“Girl power” is a tainted term in our cultural vocabulary. It is infected probably first and foremost by the image of Gwen Stefani, bindi-clad, prostrating herself onstage in her “Just A Girl” music video whimpering “fuck you, I’m a girl,” or of Taylor Swift parading around with her #girlsquad of models/singers/very famous people, explaining to Twitter, (mainly when other women criticize her) how very important it is for “women to support each other.” The term, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a self-reliant attitude among girls and young women manifested in ambition, assertiveness and individualism” has been largely debunked as a commercialized white feminist ideology, based on vague assertions of rights and equality, which ultimately boils down to imitating masculinity while still looking hot.
So, while explicit performances of girl power like those of Stefani, Courtney Love, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna and the Spice Girls — whose have-it-all, you-go-girl cultural feminist legacy was inherited by Swift and her peers — were subversive in the 90s and aughts, and will always be fun as hell to dance to, it has since become evident that these women’s girl power brands (remember kinderwhore?) were ultimately complicit with the relentless trivialization and eroticization of women within rock culture.
In 2016, “girl power” in music is either obsolete, or begging for redefinition. The latter, I argue, is happening, and in an unlikely genre. Although the site of an undeniable feminist legacy and immense progress, DIY, punk and indie rock continue to be appallingly male-dominated scenes (a reality that has been widely criticized by feminist writers over the past several years). However, while we cynical listeners are waiting for girl power to get off its ass and for the lethargic wheels of musical history to turn, women in the scene — like Brooklyn-based, Japanese-American Mitski — are doing the work on both counts.
Last week, I heard Mitski’s recently-released single off her forthcoming Puberty 2, “Your Best American Girl” for the first time. It was the kind of first listen that arrests you from the first line (“If I could, I’d be your little spoon”); the kind that exhausts, burns, soothes and confounds you as to how this strange alloy of instrument and words can feel so liberatingly real and so urgently necessary. It is a song about the frustration and ambivalence of a relationship in which a woman is expected to sacrifice herself, and a piece of music with the capacity to un-hook you from the indifference of your day or your life, and make you, if only momentarily, more honest, vulnerable and compassionate with yourself.
So what do Mitski and this song have to do with the fraught legacy of girl power?
The song, and much of Mitski’s catalogue, are a diaristic account of modern young-adulthood. Her music is also inconspicuously but unapologetically attentive to and expressive of female experiences: the specific uncertainties, anxieties, pleasures and pains that come with walking around as a girl in the world.
Mitski’s music and personal brand operate aesthetically and instructionally counter to everything traditional girl power espouses in confidence, independence, invulnerability and self-reliance. Instead of the tired rhetoric of “being a Strong, Independent Woman,” “not listening to what the haters say,” “you go girl” and “you don’t need no man,” the girl power of Mitski can be found in the way she vividly evokes and interrogates distinctly female realities, particularly those realities seen as shameful, weak, and backwards ways for girls to be and feel.
Mitski says what is unspeakable for women. She says that we do not feel like grown (strong, independent) women, but “like tall children;” that we are not always independent; that we want things that we know are bad for us; that we are vulnerable to shame, self-loathing, self-doubt, and trying to squeeze ourselves into ill-fitting roles; that we are confused about everything and call our moms to ask for help (“Mom, am I still young / Can I dream for a few more months?”); that we can “want a love that falls as fast as a body from the balcony” while crying out “I am not gonna be what my daddy wants me to be”; that we can be sadgirls and rockstars at the same time. She tells us that we don’t need to wait to arrive at the artifice of confidence and empowerment to live valuable and rewarding female lives.
This is girl power. As it turns out, it feels like having a productive argument with your father, with whom you have a complicated relationship. It feels like worrying that you’re not a good or thoughtful or radical enough feminist, but trying to learn more every day. It’s realizing that your self-doubt is not your own personal failing, but something you were trained and disciplined in. It’s learning that your insecurity and shame and indecision are much less at odds than you thought with your capacity to be bold, powerful and happy: to be and do all the things you want.
Pitchfork’s Jillian Mapes wrote of “Your Best American Girl,” “This is not the ‘go girl’ triumph of pop anthems.” She’s right. True girl power is not found in shiny declarations of boss-ass-bitchness, or self-love or body positivity — because these ideas are so often one liners, and even more often, advertisements for someone or something, which paint a glossy coat over the true trials and liminality of girlhood. Instead, girl power exists in the validation of, and space-making for, the full range of female experiences and emotions, the complex and often contradictory anxieties and desires that define women’s lives.
Mitski is doing this work — and creating these cultural, artistic and personal spaces — whether she means to or not. And this question of “means to” is actually one of the most affirming things about her music. Mitski’s consciousness of and concern for female experiences — her girl power — is incidental, rather than instrumental to her music. It is uncalculated, innate and not particularly sexy or bankable in the economy of popular culture. Mitski is just singing and playing guitar, making records and concerts, “giving a shit” and being honest. The kind of girl power I’m interested in emerges naturally when women find ways to do this.
The uncalculatedness of Mitski’s music speaks to how inarticulable I find this reframed girl power. So much of it is very sensory, and feels deeply personal, intimate and encrypted — so much so that I am afraid I’ve wasted 1,500 public words trying to construct a theory of girl power around what is really just a particular artist who “does it for me.” However, I suspect from reading and talking about Mitski that other women music-listeners are also finding that coming-home familiarity, catharsis and exhilaration in her urgent, tattering guitar-playing, steely vocals, and the glimpses she allows us into her remarkable life.
It probably sounds like I am positing a single artist as the solution to the failed tradition of girl power. But that brings me to the very best part of all of this, which is that Mitski is making music as a part of a much larger community of female-driven indie groups like Frankie Cosmos, Eskimeaux, Waxahatchee, Girlpool, Angel Olsen, Diet Cig, Palehound and more — all of whom are producing their art enigmatically and unapologetically from women’s perspectives. This community is rejecting compulsory girl power qualities of pride, confidence and positivity, and claiming powerful feminine identities without suppressing emotions brought into being by sexism, like sadness, insecurity and shame. With Mitski at the forefront, this scene is inventing a new girl power movement: a movement which posits that we should embrace and explore the feelings that signal our discontent with the status quo, instead of tamping them down and accepting the pacification that all we need are Dove soaps and Aerie bras to become happy, confident and empowered.
There is an honest-to-god mother lode of this quality and subject of music being made right now, but it is still surprising and intoxicating every time I find a new artist, whose stray experiences, emotions and reflections feel like home to me.
Undoubtedly, the music of this particular indie rock scene wields artistic intimacy, self-consciousness and vulnerability that any listener can appreciate tremendously. But when I listen to Mitski and her peers, it feels I’m like being told a secret — it feels like a nod to the girls in their bedrooms or the audience or on the other side of the ear-buds; like maybe this music actually was made for us in this brave, quiet, extraordinary way.
Jael Goldfine is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Objectivity Bites appears alternate Wednesdays this semester. She can be reached at [email protected]