Playing Against Stereotypes: Videos on Women in Popular Music

by Shannon L. Green

YOURS FOR A SONG: THE WOMEN OF TIN PAN ALLEY. 55 mins. color/b&w. 1998. Prod./Dir.: Terry Benes. Co-Prod.: Thirteen/WNET & Lumiere Productions, Inc. Distr.: Videostore Online, website: Sale (VHS): Cat. No. FLV1562, $19.98; (DVD): Cat. No. FLV5172, $24.98.

STRINGS ATTACHED. 16 mins. color. 1999. Prod.: Marla Renee Leech, P.O. Box 460542, San Francisco, CA 94146; phone: (415) 281-0547. Distr: Chip Taylor Communications, 2 East View Dr., Derry, NH 03038; phone (orders): (800) 876-2447; fax: (603) 432-2723; email:; website: (look under title Women in Music: Strings Attached). Contact distributor for licensing/format/pricing information.

PUNK PRETTY: THE RIOT GRRL DOCUMENTARY. 50 mins. (new 30-min. version also available.) color. © 2000. Prod./Dir./Distr.: Jackie Joice, 4102 Orange Avenue #107-100, Long Beach, CA 90807; email: Sale: $45.00 (institutions); $13.00 (students, nonprofit orgs.). [Note: producer/director is available for panel discussions, Q&A sessions, and spoken word performances.]

NOBODY KNOWS MY NAME. 58 mins. color. 1999. Prod./Dir.: Rachel Raimist. Distr.: Women Make Movies, 462 Broadway, New York, NY 10013; phone: (212) 925-0606; fax: (212) 925-2052; email:; website: Rental: $90.00. Sale: $250.00. Order #: W01719.

THE RIGHTEOUS BABES. 50 mins. color. 1998. Prod./Dir.: Pratibha Parmar. Distr.: Women Make Movies (see contact information above). Rental: $90.00. Sale: $295.00. Order #: W99630.

These five videos have a common theme: all feature women who challenge traditional gender roles through their efforts as musicians. Each documentary portrays vividly the inner vision and drive of women who ignore the traditional gender line in their particular style of music, from Tin Pan Alley songs to rock, punk, and hip-hop.

Yours for a Song offers a brief and intriguing glimpse into the history of Tin Pan Alley and the careers of its four most famous female songwriters. Hosted by singer Betty Buckley and part of the American Masters series by Thirteen/WNET for National Public Television, this documentary profiles the careers of Dorothy Fields, Kay Swift, Dana Suesse, and Ann Ronell, all of whom became successful during the latter decades of the popular music industry (1920s-1940s). Although the women aren't as readily recognizable by name as George Gershwin, Jerome Kerne, and Irving Berlin, they nevertheless helped to shape the music of Tin Pan Alley.

Several of their songs are still well known today, including lyricist Dorothy Fields' "I'm in the Mood for Love" and "Big Spender." Composer Kay Swift first became known with "Can't We Be Friends" and later wrote the score for the Broadway musical Fine and Dandy (1930). Dana Suesse's first success was the theme song for the 1939 World's Fair, "Yours for a Song." Also a composer of classical music, Suesse was aided in her career by Paul Whiteman and has been compared with George Gershwin. Composer Ann Ronell was successful both in New York and in Hollywood, where she composed the scores for several films, including The Story of G.I. Joe (1945).

Between short historical segments, the video spends much of its time presenting the biographies of the songwriters and features a series of performances of their most successful and well-known songs. It glosses over the question why women were able to attain more success beginning in the 1920s in Tin Pan Alley than in any earlier period. Undoubtedly, each composer overcame gender-based barriers inherent in the music business, but the video scarcely mentions any, choosing instead to focus on the highlights of the songwriters' careers rather than on any difficulties they had in attaining success.

The quality of the music and picture is high, the performances of the songs are well done, and the interviews with colleagues and family members are lively and engaging. Buckley, however, appears so infrequently in the documentary that her appearance interrupts the flow, though her performance of several songs clearly demonstrates her enthusiasm for the music. Most intriguing are the snippets of film from the era, which give a sense both of the songwriters themselves and of the times in which they were working. But while I don't doubt the claim that these four songwriters helped shape the music of the time, I would have preferred to see more time devoted to proving it.

