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Lisa Whittington-Hill | Longreads | June 2022 | 16 minutes (4,445 words)
Jennifer Finch is smiling, but she’s clearly frustrated. “Everywhere I go, everywhere I turn, I see this fucking face,” says the bassist for Los Angeles band L7. “Frankly, I’m sick of it.” Finch is holding a copy of the January 1992 issue of Spin, which happens to be Nirvana’s first national magazine cover; the face in question belongs to her ex-boyfriend, Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl.
The scene appears in the 2016 documentary L7: Pretend We’re Dead, but the sentiment dates back much farther. When the magazine was published, Finch and her L7 bandmates were in the studio recording their third album, Bricks Are Heavy. L7 had formed in 1985, two years before Nirvana was in bloom, and the two bands had toured England together in 1990. Yet, with Nirvana’s breakthrough 1991 album, Nevermind, Grohl, bassist Krist Novoselic, and lead singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain had seemingly gone from obscurity to ubiquity overnight: Nevermind was selling upwards of 300,000 copies a week, and was about to knock Michael Jackson’s Dangerous off the top of the Billboard charts.
Nevermind was not the only seminal grunge album released in 1991. Pearl Jam’s Ten hit the record store at your local mall in August 1991 and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger in October. By the time L7’s Bricks Are Heavy was released in April 1992, grunge had exploded: You could buy Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell’s look at your local Walmart, rusty cage not included. But as Finch and her bandmates would find, not everyone in the grunge scene was granted the same success; despite glowing reviews, Bricks Are Heavy topped out at #160 on the Billboard 200.
From the return of jelly shoes to the pop culture nostalgia of Showtime’s Yellowjackets, the ’90s are back. Chuck Klosterman’s latest essay collection, The Nineties: A Book, chronicles what the author calls “the last decade with a fully formed and recognizable culture of its own”; Vice’s series The Dark Side of the 90s revisits the Gulf War, the Viper Room, and the dating history of Counting Crows lead singer Adam Duritz (a Gen X Pete Davidson if ever there was one). And with 30th anniversaries this summer of albums from Sonic Youth’s Dirty to Screaming Trees’ Sweet Oblivion — not to mention the Singles soundtrack, which 30 years ago this week packaged the “Seattle sound” for a mainstream audience — our desire to revisit and re-consume the decade that brought us Baywatch, Beavis and Butt-Head, and Beanie Babies shows no signs of slowing down.
But not everything is cause for celebration. While the alternative and grunge scene of the early to mid-’90s celebrated opposition to the mainstream, it was also a very white, very male scene that downplayed the significant contributions of artists who didn’t fit that description. Female bands like 7 Year Bitch and Babes in Toyland sold significantly fewer records than their male counterparts, generated fewer bidding wars, and received less press. When not ignored, women were objectified by the media and marginalized by an industry that treated them like a fad, promoting only a handful of female musicians and only for a brief period. As we revisit the decade that gave us grunge, rather than be all apologies, it’s the perfect time to reexamine, reevaluate, and rewrite history — especially for the women who made up the scene.
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“If you look at any history of that time, you’d think almost no women were making music,” Gretta Harley told Seattle magazine in 2013 of Seattle’s early grunge music scene. Harley, a punk rock guitarist, had moved to Seattle in 1990 just as grunge was changing the city and putting it on the musical map; she formed the group Maxi Badd (which would become the Danger Gens) with drummer Dave Parnes and bassist Tess. Lotta. But when Nevermind’s 20th anniversary in 2011 prompted a rush of tributes to Nirvana and its influential album, she realized that none of them accurately reflected the Seattle scene — or women’s role in it.
That inspired Harley, along with actress and writer Sarah Rudinoff and playwright Elizabeth Kenny, to write the 2013 play These Streets. “We started looking at the books that were written by different authors, and the women were absent, almost completely absent,” said Harley.
