Little Grrrls Lost

Angry, anti-capitalist punk girl bands power the U.S. economy.


When will President Obama create a Manhattan Project for girl groups? 

The stimulative power of girl groups has been clear throughout economic history. France and Italy, which in the early 1960s were still emerging from postwar depressions, made smart, targeted investments in the yé-yé movement, producing international sensations such as the tireless pixie France Gall and the boyish sparkplug Rita "The Mosquito" Pavone. During the decade, France's economy grew by a factor of 2.3, according to the World Bank. Italy went from having the world's seventh to its fifth largest economy, leapfrogging China and Canada.

Why didn't the United States see that kind of growth during the '60s boom? America entered the decade with a hearty complement of girl singers—the Chantels, the Shirelles, and the Ronettes, to name a few—but soon lost interest in these acts in favor of a self-styled "invasion" of boy groups from socialist, girl-groupless Britain. Broadly speaking, girl groups correlate with economic expansion, boy bands with stagnation. We went off the girl standard before France did.

The Girl Group Effect became more pronounced as Girl Group 1.0 evolved into a second wave of all-female bands. The Go-Go's fueled the recovery from the early 1980s recession, while the onset of the 1990 recession coincided with the breakup of the Bangles. 

The effect was strongest in the 1990s. U.S. productivity grew at a whopping 1.7 percent per year for the first half of the decade, while the nascent riot grrrl movement—a nebulous grouping of feminist all-female punk bands—gave rise to such standouts as Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney. NAFTA allowed the free exchange of angry Canuck songstress Alanis Morissette. Britain maintained low inflation and low unemployment while outperforming the Eurozone countries in GDP growth, thanks both to economic liberalization and to the rise of the Spice Girls.

This last boom—the 1990s—is the subject of a breezy and long-overdue study in Marisa Meltzer's Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music (Macmillan). Girl Power eschews cutting-edge economic theory, instead charting the histories of various partially intersecting trends during a decade when popular music was blessed by an explosion of female acts. Like everything now, the book is also a memoir, showing the author's transformation from a sloganeering teenage riot grrrl into a grown woman wondering what it all meant.

Meltzer takes a broad view of a landscape that at the time seemed immensely balkanized, with minor stylistic misinterpretations (were the Lunachicks riot grrrls or queercore punkers?) liable to get you into serious trouble. She claims her heart is with the riot grrrl movement, privileging that group's view over those of either aging-boomer Lilith Fair acolytes or a music movement Meltzer mostly regrets—the late '90s "pop tart invasion" of girl acts packaged by major labels.

Meltzer tries to stay above these pointless mod/rocker distinctions, but riot grrrl was a pop fad with more direct meanings than most. A lot of the import was musical, with a DIY, anti-produced sound that yielded masterpieces like Bratmobile's "Cool Schmool," an exact replica of original 1970s punk (the '90s were great for exact replicas) that has been mellowed by time and sorrow into a perfect miniature.

But the major meaning was political. Paying riot grrrl dues involved mastering a witty and aggressive style of feminism, ranting in a zine about the rapist society or the phallocentric late-capitalist culture trust, and making a serious commitment to détournement. (If you were getting your news from the misogynistic culture industry back then, you will remember the trope about formerly sweet American girls writing "SLUT" on their bellies, thankfully never with anything more permanent than a Sharpie.) 

The political ethos was best explained by the accordionist, zine-stress, and fat liberationist Nomy Lamm, speaking in 1999 with Paul Allen's Experience Music Project: "I never had feminism presented to me in any way that was interesting at all. Like, all I knew about feminism was that it was, like, you can then work in a corporation and get paid the same amount as a man."

Meltzer's goal is to teach girls not to "fixate on the individual" but "band together" for "real power." She considers some pretty Venezuelan means toward that end, wondering if we should "simply recruit women to start playing music at a younger and more impressionable age."

So why does she struggle to confess her love for the band with the most superbly crafted group dynamic of all? The Spice Girls, she snorts, "were preconceived and prepackaged." Yet the very quality the era's hipsters mocked—their air of cheerful solidarity—made the Spice Girls' version of girl power plausible. The idea that women are all one big team runs through their breakout hit "Wannabe" and their movie Spice World, in the course of which the girls take a break from plot advancement to help out a pregnant friend—just the kind of thing you would not expect to see in A Hard Day's Night

In those early days of the Internet singularity, it seemed possible that advanced communications might create a functioning female hive mind, a prospect Geri "Ginger Spice" Halliwell broached when she ridiculed the inability of "male-dominated newspapers to realize that five women in short skirts have got a brain."

Inevitably, on the cusp of middle age, Meltzer makes her peace at a 2008 Spice Girls reunion concert, accepting that there may be some value in the nonpolitical empowerment the free market affords. I would look at the options 2010 offers to girls, who with few exceptions are outperforming boys in the acquisition of life skills, and take it further than that. Girl power needs the market as much as the market obviously needs girl power. Enough with the green infrastructure stimulus. Only girl groups can save America now. 

Contributing Editor Tim Cavanaugh (bigtimcavanaugh@gmail.com) is a writer in Los Angeles. He blogs at simpleton.com.