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International Women's Day: How female artists took over alternative music


It wasn’t all that long ago that the countercultural music world was nothing but a boys club. With alternative, punk, and pretty much any scene that started out away from the mainstream, you can probably expect to see mostly male acts throughout the history of the genre.

Even with a male-driven music industry and individual countercultural scenes heavily populated with male artists, bands, and producers, recent years have welcomed a transformation in the alternative sphere. And although it might seem like the change happened fast, there was actually a slow burn going on behind the scenes for years.

First, it’s important to define what “alternative” actually means in music. Even though today, alternative loosely defines a genre of semi-radio-friendly, sometimes independent pop-rock, this is a fairly recent development. In fact, what we know today as the alternative genre has emerged from a collection of more specifically defined subgenres (think new-wave, post-punk, Britpop, indie, noise… you get it), all of which have historically been male-dominated by a natural progression of a male-dominated rock scene, punk scene, etc. 

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Barring some of the obvious female power-players beforehand, one way that this began to change more severely was through the riot grrrl movement. If you’ve been a middle school girl, lived through the 1990s, or are simply an alternative music fan, you already know about this, but as a brief overview, the riot grrrl movement was a feminist-focused punk rock music scene that brought women to the front of the stage and relied on concepts of third-wave feminism.

At the same time as this was happening, women were also dominating pop music, especially as the turn of the century neared and the pop-star era was beginning to blossom. Although these aren’t the only genres to set things in motion for the alternative genre we know today, they’re definitely important to help contextualise the experimental, vast, pop-leaning alternative scene of the 2010s, 2020s, and beyond.

If you’ve ever spent a lot of time listening to riot grrrl music, you might notice some of the indie-alternative foreshadowings within the sound. Of course, every band is unique, and there are plenty of heavier riot grrrl acts, but as the scene began to die down, it was the perfect sound to blend seamlessly into the indie-rock world. The melodic guitar, rooted bass, and wild spunky lyricism was more than enough to carry it through, especially for those acts with more complex, progressive instrumentals. Sleater-Kinney is the poster child for this very phenomenon.

So, how did we get the current landscape of Mitski, Sleigh Bells, Wolf Alice, Clairo, Phoebe Bridgers, Girl in Red, Soccer Mommy, FKA Twigs, Indigo De Souza, Crawlers and all of the other amazing female artists and bands dominating alternative today from riot grrrl? Well, it can be more or less boiled down to 2010s youth culture and the power of MySpace.

MySpace? The antiquated social media site where everybody became amateur coders and agonised over their top eight? Yep. As many might remember, MySpace was more than pre-Facebook. MySpace basically transformed independent music distribution. Not only did artists have the tools to upload their own music, but they could do so on a platform with a built-in social sharing element.

The music of the MySpace era was like no other, and it gave license for female artists to take over. Kreayshawn and the rest of the female rappers from Oakland, Millionaires, Lily Allen, Kate Nash, Lana Del Rey, Marina and the Diamonds—all artists who got their start on MySpace (some of whom also saw their primary career successes on the platform). By enabling all of these female artists to distribute their music on a wider scale, their audiences found them in a cult following like never before. Suddenly, “alternative” meant something totally different.

What followed was the 2010s youth culture that brought it slowly to the mainstream—or at least a little closer. MySpace turned to Tumblr. The “aesthetic” meant something. We had the sad girl revolution, which won the favour of raspy-voiced, minor-keyed, stripped-down female artists. Really, it was a long time coming.

Lorde’s 2013 album Pure Heroine, Lana Del Rey‘s 2012 Born to Die, and Marina’s Electra Heart are about as clear as it gets: these albums are hardly rock-driven, if at all. But what they do have is an artful composition that didn’t fit with the pop landscape of the time, and therefore began to blend with the alternative scene.

At the same time, women were dominating the rock side of the alternative world, too. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The New Pornographers, Warpaint, Metric, The Breeders, Paramore. Women dominating the alternative scene began to close in from every angle.

Now, when you take a look at the indie-alternative genre, you’ll see women pretty much everywhere. I could go on listing artists, but I’m not sure I need to. You know them well enough already. From the major acts and household names to the up-and-comers, every side of the alternative scene has blossomed for female artists to take the stage. There are soft singer-songwriter croons and post-punk mosh material. And although this can be accredited to the natural expansion of the genre, it’s also a well-deserved turn towards the untapped talent that’s just beginning to get discovered. 

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