When rock ‘n’ roll first began in the mid-’50s, the unstated purpose seemed to combine elements of the black (rhythm & blues) and white (country & western) musical idioms into one radically new hybrid. However, a second, perhaps equally important purpose, was to give voice to a new demographic: the teenager. None of the music created post-WWII seemed to fit the unique interests and desires of the average 13-19-year-old in America. The songs created by Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others seemed to target this group’s lives like none before.
Within a few years, new artists realized that they could venture beyond the life experiences of the average teen and use the new medium to address societal and cultural issues in America. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and eventually the Beatles, John Lennon, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and dozens of other rock musicians faced the issues of racial violence and segregation, the Viet Nam war, and other injustices and wrote about them. Their words and music were played on the radio, heard in cars and bedrooms, and became an ingrained message promoting cultural change nationwide, even worldwide.
The same move towards cultural activism in American popular music took place at the beginning of the ’90s. Paralleling the angst-filled nihilism of grunge and the rapid-fire shredding of thrash metal was the arrival of new voices expressing personal, almost confessional, statements of love, pain, anxiety, loneliness, and emotional honesty. Significant to this movement was that these voices were female. For the first time, female artists were breaking into American music, not with an easy-going, light-hearted pop message, but a statement which some women knew all too well and could previously only admit in secret, quiet moments of the heart. Like Kitty Wells in country music, these female artists served an important role: giving voice to the previously unvoiced aches of young women in the 1990s.
It is important to note that these female voices of the ’90s did not arrive without the work of others who prepared the way. In the late ’80s, several pop-rock girl groups and soloists began to bridge the gap between the pop sound of the ’80s and the professing of the ’90s. ’80s girl groups like The Go-Go’s, The Bangles, Heart, and Bananarama achieved modicum chart success. Nevertheless, it was the solo acts of Debbie Gibson, Belinda Carlisle (from The Go-Gos), and Cyndi Lauper who paved the way for ’90s female artists. Their messages may not have been as introspectively personal compared to what followed in the next decade, but their chart success as soloists gave record labels the promise of what was to come.
However, the heart of the ’90s female soloists was indeed an extension of more introspective artists of an earlier decade. Carly Simon and Carole King were incredible talents in the ’70s who wrapped personal experience into their work. Nevertheless, it was folk-singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell who was the spirit-essence of the ’90s female solo-songwriter movement. Beginning with songs like “Both Sides Now” and moving through the album Blue, Mitchell unashamedly explored emotions of insecurity, loneliness, passion, and yearning. Perhaps that one album was a harbinger of what would take place in the ’90s.
One additional influence on female artists appeared at the beginning of the ’90s: the riot grrrl bands in the early decade. These bands were the staunchly feminist counterpart to the male alt-bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, and Soundgarden. Female bands such as Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Huggy Bear, and Pussycat Trash embraced the third-wave feminism movement, which celebrated female individualism, intersectionality, and the civil rights of feminists. Because the riot grrrl movement was more focused on the confrontation of a message rather than the competence of the music, the sound of the riot grrrl movement was only incrementally influential on the female soloists of the ’90s. However, the staunch, individualistic pride was the underlying current for much of the early ’90s indie-female soloists’ lyrics.
The first steps from a “Joni Mitchell/riot grrrl” fusion to the independent solo female artists of the ’90s were essentially taken by two indie-female artists: Ani DiFranco and Liz Phair.
Indie-folk-rock singer Ani DiFranco brought the blunt, outspoken themes of the riot grrrl movement into a more musically digestible recipe. Her sparse instrumentation, often centering on a simple acoustic guitar and drums, belies her lyrics’ gritty, unapologetic thread. Without any filter on her emotional honesty, her songs tackled issues such as rape, abortion, failed relationships, infidelity, capital punishment, and sexual inequities. Though her instrumentation occasionally incorporated saxophone, synthesizer, or horns, the simple, often acoustic, sound maintained her independent nature in the ’90s. Though incredibly prolific in her compositions and recordings (27 albums containing well over 400 songs), DiFranco has never signed with a major record label, preferring to maintain her independent status with her label, Righteous Babe Records. She may be the most prolific, recorded, yet the most little-known female artist in popular music history. A few lines from her “A Million You Never Made” explains why she would never accept a mainstream record contract:
“at night when you’re asleep
self hatred’s going to creep in
and try to blame it on the devil
the one who’s bed you sleep in
and don’t tell me what they did to you
as though you had no choice tell me,
isn’t that your picture?
isn’t that your voice?
if you don’t live what you sing about
your mirror is going to find out.”
(Ani DiFranco, “A Million You Never Made”)
Before her first studio album, Liz Phair recorded her songs on audio cassette tapes and distributed them under the nom de plume Girly-Sound. When her first album was released in 1993, the double-album Exile from Guyville brought many of the early Girly-Sound songs into the studio. While her musical style on Exile did not reflect the riot grrrl sound, the lyrics were unabashedly sexual and emotionally raw. The songs are alternatively profane, swaggering, witty, raw, poignant, and borderline obscene. If Madonna’s Erotica album were stripped of its pop polish and any lyric censorship, it would begin to approach what Liz Phair created with Exile in Guyville. Though Phair continued to write and record six albums since Exile, its impact on the indie-female movement was perhaps her most significant contribution.
The path towards an emancipated female voice in indie-rock was taken by several in the mid-’90s. Natalie Merchant, the lead singer for the indie-folk-rock band 10,000 Maniacs, crafted a series of socially conscious songs and albums in the ’90s, beginning with her best-selling debut album, Tigerlily, in 1995.
