No retrospective about “Women of the 90’s” or “Women in Rock” in general would be complete without PJ Harvey. Which, in and of itself, would probably rub the artist the wrong way. Harvey never associated herself with politically energized musical movements like Riot Grrrl, being wary of earning a label that would overshadow her work. That was wise. Riot Grrrl and their angry zines may have been the face of 90’s feminism, but who still listens to their music? I mean, the main hurtful trope against feminists when I was a growing up was that they listened to bad music. PJ Harvey wouldn’t want to be defined by identity-based labels, and she’s not about to be defined by musical labels. Her work is too diverse for that. She draws from blues and punk, for all that abrasive rage. She also knows her cabaret and is well versed in all that confessional songwriting stuff, making her work both theatrical and intimate. In other words, a well-rounded artist. Who would never claim to be anyone’s mouthpiece or role model. But her rage is yours if you want it.
There’s no 90’s band that deserved to survive the 90’s more than Mazzy Star, but spoiler alert they did not. They should have carried on a storied career, because despite having one big decade-defining hit, their music lay far outside most of the decade’s noxious trends. (The same cannot be said for Hope Sandoval’s grunge dollybird style.) You couldn’t pinpoint this music as peak 1993; it could just as easily be peak 2013 dream pop. Why there isn’t more Mazzy Star music isn’t much of a mystery though. It’s partly because Hope Sandoval turned out not to be well-suited to the lifestyle of a working star. She is shy and suffers from stage fright, and feels more comfortable working under the radar rather than promoting big hit singles. Another problem may have been that all the songs on all the three Mazzy Star records sound so much the same and the world really only wants so much somnolent ballads.
This really takes me back…all the way back to around 2005, when I first started listening to Flaming Lips. The song was more than 10 years old by that point, but in 1993 I was ten years old, so. So I don’t remember jack about the 90’s. Apparently 1993 was the year that Flaming Lips accidentally piggybacked on the grunge aesthetic long enough to launch their psychedelic fweakiness somewhere nearer to the overall mainstream than they had been before. It would be another decade before they finally became the kind of popular band whose songs can be heard in movie theatre lobbies. Makes you think about the eons of time that constitute pop cultural evolution, how sometimes it takes decades to create the things you love, and more decades for you to find them, and then more decades, infinite decades, for you to enjoy them.
There comes a point in every important conversation when you have to stop and ask, “But what does David Bowie have to say about it?” Although David Bowie has contributed more than most others in his field to our evolving ideas about sexuality and gender, he’s not the type to write crude anthems about fucking. I’m guessing that he was probably one of those insufferable intellectual soft bois who gave his one-night-stands a book to take home as a parting gift. Which, as a person who can’t quite separate sex from philosophy, I can relate to. That as it may, there wasn’t very much to find for this particular series of songs. Just a semi-instrumental from the obscure Buddha of Suburbia album. So, when pressed, I suppose that David Bowie just wants you to shut up and dance.
Show of hands, who still remembers what Morse code is? It’s that cool beeping noise that WWII movies use to underscore tension when something exciting and/or scientific is going on. Right? Right. So Bryan Ferry made an excellent production choice in using that sound effect to literalize a song about loneliness and longing. He’s like a ship at sea, you see. He needs a hero to save him from drowning in his ocean of solitude. It’s basically just a booty call, but the SOS makes it sound serious and important. And sophisticated. But you know what? Booty calls deserve to be dignified. There’s not much heavy lifting we can do for another person, in terms of rescuing them from themselves, but we can at least occasionally rescue them from being alone and horny.
Kurt Cobain: your favorite male feminist and mine. During his short tenure as the voice of his generation Kurt Cobain could not have been a better role model (aside from the whole heroin thing.) Like any good messiah, he denied that he was the voice of anyone, which of course cemented him in that role even more. But he used his platform to speak about his frustration at the deep sexism within the music industry, and all across the board. He hated the machismo and aggression in the underground punk scene he started out in, and soon found that the mainstream industry wasn’t any better. He was an early supporter of the Riot Grrrl movement; in The Punk Singer he gets a shout-out from Kathleen Hanna for being the only friend who believed and helped her after a sexual assault. I remember a few things about the early 90’s and one of them is the lively debate then going on about whether date rape is a legitimate thing or just another example of feminist hysteria. (We’ve since reached a general consensus that it’s most definitely a real thing, and it’s mostly considered pretty much illegal nowadays.) I also recall some hand-wringing and controversy as higher learning institutions started to implement campus anti-sexual assault policies; there was some deep concern that the awkwardness and effort of procuring a partner’s verbal consent would leech all of the fun and spontaneity out of sex. This particular lively debate has cycled back around along with tartan skirts and Doc Martens; we’re still collectively unclear on the concept of consent. All things considered, I would say that 90’s kids are lucky that the voice of their generation was a man who loudly, angrily and publicly proclaimed that rape is a shitty thing that needs to be talked about and took a stand of solidarity with victims and declared himself a proud feminist. Ironically, or perhaps not, he also felt used and violated in his role as a public figure to such a degree that he was unable to go on living. It’s unfortunate that sometimes the best role models are the people least suited to that role.
“God is on top of it, that’s all.”
Does that comfort you? Not supposed to, I don’t think. David Bowie, even at his happiest, turns a questioning eye on matters of faith. In this case, it seems that the only response to the God question is a bleating saxophone.