I think, when most people think of the '90s, they think classic Nickelodeon, Zack Morris, Lunchables, and all the nostalgia-soaked building blocks that make up the average millennial's childhood. I think riot grrrl and more riot grrrl, but that's just my typical alt girl sensibilities. But, hey, even without hardcore female aggression you can find some intricate '90s songs with feminist messages within your fave throwback pop music.
I'm just saying that when listening to some of your fave songs from your childhood, you may have overlooked some important, complicated subtext as a kid. And, no, it's not as simple as retroactively realizing your favorite pop track is feminist. It's hanging onto the "why" of why it's feminist, and seeing what it's saying in a broader sense. It's about looking beyond those wonderfully saccharine hooks and getting to the bitter truth.
I may be kidding. I may also not be kidding. That's for you to decide by the end of this article. Whatever the case may be, enjoy flashing back to these bubblegum classics, and allow me to dissect what they truly mean.
"If You Wanna Be My Lover, You Got To Get With My Friends, Make It Last Forever, Friendship Never Ends." — Spice Girls, "Wannabe"
"Wannabe" is great because it tells you what it wants, what it really, really wants. And what it wants from a relationship is someone who will listen and respect pre-existing female friendships. Friendship between ladies lasts forever... and you may not, so you have to be cool with that. Now, does the song dip its toes into actual polyamorous waters with "got to get with my friends?" Probably not, but, if you want to read it like that, now we're talking about sharing, about acceptance of polyamorous relationships. See? There are layers to this song. It really preaches open-mindedness, and you have to keep an open-mind when it comes to feminism.
"All I Wanna Do, Is Have Some Fun, I Got A Feeling I'm Not The Only One" — Sheryl Crow, "All I Wanna Do"
So how exactly is this song feminist? It goes back to that previous idea of "want" (or "wanna," as it's often presented in pop music) and harkens back to something in another older pop classic. Remember Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," a bubblegum feminist anthem? It ties into that idea. The other people who want to have fun, they're girls, and, throughout the song, Crow, as a woman, as a girl, goes out and has fun. She's doing it for us. She says she's doing it for Billy, but we know the truth. Drink your beer early in the morning, you deserve it.
"I Don't Want No Scrub, A Scrub Is A Guy That Can't Get No Love From Me, Hanging Out The Passenger Side, Of His Best Friend's Ride, Trying To Holler At Me" — TLC, "No Scrubs"
There are two imperative things about "No Scrubs." The first of which is that it defines, in many ways and in no uncertain terms, that lowlife scumbag who's screaming "Hey, baby, nice legs!" when you're walking to Met Food, trying to be a person. TLC gets props for calling out guys like this with a definitive name, later paving the way for nuanced terminologies like "F*ck boy." But, more than anything, the song is great because it reinforces a woman's right to say "No." When the airwaves are soaked with pro-love narratives, it's sometimes easy to cave into thinking maybe this is acceptable behavior, or just be so intimidated that you're like, "OK, have my number." Thanks, TLC, for never caving.
"'Cause I'm Just A Girl, Little Ol' Me Well Don't Let Me Out Of Your Sight, Oh I'm Just A Girl, All Pretty And Petite, So Don't Let Me Have Any Rights" — No Doubt, "Just A Girl"
There's so much going on in "Just A Girl," it's no wonder it makes every other listicle on old school empowering anthems. Mainly though, the chorus is a direct affront on pinning women as "the weaker sex," one that needs to be protected, and one that can't be trusted as a human being. "So don't let me have any rights" is such a glossed over line but it literally says, "You don't value me enough as a person to treat me like one." THE PINK RIBBON IS SECONDARY, GUYS. IT'S A METAPHOR AT BEST.
"And I'm Here, To Remind You, Of The Mess You Left When You Went Away, It's Not Fair, To Deny Me, Of The Cross I Bear That You Gave To Me" — Alanis Morissette, "You Oughta Know"
The anger in "You Oughta Know" would make you quick to deny it's a pop song, but let's remember that Morissette did this as a duet with Taylor Swift. So. Incidentally, Swift owes her entire career to Morissette, who made it commonplace to be outspoken about those who have maligned you, to not weep or passively lament the love lost. Minus five for bringing the other woman into this (unless "I'm sure she'd make a really excellent mother" was said in earnest). Plus 20 points for showcasing an important refusal to be ignored and be silent, and to rise up like a phoenix from the ashes of a mediocre guy.
See? Your favorite '90s pop songs got way deeper than you probably imagined while you were screaming along to them at school dances and in the back of your parents' car. At least, by my analysis. You're welcome.