"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on iChat or Gchat or the phone with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness.
This past year has seen the return of several female-fronted and female dominated alternative rock bands from the 1990s. Last week the pop punk band the Muffs released Whoop Dee Doo, its first new album in ten years and its first for rising indie label Burger Records. Veruca Salt just finished its first tour with all of its original members since 1997 and have a full-length in the works. The Breeders spent part of 2013 playing 1993's classic Last Splash album in its entirety at shows and have more performances and new music coming. Luscious Jackson independently released a Kickstarted album, Magic Hour. Courtney Love, however, said in an interview last month with the Philippines newspaper Inquirer that she won't be hitting the road with Hole's mid-'90s lineup.
As more of these reunions are surely on there way, it's crucial to remember why the proliferation of these groups were so important in the first place. Though all-female or female-fronted acts may not have been the hugest or best-selling groups of the alt revolution, the way they presented themselves and their sounds (as well as the sheer number of them) helped define what made this era of rock so different from the ones that preceeded it. While the treatment of these acts in the '90s was far from what you'd hope for in a gender-equality utopia, what they did in this decade made important strides. Their influence can be heard and felt today in acts like White Lung, Speedy Ortiz and Perfect Pussy and bands beyond that direct lineage. How they will be remembered is worth considering as alternative rock from the '90s is about to start getting formally canonized. Nirvana's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year seems to be the official start, Pearl Jam is probably next, and Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails and Rage Against the Machine may be coming in the near future. But will Hole ever get in? Will PJ Harvey? Will Bikini Kill?
To discuss how these female-centered acts will be remembered, as well as the '90s revival in general, Ducker talked to Elizabeth Spiridakis Olson, the creative director of Afar Media, an early fashion blogger at her site White Lightning (whose spirit lives on at her Instagram account). Spiridakis Olson, who was a teenager for most of the '90s, remains a devotee the decade's culture.
What were the core bands for you when you were coming of age in the 1990s?
In my intense formative years — like 1994 to 1996, when was 15, 16, 17 — my favorites were Operation Ivy, Pavement, Weezer, The Breeders, the Smashing Pumpkins. Beastie Boys, Dinosaur Jr. and Hole — all the ones that sound so trite now because "the '90s" is a fashion description. Those were my obsessions. Then it was Bikini Kill, Tuscadero, that dog., the Muffs, Mary Lou Lord ... I can keep going.
Many of these bands are female-fronted and/or majority female. Were you conscious of or particularly drawn to bands that had a distinctive female presence? Or was that just what was out there at the time?
I was drawn to those bands because they were the girls I wanted to be; or they were the girls that looked like and sang about stuff I was interested in and wanted to be a part of, but wasn't sure how to find it. It makes me feel like I'm 100 years old to talk this way, but I was the "alternative" girl in my suburban high school where the majority of the kids were into Phish or the Dead or, like, Top 40. The only few other kids who were into the music I liked were boys, and I hung out with them a lot. You couldn't friend someone on Facebook or read their blog or whatever. I didn't know how to find the girls that were "my people." A lot of these bands made me happy, those were the girls [I was looking for]. They were so smart and pretty and had sick style, and I loved the music.
It's funny, since "Women Who Rock" has become such a trite thing, but those bands and what they were doing as performers and musicians were definitely a big deal. Without them, I wonder if we'd mainly be looking at 1990s alt rock as just sad boys who had a thing for 1970s hard rock.
With some of these female-dominated bands coming back recently, have you gone to see any of them play or checked out any of their new music?
I saw the Breeders a few times last year, and I saw the Muffs a few weeks ago. I don't think I would see any incarnation of Hole that was playing now. I would kill to see the Julie Ruin. I have not really checked out any of the new music! Is that awful of me, or what?
Well, one step back, how were the Breeders and the Muffs?
The first time I saw the Breeders last year was at Webster Hall [in New York]. It was exciting and I got a little emotional. They played Last Splash in its entirety in order. Kinda rad. The second time was at FYF Fest in LA, and we are lucky enough to attend that every year with all access, so we watched from the stage. That blew my 16-year-old mind more than a little.
The Muffs played three weeks ago at the Burger Boogaloo here in Oakland and they were so good. It's crazy that that voice is still the same. Kim [Shattuck] was still the coolest girl in the room, I have to say. I was heart-eye emoji style over her. Why were so many Kims so cool in the '90s?
I haven't seen either in their comebacks, but I'm going to see the Breeders when they play the Hollywood Bowl in September with Neutral Milk Hotel. The Muffs actually had an in-store at Amoeba here in Los Angeles tonight that I had to miss, but I still remember seeing them when they played the Fillmore in San Francisco in the late 1990s, which when I think about it now, seems like a pretty big deal. The space was about three-quarters full and the Groovie Ghoulies opened. Kim kind of mooned the crowd at the end of their set through two holes that were worn through her vintage babydoll dress.
She is amazing. She looked the same at Burger Boogaloo. How is that possible? Sickest hair, cutest minidress.
So yeah, the new music ... I listened to the new Muffs, and it's pretty good and it sounds like a Muffs record, which is I guess what you'd want. I also dig the fact the album cover's design looks like it's from the 1990s. The new Veruca Salt songs that have come out are fair. I didn't listen to the new Luscious Jackson. It feels bad not getting into the new music, because why shouldn't they be making new music, but it's kind of hard for me to get excited about it. On one hand I don't want them radically reworking their sound to try to be relevant; but on the other hand, you kind of want it to feel like they've been evolving over the past 20 years.
