Daughters of D.I.Y.: Girl Bands from Motown to Modern

By Alex NivenFebruary 27, 2013

Women Make Noise by Julia Downes

FOR A CERTAIN KIND of 21st century liberal, the fight for gender equality in pop has already been won. Adele is the world’s best-selling singer-songwriter. Amy Winehouse is, according to broadsheet lore, the tragically posthumous Voice of a Generation. Nicki Minaj rules imperiously over the rap game, and Florence and the Machine is the doyenne of neo-pastoral hipster chic. In the floodlit mainstream of the 2010s mediascape, it seems that the girls have got all bases covered.

But have they really? A glance at music industry employment statistics suggests otherwise. At the end of the last decade, for example, a survey found that two-thirds of UK music industry employees are male. Moreover, the current crop of affluent women artists are not especially positive examples of egalitarian empowerment. The peculiar mix of ambition and self-regard that percolates in late-capitalist culture has given rise to a new role for the female superstar that lies halfway between exploiter and exploited. If they are not stereotyped in the high old-fashioned way, today’s female popstars are targets of a commodification that is more worrying because it is more universal. In previous eras, the female pin-up was exploited by men as a sex object; in the neoliberal period, she has become an infinitely serviceable fashion icon, an eclectic mannequin of lifestyle envy for men and women consumers alike. 

It is probably no coincidence that glamorous “queen” and “princess” imagery often accompanies this peculiar form of idol worship. In contrast to the emphasis on sisterhood of earlier eras, 2010s culture often appears to have reinstated the sort of top-down feminine archetypes Queen Victoria might have endorsed. Some girls are richer than others. In far too many quarters, indifference to hierarchy has replaced anger at inequality. Even a supposedly “alternative” artist like Florence and the Machine makes great play of a decadent, unattainably lavish visual idiom. Ball gowns and ultra-affluence have replaced Dr. Martens and androgyny as the hallmarks of the girl-pop elect. 


Thankfully, feminist collectivism has always offered a powerful antidote to corporate-sponsored atomism in this vein. Indeed, the overarching theme that emerges from Women Make Noise: Girl Bands from Motown to Modern, a strenuous new collection of essays edited by British academic Julia Downes, is that countercultural movements are only ever truly momentous when all-girl units are leading the charge from the bottom up. This timely book is both a summary of historic struggles and a cri de coeur that the pop-feminist counterculture is alive and well and possessed of the ability to oppose and correct the moribund culture of 21st century music if given the space to breathe.

A great strength of the anthology is its chronological breadth. For many, “girl group” bears connotations of the emancipatory early 1960s, and indeed the subtitle here (“Motown to Modern”) appears to point to this as a foundational moment for all-girl pop. However, it is appropriate, given the emphasis on communitarian organization that runs throughout, that Victoria Yeulet’s opening essay delves deeper into pop lore by examining the female pioneers of American roots music. A classic “neglected history” account, Yeulet’s chapter is most intriguing in its dissection of the influences that gave rise to an authentic female culture in the old-time and country music of the interwar period. While the “rustic down home gal” became a staple of the Depression-era country music scene, by playing on such folk stereotypes, Yeulet argues, female-led collectives such as the Carter Family were able to achieve an unprecedented degree of autonomy:

In looking at the family string bands of the old-time genres it’s clear that women and children, including young girls, were seen as part of the family collective of “work.” In the rural traditions of travelling shows, the entire family would be taken to perform on tour, considered as a unit to have popular appeal and be a viable source of income. For many families who were musically inclined, already performing for friends and locals in their homes or at local events, the recording industry provided a huge opportunity for women and girls. 

In the first appearance of what will become a familiar narrative in Women Make Noise, we can observe certain key tensions. The music business can be a great enabler of breakaway empowerment for female musicians, but equally it has a tendency to remove women from the solidarity of localized contexts. More hopefully, if the collective is strong enough, and if the unit is organized around cogent, reciprocal ways of working cooperatively, it can likely avoid the worst effects of music industry caprice. The folk and country scenes are full of case studies that prove the latter theory. (Notable contemporary examples include the Dixie Chicks in the US and The Unthanks in Britain, both groups oriented around sisters).

