Rebel Girl – Bikini Kill (Emily Bennett)
Bikini Kill said that if all girls started bands, the world might actually change, and ‘Rebel Girl’ proves that they were right. An iconic riot grrrl song from the 1990s, the track’s pulsing beat combined with singer Kathleen Hanna’s powerful lyrics make it, in my opinion, one of the most powerful songs about female empowerment.
Every line in the song uplifts girls and celebrates platonic and romantic love between women, with Hanna hearing the revolution in “her hips” and “her kiss”. Stereotypical catty feelings of jealousy are replaced with those of empowerment and attraction, when she affirms that the girl who “thinks she’s the queen of the neighbourhood” is, and we are all encouraged to be as confident as the girl she sings about. Every time I hear it, the song reminds me how important it is to celebrate other women rather than let ourselves be divided by a patriarchal society… while also tearing it down.
50ft Queenie – PJ Harvey (Sarah Taylor)
There is nothing PJ Harvey cannot do – her thirty-year music career explores a wide range of styles and genres, and her talents as a lyricist and multi-instrumentalist are well-documented. She makes that clear on this 1993 single lifted from her second LP Rid of Me. Frankly, the majority of the songs on that record could have made it onto this list, as Harvey explores female empowerment and hits out at misogynistic doubters, as well as addressing themes of independence, sex, and violence.
Many of the album’s songs are written from the perspectives of historic female figures: on ‘Snake’ she’s a spiteful Eve, on ‘Me-Jane’ she’s tired of Tarzan, but on ’50ft Queenie’, she’s “the king of the world.” Its lyrics are decidedly tongue-in-cheek and slightly crude, as she inhabits an arrogant and boastful persona, which can also be heard on ‘Man-Size.’ In its music video, she stomps around in a red dress and leopard-print coat, asserting her power. In a decade defined by laddish Britpop bands, PJ Harvey made her mark with an empowering yet playful rock track that still stands today.
Metal Heart – Cat Power (Thomas Frankland)
If there is anything to say about Cat Power‘s 1998 album Moon Pix, it is as far away from a rock n roll platitude as you can get. Instead, the album’s genesis lies in a paralytic nightmare in a barnhouse in South Carolina and a phone call from a friend decrying her with the statement of “you’re just a loser.” However, Cat Power used these events as ammunition to catapult herself out of this creatively stagnant part of her life with the single ‘Metal Heart’, a revelatory ballad that combines plucky melodic strings with lyrics of empowerment and freedom (“be true because they’ll lock you up in a sad sad zoo”, “metal heart you’re not worth a thing”). In a landscape often dominated by masculine figures, ‘Metal Heart’ serves as a powerful motif of female empowerment and a watershed moment for women in indie-rock and slowcore circles.
Woman – Little Simz featuring Cleo Sol (Alex Cooper)
Little Simz is an artist I’ve loved ever since GREY Area in 2019, and in 2021 I couldn’t wait for the new album cycle. ‘Woman’ was the second single off the album, and everything about it is magnificent; the Inflo produced beat, the message, the Cleo Sol song hook, Simz’s flow – just an absolute banger. The song celebrates being a woman, drawing from all corners of the world, linking and rhyming different cultures with Simz’s signature effortless style.
As a male contributor to this collaborative article, this song has enabled my understanding of female empowerment. Simz is streets ahead of the game, as essentially every awards ceremony and publication will testify. I saw her live in December at Albert Hall, and of her titanic 26-song set, she finished on ‘Woman’. Everyone, no matter their gender, belted out the opening bars and the track got wheeled up six lines in, on ‘diamonds are forever’. Easily one of my favourite recent memories of music. It’s a really special song.
Just a Girl – No Doubt (Owen Scott)
No Doubt’s 1995 hit ‘Just a Girl’ is a song of female empowerment where much of Gwen Stefani’s criticism of the patriarchy holds true today. A classic of the 90s MTV era and popularised more through its inclusion in Clueless (1995), and more recently Captain Marvel (2019), the song satirises the sheltering of women in society and the lack of choices they have. Throughout the song, No Doubt attacks beauty standards (“I’m just a girl, all pretty and petite”), as well as the lack of freedoms afforded to women (“I can’t do the little things I hold dear”), finishing with a sense of defiance, saying “I’ve had it up to here”. It’s a fiery rejection of the constraints of the patriarchy, by a band led by one of the most iconic front women of the 90s, Gwen Stefani, herself a symbol for female empowerment in the decade.
Didn’t It Rain – Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Ellie Hughes)
For one day in May 1964, a disused train station in a southern suburb of Manchester became the stage for the Godmother of rock and roll. Kitted out to resemble a station in the southern States – think stagecoaches, barrels, wanted posters – the abandoned platform saw Sister Rosetta Tharpe treat 200 lucky blues enthusiasts to a characteristically exuberant performance. A master guitarist and electrifying singer, Tharpe unquestionably made rock and roll what it is today. She has been named as an inspiration by Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jimmy Page, Mick Jagger, and Chuck Berry who described his career as “one long Sister Rosetta Tharpe impersonation”. Even his famous duckwalk came from her, except she did it in high heels. She broke new ground in countless ways: her use of distortion as she hammered on the strings of her Gibson SG; being one of the first to bravely cross the threshold from gospel to popular music; her open bi-sexuality; being a Black artist with white backing singers. Looking up at the leaden Manchester sky that day, she chose to perform ‘Didn’t It Rain’, and with it pulled back the curtain on her raw, unadulterated musical power.
Til it happens to you – Lady Gaga (Serena Jemmett)
Gaga is a feminist icon and important woman in music regardless of my emphasis on this incredibly empowering song. Til it happens to you was co-wrote by Gaga for the documentary The Hunting Ground; a documentary on sexual assault in American universities and collages. Not only is this song written in an empowering, yet emotional and empathetic nature, but Gaga’s activism on this topic doesn’t stop here. Gaga collaborated with Joe Biden in 2016 on the campaign “It’s On Us”, a campaign aimed to tackle sexual violence across universities. I also campaign heavily on this topic having started Resist Rape Culture here at UoM. I truly find comfort in this song and a sense of solidarity with other survivors, especially as Gaga has spoken publicly about being a survivor – “I am a sexual assault survivor and I know the effects, the aftermath, the trauma: psychological, physical, mental”. This authenticity comes across for the entire duration of the song; with vulnerability comes strength. This song is a reminder than women can still be strong and powerful, with or without trauma.
Powered By Spotlight Studios
0161 275 2930 University of Manchester’s Students’ Union, Oxford Rd, Manchester M13 9PR