Strings Attached is a very short (16-minute) documentary profiling the musical backgrounds of five San Francisco-area women guitarists. Each musician, profiled individually, offers reflections on her early experiences with guitar and how she ended up playing her particular type of music.

The guitarists profiled represent five distinct types of music. Terri Winston, labeled "alternative," relates her efforts to learn guitar as a young girl in a class of adults. She describes her journey as she matured from playing the "nicer, prettier" songs to addressing personal issues such as anger in her music. Slide blues guitarist Karen Almquist, whose inspiration was Robert Johnson (he "turned my head around"), directly addresses the exploitation of women in blues lyrics. Latin jazz guitarist Jackeline Rago explains her instrument, a Quattro (4-string guitar). She optimistically faces the issues of ethnicity and feminism as she finds herself continually explaining to listeners not only her Quattro but also her place as a woman in a traditionally male field: "If you're good, no matter what, you always have a place."

Celtic/blues guitarist Lynn Vidal, who had been inspired by Elvis Presley's playing in her youth, uses her guitar to cope with her own adolescent troubles: "I wasn't a very happy girl, spent a lot of time pouring my sorrow into playing guitar and teaching myself how to play." Rock guitarist Carrie Baum had wanted to be a rock star in her youth, but found the barriers to women in music "disappointing." She reflects that it is more difficult for women to be successful, citing the different criteria for female and male musicians: The most frequent question asked about a female band is, "What do they look like?"

Most intriguing about each guitarist are her reflections on the musicians who inspired her in her youth and her recollections of those who helped her along the way. These women have obviously made sacrifices for their music and clearly have an inner drive that keeps them playing.

The video is a sampler, leaving you wanting more information and more in-depth coverage of each musician. Its strength is presenting each guitarist as an individual as well as touching on feminist issues such as access to training, lookism, and the music industry's separate treatment of men and women. It is perfect for a short classroom or lecture presentation, where it can serve as a good lead-in to a discussion about women and music and what it takes to become famous as a musician. Musicians will appreciate the film's good sound quality.

Both Punk Pretty: The Riot Grrl Documentary and Nobody Knows My Name also directly confront the treatment of women, but in the alternative music fields of punk rock and hip-hop. In what at first may seem to be an incongruous pairing of feminists and punk music, Punk Pretty features extensive, unscripted personal reflections of a number of female punk musicians through an exploration of the feminist punk band The Riot Grrls.

Punk Pretty shows female musicians from the Southern California punk movement in live performance and in personal interviews that provide snapshots of their lives, as well as their personal reflections about their place in the music as a whole. Musician Renae Bryant of All or Nothing H.C. acknowledges her debt as a feminist punk musician to the sacrifices made by the first wave of feminists in the last century. Another musician admits frustration with some women in the field who say they are trying to change society but end up reinforcing stereotypes through language and behavior, such as calling other women sluts and whores. De-De Troot asserts that there is much work left to do on the personal level in freeing the field from sexism--that although many men recognize the need for change, they aren't following through in their own personal actions and decisions. Troot stresses that, ideally, she shouldn't have to change her looks for a man but for what she thinks is right.

Punk Pretty effectively illustrates that the punk movement is more than the music; it is a way of life for many of its adherents. The video demonstrates the depth of the musicians active in the movement: punk music is an integral part of their lives but also serves as their vehicle for empowerment. We can see that many female and male musicians in punk music are mindful of the history of women and of the barriers against women that still need to be broken down, and that feminism and feminist activism can exist in many different types of environments, including one as potentially sexist as punk rock. The video is well-produced, but poor sound reproduction will frustrate viewers who want to hear the lyrics and listen closely to the music.

Nobody Knows My Name provides another exploration of what it means to be feminist within an alternative music movement. Well-edited and insightful, this video profiles the lives of six women involved in hip-hop, all of whom have dealt with finding their own niches in this male-dominated music.

