Editor’s Note: Before the 90s, women in music were either singing mostly about their heartbreak or longing surrounding men (like Whitney Houston or Joni Mitchell), or, became ‘sex symbols’ and essentially had to objectify themselves to sell their music. While the 90s did have its fair share of women-singing-only-about-men (case in point, Celine Dion) as well as ‘sex symbols’ (case in point, Britney Spears); it was still a time when gender norms were being shaken up in the music industry by a number of female artistes. While the Riot Grrrl movement led to an upsurge of subversive feminist music in the rock genre, mainstream pop and hiphop music weren’t far behind, producing some really progressive and empowering lyrics.
During the 90s, ‘Girl Power’ was the buzzword in the music industry, and female artistes and songwriters were embracing this concept like never before. From popular artistes like Gwen Stefani to girl bands like The Spice Girls, to kickass female rappers like Queen Latifah and Salt-N-Pepa—a diverse range of gender-sensitive music was being created.
The 90s was the time when Third Wave Feminism began penetrating public and private discourse in major ways—and feminist theorists like Audre Lorde and bell hooks gathered mainstream attention while discussing and promoting it. Naturally, this discourse seeped into popular culture, and especially music—which saw an outburst of feminist activity. Not only did lyrics focus on ‘girl power’, sexual agency, bodypositivity, and personal female autonomy, the music industry was also creating exclusive female spaces to encourage feminist discussions and offer mutual support to women from different backgrounds, like The Lilith Fair. The Lilith Fair was a concert tour and travelling music festival which was specifically for women, had majority female performers, and was a rage in the 90s. Started by Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan—due to her frustratration surrounding the lack of female representation in mainstream music festivals—this was a space for unrestricted female expression and female bonding. Featuring some of the most popular artistes of the era from Queen Latifah to Sheryl Crow to Sandra Bernhard, this became not just a space for female musicians of the time to express themselves, but also a safe space for female spectators to come together and see their voices being represented. Sadly, the fair today, is slowly getting upstaged by popular festivals like Coachella, but that doesn’t diminish how revolutionary it was, and still continues to be.
Earlier, we were used to women being presented as one-dimensional, hypersexualized objects in the realm of pop music—but the 90s threw those stereotypes out the window. Themes of agency, bodily autonomy, celebration of female sexuality (rather than demonizing it), and most importantly, sexism and patriarchy were dominant in mainstream pop music. Gwen Stefani, and her band No Doubt, was not only taking conventions of desirability for a spin by rocking belly button rings and nonconforming clothes, but was also questioning internalized misogyny through her music. Her most notable work, ‘Just A Girl’ is a thorough investigation of the gender roles within society which repressed women’s freedoms and had some really iconic lines such as:
“’Cause I’m just a girl
I’d rather not be
‘Cause they won’t let me drive
Late at night
Oh I’m just a girl
Guess I’m some kind of freak
‘Cause they all sit and stare
With their eyes
Oh I’m just a girl
Take a good look at me
Just your typical prototype”
Shania Twain, another 90s sensation, was known for celebrating womanhood free from the reins of patriarchy. Her second studio album was titled ‘The Woman In Me’ and featured songs which encompassed various female experiences. Her most popular, and pretty much one of the most powerful feminist anthems of the time was ‘Man, I Feel Like A Woman’ which was all about female autonomy.
But these weren’t the only feminist pop anthems of the time—Ani DiFranco’s “Not A Pretty Girl” (“I am not an angry girl but it seems like I’ve got everyone fooled / every time I say something they find hard to hear / they chalk it up to my anger / and never to their own fear.”), Madonna’s “Human Nature” (“You tried to shove me back inside your narrow room/ And silence me with bitterness and lies/You punished me for telling you my fantasies/I’m breakin’ all the rules I didn’t make/Would it sound better if I were a man?”), Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch” (“I’m a bitch, I’m a lover/I’m a child, I’m a mother/I’m a sinner and a saint/And I do not feel ashamed”) and many others.
