Q&A with Marisa Meltzer

The author of Girl Power: The Nineties Revoltion in Music talks about feminism, music and reclaiming "girl power."

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What was the inspiration behind your book?
Around 2006 when Sleater-Kinney went on hiatus, I wrote something about it for Slate. When I was pitching the story, my editor was like, “Write it, but write it with your personal history in there.” It made me think that this might be something that would work on a larger level. [Sleater-Kinney’s] breakup made me start to wonder if everything I held dear when I was coming of age had sort of evaporated. At the time it seemed like Britney Spears was on red alert and the Pussycat Dolls were platinum. I was feeling cynical about a woman’s place in music. Things that I had previously dismissed as inauthentic somehow seemed as if they had a depth I hadn’t noticed. I was ready to reconsider the Spice Girls and Alanis Morrissette.

The phrase “girl power” is tricky, too—it has both negative and positive connotations. Were you hoping to reframe it?
Yeah, I think so. For me, “girl power” was just the working title, but the more that I lived with it, the more I realized that it was the only title the book could have. I’ll be the first to admit that girl power is a cheesy phrase, but I think it’s important to look at things that make you cringe, unpack it and understand why. Once you really look at the history, it’s really fascinating. The second issue of the Bikini Kill zine had “girl power” on the cover, so in 1991 or 1992 it was a very fresh idea—right in line with some of these riot grrrl and third-wave feminist ideologies. It’s a phrase that kept morphing, so for me it became synonymous with the story of women in music and feminism for the past couple of decades.

You cover such a wide breadth of music in the ’90s. How did you decide what artists and genres would make the cut?
It’s pretty personal: I went with the bands that I have the most to say about and that I felt the most personal connection to. There were tons of bands that were either mentioned briefy in the book or not at all that I love—like P.J. Harvey or the Breeders or Elastica. I just didn’t have a whole lot to say about in the context of the book. And yet I had 10,000 words to say about the Spice Girls! [Laughs] Some of it was dictated by how much there was to unpack culturally about them, too. But I just went with my personal interests and let them be the guide. There were early drafts where I tried to be a good historian and a good feminist, with a chapter about hip-hop and R&B. I’m a fan of those genres, but I’m not the one who should be writing about them. It’s not my area of expertise.

Do you worry that people will feel excluded by those decisions?
I worried about it a little bit, but I put that note in. I expected to be asked about it much more. It’s a weirdly feminist take. Women are such a hetereogenous and large population, so why should every book about women or women’s music cover everything? I wanted to do a very specifc story about a specific time. Men don’t feel like they need to write these all-encompassing books—like, how many books are there about the Beatles? I want there to be that many books about Bikini Kill.

You were lucky to be able to do some fun research—like going to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and seeing the Spice Girls.
The Spice Girls reuinion ended up happening in the middle of research for my book, so I was thrilled. With Michigan, I had learned about it in college, so when I got the book deal, I told my editor, Denise Oswald, that I really wanted to go. And Denise, being the amazing person she is, volunteered to go with me. I don’t know how to drive, so she also drove. [Laughs] I don’t own a sleeping bag or camping equipment—I’m not prissy, I’m just not a camper—but Denise totally is, so she brought a mess kit and a sleeping bag. It was really fun, mind-blowing and aesthetically horrifying in all the ways you might imagine. I felt like it was somehow going to be important to my research and for my journey. Things just ended up happening; a friend of mine is a music reviewer, so he took me along to see Britney Spears and Lady Gaga. It was a great excuse for me to go to any concert I wanted to, and be really serious about it. “I’m going to Pink for work!” [Laughs]

In the book, you talk about disconnecting from riot grrrl for a period of time. Why do you think that happened?
I think we all go through different phases, aesthetically, with what really excites us. Often things that are really important in our early coming of age just seem really embarrassing later. I think in my case, it all just seemed really earnest. I went to college in Olympia, Washington, so I started associating a lot of that [music] with the claustrophobia of the college experience. There’s a certain phase where you’re like, I can’t deal with this anymore! I was dating someone who was really into hip-hop and noise bands, and he would make me these elaborate mix-tapes and I ended up getting really into all of that. It was just a nice break, and it sort of allowed me to process those years without thinking about it. I ended being in a friends car in Austin, and heard Sleater-Kinney’s album One Beat and was like, “Oh, they’ve grown up too!” It was almost like seeing a former roommate that you loved but could only associate with dirty dishes, and then you see them and they look good and you have an awesome conversation at a party and you’re so psyched to reconnect.

You’ve got culture on your side, though. Everyone is wearing neon leggings and flannel.
I was wearing tie-dyed leggings last night! [Laughs] I feel lucky that the book came out at this time when everyone is having their fun ’90s moment, but of course I hope that it won’t just be another trendy thing to do or read. Seeing what some young girls—ones who were too young or weren’t even born during riot grrrl—have written about their reactions to reading it has been really inspiring. Like, one girl petitioned her principal to start a feminist club at her high school.

Would things have been different if the second-wave feminists had embraced the movement?
Yes. I wonder what would have happened [if riot grrrls] had a Gloria Steinem embracing their cause and helping spread the word.

You don’t really see these women-centered scenes like riot grrrl, or even something banal like the Lilith Fair, much anymore—
Well, Lilith Fair is coming back! It’s reforming. You can come with me. I’m going to go and face my late ’90s snobbery at the Lilith Fair. Heart Is playing, and Ke$ha, of “Tik-Tok” fame. It’s a strange and diverse lineup. I’m excited to see what happens. There are lots of awesome bands with girls in them, but I think there’s less of a sense right now of, “I’m in a band and I’m a woman and I have feminist values.” I think that it’s certainly missing from culture, whether it’s indie or mainstream culture, and I certainly hope it comes back.

Do you think there are people out there to lead that charge?
I think that it would be with girls I wouldn’t even know, because they’re in a basement somewhere practicing. That sort of energy is best harnessed by the very young.

At the end of the book, you say that “girl power has a long way to go.” Where is it going?
In terms of the mainstreaming of feminism into pop culture, there are many things to be desired. In terms of future generations, too, I think there’s still plenty of empty yet sparkly vehicles for female empowertment that I’d like to be stronger. There’s a lot of Miley Cyruses out there, and I don’t have a problem with that, but I’d like some very clear role models for young women, the way that I had riot grrrl. And just in terms of the state of being a girl, there’s still a long way to go. When we still have to talk about gender disparity on college campuses and the lack of politcal parity...there are still plenty of things I want.

If your book makes at least a few people rethink girl-style revolutions, will it have succeeded in your eyes?
I don’t want anyone to read it and think I’m just bragging about the small window of time when I happened to be an adolescent. I just hope they’re able to take some kernel of this ’90s female persona and warp it and customize it and bedazzle it and make it their own.

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