“[W]hen a 250-page history of Seattle’s rock heyday … only includes a page and a half on the women of the era — calling it ‘The Female Presence’ — something feels … wrong,” wrote Laura Dannen in a preview of the play for Seattle Met magazine. “Like a female guitarist was some kind of elusive Bengal tiger, caught only briefly on tape.” These Streets explored the experiences of women in grunge in the late ’80s and early ’90s, drawing on interviews with more than 40 women in the scene. From Carrie Akre of Hammerbox and Kim Warnick of The Fastbacks to Lazy Susan’s Kim Virant and 7 Year Bitch’s Valerie Agnew and Elizabeth Davis-Simpson, These Streets shined a light on the contributions that so many histories had ignored.
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Even those who managed to break through to wider renown, though, found themselves consistently undervalued. Like Nirvana, L7 had released one of indie label Sub Pop’s Singles of the Month, 1990’s “Shove/Packin’ a Rod.” After its second studio album, 1990’s Smell the Magic, was also released on Sub Pop, the band signed to Warner Bros. subsidiary Slash Records — for what is described in the documentary Pretend We’re Dead as a “shit deal” — at a time when major labels were scrambling to sign any band with a guitar and proximity to the Space Needle. Even when L7 finally got its own Spin cover in 1993, the compliment was backhanded: Next to the band’s photo was the coverline “More Than Babes in Boyland.”
The Spin coverline embodied everything L7 was against. It wasn’t just sexist; it also manufactured a rivalry between L7 and Babes in Toyland, another female band at the time, flattening both to a girl-group trope. L7 often avoided group interviews and refused to be part of “women in music” special issues because the band felt they deserved their own article and didn’t want to be classified by their gender. “When we were naming our band, we did not want a gender-specific name,” said singer and guitarist Donita Sparks in a 2012 Spin oral history. “I wanted people to listen to our music and go, ‘Who the fuck is this?’ I didn’t really want to be lumped in with anybody. Us being women wasn’t a political platform.”
The uneven treatment of women in the scene was even more pronounced if you were a woman of color making music. Tina Bell, a Black woman, formed Seattle band Bam Bam with her husband, guitarist Tommy Martin, in 1983; she was the frontwoman and principal songwriter. Bam Bam would perform with The Melvins, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains, and were named KCMU/KEXP’s “Best NW Band.” Its 1984 EP Villains (Also Wear White) preceded Green River’s album Come on Down, often regarded as the first grunge album. Yet, while Bell is often referred to as the “Godmother of Grunge,” she’s also left out of most histories of the scene.
“This modern genre’s sound was, in many ways, molded by a Black woman,” wrote Stephanie Siek in a 2021 Zora article about Bell’s legacy. “The reason she is mostly unknown has everything to do with racism and misogyny. Looking back at the beginnings of grunge, with the preconception that ‘everybody involved’ was White and/or male, means ignoring the Black woman who was standing at the front of the line.”
For more: Lisa Whittington-Hill unpacked Courtney Love’s legacy in 2019. Read that piece here.
Bell eventually left the band and quit music; tragically, she died in 2012, shortly before a scheduled reunion of the band. However, when Bam Bam is referenced in accounts of the scene, it is sometimes referred to as a three-piece, removing Bell and her legacy completely. When she does receive a mention, it’s often in the context of Kurt Cobain being rumored to be a fan of Bell and the band. (Cobain had discovered them while he was a roadie for The Melvins.)
Female musicians are often granted legitimacy based on their proximity to more successful, male musicians, and Bell is no exception. If you were a woman making music and Cobain name-checked you, you were automatically cool. (Sadly, Courtney Love remains one of the only exceptions to this rule.) “In general, in most histories, women’s participation has been disregarded from the get-go or cut from the narrative after-the-fact,” wrote Jen B. Larson in a tribute to Bell on the website Please Kill Me. “Though women have played key roles in musical innovations over time, we tend to notice them in hindsight, and only if dedicated crate-diggers are meticulous in excavating the past. The motif is especially apparent for Black women.”
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For a 2016 issue celebrating the 25th anniversary of grunge, British music magazine Q published a special package that included insiders and musicians talking about the scene. Not surprisingly, the piece features no women. Hole’s 1994 record Live Through This is the only entry from a band featuring women on a list of the 25 most influential grunge albums. Mojo’s “Early Grunge Classics” and Revolver’s “Flyin’ the Flannel” both feature no entries by women. There are also no women on Rolling Stone’s readers’ poll of the best grunge albums of all time.
