In the US, the 1990s was the decade of “grrl power” as third-wave feminists renewed the movement through cultural expression, and particularly musical expression, of women’s identities. The movement began underground in the late 1980s in the form of woman-made ‘zines (self produced and distributed magazines) and all-female punk bands who stared the Riot Grrl subculture in Olympia and Washington DC (Schlit 2004). The new feminist consciousness expressed itself through creativity and visibility and was concerned with women’s access to male dominated cultural forms. In practice, this generation of women united second wave-feminism’s grassroots consciousness-raising with the D.I.Y. ethos of punk in order to create self-produced small-scale music and media.
By the late 1990s, the mass media was announcing the arrival of the new gender equality, evidenced by women’s access to spaces and occupations traditionally reserved for men, from the arena rock stage to the U.S. Congressional floor. The image of “girls with guitars” taking over the charts drew on the unearthing of Riot Grrl subculture and on women’s presence as singer-songwriters in sold out tours of the Lilith Fair.1 As the Billboard charts showed sales of women artists outpacing that of men, a new term was coined to represent this movement: “girl power,” deriving its name from Riot Grrl but dropping the edge in favor of the more familiar and arguably disempowering “girl.”
By the late 1990s, “girl power” became a mass media frame used to understand women’s increased presence in culture-based industries. It also became a brand image. The visibility of ‘girls with guitars’ lead to guitars marketed toward a “girl” aesthetic: pink, purple, small, light, sparkles, butterflies and daisies. The “empowerment” brand eventually stretched to more traditionally feminine products like hair gel and handbags, just like second-wave feminism slogans became the intellectual property of Virginia Slims. Mudd Company, for example, placed ‘zines in the pockets of its jeans to instruct teenage girls on proper skin care. The image of girls with guitars, mixed with sexual empowerment, even allowed heterosexual boys and men to consume girl power as they checked out the latest guitar models, in both senses of the word. In these ways, women’s participation in new creative cultures morphed into women’s participation in new cultures of consumption. As such, women rock musicians came to be understood as a passing fad or consumer trend, rather than as new players in the rock music world.
Yet at the local level, women continue to participate in rock music and are quickly forgotten, as has been the case for decades (Bayton 1998). In their everyday lives, women musicians contend with the widely shared images that position them as outdated novelty and as new consumers of musical technologies.