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Earwormz: Power and Women in Rock

This week in Earwormz, women’s influence in rock ‘n’ roll takes the stage, with Reema looking into how it shaped the genre despite being invisible in music discourse at the same time.

Nov 9, 2019

Without my other half for this edition of Earwormz, I thought I would focus on a topic dear to my heart. I grew up in this region searching relentlessly for a sense of rock ‘n’ roll and punk, grasping at Youtube links and Guitar Hero leads. Just a kid alone on the internet, I found a plethora of bands, artists and future idols that shaped my musical preferences. But even then, I quickly realized the concerning lack of women, especially female instrumentalists, in any of the subgenres of rock, especially as I leaned more and more into hard rock and metal. And while the history of women in the rock industry has been written and argued about extensively, women in history are often forgotten much quicker than their male counterparts.
“Women” is not a genre, and I’m not insisting it should be. But what better place than the Power issue to bring back the focus to the ladies of rock ‘n’ roll, who may have influenced your favorite bands without you even knowing? What do we gain with the female falsetto, or the compression of it? What do we have to learn from the power of female experience? And what do we lose when we ignore it?
Kool Thing by Sonic Youth
“Are you gonna liberate us girls, from male white corporate oppression?” grunts Sonic Youth alternating bassist, guitarist and vocalist Kim Gordon at an LL Cool J parody. It is safe to say I idolized Gordon’s style in my own youth, and it was the menacing sound of ‘Kool Thing’ that convinced me. Gordon’s vocals fall in after a pace set by two guitars in a dragon dance, her low harmonies equalized and emphasized to highlight the unconventional crispiness of her voice. Add in a reverb for her chorus, and Gordon’s confusion regarding her counterculture breaks through from her voice and brings a different light to the instruments encompassing her. In the bridge, Gordon takes a moment to reflect. Based on an interview Gordon conducted on LL Cool J for Spin Magazine, which is a read in itself, the beauty of Kool Thing stems from Gordon’s ability to mock both her interviewee as well as herself. Why is she trying to connect to LL Cool J on the politics of women in music? Why is she putting him on the spot, and why is she wasting his time? Does he “fear the female planet?” as she’d hoped? The frustration of her experience is paralleled with the song’s immense sarcasm, executed in full force in live performances of the band. In part, it was Gordon’s attitude and unapologetic honesty that made her and Sonic Youth legends of the grunge and noise rock revolutions of the nineties, and it was this power that led her to the forefront of an entire genre that did not have a space for women before. Why anyone thought the pairing of Gordon and LL Cool J would be a good idea, I don’t know. But we got Gordon’s abrasiveness in its purest form out of it on ‘Kool Thing’, so I don’t think anybody’s complaining.
Doe by The Breeders
Lead vocalist Kim Deal never shied away from writing some of the most absurd songs I’ve ever encountered. And that’s the charm. It’s an absolute shame that Deal was not given more say in her former band Pixies, but she uses the independence of The Breeders, along with her twin sister Kelley Deal’s independence from Throwing Muses, to create dedicated work that helped change the landscape of music in the late 80’s. “Doe” is no exception, with Deal’s voice hauntingly gripping as she described the experience of two schizophrenic teens taking Thorazine and losing grip on their reality. With reduced instrumentation, the Deal sisters use their timbre to create a landscape of uncertainty. Shivers induced, foot tapping, the chorus builds with the delusions of medication. The consistent cooing and sighing of the vocals are subtly sinister, confusing the listener into whether the song — and the album “Pod” as a whole — is gritty or absolutely beautiful. There’s a power that comes with absurdity and breaking the barriers of lyrical and instrumental expectations. While Deal’s influence on Pixies is noticeable, her yearning for exploration shines brightly in The Breeders. But if you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain.
The Wild One by Suzi Quatro
Suzi Quatro is often hailed as the first queen of rock n’ roll, and I swear I am yet to be able to engage in any sort of conversation about her. Her legacy on glam-rock is among the rankings of Marc Bolan, Iggy Pop and David Bowie, but her exclusion from said legacy is extremely baffling. While her male counterparts were often celebrated for their subversive gender-bending style, Quatro was instead criticized for expressions of masculinity as she sported a black leather jacket on stage. And you can hear that power in “The Wild One”, using classic rock power chords and her Beatles-laced influences to transform her voice and capture the raspiness it’s famous for. By combining her voice with the instrumental, she is in command of the beat, pace and journey of the entire song. A multi-instrumentalist and eternal stage presence, Quatro uses the song to create and replace the space of her wild self. “The Wild One” highlights the playfulness, aggression and power of rock n’ roll. And as Quatro announces, “ain’t nobody gonna take it away”.
Check out the voices and shreds of the women who changed rock:
Reema El-Kaiali is a columnist. Email her at
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