When the media covered women in the grunge and alternative scene, it treated them like a genre unto itself. This genre, though, received almost no in-depth profiles or features. Instead, women were given the listicle treatment: an easy way for an outlet to appear to cover female musicians, without the hard work of devoting actual words and thought to them. From “5 Female-Led Bands That Channelled the Fearless Ferocity of Grunge” to “10 Essential Alternative ’90s Bands Fronted by Women You Should Know,” the facile format signaled that a magazine didn’t deem their work or musical contribution worthy of serious consideration.
If music and talent weren’t the subject of the listicle, you can probably guess what was: appearance and sex appeal. In 2011, SF Weekly somehow managed to use a listicle to objectify women and celebrate male bands at the same time: “As Nirvana’s Nevermind turns 20 this week, and Pearl Jam celebrates two decades of being a band, we think it’s time to look back on the top 10 hottest women in grunge,” reads the introduction to “The Top 11 Hottest Women in Grunge.”
As for the lists themselves, they often highlighted artists who had little in common except their gender. Diffuser.fm’s “10 Best Female Rockers of the ’90s” includes L7’s Donita Sparks, Björk, and Juliana Hatfield — all women, yes, but all women making quite different music. (Garbage and Gwen Stefani on the same list? Why not! They both wrote songs with “Girl” in the title.) Not only do listicles reduce gender to a genre, but they also pit women against each other as they compete for the number one spot, or any spot at all. There are already too many competitive situations for women in music; we didn’t need a Spin top 10 to fuel yet another.
And then there were the “women in music” packages and special issues. These may have devoted more space to the acts in question, but they again flattened these women into a single monolithic group. “The all-women’s issue. The women in rock. This ghetto that they put us in. You get the one issue a year. People always compare us to bands with female singers. Not that we don’t love those bands, but it seems so narrow-minded to me,” said former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss in an interview with Broad City co-creators Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson.
“Women in music” issues reached their tragic peak in 1997. First came Spin’s “The Girl Issue,” the cover of which featured Fiona Apple alongside the headline, “She’s Been a Bad, Bad Girl.” Inside, the accompanying profile included the line, “Fiona Apple is a pop star trapped in the body of a pretty teenage girl.” (The profile seems unable to stop reminding readers of Apple’s gender, comparing her to other female musicians and repeatedly talking about her looks and “sexy and girlish” outfits.) Not to be outdone, Rolling Stone published its own “Girl Issue” later that year, with a cover featuring the random-seeming combination of Madonna, Courtney Love, and Tina Turner. Magazines thought they were celebrating women, without realizing that the very nature of the celebration accomplished exactly the opposite. Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger punctured the tradition perfectly with its satirical “men who rock” special issues in 2012 and 2015 — complete with sexy-pose photoshoots and inane interview questions.
When women in the ’90s received coverage, interview questions focused exclusively on the idea that a woman making music was a novelty. Women were repeatedly asked to recount tales of the sexism they experienced, feed into fake feuds with other female musicians, or talk about their looks, fashion choices, or who they were dating — all things that would rarely be asked of a man, except maybe in a parody issue of The Stranger. “When you’re a woman working in a man’s world, your gender is acknowledged constantly,” wrote Jillian Mapes in a Flavorwire piece on women rock musicians. “At times it can feel empowering, this sense of taking up richly deserved space in a man’s world. But at a certain point, gender-defined underdog status and tokenization grows old, even if it’s positioned as a necessary breath of fresh air in the press or among fans.”
When not objectifying them (“Spanks for the Memory,” reads the headline of a 1990 Melody Maker piece on Babes in Toyland), coverage focused on female musicians’ behavior over their music. Like L7’s Donita Sparks throwing her used tampon into the audience at 1992’s Reading Festival after the crowd hurled mud at the band. Or Alanis Morissette talking about going down on a Full House cast member in a theater. Or anything Courtney Love did. (“Love ripped through the grunge scene like a hurricane, marrying its prom king and becoming as notorious for her public antics as for her music,” reads the entry for Love on Diffuser.fm’s list of the “10 Best Female Rockers of the ’90s,” which echoed most of the pieces written about her in that decade.)
