“Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill
Despite frontwoman Kathleen Hanna’s objections to being pegged as the mouthpiece of riot grrrl, this Bikini Kill song is among the movement’s most enduring anthems. As an ode to female bonds, the tune was downright revolutionary for girls who may have otherwise felt alienated from their peers. Any young woman who’s found themselves in the throes of a girl crush—be it romantic or simply a deep platonic admiration—will recognize themselves in the lyrics: “I really like you / I really wanna be / Your best friend / Be mine, rebel girl.”
“Independent Women Part 1” by Destiny’s Child
Beyoncé and crew released several songs that address the theme of female empowerment, but this single is Destiny’s Child’s fiercest ode to strong, self-sufficient ladies. In addition to singing the praises of fiscal independence—and not relying on guys for houses, cars, shoes or anything else—the ladies encourage women to keep their emotional independence, too. (Bey admonishes any potentially domineering dudes: “Try to control me, boy, you'll get dismissed.”) We'll always throw our hands up for that.
“Respect” by Aretha Franklin
Okay, yes, this was written by a man: Otis Redding penned the tune in 1965. But the Queen of Soul's version is the definitive take on the song, in no small part because, by changing the gender roles, she subverts the original intent. But credit must also be given to the soul singer's powerful performance; Franklin doesn't just ask for her man's respect, she flat-out demands it.
“Suggestion” by Fugazi
This intense antirape song is written from a female perspective, with the first two lines (“Why can’t I walk down the street free of suggestion? / Is my body my only trait in the eyes of men?”) offering an indictment of the sexual harassment and assault that too many women are all too familiar with. But the final verses pack the biggest punch, when frontman Ian MacKaye implicates society at large for women’s suffering: “We blame her for being there / But we are all here / And we are all guilty.” An even more powerful version can be seen in a clip from a 1991 gig, during which Amy Pickering—singer for the D.C. all-girl punk band Fire Party—screams through a visceral performance.
“Bad Reputation” by Joan Jett
There’s no denying Joan Jett’s feminist bona fides: She was a member of the trailblazing all-girl glam-rock group the Runaways, forged a successful solo career (and founded her own label, Blackheart Records), and has worked with artists like Bikini Kill, the Gits and Peaches. Her first single as a solo artist, released in 1981, is a punky flip-off to those who believe she should care what others think of her. (“A girl can do what she wants to do / And that's what I'm gonna do,” she snarls.)
“Hot Topic” by Le Tigre
Anyone looking for a feminist education should turn to this song: Le Tigre frontwoman Kathleen Hanna and her bandmates call out a list of artists, musicians, writers and other strong women and men—Angela Davis, Yoko Ono, Joan Jett, Nina Simone and Kara Walker, to name a few—whose work has inspired the group. This is punctuated by Hanna imploring these artists to keep on keepin’ on for the sake of forward-thinking women everywhere: “So much bullshit but we won't give in / Don’t you stop / I can’t live if you stop.”
“U.N.I.T.Y.” by Queen Latifah
Nearly 30 years after “Respect” was released, another Queen stepped up to speak out against society’s continued contempt toward women. Queen Latifah takes on issues like domestic violence, misogynist language and street harassment in this empowering anthem, calling out those who would try to tear ladies down. If you don’t want to high-five her after she sings, “I bring wrath to those who disrespect me like a dame,” then you’ve completely missed the point.
“None of Your Business” by Salt-N-Pepa
The phrase slut-shaming didn’t really exist in the mid-‘90s, but this song nevertheless rails against the concept. Salt-N-Pepa challenge both men and women who would judge them for daring to enjoy sex. We also love this line: “How many rules am I to break before you understand / That your double standards don’t mean shit to me?”
“#1 Must Have” by Sleater-Kinney
If “Rebel Girl” was one of the songs that fueled riot grrrl, this song—from Sleater-Kinney’s album All Hands on the Bad One—offers a more caustic take on the movement’s success. Singer-guitarist Corin Tucker, who played in the influential band Heavens to Betsy, starts off on a pessimistic note (“Bearer of the flag from the beginning / Now who would have believed this riot grrrl’s a cynic?”), then shifts into anger over the co-opting and watering down of the movement’s message. But the song is ultimately hopeful, with Tucker suggesting that “Culture is what we make it / Yes it is / Now is the time / To invent”—in other words, encouraging women to create a new feminist revolution.
“Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” by X-Ray Spex
The song starts off quietly enough, with frontwoman Poly Styrene (who passed away in 2011) reciting the hoary proverb, “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard,” in a bored monotone. But she follows it with a gloriously angry rallying cry: “But I think, oh bondage, up yours!” Sometimes the simplest message is the most effective.