If the 1990s were the decade of women in rock, then the 2000s were the decade of women everywhere taking the lead in musical spheres. Exemplified by that transnational rogue M.I.A., the new feminine pop star tended to be from the global south—or at least repping it—and produced music intensely hybrid in genre and pop in orientation.
This isn’t a top-down or bottom-up trend: it’s more like a global shift in recognition for the powerful “weirdness” of female musicians and songwriters. This shift towards the freakier side of pop can be witnessed within the self-styled exotics of Ukrainian tech-folkie Ruslana, the New Zealand dolly queen Kimbra, and the increasingly abstract tracks of Beyoncé. Even Lady Gaga, in her queer radicalist and blonded melting pot white-girl thing, borrows heavily from the sound trash of Europe rather than its highs.
Remember when women got stuck on the hook? The U.S. millennial shift from hip hop to hip hop/R&B was a good one for women with Mary J. and Lauryn Hill paving the way for the kind of crossover that became de rigueur in the 2000s. The blurred genre lines may have been a contributing factor to the rise of Nicki Minaj, a true MC who ruled the summer with the R&B structured “Super Bass,” which even featured a hook by another woman (co-songwriter Ester Dean). The unintended consequence is a resurgence of interest in women rappers, both contemporary and historical (check Peanut Butter Wolf’s excellent Ladies First mixtape if you’re missing MC Lyte in your life). Meanwhile, French-Chilean Ana Tijoux has quietly become the Spanish language’s best female MC with the her nods to early-’90s hip hop, making fresh sounds from vintage Native Tongues styles, showing how misguided are Simon Reynolds’ ears (eyes?) when in his recent book Retromania he argues that the presence of the past killed pop progress in the 2000s. Where riot-grrl bible Girls To the Front might have documented gender-balanced punk gigs, now the concept of “girls to the front” also means moving to the forefront of sonic innovation.
One of the things I noticed right away when coaching bands at the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls in Brooklyn is that kids don’t understand or care about genre rules. Instruments, lyrics, and structures are all free spaces until some jerk comes in to tell them they’re doing it “wrong.” That’s why we use rock as verb and encourage girls to go with whatever weird lineup and weirder song ideas they might have. Turns out the traditional band is a historical anomaly, and a peek onto Pitchfork’s listings show weirdoes from Gang Gang Dance, Zola Jesus, and Julianna Barwick pushing past the boredom of rock’s rigid four-piece confines and making great pop-sensed tunes outside any construct. Check out Chile’s Dadalú or the Czech Republic’s Kazety for similarly deconstructed “post-rock” pop that still has the feral punk energy so beloved underground while going to territories thus unnamed.
And as for the bleaker domains of our world—places where women aren’t allowed to drive, let alone rock—let’s finish this celebration with a listen to ladies behind the unfallen in the “Arab Spring.” Iran has had a thriving dance music scene of exile and underground electro, some of which includes female lead vocals of various sexy persuasions. This wouldn’t be unusual except that women’s public singing has been illegal since the 1970s, and in late August 2011 the Iranian government banned the use of all classical Persian love poetry in song, finding epic poet Nizami Ganjavi’s 12th-century references to “finding a place to be alone” too steamy. So goes the politics of pleasure for the group 25 Band, a duo of Tamin and A-Del who sound like every night of my life at Twilo (or perhaps Will.i.am’s interior monologue in Farsi), having to uproot and find themselves a new home in the more hedonistic Dubai.
So you can only imagine the situation of Salome, the country’s first actively releasing female rapper and graffiti artist. She took her name from reading Oscar Wilde and considers the idea of women being oppressed in Iran to be a Western cliché. Meanwhile, the government has called rap a form of satanism and prohibits most of its official circulation. Instead, the genre lives on the internet. Salome sounds just how you’d expect an amateur artist to sound: out of tune, badly tracked, oddly produced, not very hip. It’s bedroom pop, done as best she can by a woman who can’t legally sing in public. But these days, women can sing from their bedrooms to the world. And once they break free or get out of the bedrooms, well… We all know who runs the (pop) world, don’t we?