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In the early ’90s, grunge was often associated with riot grrrl, the name taken by Olympia, Washington’s underground feminist movement. On the surface, the two scenes took a similar form. Both originated in the Pacific Northwest, had their roots in punk, and shared a DIY ethic. Grunge and riot grrrl bands often played shows together, signed to the same record labels, and formed friendships.
But not everyone agreed with the affiliation. “There was a sexist shock-value imagery with grunge,” said Allison Wolfe, a member of riot grrrl act Bratmobile, in a 2021 Guardian piece on the 30th anniversary of the record label Kill Rock Stars. “Especially from Sub Pop bands. It didn’t speak to us. I’m not that naked woman on the cover with blood dripping all over me [in Dwarves’ 1990 single “Drug Store”]. It was about forging a path to have a voice and knowing even if we didn’t have the musical skills that we had something to say that would be more interesting than half the shit these guys are saying.”
Female musicians were often labeled by journalists as riot grrrls, regardless of whether they self-identified as such. Not only was it lazy and disrespectful, but it highlighted the limited vocabulary and reference points that existed when talking about women making music. “Riot grrrl” became a catch-all to easily categorize and compartmentalize women.
Meanwhile, riot grrrl bands routinely met ridicule and dismissal from the media. Rarely, if ever, did journalists or critics engage with the substance of the music. Instead, articles focused on the physical appearances and fashion choices of the girls or wondered whether Chelsea Clinton would become a riot grrrl when she moved to Washington. A Melody Maker piece suggested that “the best thing any Riot Grrrl could do is to go away and do some reading and I don’t mean a grubby little fanzine,” and Newsweek called riot grrrl “feminism with a loud happy face dotting the ‘i.’”
“I think it was deliberate that we were made to look like we were just ridiculous girls parading around in our underwear,” said Corin Tucker, of Sleater-Kinney and Heavens to Betsy, in an interview for Riot Grrrl Retrospectives, a 1999 video project by Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture. “They refused to do serious interviews with us, they misprinted what we had to say; they would take our articles and our fanzines and our essays and take them out of context. We wrote a lot about sexual abuse and sexual assault for teenagers and young women. I think those are really important concepts that the media never addressed.”
Nowhere was there any mention of the musicians who had influenced riot grrrl acts like Bratmobile and Bikini Kill. It was as though Kim Gordon had never co-founded Sonic Youth, as though The Slits had never existed. Women making music were treated like a novelty — each group of female musicians treated like the first, their history erased and their connection to the future denied. “There were a lot of very important ideas that I think the mainstream media couldn’t handle, so it was easier to focus on the fact that these were girls who were wearing barrettes in their hair or writing ‘slut’ on their stomach,” said Sharon Cheslow, who formed Chalk Circle, Washington D.C.’s first all-female punk band in 1981, in another Riot Grrrl Retrospectives interview. Riot grrrl eventually declared a media boycott in 1992 over growing concerns that their messages were being misinterpreted, diluted, and trivialized.
And just as with “women in music” special issues, female artists were seen as disposable and automatically compared to each other. “PJ Harvey‘s record-breaking contributions to indie rock are redoubtable, but rock’s one-in one-out policy for women has made her an inescapable comparison for any rock woman standing alone with a six string and toe pressed to a distortion pedal,” wrote Charlotte Richardson Andrews in a 2012 Guardian piece.
One-in and one-out also applied to radio airplay and concert bills. If there was already a woman on a festival lineup or in radio rotation in the ’90s, there was resistance to adding another. I remember attending Lollapalooza in 1992, disappointed there was only one band featuring women on the bill — British band Lush — especially because the festival prided itself on its diversity. (I also accidentally locked myself in a port-a-potty and missed all of Pearl Jam’s performance, which has led to a lifelong fear of both the band and portable toilets, but that’s a different piece.)
Lilith Fair launched in 1997 to counter the lack of women on festival lineups and offer support and exposure for female artists — not to mention all the Biore pore strips audiences wanted. The event grossed $16 million its first year, making it the top-grossing touring festival, but not everyone was happy. “The latest trend in rock and roll: women,” announced ABC News’s Elizabeth Vargas, opening a segment about Lilith Fair. Sleater-Kinney declined to join Lilith Fair; Garbage’s Shirley Manson, among others, criticized it for its lack of diversity. Lilith Fair also helped contribute to the misbelief that music made by women had to be personal, had to be polite, and had to include an acoustic guitar. It also reinforced the idea that women’s music is only for women audiences.
