their waistline, bust-size, and their willingness to pose in front of the camera. In other words, they are commodities first, artists second, human beings a distant third. When this is the standard, we all suffer... if for no other reason than the fact that the music sucks.

This does not mean that strong woman's voices in music have disappeared, though. Though we may not hear them on the radio or television daily, they are still out there. From the Gossip's Beth Ditto, to Erykah Badu, to the ever-notorious Ani DiFranco, there continue to exist women who are willing to rock out, and would be more than happy to lend their voices to a renewed push for women's rights. If Rock 4 Choice, and the movement it seeks to inspire want to make a comeback, then now's as good a time as any.

2 comments:

Marcus said...

Damn this is a good article. Thanks.

Alexander Billet said...

Thanks very much. -Alex