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Alternative Female Icons That Defined Music

For women, the ’60s brought the first signs of the genre known today as “alternative”. While they mainly conformed to the social norm of women, a change was definitely in the air. The artists of the era were no longer settling for making shallow pop songs and wearing the standard, modest stagewear. Music was starting to get edgier, as seen with the haunting lyrics of the Shangri-Las; who sang about young girls running away or falling in love with the leaders of gangs. Norma Tanega’s songs (usually sung by Dusty Springfield) were similarly unconventional, with minor chords and dark undertones. There was also a new energy being brought to the stage. Women like Janis Joplin and Tina Turner wore magnificent outfits and screamed joyously into the microphone, very contrary to the stereotype of the “weaker sex”.

Another stereotype defier was Joan Baez. Not only was her voice deep and powerful, but she also wasn’t afraid to use themes of social justice in her music. This would be a huge step for women being able to use their platforms to talk about politics, which would become even bigger in the next decade. While big steps were being taken for feminism, there were also many women changing the world of music.

Creator: David Redfern | Contibuters: Redferns | Copyright: 2011 Redferns

Along with Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Nico, and Marianne Faithfull were revolutionizing folk; a genre that not only perfectly encapsulated the decade but would continue to be revolutionary in later years. Rock n’Roll was also being created, with Barbara Lynn single-handedly evolving rhythm and blues. Though there wasn’t anyone in the industry at that time who could be defined as “weird” or “bold” in the same way that our modern alternative icons are, they were beginning to brave that frontier.  The artistic work of women was just beginning to be taken seriously, and by taking small steps, these artists were paving the way for future icons.

In the 70’s, the world was introduced to several worldshaking talents. Some underground, but extremely important examples of these were Nina Hagen, Joan Jett,  Debbie Harry, and Poly Styrene. Taking a cue from Janet and Tina; they were loud and unignorable about what they believed in, daring anyone to try to defy them. They combined the politics of folk with the energy of rock n’ roll, thus creating Punk. Their music would prove to be highly influential, spreading all across the globe and later inspiring the Riot Grrrl movement. While they managed to speak up for women’s rights in general, there was a certain group of women who fought to be taken seriously in the mainstream music industry. Rock, by this time, was fully defined.

Images from theGayle Wald Riot Grrrl Collection and the Kill Rock Stars Collection file onBikini Kill.

While a largely male-dominated genre, the female rockers managed to prove themselves and by extension, many women for years to come. Out of these were the women of Heart, Fanny, and the Runaways. On a different side of the spectrum, were the free spirits. Evolved from the folk genre and inspired by ancient lore, literature, and magic; it was the beginning of a new era for weird girls everywhere. Some of the most notable of these were Kate Bush, Patti Smith, and Stevie Nicks. With an air of mystery and unearthly personas, they pioneered a new kind of drama that would go on to inspire witchy women for years to come. Similar to these in drama but still utterly different, were Grace Jones and Siouxsie Sioux. Grace was electric, sensual, vibrant, and powerful. Siouxsie, on the other hand, was eccentric, gothic, glittering, and bewitching. With extreme makeup and wild new sounds, they were very unlike anything ever seen before. They were both signs of what was to come, however; as they both showed the different sides of a genre that would come to be known as ‘new wave’.They both signified the beginning of a new era, the 80’s.

In the 80’s, mainstream music had taken an alternative turn. Whereas in the past, there was an expected level of well-groomed politeness; now, almost nothing was off boundaries.

The underground cultures had emerged and were being enjoyed by the general public.  In the new wave genre, women like Janet Jackson, Madonna, and Cindy Lauper rocked loud colors and makeup; while Kim Wilde and Nena popularized looks with a punk edge. Their rebellion and bold defiance was no longer discouraged, one could even say it was encouraged. Alannah Currie, of the Thompson Twins, had bleached, teased locks and bizarre vocals, and  Annie Lennox, of the Eurythmics, who rocked bold androgyny. Ultimately, the acceptance of these styles came from MTV. No longer did one have to go to their favorite record store to find these women, they could watch it on the television. 

Music in the ’80s had taken on a new meaning, with an increase in accessibility changing culture in itself. The bold styles that were seen being rocked by musicians influenced mainstream fashion. Suddenly, wearing colorful makeup was ‘in’ and elaborate hairdos were encouraged. These women who weren’t afraid to be themselves were changing things. Even though a lot of it had become mainstream, however, the underground music scene still existed. On the quieter side of the spectrum was Tracy Chapman who changed the way acoustic music was to be approached in the future; securing her place as a quiet revolutionary in every sense of the word. She, with her clear voice and guitar, was continuing the legacy of folk; and would be cited as influential by many artists in years to come. While she was continuing a legacy; there was another quiet revolutionary who was creating a new genre. This woman was Tina Bell and the genre was grunge. Though she went under the radar, her creation would be a key player in the next decade; the 90’s.

