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The Righteous Babes

By Matt Ashare

AUGUST 16, 1999:  Driving from New York to Boston last weekend, somewhere just past Hartford on Route 84, on my way back from a vacation on which the appeal of all of the dozen or so CDs I'd brought along had temporarily been exhausted, I found a radio station that was playing Stevie Wonder's "I Wish." Good song, so I tried to stick with the station even as it rapidly drifted out of range. The signal, however, stuck around long enough for me to discover that I'd stumbled upon a format I'd previously been unaware of: "Dance Oldies," yet another subdivision of a longstanding oldies genre, this one specializing in classics by the likes of James Brown and Stevie Wonder.

The urge to mark territory -- to classify, categorize, and create artificial boundaries -- grows out of a very human desire to live in an orderly world. There's a comfort, I suppose, in knowing that somewhere in Connecticut someone is keeping the dance oldies safely separated from ones you can't dance to. And to the extent that music is, along with clothing, one of the primary tools we use to fashion our identities, formatting makes getting "dressed" every morning a much less complicated process. The more subversive the corresponding identity, the more rigid and impenetrable those boundaries between the right and wrong music become. So, it's fair to assume that dance oldies has less-strict genre specifications (classic + a beat you can dance to) than, say, straight-edge punk ("Don't smoke, don't drink, don't fuck, at least I can fucking think," as Minor Threat put it in their classic dance number "Out of Step").

Of course, as the experiences of genres like grunge and gangsta rap have illustrated, categorization is just one small step away from commodification in the '90s. Which poses less of a problem in the realm of oldies than it does for styles trying to pose a challenge to the mainstream. As Simon Frith put it in his 1978 book Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure, and the Politics of Rock 'n' Roll, "Record companies themselves, radio programmers, music papers, deejays, writers, all attempt to define and categorize musical demands and so ease the processes of meeting them. If audiences can be persuaded that a precise style or genre, artist or image meets their needs, expresses the solution to their particular leisure problem, then not only is their commercial exploitation made more efficient, but rock's disturbing, challenging, and instructive elements are tamed and transformed into the (nonthreatening) confirmations of conventional taste." In other words, the revolution won't just be televised, it'll be given its own Grammy category, and it won't really be much of a revolution. More like a Gap ad.

Filmmaker Pratibha Parmar explores the popular issue of '90s women in rock in her 1998 documentary The Righteous Babes, which takes its name from that of Ani DiFranco's independent record label, Righteous Babe. The film, which is screening this month at the Museum of Fine Arts, offers an overview of the inroads feminism has made into popular music over the past decade. There are interviews with a number of familiar women in rock -- Sinéad O'Connor, Tori Amos, and Ani DiFranco from the new school, Chrissie Hynde from the old -- as well as with feminist spokeswomen/theorists like Camille Paglia, Andrea Dworkin, and Gloria Steinem. And those are intercut nicely with video footage and snippets of songs by Hole, Juliana Hatfield, Garbage, and others.

"Bold, ballsy, and loud," is how one of the film's voiceovers characterizes today's rock woman. It's a blatant reminder that it isn't always the commodifiers doing the commodifying. But what's interesting about The Righteous Babes isn't that the filmmaker herself so readily becomes complicit in transforming the work of a Tori Amos or an Ani DiFranco into what Frith called "(nonthreatening) confirmations of conventional taste" -- rather, it's the tension between what Parmar (with support from Paglia, Dworkin, and Steinem) is trying to assert and the views that most of the artists she interviews are attempting to express. Parmar's on a mission to bring artists with aims as disparate as Hole's Courtney Love and Republica's Saffron, Garbage's Shirley Manson and Skunk Anansie's Skin, together as a genre to be known as women in rock, excluding "fake" women in pop like the Spice Girls (even though Saffron has more in common with Posh Spice than with Courtney Love). Meanwhile, DiFranco explains that "I haven't brought feminism to my music consciously," and O'Connor points out that "many female artists are reluctant to call themselves feminists." You don't get the sense that DiFranco, O'Connor, or any of the other women in The Righteous Babes wants to disavow feminism itself, only that they're not comfortable feeding a system that 10 years down the road will happily reduce their work to yet another new oldies format, one specializing in the best feminist dance hits of the '90s.

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