In Marisa Meltzer’s new book, Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music, everyone from Bikini Kill to Courtney Love and mini-genres from riot grrrl to "foxcore" are discussed in terms of how they promoted and/or hampered feminism and mass-manufactured girl power. To her credit, Meltzer doesn’t play favorites. “I saw riot grrrl before I even heard it, which might not be very cool,” she says, “but not every girl gets to be a part of the scene firsthand. I’m very sensitive to the fact that people can find feminism in all kinds of places.” Meltzer spoke to Vulture about the pros and cons of the Spice Girls, her wishes for Courtney Love, and the future of girl power.
I get the sense that there was some hesitation from the pioneer riot grrrls to speak to you for the book.
I don’t want to say resistance, but people weren’t swarming to be a part of the book. I don’t want to speak for any of them, but it’s hard to speak about your youth. [Riot grrrl] was something that got so much attention that I don’t think they ever expected to get.
You write at length about the pros and cons of the Spice Girls, with the pros being that they reached the really young crowd, and the cons being that their girl-positive message was attached to getting kids to buy stuff.
They’re always marketing to girls, whether it’s Cabbage Patch dolls or Spice Girls–branded lollipops or Miley Cyrus Trapper Keepers. I hope people will teach their kids to decode the messages — that you can buy Spice Girls merchandise, but also that it’s good to get involved in causes or underground culture. That’s one of the beauties of third-wave feminism — there’s nothing wrong with liking girlie things. You certainly can’t apologize for the culture you were reared in.
There’s a brief mention of Christina Aguilera's upcoming collaboration with Le Tigre. Would such a thing have happened in the nineties?
I don’t think so. There was a real unwillingness to work with the mainstream, but also pop music was really different then. There was much more of a dividing line. There’s a lot of crossover in pop now — people like Santigold and M.I.A. are hugely successful and also have one foot in the mainstream, but also have plenty of legitimacy, and I don’t know if there was much of that going in the early nineties. They were incredibly wary of everything that was going on with Nirvana and grunge.
You nailed the basic downfall of the revolution in one sentence: “Elitist value judgments about artistic purity were the Achilles' heel of the nineties social movements.”
Does anyone get accused of selling out anymore? The lines are so fine and the ways that bands can make money is [sic] so different [now], and so much more tied to commercials and promotions and collaborations with brands that I don’t think that it’s the same talking points. I think the nineties had a lot to do with the mainstreaming of underground culture.
Make a wish for Courtney Love.
I wish for her to be a musician again. One of my favorite parts of the book is the quote she told Simon Reynolds for the New York Times in, like, 1992. She’s talking about how she feels she needs to change her look to have her anger be accepted, and says, “I’m just part of the evolutionary process. I’m not the fully evolved end.”
What’s the future of girl power?
I definitely think that the rock camps of the world are going to have a huge influence just in terms of the number of young girls playing instruments. We have a long way to go. Most of the women who are popular in music now are conventionally attractive and have a pleasing demeanor. I would like all of that to get a little fucked up and be a little more raw, which is how I fondly remember the nineties.