Altos, the Female Belt and Their Place in the 1990s

By Nadine Blank

The 1990s is an era that lives on in many of our hearts, even if some of us weren’t alive for most of it. Listening to music can especially give those of us who might not remember much of that time an image of the zeitgeist of the 1990s in America. While many issues plagued the 90s (and that era is indeed remembered for all of them), one significant topic that countless faces of the music industry addressed was the idea of feminism and femininity, and all the dimensions that reside within these concepts. Many artists, such as Britney Spears and the Spice Girls, decided to own the sexuality that male society had already attached to them and make it their own. They often played it up and used sexualized music as an outlet to declare freedom and agency. However, there were many more facets to feminist, “girl power” 90s music. One of these sub-genres was that of many indie, rock, and country artists that happened to make top-40 radio. This sub-genre included women with strong, often low, unique vocals that demonstrated power and a refusal to remain quiet. These women often sang a variety of songs on more than just the usual topics of love and sex. This specific niche of popular female artists in the 90s express, reject, and modify ideals and expectations of what it means and feels like to be a woman even to this day.

(Shania Twain, “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!” 1997)


This first track, “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” by Shania Twain, is a classic country-power-pop anthem that many continue to appreciate for its feel-good tone and message. While the overall theme of the song is arguably cheesy and possibly naïve, Twain’s chorus brings up an especially important inconsistency between the idea of a lady versus a woman. Twain wants to “forget I’m a lady,” but she also claims in the same chorus that she feels like a woman. In this context, Twain seems to be commenting on a more structured ideal that embodies “ladylike” behavior. She even goes as far to say that she has the “prerogative” to shed her expected role as a “lady,” and this freedom makes her feel more like a woman than anything else. As far as musicality, Twain has a fairly lower alto voice, which in general is associated with the older connotation of “women” rather than younger “ladies,” which are oftentimes associated with the higher soprano vocal range. Shania Twain, however, owns her alto voice and enjoys what comes with feeling like a woman.


(Alanis Morissette, “Ironic,” 1995; directed by Stéphane Sednaoui)


The second song, “Ironic” by Alanis Morissette, begins quietly, almost sweetly, with only her voice and a guitar to accompany her. In the above music video, the singer is a seemingly delicate woman, wrapped up and protected from the world and snow around her. When the chorus hits, however, what appears to be her alter egos take over with louder, more striking vocals, and they seem much happier than the woman singing daintily. As the song continues, the alter egos riding in the car continue with much less “dainty” behavior, with one passenger even attempting to hold her whole body out of the car window and becoming covered in snow. Additionally, while the lyrics of the song are fairly cynical and defeatist, the alter-egos are taking them in stride and not allowing this to engulf their personalities. Both the context of the video and the content of the song exemplify a response to the sexualized movement happening in 90s music at the same time. It reminds the audience, through visuals, non-romantic lyrics, and strong, almost stubborn-sounding vocals, that a woman does not need to sexualize herself—that it is her choice. Alanis Morissette herself seems to have a broad understanding of this fact and the different forms of female empowerment, having released her raspy, “sexy” belt, “You Oughtta Know” on the same album, Jagged Little Pill.


(4 Non Blondes, “What’s Up,” 1992)


This playlist ends with a ballad full of profound, untraditional female vocal power: “What’s Up?” by 4 Non Blondes. Like “Ironic,” the song begins with an acoustic guitar, but a slow, marching beat and bassline soon follow, and the singer begins a solemn lament of what society is doing to women. The first verse creates a visual of the infamous glass ceiling as, “ trying to get up that great big hill of hope for a destination.” Her voice is full and deep, not delicate or fragile in the slightest. If there were any doubts in the singer’s vocal ability, they would be gone by the second verse, when she sings of how hard she tries and that she prays “every single day for a revolution.” Her belt is rough and robust, showcasing the pain of being a woman in the world while defying expectations of her. She hits incredible notes while still maintaining a deep, soulful tone. The power in the song in conjunction with the sadness and pain creates a multidimensionality for not only the song but the woman singing and her inherently feminist cause.


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