Lilith Fair represented a more mainstream, commercial approach to feminism than the political action and activism of the riot grrrls, but both contributed to the idea of the ’90s as an encouraging and supportive utopia for female-fronted acts which gave the illusion of gender equality in music. While women musicians achieved undeniable success during the decade, Revolution Girl Style was far from over.
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Grunge benefitted from its connection to riot grrrrl because it made the male-dominated scene seem more feminist, more progressive, and less sexist than it was. When women took Sharpies to their skin, the media dismissed them; when Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder did it, it somehow became cool and subversive. During a performance of the band’s song “Porch” on their 1992 MTV Unplugged show, Vedder wrote “PRO-CHOICE!!!” on his arm with a black marker; later that year, he appeared on Saturday Night Live wearing a T-shirt with a wire hanger and a pro-choice slogan on it. He also penned a 1992 op-ed on abortion for Spin. The mainstream media could handle politics in its music — as long as it was men doing the talking.
Whereas riot grrrl’s anger had scared journalists, resulting in misrepresentation and mockery, Vedder was allowed to be angry. “All the Rage,” read the cover of Time’s 1993 issue about how this new breed of angry male rockers was expressing the “passions and fears of a generation.” Both Vedder and Kurt Cobain declined to be interviewed for the story, but Vedder ended up on the cover anyway. This trend continued through the ’90s: men being lauded for their anger while women like Alanis Morissette were policed for it, accused of manufacturing outrage as a marketing strategy. Female musicians like Morissette had to be just angry enough to sell records, but not angry enough to risk offending anyone.
But male grunge bands also promoted a progressive, feminist stance, and changed the tone from the machismo and sexism associated with Mötley Crüe and other ’80s bands. They helped to bring gender politics to the mainstream, and regularly challenged sexism in their song lyrics, interviews, and videos. They championed feminist organizations, causes, and musicians, helping to bring them to a larger, more mainstream audience. I’d grown up watching ’80s hair-metal bands on MTV; male musicians promoting the idea that women were something other than bangable flesh trophies blew me away more than a RATT video’s pyrotechnics ever could.
In interviews, Cobain regularly supported and name-checked female musicians, from Shonen Knife to The Breeders, expanding the audience for these artists. In some cases, as with L7, these bands had been making music for longer than Nirvana, but unfortunately, it took a man championing them to bring the girls to the (fore)front. Cobain and Vedder also supported female musicians by bringing them on tour or joining them on the bill for benefits in support of a variety of causes, including Rock for Choice and Rock Against Rape. I remember a male friend praising Vedder for organizing Rock for Choice. He assumed the singer was responsible for it after he saw a picture in a music magazine of Vedder sporting a shirt for the benefit concerts. (He didn’t; that was L7 and Sue Cummings, a senior editor for LA Weekly.) Bands from Rage Against the Machine to Mudhoney played Rock for Choice concerts during the ’90s and while Vedder wearing the shirt helped to raise the cause’s profile, it also overshadowed the important work L7, and other female musicians did.
What’s often overlooked, and important to remember, is that female musicians influenced Cobain’s feminist message — notably Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail — as did the the formative time Nirvana spent in Olympia. Cobain’s activism didn’t come from nowhere; it came from his proximity to, and association, with riot grrrl. “From the very beginning, he was aware of the gender issue,” said NPR music critic Ann Powers in a Daily Beast story about Nirvana’s legacy. Cobain may have promoted Bikini Kill and riot grrrl in interviews, but he wouldn’t have had his feminism without them.
This year marks the 28th anniversary of Cobain’s death. Each year the music media commemorates the occasion with tribute articles, think pieces, and reminders of all the conspiracy theories that still surround Cobain’s death. “10 Years After His Tragic Death: Why The Man And His Music Still Matter” reads the cover of an April 2004 issue of Spin. The “special collector’s issue” includes a history of grunge, a list of 30 essential Nirvana recordings and other media, and musicians from The Strokes to Soundgarden sharing their memories of Cobain. Similar tributes mark the anniversary of the deaths of Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, who died by suicide in May 2017, and Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley, who died of a drug overdose in April 2002.
