While the 1990s weren’t the greatest decade for feminist comings of age, as a small-town girl who loved her music, I didn’t do too badly. I’d grown up on the leftovers of punk, awed and enthralled by women like Poly Styrene, Patti Smith, Ari Up and Gaye Advert. Closer to home, I had Shampoo’s deadpan, dead-eyed bubblegum-punk and Kenickie’s bracing uber-proletarian blend of grit and glitter.
The coverage given by switched-on music writers to unapologetic female-centred bands, alongside groups like Nirvana and the Manic Street Preachers who were happy to at least present themselves as feminist allies, played a vital part in my politicisation. It also meant that, as a young teen, the validity and logic of my involvement with music never seemed in question.
Perhaps the greatest political sustenance I received through music was the Riot Grrrl movement, that fiercely creative explosion of punk razor-edged with feminist consciousness. Like many foreign phenomena, Riot Grrrl arrived in the south Welsh valleys late and almost entirely in the abstract. That I was able to experience it at all is testimony to the diversity of the music press at that time. For a brief and brilliant early-’90s moment, across its pages raged women in smeared lipstick and ripped babydoll dresses which made a furious mockery of girlish convention. They howled lyrical j’accuses and confessionals that were angry rather than abashed, deconstructing the beauty myth to a soundtrack of screeching guitars.
One of Riot Grrrl’s most empowering aspects was its flourishing communication network of zines and pamphlets, drawing on punk’s DIY ethic, in which debates and arguments were photocopied, stapled and posted around the country and across the world. Growing up without the internet, I devoured these semi-samizdat missives behind my closed bedroom door, dazzled by their every radicalising, ridiculous facet. It was an early glimpse of the virtual community that I was later to rediscover online.
In the early 2000s I escaped from Wales to London, where I threw myself into the currents of revivalist garage-rock that swirled about the Libertines. The girls I met in the orbit of that scene were interesting, witty and insightful, not only appreciating the music around us but actively participating, analysing and creating music, writing, art and fashion of our own.
Predictably little of this was reflected in the mainstream media. Training its sensationalist gaze on Peter Doherty, the press presented his female fans in their traditionally passive and decorative roles: we were either gormless good-girl victims lured into crackdens of iniquity, or sexily wrecked bad-girl groupies who deserved all we got. The music press, by now a corporate-compromised shadow of its former self, did little to correct this tediously myopic view.
Away from this gents-toilet stench, however, a large part of the Libertines fanbase existed online, connecting and collaborating over messageboards and forums which played similar roles to Riot Grrrl’s proto-social networking communiques. Despite the geographically disparate and atomised nature of its membership, the online community was a dynamic source of friendship, support and creativity. It was also, in places, overwhelmingly female, providing a space in which women’s interests in music could be expressed and explored without being dismissed as exclusively sex-centred or derided as juvenile inanity.
It would be naive to claim that online music fandom, a highly unlevel playing field to begin with, consists of sunlit cyber-uplands. Arguing for the agency, credibility, and even the necessary presence of women in music is still depressingly difficult, and women working in Music 2.0 still face similar obstacles and stigmas to women working at record stores or labels, let alone as managers, producers or engineers.
As the tide of sexism within music ebbs and flows, however, new media helps female fans keep our heads above water.