February 2010

Michael Schaub

nonfiction

Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music by Marisa Meltzer

There are probably at least a thousand ways to write about popular music, and the vast majority of them are fucking awful. As annoying as the cliche "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture" is, there is some truth to it -- it's a mostly thankless job, and readers who have tried to muddle through the mess that so much of contemporary music writing has become would be forgiven for just giving up on the genre entirely. Every music fan has encountered the pedantic music snob, who starts off every paragraph with an implied sigh, followed by an explanation of why your favorite band is actually derivative and terrible. Then there's the comprehensive historian, dedicating pages upon pages to every one-off band in his favorite genre. Maybe even worse are the writers who try to capture the sound of the music they're writing about in print -- it's rarely successful, and almost always insufferable. Because of the sexism and misogyny that have traditionally predominated American popular music -- and the culture surrounding it -- most of these writers have been men. An unfortunately large number of rock writers and fans in the '60s and '70s never would have even considered taking a woman musician, much less a woman writing about music, very seriously. It's probably no accident that the legendary rock writer Leslie Bangs chose to write under the less gender-ambiguous first name Lester.

All that makes it even more gratifying when a relatively new writer takes on pop music and does it flawlessly. Marisa Meltzer, a journalist and coauthor (with Kara Jesella) of the 2007 book How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine of All Time, manages to avoid every single music-writing pitfall in her fascinating new book, Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music. It's a remarkably well-written book, and it doesn't seek to be comprehensive, indier-than-thou, or preachy -- it's a brief history, written with a keen eye for both social and musical context, and it captures the spirit of popular music in the '90s better than anything I've read.

Meltzer grew up in the '90s, living, as she writes, "many treasured cliches of the decade, complete with the standard-issue indie-rock tale of being rescued from life as an apathetic suburban teenager by riot grrrl, the feminist punk movement. I cut my hair short, wore YOUR BODY IS A BATTLEGROUND buttons on my backpack..." Feminism wasn't new in the '90s, of course; neither were punk rock, zines, or the realization that music could effect social change. But the music and the culture that came out of the confluence of all those factors was unlike anything American music had ever seen before. While Meltzer isn't the only writer to have lived through -- and lived -- the riot grrrl culture of the early- to mid-'90s, she's the only one (so far) to have captured its essence so perfectly.

Girl Power isn't exclusively about riot grrrl, although Meltzer's obvious affection for the music and culture make the section dedicated to the movement compelling. She also explores some of the other movements in women's music of the '90s, from foxcore to the new singer-songwriter movement, ending with the dance-pop phenomena of Britney Spears and Avril Lavigne. Meltzer is admirably fair-minded: It's clear where her personal musical affections lie, but she considers, thoughtfully, the influences of decidedly non-indie acts like the Spice Girls and Pink. (Lavigne doesn't fare well in the book; Meltzer obviously regards the Canadian singer with contempt. This only makes me trust Meltzer even more, though. Lavigne's music is as bankrupt creatively as it is socially.)

The book works because Meltzer doesn't confine herself to one single concept (although the finished product is seamless). There's history here, but it's not mind-numbingly comprehensive and bogged down in every single detail of every single record label during every single year. Her research is impressive -- there are quotes from interviews Meltzer did with an impressive quantity of musicians, writers, and record label employees, but it never comes across as name-dropping or gratuitous. Meltzer isn't afraid to add commentary, which is good; her observations are fair, original, and unfailingly intelligent. Most importantly, she's able to blend personal anecdotes with the other elements of the book, and it's hard to overstate how much that adds. Meltzer writes about her own experiences with an unbelievably winning mix of wry self-awareness and touching emotional honesty. There's never a moment where the reader feels she's trying to make herself seem cool, distant, and above it all -- the result, happily, is that she comes across as an extremely smart friend who always has interesting things to say about music. It's really unlike anything I've read before in the field of music writing.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Girl Power is that it manages to tell us more about popular music, and popular culture, as a whole than the vast majority of music books with broader scopes do. The subtitle of the book, after all, is The Nineties Revolution in Music, not The Nineties Revolution in Women's Music. Meltzer realizes, correctly, that bands like Bikini Kill, Team Dresch, all the heroines of the zine/mix-tape culture, changed music and culture for all musicians, and all fans. It's remarkable how well she articulate this in fewer than 200 pages, and I'm dying to see what she writes about next. Girl Power deserves an immediate place in the canon of popular music writing -- Meltzer's accomplishment is remarkable, and her talent is undeniable.

Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music by Marisa Meltzer
Faber & Faber
ISBN: 0865479798
176 Pages