It all starts with Courtney Love.
Flailing down a rabbit hole of lost concert footage and forgotten interviews on YouTube, I found Courtney’s 1995 interview with the esteemed Barbara Walters. In a flurry of shoulder pads and cigarettes, Courtney and Barbara discuss the public perception of Love as uneducated and dirty, the widow who manipulated her now-dead husband and former Nirvana frontman into marriage and musical partnership. The sad truth of Courtney’s life is that she was extremely talented and possessed genuine ability and prowess as a writer and performer. As principal songwriter of the alt-rock band Hole, Love’s heavily emotive and introspective songs from 1994’s Live Through This speak of inherently feminine issues such as motherhood, domesticity (“I don’t do the dishes/I throw them in the crib”), and body image (“They say I’m plump/But I throw up all the time”). The explicit feminist slant of the album—and its impressive artistry—is often lost in the writing of rock journalists who tend to focus instead on Love’s marriage to Kurt Cobain. Critics point to the similarities between Live Through This and Nirvana’s Nevermind as indicative of Cobain’s role in Love’s music, thereby diminishing Love’s individual talent and legitimizing it only with the aid of her husband. Courtney isn’t perceived as an artist, mother and dynamic figure. Instead, she’s a dangerous harpy, the reason the angelic Cobain killed himself—at least according to mainstream media.
Media uproar also surrounds the release of any new Taylor Swift album. Countless blog posts and thoughtful articles analyze Swift’s lyrics not for their potency, but for their allusions to former or current boyfriends.
Stevie Nicks is a goddess, the Queen of Rock. Her voice is gold, her songs instant classics. Few would speak poorly of Stevie, but discussions of her never fail to mention her tumultuous relationship with Fleetwood Mac bandmate Lindsey Buckingham.
Each of these powerful and ambitious artists has been pigeon—holed, thrown into a box labeled “female songstress” that offers limited outlets of perception. What’s shocking and even more disturbing is the difference in control artists like Love, Swift and Nicks have from current pop stars who co-write their songs with a team of industry moguls. The idea of the singer/songwriter, penning her words to song and speaking with clarity of the female experience, is a long-forgotten ideal that never truly existed, except possibly during the ‘90s (see: Alanis Morissette, Tori Amos).
I had night terrors at age 4. My dad solved the problem by giving me his portable cassette player, headphones and Steve Earle tapes. Every night I slept peacefully to the melodies of Copperhead Road, knowing nothing of the moonshine and Vietnam referenced in the songs. As I grew, my musical tastes varied from rock to folk but always remained in the androcentric vein. I related to Bruce Springsteen in Born to Run and Bono in The Joshua Tree. Female artists were a snake-flanked Britney Spears or Katy Perry in a cupcake bra. I viewed myself with a seriousness not reflected in my perception of female artists. It’s only been in the past two years that I’ve explored the power of Adele, of Taylor Swift and Beyoncé. My love of Nirvana led to an obsession with Hole, with the discovery of the Riot Grrrl Movement. I’ve forced myself to confront the fraud of the ‘guilty pleasure,’ to experience artists and genres I once regarded as unworthy, silly. Sixteen-year-old Meredith would be absolutely dumbfounded to learn twenty-year-old Meredith’s favorite summer albums were Kanye West’s The College Dropout and Ellie Goulding’s Halcyon.
Feminism seeps into everything, changes the way books are read and albums heard. The stories told in song should represent varying perspectives, should resonate with marginalized communities. Women who create work reflecting the truth of the female experience should be praised for their honesty,
acknowledged for their labor and valued for their talent.