Joan Jett's memories of making rock music with the Runaways, the five-piece female rock group from the mid-1970s, should read like a page from a history book. But it actually sounds old-fashioned for a very different reason – because women in rock are rarely angry any more. It wasn't always this way. After the Runaways, a rush of punk performers – including Siouxsie Sioux and X-Ray Spex's Poly Styrene (who mocked people who thought "little girls should be seen and not heard") – and then later the riot grrrl groups of the early 1990s showcased women who offered empowering messages as they pummelled their guitar strings. Twenty years later, the charts are full of female musicians, so maybe their predecessors genuinely opened doors, and also broke down prejudices. But look behind the charts. Look, say, to the media. Look at Q magazine, for example, which still treats "women in rock" as a genre all of its own, and only featured three women on its cover in the last year, all in states of undress (Lady Gaga, Cheryl Cole and Lily Allen). Have women yet been accepted in rock music on their own terms?
Tahita Bulmer, lead singer of New Young Pony Club, believes not, and her group's new album, The Optimist, is angrier and rockier because of it. "In the past 20 years, young women have accepted a particular kind of persona if they want to be a musician. There's the sense that you have to be obsessed with fame, and looking conventional or sexual." When Bulmer first started getting into music, PJ Harvey was going on stage with scraped-back hair and no makeup, Courtney Love was screaming while wearing a babydoll dress, and Britpop frontwomen such as Elastica's Justine Frischmann and Sleeper's Louise Wener were not conforming to typical ideas of femininity. Bulmer misses that freedom to experiment with expectations of gender – so much so that she recently shaved half her head. "I feel let down by a lot of the female performers around today, because there's no fighting back against that ideal. And even with artists like Florence and the Machine, there's almost that Victorian idea coming back of the hysterical woman. I know lots of teenage girls relate to that, but there's no sense of empowerment about it."
Lucy O'Brien, author of She-Bop: The Definitive History of Women in Rock, Pop and Soul, thinks the continuing importance of image and presentation is to blame. The key thing that ossified gender roles, she suggests, was MTV, which changed popular culture, leaving feminist punk bands such as the Slits and the Raincoats behind. "Image became the big thing, and angry women who didn't care about it didn't really fit that picture," O'Brien says. There was a brief window of opportunity for women who didn't fit the MTV template in the early 1990s, she suggests, a time when bestselling artists such as Sinead O'Connor ripped up pictures of the Pope on TV, and Tori Amos sang about her experiences of rape (though, equally, O'Connor's greatest success came with her most MTV-friendly moment, Nothing Compares 2 U). But then came the Spice Girls, appropriating the vocabulary of riot grrrl, and proclaiming "Girl Power", but within the conventional model of the pop group manufactured by men for young girls. "Everything became sophisticated and sanitised after that, and the industry has never got over it," O'Brien says.
Cazz Blase, the co-author of Riot Grrrl: Revolution Girl Style Now! and a writer for the feminist website The F-Word, thinks that the idea of pursuing music as a career path, rather than a means of expression, has been a retrograde step. "That's been a big change," she says. "And if you're pursuing music as the equivalent of your nine-to-five, and you'd quite like to be doing that for years to come, it's in your interest not to rock the boat." She adds that institutions such as the Brit School and The X Factor have taught musicians to become savvy when they are young, so they can navigate industry's treacherous waters – particularly at a time when the music business is ailing. "They know that going through a stroppy, awkward phase might cause them problems, so they know it's in their interest to play the game." Joan Jett agrees with Blase – and also believes the culture of instant judgment and commentary that thrives on the internet could make female musicians temper their anger. That has certainly been the case with Lily Allen, who has announced her retirement from the music industry. She was abused across the web last year for her opinions about file sharing, and earlier this month fans of the teenaged Canadian singer Justin Bieber made "LilyAllenFatWhore" a trending topic on Twitter. Her crime has always been no more than saying what she thinks.
