Issue 9: The Female-led Rock Revival of 2020

I've been California dreamin' // Plastic hearts are bleedin'

As 2020 draws to a close, end of year lists start doing their rounds. What genre or style defined this year? Was it the disco-funk escapism touted by Dua Lipa, Lady Gaga and Kylie Minogue? The cottagecore aesthetic of Taylor Swift’s folklore? Or the continued ascent of fantastical, defiant hip-hop from Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Baby, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion?

I for one would like to raise an unlikely contender - a rock revival led by Hannah Montana herself - Miley Cyrus.

Born and raised in the entertainment industry, Miley has run the gamut of genres. From her status as a literal Disney pop princess with country roots, to her rebellious sexual awakening, to her audacious (albeit controversial) experimentation with hip-hop and rap culture, Miley’s done it all.

And now she’s dipping her toes into the world of rock n roll.

Citing her previous rootsy outing Younger Now (2017) as “unsatisfactory”, Miley wanted to do something harder and more ‘herself’. She immediately began working on Plastic Hearts by early 2018. It’s by no means a complete rock-reinvention for Miley, buthe end result is a mix of pop and rock that hasn’t really been seen in the mainstream for some time. Furthermore, guest vocalists Stevie Nicks and Billy Idol lend her some old-school cred, in a similar way that Flaming Lips and Wu Tang Clan lent indie experimental and hip-hop cred earlier in Miley’s career.

And honestly, Miley’s always had something of a rock streak in her. After her cover of Arctic Monkeys’ 2013 hit “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” went viral earlier this year (originally performed in 2014), people were amazed by the rock qualities of her voice. It only made sense for her to do a fully-fledged rock album.

Whether it’s actually a rock record or not is for the elite purists to decide. But right now, Plastic Hearts is shaking up the pop scene. This week, it debuted at number 1 on the Billboard Rock Charts, and ranked number 2 for sales across all formats, her best release since 2013’s Bangerz.

This signifies a shift happening in the culture. It’s been almost 20 years since Arctic Monkeys’ seminal debut album, and a subsection of Gen Z is gravitating towards that rock-flavoured sound once again.

No doubt, the alternative scene has had artists thriving in the rock and indie folds for years. However, there has been a lack of traditional guitars-bass-drum rock outfits in the charts of recent years. Anecdotally, kids these days are more likely to name their favourite rapper or Kpop bias than their favourite band.

The idea of a group of four or five mates getting together in their garage to rehearse songs about girls and scorned love seems a bit outdated now. (In fact, most of the instrumentals on Plastic Hearts are produced and recorded by one man).

Who better to sum up that sentiment than the queen of memes and indie-punk crossovers, Phoebe Bridgers:

While Miley Cyrus is highly successful in pop music, the release of Plastic Hearts and popularisation of that aesthetic is a step forward in an industry and scene typically dominated by men and misogyny. In 2020, it’s not unfair to say that girls are stepping up and rocking harder than before.

In 2018, Fender even released a study citing that half of all new guitarists were in fact female - dubbing it the Taylor Swift Effect. On today’s most accurate barometer of pop culture trends, Tik Tok, the hashtag for #girlguitarist has 1.7 million views, with #femaleguitarist garnering a whopping 10.7 million views. There is a definite growth in the next generation of female guitar aficionados.

By no means is Miley Cyrus a gold standard for female guitarists to follow. But her attitude to music and influence in the mainstream shouldn’t be ignored. To have the guts to get on stage and rock the hell out, regardless of critics and haters (of which she has plenty), speaks volumes, especially for a new generation of female music listeners.

This popularity of guitars and rock amongst girls can be attributed to the rise of the bedroom producer, ubiquity of social media, and arguably, times of extended quarantine - allowing musicians to explore and indulge creatively in free ways. Most importantly, girls feel empowered to grab a guitar and strum away, without the pressure of conforming to the “dudes in a band” trope.

While artists like Billie Eilish prove their weight in artistic and commercial success, alternative artists are also are paving the way for solo female artists to follow. Names such as beabadoobee, Phoebe Bridgers and Tash Sultana are already worldwide household names (aside: Tash recently became Australia’s first artist to ever receive a Fender Signature Series).

Female artists are striking a chord with listeners, inspiring a new generation of girls to take up the six strings. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the world is sick of songs like “bad guy”, “WAP” or “34+35”, but in today’s genre-bending, oversaturated hype media culture, there is something comforting about a return to guitars, bass, and drums, even if it takes someone like Hannah Montana to take us there.

Girls with guitars killing it right now

Here are other artists you should check out who buck the trope of being the token female bassist or frontwoman in a band.

  • Phoebe Bridgers

  • beabadoobee

  • Bully

  • Tash Sultana

  • Hannah Joy (Middle Kids)

  • Julia Jacklin

  • Julien Baker

  • Lucy Dacus

  • Snail Mail

  • HAIM

  • Amy Shark

  • Soccer Mommy

  • Marika Hackman

  • Hayley Williams

  • Alex Lahey

  • Lennon Stella

  • Yvette Young (Covet)

A Spotify playlist to go with it too!

Album of the Week: Son of Agung by Agung Mango & Nikodimos

It’s not gonna be Plastic Hearts, but I do recommend this wildly funky and inventive EP from Melbourne’s Agung Mango. For fans of Anderson .Paak, Hiatus Kaiyote and Kendrick Lamar.

Throwback of the Week

One of the most surprising releases of this week was Wu Tang Clan’s collaboration with Scottish singer-songwriter Sharleen Spiteri, better known as part of rock group Texas. But then I found out that two had previously collaborated in 1997 for a BRIT Awards special, even making the cover of The Face at the time. Anyway, it’s a collab that shouldn’t work, but does. Watch the video for “Hi” below.


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