In a heart-stopping moment during her 16-minute performance at Sunday night’s MTV Video Music Awards, Beyoncé made a bold political statement: Projecting a quote from Nigerian feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie onto a gigantic, glowing screen while standing triumphantly in front of the word “feminist.” Bold, but it also felt right after a night of watching female performers dominate the telecast, often with anthems about power and liberation. Feminism is definitely having a moment in pop music.
Of course, this isn’t really the first time that it’s happened. Twenty years ago, in fact, feminism was also having a big moment in pop music. Granted, no one was flashing the word “feminist” at the VMAs—leave it to Queen B to take it to the next level—but the ’90s, particularly the early to mid-’90s, was a banner time for women in music who wanted to be more than just objects for men to ogle, and to sing about something more than just wanting the pretty boys to like you. Back then, fans could be forgiven for thinking women’s power in the music world was just going to keep growing, but by the late ’90s and early 2000s, the moment had passed and music was deep into a backlash phase.
While R&B and hip-hop were plenty male-dominated in the ’90s, there were plenty of female groups and singers who were pushing a message of female empowerment. TLC, which ousted the Supremes as the greatest selling girl group during the ’90s by selling 22 million records, burst onto the scene in 1992 with a pair of songs celebrating women’s sexual desire, “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” and “Baby-Baby-Baby,” with lyrics like, “Well you want my heart and all my time / Well it won’t be there if you can’t deal with my mind.” They worked other feminist themes throughout the ’90s: “Creep,” celebrating a woman who rebels against a neglectful boyfriend by getting some on the side. “Unpretty,” a lambast against unfair beauty standards. “No Scrubs,” an anthem about self-respect on the dating market.
Salt-N-Pepa was a hip-hop trio that was nearly as popular as TLC and just as interested in songs with downright feminist lyrical content. They kicked off the decade with “Let’s Talk About Sex,” a surprisingly cheerful request for people to be a little more communicative and safer in their sexual practices. Their smash 1993 album Very Necessary featured sexual liberation anthems in “Shoop” and “None of Your Business.” The song “Whatta Man,” done with En Vogue, is an upbeat version of “No Scrubs”: A description of the sort of qualities that a woman should hold out for in a man, such as respect and, since this is Salt-N-Pepa, sexual prowess.
En Vogue had a standout hit on their own that continues to be a great feminist break-up record in “Never Gonna Get It,” a predecessor to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” in the realm of songs empowering women to tell those disrespectful ex-boyfriends where they can shove it.
Rock, which had been thoroughly male-dominated in the metal-centric late ’80s, suddenly had an explosion of female-led bands with the rise of alternative music, which had roots in overtly feminist underground genres like riot grrrl. Sonic Youth, which had been a purely underground punk band, broke into the mainstream with bassist and singer Kim Gordon singing songs about sexual harassment, eating disorders, and that favorite ’90s theme: badass women who tell crappy guys to screw off. L7, a hard rock band from LA that sang songs denouncing sexism, also started Rock For Choice, an alternative music concert series to raise funds for abortion rights. Courtney Love’s band Hole put out the 1994 classic Live Through This, which interrogated many feminist themes about sexual violation and body image and even used the word “feminist.” Tori Amos became a massive star despite her strange voice, her piano playing, and her penchant for levels of feminist dramatics bordering on gothic. It was the ’90s and that sort of thing could make you a star.
But even when women in rock weren’t being overtly feminist, there was a sense that women were entering the world of music on their own terms. The Breeders had a massive hit with 1994’s Last Splash album, even though the sisters who led the band tended to wear little makeup and lots of flannel in their videos. Liz Phair may have seemed more personal than political, but her willingness to call out male privilege in intimate relationships read as feminist all the same. Björk was more interested in being weird than making a feminist statement, but being weird ended up being a feminist statement in and of itself.
But somehow, seemingly overnight, things changed. Even though TLC was still doing their thing in 1999, it seemed that a switch had been thrown and now the anti-feminist backlash was well underway. Gone were female-led and feminist-sympathetic bands like Nirvana and the Beastie Boys. The charts now featured the likes of Limp Bizkit, a rap-metal band whose misogyny was so overt as to be comical. Woodstock ’99 was supposed to be a peace-and-love festival like its 1969 predecessor, but the new tide of ugly masculine aggression in rock swept over it, leading to violent behavior and even a series of rapes. “Alternative” music devolved into the kind of crap you’d hear at a frat party, with nary a hint of the feminist leanings that had dominated just a few years before.
While TLC was still hanging on in 1999, the tide was turning on the pop charts, too. Boy bands, which channel female energies away from thoughts of liberation towards safe fantasies of teenage romance, suddenly surged in popularity again.
Even more disturbingly, Britney Spears was coming out as a big star. While she has an undeniably fun vocal style and catchy songs, from the get-go her persona was offered as a rebuke to all those bold R&B singers demanding respect from men and sexual satisfaction. Instead, she was overtly sold as a submissive sexual object, dressed like a schoolgirl in her first video and photographed from above in a submissive pose on her first record. The era of singers telling loser boyfriends to shove off and demanding more from men was over. Instead, we had Spears begging for male attention with the provocative lyric, “Hit me baby, one more time.” The early ’90s had Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez boldly wearing condoms as a fashion statement. Spears, on the other hand, bragged about being a virgin to the media.
It’s hard to say how these things change, though part of it was surely a male-dominated record industry deciding to reassert dominance after years of watching audiences snatch up overtly feminist offerings. While Sarah McLachlan meant well by starting the female-only concert tour called the Lilith Fair, it likely hastened the demise of feminism in pop music by segregating women off from mainstream music and reinforcing the stereotype that “feminist music” is about singer-songwriters on acoustic guitars, even though the past few years had shown that feminists could rock out and rap and sing R&B just as well.
Is there anything to be learned from this history for Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj and Lorde and other female pop stars who are pushing an overtly feminist agenda in 2014? Maybe this time feminists will see the backlash coming and will be prepared to put up a better fight against sexist forces trying to reclaim territory on the pop charts. (I wouldn’t bet against Beyoncé in that fight.)
More importantly, this history shows that the important thing is realizing there’s power in diversity. What made the mid-’90s so cool is that women in many different genres were all pushing the same ideas about female empowerment in music, but what weakened it was that there was very little communication between women doing different things. Maybe this time women in different genres will wise up to this and present a more united front. And hey, Beyoncé gave them a banner—a big, lit-up sign that says “feminist”—to join together under.