Before the 90s, hip hop was, sadly, a totally male-dominated genre, very often with brutally misogynist lyrics (something that sadly is a reality even today). But, in the 90s, female rappers and hip hop artistes burst into the scene, and integrated social messages about empowerment, bodypositivity, sexual freedom and so on into their catchy tunes. The kickass pioneers of this shift in the hip hop scene included sensations like Queen Latifah, Lil Kim, Missy Elliott, Erikah Badu, and the all-female hip hop group Salt-N-Pepa to name a few. They were unapologetic in addressing the issues which needed addressing, and created major tidal shifts in the music industry.
Queen Latifah’s ‘U.N.I.T.Y’ dealt with the theme of sexual violence like never before, and was probably the first mainstream song to empower and give agency to assault survivors. The lyrics went:
“And I was scared to let you go, even though you treated me bad
But I don’t want my kids to see me getting beat down
By daddy smacking mommy all around
You say I’m nothing without ya, but I’m nothing with ya
A man don’t really love you if he hits ya
This is my notice to the door, I’m not taking it no more”
Salt-N-Pepa’s “None of Your Business” was the anti-slutshaming anthem not just for its time, but for ages to come, with lyrics that are relevant even today, such as—“If I wanna take a guy home with me tonight/It’s none of your business/And she wanna be a freak and sell it on the weekend/It’s none of your business/Now you shouldn’t even get into who I’m givin’ skins to/It’s none of your business/So don’t try to change my mind, I’ll tell you one more time/It’s none of your business”.
Missy Elliott is another artiste who has rapped at length about bodypostivity (glorifying her curves and butt in “I’m (Really) Hot”) , female bonding (“1,2 Step”—which is a collaboration with R&B artiste Ciara), women in positions of power (She sang “We Run This” way before Beyonce sang “Who Run The World”), sexual agency (like the song “Work It”, which is about sex work), and has constantly tried to reclaim sexist slurs such as ‘slut’ and ‘bitch’ which appear across her various songs as terms of empowerment.
They weren’t the only ones, though. Many female hiphop and rap artistes made the 90s a really great time for women in music.
When you think of bands—even today—you imagine an all-male group, because that’s what majority of bands consisted of. The 90s, though home to some iconic boy bands like Backstreet Boys and Blue, was also shaking up the male dominance within bands by introducing girl bands. Bands like The Spice Girls, Destiny’s Child, TLC, Dixie Chicks, En Vogue, Girls Aloud, t.A.T.u among many others broke out into the scene with their progressive, empowering songs which, many a times emphasized positive relationships between women. Some of these bands—like t.A.T.u (in the song “All The Things She Said”)—even talked openly about lesbian relationships while other bands like The Spice Girls showed off the homoerotically coded bond between bandmates. Even besides that, they addressed the patriarchy head on and tackled some really powerful feminist themes in their songs.
The Spice Girls were all about ‘girl power’ and the feminist movement—while each had a specific niche and “type” of female they portrayed, they always made sure to portray that together, women could do anything. Their song ‘If You Wanna Be My Lover’ has gone on to become one of the most iconic celebrations of close female friendships.
Before Beyonce made it big on her own, she was headlining Destiny’s Child, an R&B band which had a lot to say about women’s independence and emancipation from male control. While their song ‘Bills, Bills, Bills’ pushed for economic and social freedom from oppressive male control, ‘Independent Woman’ was an all-out encouragement for women from all walks of life to pursue their desires and not pay heed to sexist backlash. ‘Say My Name’, however, remains their most iconic song, which is a thinly-veiled allegory about emotionally abusive relationships, and is another in a series of 90s songs which empower the survivor of abuse rather than victimize them.
These lists aren’t exhaustive and can go on and on, because the 90s were testament to a lot of female singers who were challenging patriarchal norms and celebrating a femininity which was free from these norms. It is them that paved the way for the pop-feminism the music industry sees today—and in fact, Beyonce still continues to spread positive feminist messages through her music. All of these artistes normalized feminist conversations and inspired many young girls across the globe growing up with their music to embrace their identity as a woman and celebrate it. These were the women who were defying conventions and choosing to take their narrative into their own hands, and even after two decades, their legacy continues to inspire us in the music industry.