While New Deal–era girl groups were often able to use the industry apparatus to augment family-style sororities, the explosive post-war period engendered greater freedoms as well as more merciless forms of exploitation. Elizabeth K. Keenan’s chapter on the fabular 1950s and 1960s “girl groups” is heartbreaking in its depiction of a phenomenon in which girl singers “mostly still teenagers, mostly African-American,” became “disposable cogs in a hit-making machine.” As the Detroit label Motown came to define the epoch, its owner Berry Gordy positioned female acts like The Chantels, The Crystals, and The Marvelettes at the forefront of his PR campaign; Gordy believed that girl groups communicated a less threatening version of African-American culture to white audiences who were receptive to musical novelty but still edgy about the racial and sexual undertones of rhythm and blues and rock’n’roll. 

It should go without saying that Gordy’s vision of a restrained, choreographed black femininity did not offer much in the way of long-term creative and personal happiness for the women who populated his roster. Keenan concludes that the girl groups’ most important legacy was an “idea of sisterhood,” an idea that remains nebulous in this case, for all its appeal. Aside from noteworthy exceptions such as Diana Ross, the heroines of this golden age of perfect pop are sadly now largely forgotten. 


After the demise of the girl groups in the mid-1960s, the pop scene burst into Technicolor and ramified into a thousand subcultural offshoots. Perhaps the greatest weakness of Women Make Noise is its inability to do justice to the full range of resulting musical activity, though of course a degree of editorial selectivity was inevitable in an anthology of less than 300 pages. With two such disparate examples as the interwar American folk scene and the Motown era groups as historical foundation, the collection might have continued to diversify in its subject matter, but instead the post-1960s essays focus almost exclusively on Anglo-American guitar music. 

While there are obvious limitations to this slightly skewed take on pop history, the positive upshot is that a relatively coherent tradition or continuum emerges over the course of the book’s remaining essays, a longue durée of feminist punk and punk-related subgenres that is, rather encouragingly, shown to be still extant. Some of these chapters are written by academics, but many are by activists, musicians, and ordinary women with direct experience in grassroots activity. This leads to a certain amount of stylistic unevenness in the writing itself; however, it is difficult to be too critical of this refreshingly egalitarian approach to publishing. Indeed, the collection compares favorably with the vast majority of CV-bulwarking hack work that currently passes for academic writing precisely because of its emphasis on lived experience and its ethical investment in the subject matter.

The countercultural phase of the pop-feminist trajectory sketched here is introduced in Sini Timonen’s chapter on what is in some interpretations called “proto-punk”: the garage, beat, and rock music of the late 1960s and 1970s. Another “neglected history,” the starting point of Timonen’s account is essentially the fact that the legendary garage rock compilation Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era 1965–1968 includes no songs by all-girl bands in its eventual 118-strong track list. In response to this yawning omission, Timonen eulogizes such colorfully named female garage acts as The Luv’d Ones and The Pleasure Seekers, The Feminine Complex, and — perhaps best of all — New Hampshire’s own The Shaggs. Again, it seems notable that many of these bands grew out of tight-knit family units, but here the emphasis is not on the politics of organization so much as on the joys of feminist connoisseurship. Timonen’s essay is a veritable compendium of obscure gems and a boon to crate-diggers and hipster savants looking for mixtape fodder.

Twenty-first century girl musicians and DJs can access a shimmering world of sonic variety with the click of a mouse, but it wasn’t always so easy. Jackie Parson’s autobiographical detour into 1970s prog rock movingly recounts a heroic age of technological discovery and autodidacticism:

The immediate stumbling block for many women who had chosen to play electric instruments was their lack of technical knowledge. A budding guitarist or keyboard player needed to understand the basic workings of their equipment and keep it well maintained as most of it was second hand. At this   time girls were not routinely taught metal work, wood work, or basic electronics in school or home, just as boys did not learn to knit, sew or cook, so when you needed to change plugs, replace valves and speakers or fix a    broken jack plug it was a major problem […] Prog rock exacerbated the problem, as the keyboards and early synthesizers which played an integral part (like Hammonds, Mellotrons, Moogs, and Oberheims) required significant technical expertise

We should remember that this structural-educational bias was not always an insurmountable obstacle to female musicianship. In the previous era, Delia Derbyshire had emerged as the nonpareil genius of 1960s electronic music from her base at the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop. (Moreover, I cannot help but think that Parson is somewhat optimistic in her view of male proficiency in technical matters.) 

However, it is certainly true that the arrival of punk and its aesthetic of unabashed amateurism was the single most galvanizing event in the evolution of a popular girl band culture. At the dawn of the punk era in 1976–77, second-wave feminism was in its climacteric, and the two movements almost instantly became inseparably intertwined. In Deborah M. Withers’s compelling chapter on the musical wing of the UK’s Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM), there are intriguing accounts of feminist attempts to mine punk’s DIY potential:

A key debate that circulated among WLM music-makers explored the relationship between professionalism and amateurism. Should women reproduce male musical prowess or should they deconstruct it? Is being musically proficient elitist or, worse, patriarchal? How can women be empowered to try out musical instruments in ways that are empowering and accessible? 