The incredibly successful Indigo Girls, a singer/songwriter duo, released their first album in 1988 but hit their full stride in 1992 with the Rites of Passage album. The duo’s musical personality was initially acoustic, showing the influence of folk icon Joni Mitchell, but they have often added electric guitar, bass, drums, banjo, mandolin, cello, and miscellaneous percussion. With reflective analysis of relationships, commentary on social issues, and personal introspection, the Indigo Girls created a strong voice in the indie-female movement and a presence on the charts with over 10 million and multi-platinum and gold albums.
During the ’90s decade, several female singer/songwriters achieved moderate success on the charts. Lisa Loeb brought a tender acoustic sound to the ballad “Stay” and earned a gold certification from the RIAA. At the same time, Sinead O’Connor covered Prince’s composition “Nothing Compares 2 U” and took it to #1 on the charts for four weeks in 1990. Towards the end of the ’90s, Fiona Apple and Natalie Imbruglia launched appealing careers that would take them into the ’00s.
However, the core of the indie-female sound in the ’90s was created by three artists: Tori Amos, Alanis Morissette, and Sarah McLachlan.
In contrast with many other female artists of the genre, classically-trained Tori Amos created her sound from the piano rather than the guitar. Her keyboard-centered confessionals began with a 1992 album, Little Earthquakes, which started a series of seventeen critical and popular recordings that extended almost twenty years. With nine gold and multi-platinum albums and videos, Amos continually pushed the instrumental and stylistic boundaries: classical harpsichord, jazz, blues, electronica, dance, gospel, and synthesizer were part of Tori Amos’ instrumentation palette. Into the new century and the recent decades, she has created an orchestrated poetry that reflected the uncompromising reflection that is a hallmark of this movement.
Any examination of popular music history will reveal pivotal moments when a record or album became a signpost towards a new, undiscovered musical language. Elvis Presley’s record “That’s Alright, Mama” is often pointed to as the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was not just the relaunching of his career but was the start of the dominance of ’80s pop music. Nevermind, by Nirvana, with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” was the cultural earthquake that brought grunge music and culture to prominence in the early ’90s. Similarly, no examination of the role of women in rock in the ’90s could omit the huge signpost that was 1995’s Jagged Little Pill.
Though Canadian Alanis Morissette began her recording career with two up-tempo dance-pop albums, patterned after the sounds of ’80s pop, it was not until the mid-’90s that she reached her musical voice. With Jagged Little Pill, Morissette shed her early pop-ish sound and embraced the role of “Poster Girl of Rage,” as some have called her. With hit singles like “You Oughta Know,” “Ironic,” and “You Learn,” Morissette found a way to voice her aggression within commercially acceptable music packages. It was as if “riot grrrl” met “Teen Spirit” met Motown. She became the demi-goddess for young women shaking their hair and lives free from the limitations of previously male-dominated rock ‘n’ roll. Her closing performance at the 1996 Prince’s Trust Masters of Music concert demonstrates her spirit of joyful emancipation. After an emotive “You Learn” performance, Morissette gallops about the stage, twirling and shaking her hair in perpetual motion, joining the drummer and celebrating with unconstrained exuberance. Her performance is as far from the highly polished, costumed, lighted, and choreographed ’80s pop productions of Madonna (whose record label she had signed with) as possible. She was the spirit of Janis Joplin reincarnated for a new era when those yearning embraced unflinching personal confession in song for an outside voice that would express what they could not.
Following the unprecedented success of Jagged (which would sell over 16 million copies in the U.S. and over 30 million worldwide), Morissette took a three-year hiatus before releasing her subsequent work, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, in 1998. Following an MTV Unplugged album at the decade’s end, she worked through the next twenty years, releasing six albums. However, none were as ground-breaking as Jagged Little Pill. In December 2019, a jukebox musical based on the songs from Jagged and other Morissette albums opened on Broadway to critical acclaim. Though the Broadway season was stopped because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the musical, Jagged Little Pill was still nominated in 15 different Tony Award categories, winning in two of them. In 2021, the Broadway cast recording of the musical won a Grammy for “Best Musical Theater Album.” The artist, described as the “Queen of Alt-Rock Angst” by Rolling Stone magazine, blew the doors open for artists and listeners seeking the free expression of emotions without filters.
Less angst-filled than either Alanis Morissette or Tori Amos, Canadian Sarah McLachlan brought thoughtful, intelligent, mature song-crafting to the charts in the ’90s. Beginning with Solace in 1991, she created a path for deeply felt, profound lyrics which are simultaneously familiar and mysterious. There is a feeling of known and unknown, predictable and intriguing.
In the decade of the ’90s, McLachlan would contribute a series of six albums which built her reputation as a mature artist capable of lyric depth and musical consistency. Legitimately considered the heir to the artistry of Joni Mitchell, McLachlan’s voice frequently soars above the music in, at times, an ethereal stream. A live performance of her 1995 single, “I Will Remember You,” is one of the best examples of her ability to shape and interpret her songs.
As important as her contributions as a performer is the festival created by Sarah McLachlan to promote female artists and bands in the mid-1990s: Lilith Fair. (See ’90s Rock ‘n’ Roll – Chapter Four – Lollapalooza and Lilith Fair Festivals – for a more thorough discussion on Sarah McLachlan and Lilith Fair)
Many of the female artists of the ’90s played an essential role in giving voice to those who felt they had none. Their contribution came at a critical time in American culture. Some, like the altruistic Sarah McLachlan, went beyond the songs, the recordings, and the performances, to bring more tangible support to those women who needed it. She also helped launch or give crucial visibility to artists like Christina Aguilera, Erykah Badu, and Nelly Furtado.
The decade, which began with Liz Phair and Ani DiFranco breaking free from the pop girl groups of the ’80s, finished with grand celebrations of musical creativity, which featured hundreds of female solo artists and female-led groups. It was a decade when American popular music experienced diversity in both commercial and critical success.