We Were Feminists Once
is a book about pop culture, and it explores some of the ways music and female musicians have been central to feminism’s mainstream popularity — as well as some places where music was turned into a vehicle for commodified feminism (*cough*SPICE GIRLS*cough*). But when I was putting together this playlist, I didn’t want to just include artists mentioned in the book; the theme here is more about cultural messaging — sometimes explicit, sometimes not — and how we navigate the mediated world. Also, these are just really great songs.
1.) “This Year’s Girl” by Elvis Costello
This is a song that I think people have interpreted as being mean-spirited and even kind of misogynist. But I’ve always read it as an indictment of the feminine hype machine, particularly in the fashion and beauty industries.
2.) “She Works Hard for the Money” by Donna Summer
In the early days of MTV, when videos were like mini-narratives, this one was like the antithesis of everything videos would later become. It wasn’t glossy or sexy at all; it just followed this very regular-looking woman doing a series of blue-collar jobs and getting no respect from her partner or kids or customers. If you removed the parts where Donna Summer is on screen, you’d think it was a PSA for suicide prevention.
3.) “Black Barbie” by Little Jackie
Little Jackie is such an underrated group, and I love how this song has a really wicked critique of both race and tabloid culture wrapped in this really airy doo-wop tune. There’s also a funny/naughty video for the song that I can’t believe hasn’t been cease-and-desisted by Mattel yet.
4.) “#1 Must Have” by Sleater-Kinney
My editor suggested using this title for my book, because the lyrics are so spot-on and anguished about how alternative culture (in this case, Riot Grrrl) was co-opted and sold back to young women as Girl Power.
5.) “Video” by India.Arie
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It’s obviously really easy for songs about media representation and beauty imperatives to be biting and cynical, which is why this is a favorite. “Good-natured” seems like a terrible way to describe music... but this is a seriously good-natured tune.
6.) “Kool Thing” by Sonic Youth
I love the way Kim Gordon drawls this lyric: “I just wanna know, what are you gonna do for me? / I mean, are you gonna liberate us girls / From male white corporate oppression?”
7.) “The Busy Girl Buys Beauty” by Billy Bragg
As with “This Year’s Girl,” I suppose you could interpret these lyrics as expressing a low opinion of women as silly and self-obsessed. But I first heard this song at a time when I was just learning media literacy, and so I always heard it as a pretty sharp critique.
8.) “Unpretty” by TLC
This song was probably on every mixtape I made for friends in the late 1990s. It’s definitely on the all-time top-five list of “catchy-as-hell songs about mediated and racialized beauty standards.”
9.) “Y Control” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs
The lyric “I wish I could buy back / The woman you stole” just really sticks with me. I don’t know why — the song is probably about a lover, but it also seems like a really great metaphor for the way media and pop culture shape us to consume identity.
10.) “The Girl Wants to Be with the Girls” by the Talking Heads
More Songs about Buildings and Food
is such a good album, and this song is really hypnotic. “Girls are getting into abstract analysis / Wouldn't like to make that intuitive leap / They're making plans that have far reaching effects…” always makes me think of all the ambitious girls and women I know.
11.) “F.Y.R.” by Le Tigre
I don’t listen to music when I write, but I definitely listen to music when I’m procrastinating
on writing by cleaning the house, and this is A-plus cleaning music (with the bonus that it actually gets me hyped to write for a little while).
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is a writer, editor, and cultural critic. She is the cofounder of Bitch Media, the nonprofit best known for publishing the award-winning quarterly magazine Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture
, which has over 50,000 subscribers. Zeisler is extremely plugged into the community of feminist bloggers, her writing on feminism, popular culture, and media has appeared in newspapers and magazines including Ms.
, Mother Jones
, the San Francisco Chronicle
, the Los Angeles Review of Books
, and the Washington Post
. She regularly speaks at colleges and universities and holds interviews in various national publications and radio programs around the country. She has been featured and interviewed in publications like the New York Times
, among others.