Women in Power-Pop
Women’s History Month may be over, but we here at WIDR FM have seen women in music killing the game all year long. So we made you something. “The Coolest Women in Power Pop,” we call it. And, Women do pop, you may be thinking. They dominate the damn charts!
Well, we’re not talking Adele, hotshot. This ain’t Kelly Clarkson. The women of the playlist at the bottom of this page are icons of the underground, be it well-respected or underheard, they’re all absolutely killer. These are the cool-ass women of power-pop, a genre of hooky and pop-centric rock music so totally dominated by men that it’s hard to name a single woman in the scene without thinking about it. The hope today is to change that.
Power-pop--much like post-punk and noise rock--was spun off of the seventies punk scene. The early seventies had the Badfinger’s and Fotomaker’s, but power-pop only became great once Elvis Costello and the Stiff Records Crew co-opted it. Theirs was a punchier, angrier pop. Satirical, nasty, and deceptively smart. It’s here where we see the Rezillos pop up (led by the magnificent Fay Fife) and Blondie (led by Debbie Harry), who were two of the most badass female-fronted bands in rock history. It was them, along with Poly Styrene of the X-Ray Spex and Exene Cervenka, who laid the groundwork for the female power-poppers of today.
Looking back now, it’s clear to see that the women of punk’s poppier edges were no less intelligent than their male contemporaries, but were a good deal funnier. Blondie’s “X Offender” is sung from a female sex-offender’s POV, while Fife’s “Top of the Pops” punches pop-music consumerism square in the nose (she later went on to lip-sync the song on the titular program).
It was certainly in part due to these songs that others like the blackly-comic “Earthquake Song” and the Go-Go’s electric “Skidmarks on My Heart” came to exist at all. And with the dawn of the eighties came a new breed of power-pop; a more synthesized, less funny take, though nonetheless hip for it. Katrina & the Waves’ “Do You Want Crying” is a class-A example. This one is a higher-produced rocker that owes its debt to those women of the seventies while forging its own sound. Katrina Leskanich is still making music today, but her eighties output will always reign supreme.
The eighties were awash in so many sounds that it’s hard to pin down just what its core genre was, but there’s a case to be made that the 2000s were the official decade of power pop. That resurgence was on the upswing through the nineties. Julianna Hatfield’s Blake Babies released their iconic Sunburn in 1990 and changed indie-pop’s course from the twee sound of the eighties to something altogether more cool. This was the decade of Fountains of Wayne. Of Britpop. Of pop-punk, and of some of the coolest indie pop/rock of all time. The 2000s brought back garage rock, and with it came groups made up of women entirely who sang from an unmistakably female viewpoint. The Donnas’ classic, Spend the Night, was unabashedly horny, while the Sahara Hotnights and the Go Sheilas helped prove to a very specific type of girl that she didn’t have to take a damn thing lying down. Unlike the nineties Riot Grrrl scene, these groups were fun. They were for everyone. These women insisted they belonged with the boys. That, of course, is the reason they did.
Now, looking at the trajectory of power-pop in 2022, it’s hard to say if it’s ever going to make a full resurgence. Apart from Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia and Charli XCX’s recent output--which certainly aren’t power pop no matter what you might hear--much of what’s being released these days is so low-profile you aren’t even going to see it popping up in a “Found Sounds” playlist on Spotify. Guerilla Toss and Charly Bliss--both out of New York--appear to be exceptions to the rule though, both reinventing power-pop with cavity-boring sweetness and lyrics that bite like pitbulls, while Canada’s most valuable export, The Beaches, are bolstering garage rock’s legacy in a singularly feminine and wholly original way.
Meanwhile, on the more underground side of the coin are the sixties-influenced Baby Shakes, a band with one awesome album and PONY, fronted by songwriter Sam Bielanski, who pumps songs out like a hook-machine that’s not been fired-up since 1995. We also have go-getter Tamar Berk, a low-profile rocker whose “Shadow Clues” graced my radar in 2020, and has been a heavily-rotated player in my car ever since. The women in this playlist are a ton of fun, and we here at WIDR hope they lead you to some sick new places. Can you hear the harmony?
Check out the playlist here!