This upcoming fall, as part of the Student Taught Courses program at Rice University, I’m teaching a class called “Riot Grrrl: Women in Music 1960s-Present.” Student Taught Courses at Rice are one-credit, pass/fail classes, organized and taught by a student (duh) about any subject ranging from “Tea in Society” to “Zombies in Modern Culture.” My class is sort of the culmination of years of research and self-discovery on the path to figuring out what being a female singer/songwriter meant to me, and learning the history behind the archetype I defined myself by. The quest to advertise and fill a class about feminist music movements in a primarily Southern, private university is a whole story in and of itself, but for now I’d like to tell you about my first homework assignment.
Though technically the course doesn’t start until the fall, the student teachers are encouraged to take measures to get their class excited about what’s to come. So I decided to send out an email with a fun homework assignment to get them thinking critically about the narrative I’m trying to create—to draw connections between what seemingly different female musical artists from the early 1990s were saying, regardless of their music style and genre.
The year 1992 has been popularly labeled as the “Year of the Woman,” due to the election of a number of women to the United States Senate. The title is—of course—controversial, because, as Senator Barbara Mikluski said, “Calling 1992 the Year of the Woman makes it sound like the Year of the Caribou or the Year of the Asparagus. We’re not a fad, a fancy, or a year.” As my U.S. History professor pointed out in class this morning, even though it was the “Year of the Woman,” there were still only 6 women out of a 100 Senators, and 47 women out of 475 members of the House of Representatives. For your first homework assignment, watch these videos, all three of which were recorded within the space of a year, between 1992-1993. Think about what these three very different artists have in common.
1. Huggy Bear’s famous 1993 performance of “Her Jazz” on MTV’s The Word, representing the peak of Riot Grrrl’s popularity.
2. Salt-N-Pepa being the badasses they are, rapping about the double standard of sex in “None of Your Business,” from their 1993 album, Very Necessary.
3. Tori Amos performing “Silent All These Years” from her 1992 debut album, Little Earthquakes. Notice the Bösendorfer piano, the sensual way she straddles the piano bench (what I like to call the “Tori Amos stance”), and that goddamn gorgeous red hair.
I honestly don’t have a single answer to my own question, but certainly one connection is that they’re all eschewing the philosophies of third wave feminism, using art as a medium of expression.
This got me thinking about women composers in 1992-1993. Now, the contemporary composition scene is a whole world in itself, full of fragmented styles that are difficult to piece together into a single historic timeline. There’s also a tendency toward political correctness, downplaying gender, sexual orientation, and race in contemporary classical music post-1990s: for good reason, because composers recognize that the product, the music, should be judged on its own merit and not be burdened by the composer’s biography (which, as I discussed in my blog a few weeks ago, “Model Status,” is something I’m still debating how I feel about). I did, however, happen to find a documentary released in 1993 from Michael Blackwood Productions, The Sensual Nature of Sound: 4 Composers, portraying four New York-based female composers: Laurie Anderson, Tania León, Meredith Monk, and Pauline Oliveros.
Can you think of any other significant music events in 1992-1993 that might relate? Do you think it’s possible to draw conclusions connecting feminism to the contemporary classical scene at the time? Food for thoughts, please!