Published on May 7th, 2012 | by Alan Cross


They Don’t Make Rock Chicks Like They Used To

My wife and I sat down to watch Rihanna on Saturday Night Live this weekend.  It didn’t go well.

“All she needs is a pole,” she sniffed as Rihanna ground her way through “Birthday Cake.”  “She gives sleaze a bad name.”

For me, I found her performance, well, boring.  Another song about sex.  Whatever happened to the strong, independent, in-your-face female performers we used to see in the alt-rock world back in the 90s? 

Apparently I’m not the only one feeling nostalgic for this kind of artist.  Gillian Orr of The Independent feels the same way.  In a story that appeared today, she longs for the frank, unhinged, outspoken and aggressive anitcs of Liz Phair circa Exile in Guyville, Jagged Little Pill era, Alanis Morissette, the loopiness of Tori Amos and Fiona Apple and the don’t-f*ck-with-me attitude of Shirley Manson of Garbage.

Hell, I was involved in a discussion about Meredith Brookes and her late 90s girl power/woman power hit, “Bitch.”  Why aren’t we hearing I-am-woman-hear-me-roar declarations like that anymore?  Damn, I miss that.

I love strong, independent woman who aren’t afraid to speak their minds about subtantive issues. Outside of MIA and maybe Cat Power, who of today’s artists can hold a candle to those 90s alt-rock divas?  Where are the daughters of the riot grrls?  Of whom might Patti Smith be proud?  Where are the strong role models?

Katy Perry? Jessica Simpson?  Rihanna?  Please.

Yes, Liz Phair sang a lot about sex but there was an honesty and realism to how she handled it.  Lest we forget, that was one of the things for which she was praised by men and women alike.  

The good news is that Morissette, Garbage, Apple all have albums in the pipeline.  Maybe they’ll show the kids how it’s not necessary to sing about boys and clothes and partying.

I LOVE women in positions of power.  We need more of them.  It’s just that the power they weild has to more about being known for singing simple songs about sex (the “don’t-you-want-this-baby” kind especially) and mindless partying.

Meanwhile, I’m re-adding some Liz Phair to my playlists.  I think MIA is just on this side of insane, but I like that; in fact, thank God for MIA.  

And please, Courtney Love, continue to do whatever it is that you do. You’re certainly more entertaining than Rihanna.


About the Author

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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12 Responses to They Don’t Make Rock Chicks Like They Used To

  1. Larry L says:

    Thank you!! Turning on MuchMusic these days is basically the all porn channel for kids. Rihanna was someone who I liked a bit early on but now I find her revolting.

  2. Michael says:

    I always tried to distance you from the dude-rock prevalent on edge 102, but now I see that you were a major part of the problem. Do you really think that Rihanna sings more about sex and boys than Phair, who has songs like "HWC," or Alanis, whose entire Jagged Little Pill is about the fallout of a relationship with a man? Not only are you outing yourself as supremely out of touch here, you're making sex problematic when it's embraced by women in positions of power. Why don't you turn your critical gaze to men who are writing "another song about sex?" Are you saying that doesn't happen?

  3. JosephSchafer says:

    I think the answer lies in the in-general malaise plaguing hard and alternative rock. Pitchfork and its followers have co-opted the post-grunge/post-Matador and 4AD sound into a parade of disingenuous saccharine music about privileged white people with issues.

    May I suggest something a little heavier and more literary?

    Gracy Perry is the singer in an AZ death metal band called Landmine Marathon. I think she's the most empowered woman in contemporary music.

  4. Alan Cross says:

    Judging from a couple of tweets and some comments, I didn't make my self clear to everyone. Let me try again.

    1. If the Liz Phair reference/example bothers you, ignore it and consider some of other names i mentioned. But lest we forget, Liz was praised for her honesty and frankness when she started releasing records back in the 90s.

    2. Tori Amos was also praised for her honesty. She tackled difficult and volatile issues just as rape with her music.

    3. No one could tell Fiona Apple what to do or how to handle her career. I admired that.

    4. Alanis Morissette's "Jagged Little Pill" was the second biggest selling record of the 90s. It got that way because so many people identified with her and her relationship situations. And have we forgotten how she was praised for that?

    5. Read The Independent article for why you don't mess with Shirley Manson.

    6. The term "rock chick" wasn't always offensive. Some women I know still self-identify that way. Heck, take a look at article in The Independent–written by a women.

    7. And please don't play the race card. There are plenty of strong black female singers. Or have we forgotten some of these great names? Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, Queen Latifah, Jonelle Monae, etc. etc. etc.–hell, I'd even put Whitney Houston up there as someone you never messed with.

