Women’s Punk Rock Opened Our Eyes To Child Sexual Abuse In The ’90s, And We Need It Back
In the decade of women with guitars, everything from domestic violence to rape to incest was fair fodder for songs – and it’s sorely missed.
There’s no doubt about it: we’re better at acknowledging the sexual abuse of children these days. How could we not be, with blockbuster investigations against Woody Allen, Jimmy Savile, Robert Hughes and Rolf Harris turned into clickbait? But we talk about the topic in terms of disgraced celebrities, symbols of hope and dedicated days. We read about it either in news reports, or in op-eds cluttered with trigger warnings. All these conversations have their place, but where are the real, raw voices?
Back in the ’90s, that’s where.
Rock stars have long written songs about the imbalance of sexual power, but in the 1990s, with grunge and riot grrrl in full swing, we started to see a different take on the topic. Woman-at-end-of-tether angst became a trope, and songwriters were quick to take on taboos, with the sexual abuse of children being one.
Breaking The Silence: Ragers And Riot Grrrls
Fiona Apple, that thin, sombre girl at the piano, told the Toronto Sun that as a 12-year-old she was raped on the way home from school, which rose to the surface in 1994’s ‘Sullen Girl’: “They don’t know I used to sail / The deep and tranquil sea / But he washed me ashore / And he took my pearl / And left an empty shell of me”. She told Rolling Stone that she became anorexic in an attempt to get rid of “the bait attached to my body”. On self-harming, she added, “Courtney Love pulled me aside at a party and showed me her marks”.
Love was herself influenced by the uncompromising Lydia Lunch, rolling promiscuity, shame, self-loathing and sexual power struggles into one spitball after another. If there’s one character that’s come to define Love’s songs, it’s the defiant dirty girl who takes the blame.
Love’s former frenemy in early band Sugar Baby Doll, Kat Bjelland, went on to form Babes In Toyland. Bjelland wrote ‘Won’t Tell’, sketching out only a vague impression with lines such as “I won’t ever tell on you”. She flipped the abused little victim image on its head with her ‘kinderwhore’ wardrobe of babydoll dresses and Mary Jane shoes, matching it with baleful looks and vengeful screams.
Similarly interested in subverting the idea of the victim was the original riot grrrl, Kathleen Hanna. In Bikini Kill’s 1992 track ‘Suck My Left One’, she depicts a sister taking on the father coming into her room: “We’ve got to show them we’re worse than queer”.
Storytelling And The Sensitive Male
With ’80s cockrockers banished to the dark ages, we were also witnessing the rise of the sensitive male. Front and centre was Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder. His global hit ‘Alive’ tells the tale of sexual abuse by a mother and is one of a handful of songs on the theme; he was practically the patron saint of lost kids. Back in 1993, Eddie told an audience in Albuquerque that someone had told him if he ever wanted to heal from the abuse he himself had suffered, he was going to have to help others. I’d like to think he’d be able to write something catchy about the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse – or the funds that the Abbott government has diverted from that into its own investigation into Labor’s home insulation program. (And isn’t ‘Chaplains’ already a Pearl Jam song? Probably.)
On a more fictional slant, in 1996, PJ Harvey released ‘Taut’, a short story about a young girl in the 1960s in her boyfriend’s car that repeats phrases like a nervous tic: “It was the first thing he ever owned, apart from me” and “I’m over it now”. Amy Grant also wrote about a fictional child abuse situation, in 1991’s ‘Ask Me’.
Liz Phair’s 1993 track ‘Fuck and Run’ caused a sensation upon its release for its fearless lyrics, which included the bravado-fuelled line “Fuck and run, even when I was 12”. It was recently analysed by a panel of women on Popmatters. Two years later, Jewel wrote ‘Daddy’ (“I’m your creation, I’m your love, Daddy / Grew up to be and do all those sick things you said I’d do”), partly about her own confusing childhood.
In the UK in 1994, Miki Berenyi from Lush was having a bold year, writing in detail about her molestation in the anthology Women, Sex and Rock’n’Roll: In Their Own Words. It was also coming to the surface in songs on Lush’s new album, Split: ‘Kiss Chase’, for example, leaps between the shadowy memories of an eight-year-old and that child as a promiscuous adult.
Also in the UK, Skunk Anansie’s Skin wrote ‘Charlie Big Potato’ about the sexual abuse of a girl as her brother sleeps: “I awake from blood thick dreams / Washing blame from my knees / Softly done, so secretly / I’m awake as Charlie sleeps”. That was 1999, the same year Anthony Keidis wrote the lyrics “ning nang nong nong ning nang nong nong ning nang”.
The New Wave, And Why It Matters
And then it was like everyone was all confessed-out. In the noughties you had Kelly Clarkson, Pink and Christina Aguilera writing gustily about domestic violence and emotional abuse, and there was the Dresden Dolls’ grotesque playground scene in 2008’s ‘Slide’, but very little else.
In her 2012 memoir Coal to Diamonds, Gossip’s Beth Ditto describes moving to Olympia as a teenager (birthplace of ’90s riot grrrl) to inhale the remains of its fumes, after enduring a childhood of endless cycles of sexual abuse. Erika M Anderson, aka EMA, also made the pilgrimage to Olympia last year, hanging with K Records founder Calvin Johnson after becoming intrigued by the bygone scene. She wrote the intensely personal ‘Marked’ – “Don’t you know that I will never hurt you / You are such a pretty thing … I wish that every time he touched me left a mark” – and told Quietus, “There are lots of forms of violence, and not all of them leave marks.”
The most prominent example of a current artist exploring the child sexual abuse issue is electro-grunge singer Sky Ferreira. She hasn’t escaped the description “nineties” in many reviews, and has revealed how much she was influenced by Fiona Apple and Courtney Love. She’s also spoken in The Guardian, Rookie and Time Out about her own experiences of being molested. On her Facebook page she announced, “I’ve publicly spoken about [sexual abuse in my past] to hopefully help others.”
Like Kat Bjelland of Babes in Toyland, who have just announced they’re re-forming, Sky toys with provocative imagery: the topless photograph of her looking traumatised in a shower, which became her album cover; the video to ‘I Blame Myself’, in which she’s the waif-like runaway being handed over to a rival gang. It brings to mind Fiona Apple’s child-sized body sprawling in lingerie in ‘Criminal’.
“For the past few years, in mainstream pop, I feel like there aren’t other people to relate to,” Sky told Time Out. “I knew Fiona Apple. I knew what she was thinking.”
And that’s exactly why music is so important in tackling this most uncomfortable of subjects. Music doesn’t exclude, intellectualise, stake ownership or try to define something. It’s accessible to all and is a powerful acknowledgement of an issue – when sometimes acknowledgement is the most vital thing a kid needs. It allows the listener to engage with the subject or gloss over it, as is their preference. It also demystifies and destigmatises. There’s no room for trigger warnings in rock music, unless that’s just the name of the band.
Jenny Valentish’s new novel, Cherry Bomb, tackles the topic of child sexual abuse via a very ’90s-influenced musician. Out now via Allen and Unwin.
Feature image via MTV.