If the ’60s was defined by pioneers, the ’70s by genre creating, the ’80s by accessibility, the ’90s was defined by a rawer, yet fresher approach to what was already in existence. First came artpop. Two of the key figures in this movement were Fiona Apple and Bjork. In Fiona’s music, she approached each track with a fearless sort of ferocity. She was honest and unabashed. Bjork, on the other hand, was unafraid of inventing a new kind of bizarre; as she donned swan dresses and sang in a surreal, soaring soprano. Also largely popular, was the grunge genre. Some of the key players in this were Courtney Love, Alanis Morrissette and Kat Bjelland. Their raw, nihilistic, and occasionally depressing take on life captivated and inspired the world.  While some could argue that grunge died after the 90’s, the movement turned out to be a huge step for the alternative scene, drawing more attention to the underground than ever.

While grunge had its heyday in the ’90s, there was something that was only beginning, and that would continue to thrive as years went on; female rap. Women such as Lil’ Kim, Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliot, Queen Latifah, and Eve, broke onto the scene with fast-paced dance tracks and a genius for rhythm. The rise of these larger than life artists proved especially important, as it became a movement; one that would continue to empower black women for years to come. Rap, however, was not the only place for empowerment, as the ’90s was the era of the Riot Grrrl. Bands such as Emily’s Sassy Lime and Bikini Kill continued the legacy of punk as they spoke out against racism, sexism, and bigotry. There was no doubt about it, honesty and outspokenness was a huge part of music in the ’90s. This vigor was continued in the 2000s, as female artists continued to not hold back and live up to the highest expectations.

Photo taken from Wikipedia

The early 2000s continued what was started in the ’90s. The women’s rap movement went on to inspire M.I.A., a British born singer and songwriter who used her music to promote change and equality. She proved to the world that using one’s platform for a good cause was not only good but necessary. Similarly, the art-pop genre inspired the singers like Lady Gaga, Janelle Monae, and St. Vincent. Though all very different, they had one thing in common: wild talent that didn’t stop at performing. Lady Gaga and Janelle could act. St. Vincent and Lady Gaga could play. Janelle and St. Vincent could direct. Like the 90’s, many new genres were emerging. Pop-punk was on the rise, and while it struggled to get respect as a genre by the older generations; it found a fanbase among the youth and continues to be an iconic part of youth culture today.

While lacking female representation, artists like Hayley Williams of Paramore, Lyn-Z of Mindless Self Indulgence, and Avril Lavigne were powerful icons who will not be forgotten anytime soon. Another new phenomenon was the newly defined indie genre, who proved to be the contemporaries of the witchy hippies of the '70s. Regine Chassagne of Arcade Fire, Solange Knowles, Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Florence Welsh of Florence and the Machine being some of the most notable of these, all bringing a different approach to the table. At this point in time, women are able to be weird, loud, and even if they have to work a little harder to do so-could still be taken seriously. Whereas respect had been obtainable to male rockers for years, this is a milestone. This meant they didn’t have to conform to the ideal female image, and could focus on perfecting their vision. This would be very important for the next era, when the alternative music scene would become very focused on personal style and aesthetic, the 2010’s.

The alternative scene in the 2010’s underwent, perhaps, more changes in the decade than it ever had.  There were several factors influencing these changes, one of the most prominent of these being the rise in popularity of social media, namely Tumblr. Tumblr is a social media site that is especially geared around elevating art and artists, in other words; a place for more eccentric musicians to find a fanbase. With the rise of Tumblr as social media, singers like Lana del Rey, Melanie Martinez, Halsey, F.K.A. Twiggs, Kali Uchis, Grimes, and Marina Diamandis became very popular for their strong artistic images. While they are more than competent in music, they found strength in the cultivation of extreme aesthetics through their clothing, music videos, concerts, and even subject matter.

This strategy proved itself useful as it set them apart, eliminating the risk of being lumped together. While social media in itself was a powerful factor, there is a much larger one behind it: teenagers. Teenagers were and are some of the most avid users of social media, and through that; they have created a whole new dynamic of enjoying music. With praise and criticism being more than sharable, it is safe to say that their opinions can make or break an artist. Not only are they a massive indirect influence, but they also had a more direct impact on the music itself. Young women such as Willow Smith, Clairo, Lorde, King Princess, Beabadoobee, and Billie Eilish all found success in the 2010s, and all were under 20 when they did so. They showed that not only should teenagers be taken seriously, but they should be respected as they continue to be trailblazers in their own right. Youth has proved to be possibly the most unstoppable force in music in 2010, and will probably continue for a long time. As for alternative women as a whole, considering the power they have gained since the ’60s, it is inevitable that they will continue to amaze, astonish, and empower in 2020. 


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