At a time when increasing numbers of bands and solo artists of both genders receive their training at stage schools and performing arts colleges, these apparently forgotten debates about the ideology of form and technique have a special poignancy.


The final chapters of Women Make Noise are the most valuable because they are likely to be the most educative. Another activist account, Jane Bradley’s wonderfully titled essay “You Create, We Destroy: Punk Women,” observes in passing that punk is “a culture that is now, horrific caricatures aside, almost completely hidden from mainstream view.” Though there is something undeniably depressing about this statement, the history of the last three decades of punk-oriented feminism is a testament to the virtues of remaining hidden when the visible center of mainstream pop culture is completely losing the plot.

In fact, as Rhian E. Jones notes in a standout essay on post-punk girl bands, there has been a deal of interest in recent years in the feminist fringe of punk and post-punk, which was really not so much a fringe as the central driving force in the movement as a whole. Post-punk alpha band The Slits’ irresistible fusion of cuneiform rock, reggae, and DIY funk has provided a blueprint for 21st century “post-punk revival” bands such as Liars and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, while the psych-funk jams of South Bronx all-girl trio ESG have been sampled by everyone from the Wu Tang Clan to all-girl R&B group TLC (an unfortunate omission in this decidedly rock-centric collection). Nevertheless, there is still much about this milieu that deserves to be recounted and rearticulated. Jones’s chapter, which includes vivid interviews with members of The Slits and NYC No Wave pioneers Ut, is particularly worthwhile because it emphasizes the political backdrop to a narrative of increasing marginalization.

Faced with the encroachments of an aggressively elitist — and undoubtedly patriarchal — neoliberal culture, as the last quarter of Women Make Noise shows, the feminist pop counterculture has led a sometimes clandestine though always energetic life. Chapters by Bryony Beynon and Val Rauzier on the feminist DIY hardcore and Queercore scenes sketch a portrait of a polychromatic musical underworld. For Beynon, American hardcore’s apparently total abandonment of financial and mainstream pretensions created an authentic independent culture that “transformed bedrooms into record label HQs, and gig-goers into tour bookers, photographers and self-published zine writers.” Beynon’s glossary of contemporary punk feminist projects like Philly’s Pissed (United States) and Emancypunx (Poland) provides heartening evidence of this culture’s continuing global reach. 

Women Make Noise might benefit from a second volume, one in which the resonance of “girl band” in the international lexicon is explored with more catholic openness. The introduction gives a reasonable justification for the decision to focus purely on all-girl bands, but there are a fair few references to mixed gender bands throughout, to the point that one wonders why the prescription wasn’t dropped altogether. Even a slight modification of the remit to include female-dominated groups might have allowed for a broader, more eclectic canvas. (The absence of girl-led bands like Stereolab, Kenickie, and Broadcast was a particular disappointment to this reviewer.)

But then the underlying strength of these essays is a sense of shared purpose that is probably ultimately due to its grounding in a unified, circumscribed milieu. Sarah Dougher and Elizabeth K. Keenan’s concluding chapter, on the legacies of the 1990s riot grrrl movement, goes a long way toward justifying the emphasis on separateness and sectional autonomy that predominates in the final stages of the book. For Dougher and Keenan, riot grrrl’s singular innovation was a commitment to the “idea of the ‘all-girl’ space.” In the last two decades the idea was instantiated in the form of Ladyfest, a feminist rock festival that began life as a riot grrrl-inspired gathering in Olympia, and that has since become a global phenomenon. Concurrently, Portland’s Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls (RnRC4G) was set-up “to help [girls] articulate and address their own oppression both as girls and as girl musicians.”

These final examples of countercultural praxis serve a dual function. They inspire optimism, but they also show up the sheer paucity of today’s Grammy-friendly female pop and its ethos of empowerment-through-consumerism. Against the triumphalism of neoliberal feminism-lite, Women Make Noise reminds us how far the mainstream of late-capitalist culture has strayed in recent years from the egalitarian ideals of the late 20th century. Its great intervention is in both advocating and demarcating a submerged alternative tradition, an underground world of all-girl spaces that is by turns provoking, inspiring, and ultimately hugely enjoyable to navigate. 


LARB Contributor

Alex Niven is lecturer in English Literature at Newcastle University. His pamphlet Newcastle Sonnets is forthcoming in autumn 2018.


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