Ugh, it's so true.
I mean, Liz Phair has kept putting out records for the past 20 years, and I think it's good she's not the same person that she was when she made Exile in Guyville, but the music that has come from those changes at times have been very... rough.
Of course I was obsessed with her, too. She is one of the few who seems to be repulsed by who she was in the 1990s. I held on until whitechocolatespaceegg, but after that it was like, Avril Lavigne? I could get into a new Muffs record, maybe. Veruca Salt I didn't like enough then to warrant wanting to get into their 2014 sound.
This round of reunions is weird for me because it's the first time that bands that I saw or could have seen are coming back. With, like, the Pixies, it was great because I had never heard those songs done live before, and they were amazing when they came back the first time in 2004. But if I go see Veruca Salt now, am I trying to re-live something from my past? That makes me feel weird.
Yeah, the '90s reboot trend is starting to wear thin. I saw Pavement play three nights in Central Park four years ago and I am not ashamed to say I was pretty much high/close to tears the whole time. I felt like a Beatlemaniac. The tickets were sold a year in advance and they were one of the first [of their era] to do the reunion thing. I would have felt similar for the Pixies because I never saw them live either. But it's getting to be a weirder and weirder thing. Who are the Veruca Saltians? Is this a big thing?! There are seminal '90s bands and then are ... '90s bands.
Should they go full-on nostalgia and do a package tour? That's what Everclear, Soul Asylum, Eve 6 and Spacehog are doing this summer on the Summerland Tour.
This is where it gets weird because I would sort of totally go to that.
I draw the line there.
So why would you go to the Summerland tour?
I have a really cheeseball love for "Santa Monica" by Everclear, and also "In The Meantime" by Spacehog. Those are epic songs, but I love them the way people like Katy Perry now. So I would go to get drunk and sing, "I JUST WANNA SEE SOME PAAALLLLM TREEEEEES." My husband and I have a playlist we call "Grody '90s" that's all our favorite radio alternative songs: "Flagpole Sitta," "Got You (Where I Want You)"... Eve 6 doesn't factor in for me though.
Would a Veruca Salt, Liz Phair and Tracy Bonham tour seem crass? Because when they're packaged together, it just seems like nostalgia, not "overdue appreciation" or "something for the true fans."
I mostly agree, but I do think there is this other part to it where there are these huge numbers of teenage girls who are tapping into old Liz Phair et al for the first time because "NINETIES" and it's changing their lives the same way it did mine. So it's cool for them to be able to see the live shows.
I know you've had a long relationship with Tavi Gevinson and are involved with Rookie. Do you feel like those women and the young women who read them understand what the 1990s were actually like, especially in terms of how the female-fronted/dominated bands were treated?
I guess, inasmuch as I understand what the 1970s were like. Although there are way more avenues now for women's stories (or anyone's stories!) to be told and shared. The women and girls I work with at Rookie are so much more sophisticated and tuned in than I ever was, it's insane.
Do they have an idealized vision of this era?
I think a little bit, sure. But so do I! And if the majority of what gets shared has this rose-y nostalgic tint, how could it not be idealized?
It's going to be interesting to see how the larger industry regards these bands and how they fit into the canonization of rock. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seems like it mainly exists just to celebrate people who made money for executives, but I'm curious if any of the bands we're talking about will ever get in there. Patti Smith eventually made it, but will Hole? Will Bikini Kill? Do they deserve to, or is their importance best reflected elsewhere?
Of all the bands we have been talking about tonight, I think Hole would be inducted. How many women do they choose though? I know I'm being salty, but it's old men as far as the eye can see. If Heart and Laura Nyro are just getting inducted now, I would say that Hole will make the list in 2026.
Then there's something like The Punk Singer documentary, which is reaching a bigger audience since it's streaming on Netflix and Miley Cyrus apparently loved. At first I thought it seemed premature to do a documentary about Kathleen Hanna's life, but I can see why it's so important to have that out there right now.
It's so important. I wished it was hours longer. It's not premature to tell her story, because it's not even just about her, its about a movement! I want to hear more. I went to Seattle recently and at that EMP Museum there is such a comprehensive, intense retrospective on Nirvana that I was like, Right, right, we get it and we have heard it and they were great, but why does it have to be about Kurt Cobain all the time? Like there's his green striped tee shirt, preserved archivally. In this nostalgia wave so much is spent on The Legend of Kurt. There was more to the music than that. [The Punk Singer] didn't seem premature to me at all. I wondered why it hadn't happened already.
Who are some other female figures or movements from that era that you think more attention should be paid to?
I am sure there are a million documentaries I haven't seen, but I would gladly watch more about riot grrrl. I wanna see more Babes in Toyland and Sleater-Kinney and Bratmobile. Is there a Ben is Dead documentary?
Not yet! Are there any bands that you'd like to see come back?
Maybe no one else. Is that a cop out? I think I reached the tipping point.
That's fair. I'd like to see Elastica, I never got to the first time around and I think the stuff they were referencing really caught on in a broader way in more recent years. Also, I know it's early, but I'd really like to see Sleater-Kinney together again, doing new shows and making new music.
I never got into Britpop in any way, it kinda passed me by. Sleater-Kinney would be cool. I would go see Mary Lou Lord in a hot second.