  5. Michael says:

    What's your point Alan? It's all well and good to prefer Liz Phair or Tori Amos over Rihanna, but what are you trying to say? Your original post was about seeing Rihanna on TV, comparing her act to something you'd see in a gentlemen's club, and then going on to say you miss the good ol' days when women were "in-your-face" and independent.

    Equating women comfortable with singing and performing their sexualities on stage with a lack of substance or independence is a very close-minded way to approach the topic. Not to mention the fact that your feeling disturbed by seeing Rihanna's performance reinforces her position as an artist who is very much "in your face." Perhaps she's not going about it the way you'd prefer? But even then we get into more issues as there's no correct way to express sexual desires or feelings.

  6. Lainad says:

    "Race Card?" Oh please.

    I wasn't one of the people who commented via twitter or other social mediums, but I did read this earlier today and the thought of race came to mind. This isn't specifically aimed at you, but a lot of music journalists are pretty lazy in their research when writing about 'women in rock.' A lot of journalists also forget that other people besides white people are interested in pop culture commentary, and get tired of making sweeping generalizations or more often, ignoring women of colour in preference of what THEY see as an authentic female. But please don't use the 'race card' when people have a legitimate beef. It's patronizing and lazy.

    There are a lot of black women performers who have been ignored by pop media culture for being 'strong' and forthright, without using their sexuality to get ahead.

    I agree somewhat, with your observations about Rhianna, but despite the fact that I hate her music, I think that she IS asserting her sexuality that is different than her R&B / hip-hop colleagues. She is an individual, expressing things in her own way and it is read as more believable, versus what comes from a male dominated-industry's point of view. That makes people critical.

    Liz Phair….I saw her speak at the 2011 SXSW music festival and while she might have been provocative back in the day, she is very aware of her white privilege and is still using it. I was never a fan of hers either, but she really turned me off after her panel discussion.

    I would suggest checking out Tamar-Kali ( see the Afropunk Doc). THAT is a strong, sexy and talented women. Also, Kat from Salome, and Amber Valentine from Jucifer.

  7. Jon says:

    What about Emily Haines from Metric? Tegan and Sarah? Feist?

    I don't know if you thought this post through because for every Pop Tart that reaches mass appeal with their junk-food for the mind lyrics and antics, there are 2 to 3 artists that take them self seriously. Only not as many people care, so they don't get on SNL.

    The masses don't give a shit. It's the same reason why US Weekly magazine out-sells Ad Busters by thousands. Sad; but true.

  8. 2trees says:

    I also saw Rhianna on SNL. It was boring. And a shame.
    Many talented women would love to have the opportunity to get on a stage and perform MUSIC. Madonna started the sorry trend of substituting sexuality for singing.

  9. Kyle says:

    I think most of you are missing the point (not of Mr. Cross's article, but of your own criticisms of it), as you're merely perpetuating divisions in society based on taste and value judgments. While everyone's attacking Mr. Cross in terms of gender and race, the real issue here is in the widespread application of value and taste judgments. Suggesting that Rihanna is a lesser/more mindless artist that Liz Phair or Alanis Morissette is ignorant and excludes many different genres of music as legitimate forms of art. Mr. Cross (and many of the commenters here, it would seem) prefer rock music (in an all encompassing sense) to pop music.

    That's fine, but when that preference extends to judgments of other artists and the audiences that enjoy them (such as Rihanna, Katy Perry, whomever else), the argument veers into dangerous territory that's inherently linked to issuse of class, gender and race and treats music as a hierarchy, where certain artists are privileged for their "in-your-face"-ness while others are derided – these are empty value judgments and do little to promote meaningful discourse on pop and rock music.

  10. Matthew says:

    At some point it's out of your control. As the above poster mentioned the "real issue here is in the widespread application of value and taste judgments". I miss the 90s alt-rock divas also, strong rock chicks from 70s, etc. But just as societal forces have decided that people prefer "free" music over actually buying it, unfortunately societal forces have also decided they want Katy Perry and Jessica Simpson over Patty Smith and Joan Jett. Yes it sucks. And yes it's not right, but bands/musicians should act and stop the cycle, or stop complaining, because in the end complaining solves nothing.

  11. Jennifer says:

    Queen of Denmark on the new Sinead O'Connor album re-establishes her as the gloves-off glorious powerhouse of rock chick she's always been. Above and beyond her musical excellence, her choosing to cancel her upcoming tour due to mental illness so as not to disappoint all those who support her should provide an example to all those struggling with mental health and addiction issues. As a career-long fan, and someone who would have likely attended both Montreal shows, I keep my fingers crossed that her loyalty and honesty are rewarded by being able to tour in the near future.

  12. Darren says:

    RITZY BRYAN for the win.

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