Smells Like Teen Spirit Testosterone

I commute 60 miles round trip on days when I go to campus. I’m pretty careful about avoiding the times with the worst traffic, but it still works out to somewhere between an hour and a half and two hours in the car. Lately I’ve decided I’m sick and tired of the selection of CDs I have stored in the sidepocket of my door (don’t bother breaking into my car, they’re almost all CDRs from emusic, and I have weird taste) so I’ve switched to radio. It turns out, though, that there aren’t that many stations that I like that actually come in consistently all the way from Altadena to Westwood. So I’ve settled on KROQ. They advertise themselves as the “World famous KROQ” and “LA and O.C.’s only new rock.” I can only conclude from the latter that rock is dead, or at least half dead. Large quantities of the music that gets played regularly is stuff I know from high school. The DJs seem to have a particular penchant for the black Metallica album. I imagine if you listened more regularly than I do it would only take about a week to hear the whole damn album. (The heavy play might be attributable to last year’s live album but I’ve heard songs that don’t appear to be on that album so it doesn’t explain it all). To put this in perspective, if I had had a kid when I was listening to that album obsessively, that kid would now be older than I was then. Add to this the fact that they play a lot of Green Day and Smashing Pumpkins and Red Hot Chili peppers and I started to suspect that their main demographic wasn’t 16 year olds but rather 20- and 30- somethings nostalgic for when they were 16. Of course this suggests that I have no clue whatsoever what “kids these days” listen to. But I’m ok with that.

However, this trip down musical memory lane (paired with some other recent experiences) has prompted some other reflections on the nature of society and pop culture. It didn’t take too many trips of listening the music of my younger days to remember why it was that my musical tastes shifted over time. As much as I liked Metallica and Megadeth, the truth is that I was just a little too young and merely caught the tail end of the train. Plus I don’t think my mother would have let me write band names in black marker on the back of a denim jacket, which seems to have been a required part of the uniform for the metal kids at my school. However, grunge came into vogue just at the right time. And briefly my ability to talk both music and basketball made me almost cool (for one spring I was obsessed with the sweet 16 and watched a whole bunch of the games, but it didn’t stick). Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots and the like filled out the bulk of my daily soundtrack. But over time I realized something was missing. And I started to realize that there was something weird about listening to the same music as the boys who called me femi-nazi (which, when challenged, they claimed was in jest, but nonetheless it certainly was not a term of endearment). I’d always listened to at least some female musicians. My cousin turned me onto Indigo Girls when I was 14 so they were shuffled into the playlist as well. Eventually I reached the point where I realized I needed more female voices. And so I added some of the more easily acquired riot grrrls (namely L7 and Hole) to my repertoire as well as more off-beat stuff like PJ Harvey and Patti Smith (tangentially Patti Smith’s new cover album has a version of Smells Like Teen Spirit that I love). Eventually the women in my collection outnumbered the men.

But finding kickass women’s voices isn’t always an entirely easy process. When I was a teenager I didn’t have much access to outside sources of information so I relied on the ladyslipper catalog. The fact that my mother was on their mailing list was an amazing source of information for an otherwise isolated teen feminist. I have many more sources of exposure to female musicians today, but KROQ is certainly not one of them. Today I intentionally paid attention to the gender composition of the playlist. I was in the car probably about an hour and 45 minutes today. Halfway home I realized that I should have been counting the total number of songs I had heard so I could compute the percent of the songs by female artists. As it turns out, though, it didn’t matter. The denominator is irrelevant when the numerator is zero. Yes that’s right. Not one single song with a female voice. Suddenly I remember why I was always so angry when I was 16.

But music is not the only realm in which it’s hard to find role-models if you want to kick some ass and happen to be female. Last night I went to see the Transformers with some friends. It’s a pretty awesome movie, even if you don’t happen to have transformer nostalgia (the cartoon didn’t play on the only station we had when I was a kid and I was more interested in cars than robots so all my toy cars were just toy cars). And the girl who is the main character’s romantic love interest is pretty kick ass. Well, that is, she would have been pretty kick ass if she hadn’t been wearing tiny shorts (or tight jeans later in the movie) and a shirt that ended a number of inches above her belly button. I don’t know much about cars, but I’m pretty sure that usually when you’re watching someone tighten a distributor cap you aren’t primarily interested in their stomach. Granted if you’re a teenage boy and the person under the hood is a teenage girl your focus probably changes some. Nonetheless, there are a number of pretty gratuitous scenes that reduce her from competent girl to commodified sex-object. I mean you can’t seriously expect me to believe that anyone on the planet actually looks like this while working on a car.

One of the guys I saw the movie with sees this as just a case of successful marketing (forgive me for dramatically oversimplifying–and to some extent mis-stating– your argument, Pat). And I’ll concede that it probably makes the movie more marketable (though really, do you really need bare skin when you have giant robots? I guess so). But it got me thinking about the messages that girls get about what it means to be a competent woman. The message I got from the transformers is that it’s ok to be into cars and tell the captain of the football team to take a hike when he mistreats you, as long as you’ve got perfect abs and wear clothes my mother NEVER would have let me leave the house in. And the more I think about it the more I realize that I can point to very few competent and physically able female characters that I actually feel like I could successfully emulate. And I wonder if maybe growing up in a setting where I had limited access to mass media was actually beneficial? Sure the internet potentially exposes girls to more information and cool competent role-models. But realistically, the internet probably exposes girls to pretty much the same stuff that movies, radio, and TV expose them to: men in dominant roles and women valued primarily for their bodies rather than their capabilities.

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