Leschea, a singer and musician, has spent much time on the road performing with other groups and has reached a level of success on her own. Break-dancer Asia One used her love for the music to break a cycle of addiction to drugs and alcohol. When she first began dancing, she found it intimidating to perform in the middle of a circle of men. She hopes her example will inspire more women to participate in break-dancing.

Lisa, in her role as wife of a hip-hop artist, is the most traditional of the women profiled in Nobody Knows My Name. She and her husband, Tony, have made it a point to keep his music family-oriented, and they have involved their children in recorded and live performances. Both see themselves as adult role models for children, hoping to inspire others as examples of how to run a business within a family. Turntabler DJ Symphony found hip-hop as a way to fight shyness. She acknowledges, however, that it is much more difficult for women to obtain respect in the field. Like Asia One, she hopes her example will encourage more women to become turntablers.

T-Love has worked in the industry as an artist, activist, publicist, emcee, and producer, and has her own label. She laments that despite all her hard work, "nobody knows my name." Rapper Medusa enjoys the contests that pit her against another-- usually male--rapper. She sees herself as a storyteller, and the rhythm helps to carry the story along: "I ride where the rhythms take me." For her, the music helps to bring generations together.

Like the artists featured in Punk Pretty, female hip-hop artists also must confront the issue of their appearance. DJ Symphony and Medusa describe their reaction to an implied standard in the music industry: that women dress as scantily as possible, that their looks are a commodity they must exploit to attain success in the field. Both artists, however, have rejected that claim. DJ Symphony asserts that she's there to be listened to, not looked at; Medusa stresses that those who wear skimpy outfits get treated cheaply and are frequently called names, while those dressed more conservatively are given more respect.

Like Punk Pretty, Nobody Knows My Name provides a fascinating and insightful glimpse into feminism within a radical musical style. Although it does not provide much history of the hip-hop movement, it is an excellent snapshot of women within the field in various aspects of the industry in 1999. It is clear from the interviews that women face more hurdles than men do in this alternative and marginalized musical style. The film provides a good starting point for discussions about the industry and women's place in it.

Of all the videos reviewed in this essay, the well-produced and thoughtfully edited Righteous Babes presents the most thorough exploration of the intersection of feminism and popular music. It features interviews with such artists as Chrissy Hynde, Ani DiFranco, Courtney Love, Queen Latifah, Tori Amos, and Sinead O'Connor, all of whom discuss how being female has affected their musical careers. Using commentary by Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dworkin, among others, Righteous Babes addresses such issues as lookism and its effect on women in the industry, the political baggage around the term "feminist," and rape and sexual abuse.

The film addressees the sacrifices women musicians are required to make to succeed in the field of rock music. Perhaps the most interesting segment is a deconstruction of the Spice Girls as a media-constructed, false example of "girl power" in direct contrast to the 1980s Riot Grrl movement of punk rock.

Though dated (it refers to "women of the 1990s"), this documentary's most obvious shortcoming is its assertion that rock is the only form of music in which feminists can make a difference. It also makes the debatable claim that women in rock music, more than women in any other cultural phenomenon, brought feminism into the mainstream in the 1990s.

While each of these videos differs in format, length and quality, they share one goal: to show the collective passion for music exhibited by the women who are profiled, and, except for Yours for a Song, the women's efforts to overcome gender-based barriers in the male-dominated field of popular music. Yours for a Song is appropriate for discussions of popular song in the era before rock 'n roll, but it only superficially addresses issues of women in music. For those seeking a more in-depth exploration of the intersection of feminism and popular culture, Nobody Knows My Name and Punk Pretty, with their profiles of women in hip-hop and punk, provide a blatant juxtaposition of stereotype and reality, while Righteous Babes presents the most thorough exploration of feminism as manifested in popular music.

[Shannon L. Green holds a Ph.D. in musicology from UW-Madison and currently teaches music history and theory at UWC-Rock County.]


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Mounted May 23, 2002.