The internet fuels a culture of competition in music, and the microscopic level of observation across blogs and music websites means confrontation is spotted where none really exists. Becky Ninkovic of the Canadian band You Say Party! We Say Die! found such stereotyping particularly depressing in the run-up to the release of their third album, XXXX, last autumn. "People just dismiss me as a woman who has something to say by going, 'Well, Becky Ninkovic is just trying to be the new Karen O.' I love Karen O, but I'm trying to be in the same world as her, rather than be her."
But sadly, mainstream music culture has always thrived on competition, creating what the media always calls "catfights", says Kristin Hersh, now a solo artist, but in the 80s the frontwoman of the influential American band Throwing Muses. That enforced competition, she says, is why she "ran away" from her contract with Warners in the mid-1990s. She believes challenging music is still being made by women, and in the same volume as ever before, "but the music you hear, the music being marketed, is dumb, because the record companies are desperate". This is why she set up Cash Music, she says, a website through which her fans can pay directly for music and gig tickets. "And it's everything. I'm not asked to do photo shoots in underpants any more, nor am I getting my eyebrows plucked six or seven times a days and wondering, 'What the hell is my job now?'"
In fact, once you look outside the mainstream, there are many women involved in small-scale rock ventures, keeping the flame alive. Kathleen Hanna, the former frontwoman of Bikini Kill and now the singer in Le Tigre, highlights the influence of the riot grrrl movement in small women's magazines such as Venus, Bust and Bitch, in the rock camps for teenagers that are taking off across the US, and in modern bands who reference the sounds of female post-punk groups such as Delta 5 and The Mo-dettes. "Even though they don't sing every song about politics, paying homage to these bands means they see themselves in relation to women that have gone before them, which is a deeply political message of its own." She adds that we shouldn't forget Beth Ditto's power as a female role model influenced by riot grrrl, and remembers that the movement encouraged women to start the bands they wanted to start, not to start a group that sounded exactly like someone else. "From what I see," she says proudly, "this is happening."
In Britain, this is also starting to happen, driven by unease about the ways in which women are treated in mainstream culture. Take Gaggle, the 22-piece, all-female punk choir from East London. They are political, argues its founder, Deborah Coughlin, because they dress in shapeless cloaks so the audience can't judge them by their bodies, because they support each other, and because they sing about women's real lives, rather than fantasy. "And no one else is doing this, which is really weird. I mean, if you happened to meet any of us in a pub, we'd be like any normal women – talking about our interests, boyfriends, cigarettes, the election. Sometimes we'd get angry, of course, but real women do, and I wanted to form a band that recognised our real world." Then there are musicians like Laura Kidd, who makes loud, grungy rock as She Makes War. As a session bassist, she was told she couldn't play in Alesha Dixon or Coco Sumner's bands because their managements weren't interested in female musicians. Nevertheless, these experiences have pushed her to set up a co-operative for female songwriters, and she releases her first single next month.
Anger is also being expressed in different genres and forms these days, add Blase and O'Brien. It is expressed quietly in the case of singer-songwriters Laura Veirs and Laura Marling, and brashly in pop with Lady Gaga and Rihanna. Those latter two artists push the boundaries of femininity, argues O'Brien, even though image is important to them. What's different is that they play with its uglier sides. "Lady Gaga's Monster Ball tour is all about being monstrous, and that angry side of being female. She may not be screaming it out, and her music isn't punk, but those feelings are there." Given how successful she's been, adds O'Brien, she is setting a good precedent for angry women in the mainstream, at the same time as women are doing interesting things in the underground.
Joan Jett would go even further than that: she thinks a new revolution is on its way. "I think we're coming back to that fertile ground where people have had enough of the way things are, I can feel it. Those girls are out there, in every city, banging around – and when they find their outlet, it's going to be just like it was for me." Jett's voice is defiant, strong, and celebratory. "A new generation picking up guitars and drums and saying, 'I'm here! Let's go!'"