I was listening to Jagged Little Pill once with my ex-husband like five years ago on a road trip that sparked a conversation about the stark contrast between alternative women from the ’90s and the ’00s-’10s. It seems like there was this weird period between the rise of riot grrrl and the #MeToo movement where women’s subcultures became this floral printed void of emotion, a plaintive era, where we stopped being angry and started just being weird and vaguely sad in an unobtrusive way. There was no more “angry woman rock”; in its place was a lot of confused twee stuff about how women have a lot of feelings but heaven forbid we impose those in an un-aesthetic way. Think: Zooey Deschanel movies, as watched by angsty straight men. Think: everything about the fucking movie Juno. Think: KEXP darlings like Courtney Barnett and Kimya Dawson and Jessica Lea Mayfield pre-Sorry is Gone. Don’t get me wrong, I like all these things, but they are not reminiscent of the lipstick-smeared ’90s.
And then #MeToo happened, and Alice Glass and Jessica Lea Mayfield wrote entire albums about being abused by their bandmates, and Kathleen Hanna made a movie about how, yes, she had Lyme disease but she’s back to usher in the Ha Ha Ha Armageddon with us, and things started to really come back. Women were once again reclaiming our seat in the therapist’s office, the anger management support group, the plaintiff’s seat. Perhaps it’s cyclical, and when cohorts of women reach their 20s and 30s, we get to a place where we can’t be coquettish anymore and we have to impose our quarter-life-crisis-rage onto society, in the vain hope that maybe it will institutionally and meaningfully change it.
In the spirit of We Millennial Women entering that phase of our lives, clearly, and in honor once again of Elizabeth Wurtzel, here is a list of ’90s songs that exemplify the spirit of “angry woman rock”, in no particular order.
“Batmobile” by Liz Phair
I first heard “Batmobile”, probably like a lot of other women who were born after 1986, as the background song of the independently-made short documentary Dirty Girls. Dirty Girls was a seventeen-minute glimpse into the lives of teenage Gen X riot grrrls at a private high school in the West Coast. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should, particularly if you’ve ever been a girl who just wants to fire up a batmobile and split a life full of people who refuse to understand you on principle. Ultimately, that’s what “Batmobile” is about: it’s Liz Phair acknowledging that society is full of people who refuse to acknowledge or understand her on principle. She’s too angry, she’s weird, she’s being fucked with, and she’s done with it. “You made me see that my behavior is an opinion”, she says, a nod to how often women’s anger is not encased in dry cement; it’s always wet, permeable, negotiable, always probably her own fault. There is definitely a part of me that is choosing to interpret Phair’s anger as being external rather than internalized. Maybe she’s just pissed off because she’s pissed off and isn’t that allowed? Must women always be mad at the society that has chosen to de-prioritize us, or can we just be mad because that’s a human emotion and we are also humans? Whatever Liz Phair is mad at, she’s firing up the batmobile, and getting the fuck away from it.
“Torn” by Ednaswap
So, we’ve all heard the Natalie Imbruglia version of this song. It’s got poppy acoustic guitars and Imbruglia’s quivering-ish, sweet vocals, her moaning “I’m cold and I am shamed, lying naked on the floor”. The big difference between the original hard rock Ednaswap version and Imbruglia’s version is in who’s being held accountable for breaking the protagonist’s heart. Imbruglia’s version whimpers “I’m fucked up over this man”, and the Ednaswap version employs way more guttural and animal screams, more effectively screaming “That man fucked me up”. Ednaswap later released a version of “Torn” that sounds way more radio-friendly and more like the popular Imbruglia version, but still retains–a credit both to the band’s harder rock sound and frontwoman Anne Preven’s genre-appropriate vocal style–its accusatory narrative. There’s a big difference between saying “I’ve been hurt” and “You’ve hurt me”. The onus has always been on women to heal our own wounds, as men persist in anonymously hurting us. “Torn” as performed in both of Ednaswap’s styles is unmistakably angry, unapologetic in how radio-unfriendly women’s anger can be.
“Uninvited” by Alanis Morissette
Okay, word, let’s get this out of the way: Jagged Little Pill was a fucking monster of an album and it deserves every single great thing that’s ever been written about it. Of course. “You Oughta Know” has probably made millions of men by this point recede into their trousers and think of at least one woman who could really use an apology. Trouble is, there is this recurring antagonist in Jagged Little Pill, particularly in “You Oughta Know”, and I’m not completely unsympathetic to him. No one should ever have to apologize for not wanting to be with someone, for any reason. That’s exactly why I am so in love with “Uninvited”, and why it desperately needed and deserved more than just a cameo on the City of Angels soundtrack. Every single woman has an antagonist that comes to her head when “Uninvited” plays:
“Like any uncharted territory, I must seem greatly intriguing. You speak of my love like you have experienced love like mine before. But this is not allowed. You’re uninvited”.
