Many musicians don't seem to know what to make of the word “feminist.” Lady Gaga, for example, has both denied the label and then adopted it. Ke$ha says she's a feminist “in some ways,” and Kelly Clarkson won't touch the word with a 10-foot pole. Madonna, for what it's worth, is a humanist, y'all.
But we're not here to get all etymological. From outspoken riot grrrls to sensitive indie rockers, plenty of oft-courageous musicians have embraced the messages tied to feminism in their lives and works. Below are ten artists who've claimed or adopted feminist ideals; this is by no means an exhaustive list, and it is in no particular order.
Thanks to the album drop heard 'round the world, it's almost impossible to remember that Queen Bey did anything else this year. Um, just kidding, because there was the national anthem at Obama's inauguration, the Super Bowl halftime thing, when she and Destiny's Child killed it so hard they shut down the stadium lights. As for her Mrs. Carter Show tour — referencing her husband Jay-Z's last name — she silenced detractors by calling herself a “modern-day feminist” in British Vogue, before brushing off titles altogether. “Why do you have to label yourself anything? I'm just a woman…” But there's no doubt Beyonce is a force of nature; a strong businesswoman whose shows make even more money than Jay's — and who preaches the gospel of strong, independent women.
It's tough to find stories about Lorde that don't reference the captivating singer's age (17) and the dynamic songwriting skills. But it's almost as pleasurable to hear Lorde speak her mind as to hear her sing about it. In an interview with Huffington Post this summer, young Ella Yelich-O'Connor said she identifies as a feminist — and though she can't say the same for her musical inspiration, she did drop a few names that inspired her personally. “A lot of girls think it's not shaving under their arms and burning bras and hating boys, which just seems stone age to me,” she said. “Websites like Rookie [are good for] educating girls on what it means to be a feminist.”
At the close of a long touring season in April, 25-year-old Grimes (Claire Boucher) took to Tumblr for a long, personal diatribe against sexism and the ways it has framed her music career. “I don't want to be infantilized because i refuse to be sexualized,” she wrote. “I don't want to be molested at shows or on the street by people who perceive me as an object that exists for their personal satisfaction.”
Grimes objected to the way she has been framed by the media and by the male gaze, the way her dancers are treated and the way her peers treat her, as though she's less knowledgable because of her sex. In an interview with Spin she echoed similar frustrations with the way male peers underestimate her. “The more I've had to work in this industry, the more I've just been shocked at the way people behave,” she said.
Peaches, aka Merrill Nisker, sings about sex, a lot, and has never cared what kind of sex it is — or with whom. Throughout a career that has spanned almost two decades and birthed albums including Fatherfucker, Impeach My Bush and I Feel Cream, Peaches has carved a niche for herself by ratcheting up her raunchiness. Her performances are glitter-doused spectacles featuring writhing, shrieking, and strutting. She blends the explicit and the implicit into a joke that not everyone in the crowd is in on.
Concerning feminism, apathy regarding the subject is “dangerous,” she told the New Statesman. “I just think people should realize that all women are feminists and there's no way around that.”
6. Ani DiFranco
Feminist warrior Ani DiFrancio has spent decades championing women's rights, with help in part from the Righteous Babe Foundation, an offshoot of the record label she founded to maintain creative control over her layered folk-rock. “Either you are a feminist or you are a sexist/misogynist,” she once wrote. “There is no box marked 'other.'”
When it comes to interpreting the roles of feminists, however, she is more open: “My idea of feminism is self-determination, and it's very open-ended,” she has said. “Every woman has the right to become herself, and do whatever she needs to do.”
5. Kurt Cobain
Married to Courtney Love and friends with feminist icon and Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna, Kurt Cobain also opened up regularly about his own feminist beliefs. He sympathized with women who are “totally oppressed,” called heavy metal “pretty sexist,” rejected the idea of a “macho man,” and wore dresses onstage so that he could “be as feminine as I want.” Nirvana even went as far as to warn fans who were sexist, racist or homophobic to leave their shows and not buy their albums.
Hanna once referred to Cobain as an “angry young feminist.” And, as he once wrote in one of his journals: “I like the comfort in knowing that women are the only future in rock and roll.”
4. The Beastie Boys
The Beastie Boys famously went through an evolution in their characterization of women in their songs. In their early years they had female dancers in cages, lyrics about women doing dishes and laundry, etc., but grew up in the '90s. They had a period of strong humanitarian outreach, supporting Tibet's struggle against China and condemning the stereotyping of Muslims, the abuse of women, and other issues.
Perhaps the best example of the band's feminist sympathies can be found in MCA's oft-quoted rhyme from “Sure Shot”: “I want to say a little something that's long overdue / The disrespect to women has got to be through / To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends / I want to offer my love and respect to the end.” (Bonus: Ad-Rock is married to Kathleen Hanna.)
3. Amanda Palmer
Although Amanda Palmer might now be better known for her shenanigans than for her music, one of the longest-running themes in the former Dresden Doll's career is that of feminism in any and all forms, whether that means attacking beauty norms in the entertainment industry, performing naked, battling comments about her armpit hair, or opening up about her personal history as a teen who chose to have an abortion, as a rape survivor and as a former stripper.
“As far as i'm concerned, the most powerful feminist can do WHATEVER SHE WANTS,” she wrote on her blog last year in a rant directed at a critic of her live show. “THAT IS WHAT DEFINES A TRUE FEMINIST.”
2. Kathleen Hanna
Kathleen Hanna has been called a “Feminazi” likely more times than she can count. The lead singer of Bikini Kill, Le Tigre and now The Julie Ruin spent the '90s “eating, breathing and shitting feminist punk,” and that tunnel vision helped to influence the dawn of the riot grrrl movement, which merged progressive political messages and loud, emotional punk.
Throughout her career, Hanna has also been open about her own challenges to create change without stereotyping or judging other feminists. “There's just as many different kinds of feminism as there are women in the world,” she once said in an NPR interview.
1. Pussy Riot
More than anyone else, Pussy Riot has shown an unwavering dedication to their ideals — even after they landed them behind bars. Three of the pro-woman Russian group's members were imprisoned in 2012 after one of their guerilla-style performances offended the authorities, and support has since poured in from across the world. In the interim, some of the group's other members, who still fear legal retaliation, have granted anonymous interviews about the power of the group's messages.
“There are two reasons why we frighten people,” one member told the New Statesman in June. “The first thing is that we're a feminist, female group with no men connected to it, and the second is that we don't have leaders.”
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