- Asking for ItRape, Postfeminism, and Alternative Music in the 1990s
In the spring of 1995, Los Angeles’s influential alt-rock station, kroq, added Sublime’s song “Date Rape” to its high rotation list.1 Nestled among more popular acts such as pop-punk Green Day, angry-girl Alanis Morissette, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Nine Inch Nails, Sublime’s song was an unusual choice, even in a postgrunge era that was inching ever closer to the mainstream.2 “Date Rape” plays out over a catchy, major-key, ska-punk rhythm that emphasizes the upbeat and lacks a sense of foreboding. From a detached, third-person point of view, the band’s singer, Brad Nowell, recounts the events: A blond-haired, blue-eyed man with a double chin approaches a woman in a bar and, after a few drinks, convinces her to leave with him. When she tries to escape, he rapes her. Nowell sings, quoting the rapist, “If it wasn’t for date rape, I’d never get laid.” From there, the tale becomes one of retribution: the woman goes to the police, who believe her; the rapist is prosecuted and convicted; finally, he’s sentenced to twenty-five years in prison and, in the song’s punchline, becomes a victim of rape himself.
The song first appeared three years earlier, on Sublime’s debut album, 40 Oz. to Freedom, but it didn’t find a spot on the radio until kroq played it and was then swamped for requests; in fact, the song became number 6 on the station’s year-end chart.3 Nowell explained its origins: “I’ve never raped anyone as far as I can remember. We were at a party a long time ago and we were all talking about how bad date rape was. This guy was like, ‘Date rape isn’t so bad. If it wasn’t for date rape, I’d never get laid.’ Everyone at the party was bummed [End Page 108] out about it, but I was cracking up and I wrote a funny song about it.”4 Nowell would later claim it as an anti–date rape song. But as Lorraine Ali pointed out, “While ‘Date Rape’ can’t be simply written off as a mere party tune, as Nowell implies, it does not explore the topic deeply or articulately enough to provide a clear point of view.”5
I begin with Sublime’s “Date Rape” primarily because it is not a “typical” song about rape from the 1990s: not filled with echoes of personal trauma or laced with angry, female defiance. Yet the song is representative of discourse around sexual assault, demonstrating the pervasive cultural idea that when rape really happens it is reported and punished both through the legal system and through karma.6 The success of “Date Rape” came after several years of alternative rock musicians writing songs about rape and, within the larger public sphere, after several years of debates about how feminists treated the topic. By the time “Date Rape” hit kroq’s airwaves, cultural debate had settled down. Before alternative rock lightened up—both literally and figuratively—both male and female performers presented the topic with gravity, if not always subtlety. Among the dozens of songs from female musicians were Tori Amos’s wrenching, a cappella “Me and a Gun”; Bikini Kill’s coercion-based “Star Bellied Boy” and incest-themed “Suck My Left One”; Hole’s raging “Asking for It” and “Dicknail”; Fiona Apple’s cryptic “Sullen Girl”; and Seven Year Bitch’s aggressive “Dead Men Don’t Rape.” Men’s accounts of rape, such as Nirvana’s “Polly” and Stone Temple Pilots’ “Sex Type Thing,” used the first-person perspective of the rapist to bring home the horror of the act. These songs engaged with sexual assault in the early 1990s, when an antifeminist backlash threatened to undo the progress of the second wave.7 In this essay I ask, How do such songs push back against rape culture, and, conversely, how do they sometimes show its effects? I turn to two songs in detail: Hole’s “Asking for It” and Stone Temple Pilots’ “Sex Type...