Sadly, the deaths of female musicians don’t receive nearly the same level of media attention. The anniversary of the death of Mia Zapata, lead singer of The Gits, who was murdered and brutally raped in July 1993, deserves more tributes. The deaths of Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff, who died two months after Cobain, or 7 Year Bitch lead guitarist Stefanie Sargent, who died in 1992, should also not be overshadowed by the deaths of male musicians.
Deaths are not the only occasions that are marked. When Nevermind turned 30 last year, the anniversary was marked by special commemorative issues of Uncut and Mojo. There was a 30th anniversary reissue box set, online tributes, social media shoutouts, and an endless-seeming parade of dudes telling you where they were the first time they heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Similar tributes happened with the album’s 10- and 20-year anniversaries. When we think about nostalgia, it’s important to notice whose legacy is remembered, who gets the anniversary covers, whose cultural significance is celebrated — and whose isn’t.
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Grunge is far from the only musical scene to marginalize women’s contributions. In a 2014 Guardian article about the punk scene’s misogyny, writer Charlotte Richardson Andrews argued that women had to fight for visibility in a scene where men held all the power. Women were too often excluded from an industry that only promoted “the lucky few to whom industry gatekeepers deign to give a platform.” The piece could just have easily been describing grunge.
Or hip-hop, for that matter. Starting in the late ’80s, female hip-hop artists like Queen Latifah and MC Lyte achieved undeniable success. In 1988, Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” was one of the first hip-hop singles to be nominated for a Grammy. Latifah’s most successful album, 1993’s Black Reign, was certified gold, and its Grammy-winning single “U.N.I.T.Y.” explicitly celebrated women’s rights. Their music defined the genre as they spoke out against assault, discrimination, and misogyny. But like women in grunge, this perspective didn’t receive as much attention as it should have: Songs like “Ladies First” existed within a male-dominated genre and culture where, as Jeff Chang wrote in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, “scantily-clad dancers seemed in endless supply, while women rappers were scarce.” At least in grunge, Eddie Vedder wasn’t pulling a 2 Live Crew and singing about someone blowing him, as much as he may have wanted Ticketmaster to.
In 1999, Billboard named pop singer Mariah Carey the artist of the decade. For those who had grown up with grunge, it seemed a fate worse than whatever Y2K had planned. By then, grunge bands were long gone, replaced by mass-produced boy bands and pop princesses, as well as the burning (literally) mess that was Woodstock ’99. Riot grrrl’s girl-power message had been co-opted and commercialized to sell pencil cases and baby tees. Smelling like Teen Spirit had been replaced by actual teen spirit as preteen girls flocked to The Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, and The Spice Girls.
But, thankfully, yesterday’s pioneers refuse to stay in the background. After six studio albums, L7 went on indefinite hiatus in 2001 — only to reform in 2014 and tour with its original lineup for the first time in 20 years. Later this year, they’ll tour again to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Bricks Are Heavy. Sleater-Kinney, who released their 10th studio album Path of Wellness in 2021, also returns to the stage this summer. Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon is back with This Women’s Work: Essays on Music, an anthology she edited with music journalist Sinead Gibson. “‘What’s it like to be a girl in a band?’ The often-repeated question throughout my career as a musician made me feel disrupted, a freak or that we are all the same,” wrote Gordon in an Instagram post promoting the book. “I once asked my boyfriend what it was like to have a penis? To me they are sort of equivalent questions. Hopefully, this book begins an unravelling of this myth that if you’re a female musician you are ready-made, easily digestible.”
It’s long overdue.
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Lisa Whittington-Hill is the Publisher of This Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Longreads, The Walrus, Hazlitt, and more. She is currently writing a book for the 33 1/3 music series on Beauty and the Beat by The Go-Go’s to be published in 2023. Girls, Interrupted, her collection of essays on how pop culture is failing women, will be published by Montreal’s Vehicule Press in Fall 2023. You can find her on Twitter at @nerdygirly.
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