This is as simple as an ex who refuses to quit calling, or insisting that no one else will ever be good enough for you–to the daily annoyance of catcalling and sexual harassment at work. With its terrific orchestral accompaniment, symphonic breakdowns, and Morissette’s perpetually-ethereal and perfect soprano, “Uninvited” is the most brilliantly complicated way any woman has ever told a man to fuck off and leave her alone.
“Stay Monkey” by Julie Ruin
It’s really weird to write a list of songs about angry ’90s women and include only one Kathleen Hanna-written track, and it’s a love song, but we all already know from Bikini Kill and everything else about Hanna’s legacy that she’s point-blank brilliant at articulating anger. Hanna was a spoken word artist before fronting bands, and made the transition purely because she felt like no one had ever listened to her in her life, and she wanted to be listened to. Since people prefer seeing bands to spoken word performances, she went for the more accessible audience. Hanna’s legacy on the world of women’s anger is its own entity, but there is just as much to devour in everything she’s ever written about love, too. “Stay Monkey” is a lo-fi pop masterpiece, and Hanna sings of love in a way that pays homage to how complex it is, refusing to fall into the trap that so many women’s songs about love do, the insinuation that it is necessary to complete her. Instead, “it’s the movie that never gets filmed, it’s the story we won’t tell, it’s the dolphins speaking our language”. It is living proof that women who love men can somehow find romance despite all of us being enshrouded by patriarchy. It, unlike most of the tracks on the Julie Ruin demo, does not mention patriarchy once. It simply proves that women can be loved by men despite it.
Note: I think this song is best enjoyed as a soundtrack accompaniment to Hanna’s biopic The Punk Singer, or juxtaposed with any interview Hanna has given in which she discusses her personal life with Adam Horowitz. Let the two speak for themselves.
“My Favourite Game” by the Cardigans
Boy meets girl. Boy has several chips on his shoulders for various life-does-this-to-us reasons. Girl is a Fixer. Girl can fix Boy. Did anyone ask Girl if she can fix Boy? No, but Girls are nurturing and communicative and so on. Girl spends the entire movie playing a supporting role to Boy’s complex and well-earned anguish. Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Alicia Nash in A Beautiful Mind. Clara McMillen in Kinsey. Even Summer in 500 Days of Summer, despite the fact that the whole point of the movie is to make fun of this very trope, serves this purpose.
Let’s go back to Kathleen Hanna for a second. She and Adam Horowitz were married many years ago in Hawaii; I can’t be sure of their exact wedding vows, but “in sickness and in health” is such a de facto assumption we make when we decide to seriously partner with others. If our partners are sick, we will take care of them. Yet, when Hanna came out about her years-long struggle with untreated Lyme disease and post-Lyme disease syndrome, as shown in the film The Punk Singer, critics praised Horowitz for acting as caregiver: praise that is given with gusto to men for caregiving at all, yet usually reserved for women at the end of their lives, when our obituaries commend us for our dutiful abilities as wives and mothers.
How many times have women found themselves or been encouraged to make excuses for their husbands’ or boyfriends’ mediocre or even hurtful behavior? We can look to our greater culture and see so many movies, songs, books, TV shows, and families we know and love, that role model and make it very clear that we are expected to endure pain in order to help men overcome challenges that are not exclusive to them.
Enter: “My Favourite Game” by the Cardigans.
This is definitely a “driving” song–and, no, that’s not a nod to the official music video–with its fast pace and simple, catchy riff. It’s evocative of a battle scene in a movie, a duet of intense strategy. Nearly all of the song’s four minutes and twenty-ish seconds are spent with the protagonist trying to unpack and devour and untangle why it is that she keeps devoting so much of herself to a man who just eats her and turns her into nothing, her heart black, and her body blue. At the very end of the song, however, she gets her last laugh: “You’re losing a savior and a saint”, she sings.
So there you have it. Five songs from the ’90s we can put on when we seek to navigate the post-riot grrrl, post-#MeToo, post-this and post-that and post-it-on-social-media landscape of the ’20s. Let us do our foremothers justice and make the late Elizabeth Wurtzel proud, and continue carving ourselves out a space where we may comfortably fit. Forget shrinking ourselves, and forget turning the volume down.