Girls Go Pop!: Here Are All The Nice Girls?
Another quest for women in power pop, another attempt to figure out what "power pop" even means.
|Stephen Thomas Erlewine||Nov 13, 2020||1|
It's not often when you encounter a compilation that almost appears to be designed as a retort to a piece you've written but that's effectively what Ace's Girls Go Power Pop! is: a rejoinder to my 2018 PopCon paper, Where Are All The Nice Girls: How Power Pop Created A World Without Women. There, I explored the origins of power pop and how it wound up cultivating an audience consisting primarily of alienated white males. The very concept of Girls Go Power Pop! seems to contradict my argument by presenting 25 hooky singles either performed or sung by women.
The reality is a little more complicated than a straight dialogue. For one, no label, not even a specialty reissue imprint, would take the time to construct a comp to contradict a paper presented at an academic conference. There's also the minor problem that I never published the paper outside the confines of the conference. (It is now available for paying subscribers of this newsletter.)
I never put the power pop paper online because I felt like I didn't nail my thesis. I got lost in the etymology of power pop, a phrase, and genre that's batted around by its acolytes as if its meaning is not only well-known but that it's been cast in concrete ever since Pete Townshend told the NME’s Keith Altham in 1967 that "Power pop is what [the Who] play." That truncated quote is a crucial part of power pop lore, cited in nearly every history of the music starting with Greg Shaw's power pop manifesto in the March 1978 issue of his magazine Bomp. As power pop is a music happily indebted to the past, these words are granted the assumption of gravity, when it's likely Townshend never considered them again. He never cited "power pop" in his 2012 autobiography Who I Am and I couldn't find another interview where uttered those words again.
I went down a bit of a rabbit hole tracing the history of the term "power pop" and its subsequent usage in Where Are All The Nice Girls because it's not only fascinating, it says something about power pop as a scene, style, and form. The past looms over power pop, providing an aesthetic and ideal that eventually congeals into a constructed fantasy of how things should be. Everything in power pop hinges on the golden age of the mid-1960s, when the British Invasion started to gain muscle and imagination without getting too trippy. For the first wave of power pop bands, such as the Raspberries, Badfinger, and Big Star—who, it must be noted, never called themselves power pop—this is ground zero, then these records rose in estimation after the legions of nervy new wave bands helped turn this specific sound into a scene. Subsequent generations of guitar bands in the 1980s and 1990s helped turn this love of the three-minute single into an identifiable of song form, one where hooky riffs battled with the vocal line for melodic supremacy, thereby muddying the waters further: it was possible to have a power pop song without having a power pop band.
Power pop fans have a tendency to claim all these songs as their own, probably because the music is by definition so amorphous: as long as it's catchy, hooky, and somewhat propulsive, it could be called power pop. This brings us back to Girls Go Power Pop!, which is indeed catchy, hooky, and somewhat propulsive. Producer/compiler Dave Burke admits in his liner notes that "the girls had a tougher job getting started than the guys, so these tracks are mostly drawn from the 80s and 90s—a decade later than our male compilation," but he doesn't spend extensive time exploring why it took women a longer time to gain a foothold within power pop. He notes "There were female pioneers such as Goldie & the Gingerbreads, the Liverbirds and the Pleasure Seekers in the 60s, and Birtha and Fanny in the 70s, but the barriers did not really begin to tumble until after the arrival of the Runaways and the DIY attitude of punk rock. Soon girls did not have to limit their dreams to being the rock guitarist's girlfriend—they could be the rock guitarist."
Set aside any problems with the specifics of this framing: it is true that women rock & rollers were way more prevalent in the late 1970s than they were at the beginning of the decade. Pat Benatar, Kim Carnes, and Stevie Nicks all had number one albums in 1981, while the Go-Go's Beauty and the Beat spent six weeks at the top of the charts in 1982. The Go-Go's were the only one of these acts who could possibly be called punk or new wave, and they're on Girls Go Power Pop! with "We Got the Beat," a number two hit that's the only genuine hit here. Fittingly, the other recognizable songs on the comps are tunes that were bigger in retrospect than they were at the time. Scandal's "Goodbye to You" was a hit on MTV, not Billboard, the Runaways' "Cherry Bomb" became a standard years after its 1976 release, and Nick Lowe's "Cruel to Be Kind" is presented in the cover version by Letters to Cleo which can be heard at the end of 1999's 10 Things I Hate About You. The fact that Letters To Cleo is represented by a soundtrack contribution, not their modest 1995 hit "Here & Now," is telling: a cover provides some continuity to the past, which may be why new waver Josie Cotton is represented by a version of the Looking Glass' 1973 AM pop hit "Jimmy Loves Maryann."
That list of artists underscores how Girls Go Power Pop! hopscotches through the years, genres and scenes. Middle-aged Pretenders sit alongside early Juliana Hatfield, '80s icons the Pandoras rub shoulders with '90s grunge wannabes Eve's Plum, aspirational mainstream acts the Rebel Pebbles (who nearly cracked the Top 40 in 1991 with "Dream Lover," a song I've never heard before) and Julianna Raye, who caught the Jeff Lynne wave in 1992, just after it crested. That's a pretty broad cross-section of styles, all tied together with hooks, melodies, and jangle, inadvertently making an argument that power pop wound up surviving as a form, not a scene.
Sonically speaking, It's a convincing argument because the compilation contains a bunch of catchy, fun songs. As far as refuting my notion that power pop, as a scene, wound up pushing aside women, it doesn't persuade me. Much of that has to do with the comp's strength, how it emphasizes power pop as a form by pulling highlights from different subgenres, fads, and eras. That makes for a good collection but it obscures how each of the original phases of power pop in the 1970s and 1980s were composed of awkward guys singing about girls to other awkward guys, cultivating a fanbase that eventually leads to women being elbowed out of the picture. For proof, take a gander at Shake Some Action, the 2007 book by John Borack that bore the definitive subtitle The Ultimate Power Pop Guide. Within its pages was a list of the 200 "most essential power pop albums of all time." Of these 200 albums, by my count, there are just five records featuring female musicians, a dynamic that led me to write Where Are All The Nice Girls and one that I have yet to quite reconcile to my satisfaction.
(Again, if you're interested in reading Where Are All The Nice Girls: How Power Pop Created A World Without Women, it's now available for paying subscribers to this newsletter.)