They predicted a Riot
In the early 1990s, the Riot Grrrl movement called for a revolution. Twenty years on, they’ve inspired a new generation
‘Because we girls want to create mediums that speak to us. We are tired of boy band after boy band, boy zine after boy zine, boy punk after boy punk after boy…
“Because we need to talk to each other. Communication/ inclusion is the key. We will never know if we don’t break the code of silence… Because in every form of media we see us/myself slapped, decapitated, laughed at, objectified, raped, trivialized, pushed, ignored, stereotyped, kicked, scorned, molested, silenced, invalidated, knifed, shot, choked and killed.
“Because a safe space needs to be created for girls where we can open our eyes and reach out to each other without being threatened by this sexist society and our day to day bullshit…”
The manifesto of the early ’90s riot grrrl movement sounds as urgent today two decades after it was photocopied in zines and read in the cafes, bedrooms and dive bars of Washington, written by a group of female musicians who had had enough, and did enough to inspire a generation.
Next Tuesday at University of Limerick, the history, impact and influence of riot grrrl will be dissected at Riot Grrrl! A Day Symposium on Women and Rock Music . Dr Eoin Devereux, Head of Sociology at UL has previously organised symposiums on The Smiths, Morrissey and David Bowie.
“My co-organisers [fellow UL lecturers Martin Power and Aileen Dillane, who co-authored Devereaux’s book Morrissey: Fandom, Representation, and Identities ] and I are engaged in several research projects which have the politics of popular and rock music at their core.
“Examining the significant role of women in rock music and in punk in particular appealed to all three of us, as it raises lots of interesting questions in a field that is traditionally seen as being male dominated.”
In the annals of what is loosely termed ‘guitar music’, the contribution of women is often glossed over, but the riot grrrl movement wrote its own history. While Fleetwood Mac, Patti Smith, Siouxsie Sioux, Joan Jett, Chrissie Hynde and The Slits created role models for female musicians from the 1970s onwards, women in rock remained an anomaly.
Emerging DIY scene
The roots of riot grrrl lie largely in the discontent of a group of female musicians in northwest America. An emerging DIY scene that was to become grunge, the democratic media of punk zines, and a socio-political atmosphere which saw feminism discourse reignited, all conspired in cutting bands such as Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and Heavens To Betsy, a slice of music history.
While punk shows were largely a male space, a less macho culture was emerging, primarily driven by K Records. Simultaneously, Kathleen Hanna, Toby Vail and Molly Neuman were shaking the cage, organising shows, publishing zines, releasing albums, and speaking to young women previously frozen out of what was perceived as the largely male occupation of punk rock.
As bigger bands such as Hole, L7 and Sleater-Kinney became associated with the term, riot grrrl rocked a global stage, inspiring women to pick up guitars and create their own scenes.
The rock band Girl In A Coma signed to Joan Jett’s Blackheart Records and, made up of sisters Nina and Phanie Diaz and Jenn Alva, are performing acoustically at UL on Tuesday before a gig in Dolan’s. “They didn’t care. They were themselves. They were real women. Real people,” says Nina Diaz, recalling what the female musicians of the era seemed like to her.
Arguably, there’s never been a better time to be a female musician. Today’s plentiful female solo artists are fierce, independent-minded and controversial. Lady Gaga, Kesha, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Marina & the Diamonds, Florence Welch, Adele and Pink all applaud individuality.
Even in hip-hop, all eyes are on women with Angel Haze, Azealia Banks, Nicki Minaj, Iggy Azalea, and Kreayshawn cluttering column inches, and traditional male roles in hip-hop and R&B being subverted thanks to the success of Frank Ocean and the buzziness of gay rappers Zebra Katz and Mykki Blanco.
The intentions of a clutch of female musicians in early ’90s rainy Washington still resonate today.
Devereux believes that riot grrrl “is directly responsible for marrying feminism and punk rock… riot grrrl demonstrated how women could take over the means of production in an increasingly corporatised music industry.
“At its height, it was particularly strong on activism, especially around the politics of gender and sexuality, which runs counter to the usual concerns of ‘cock-rock’.”
Understanding identity politics
At the symposium, papers on riot grrrl, female punks, fanzines, Courtney Love, and groupies will be presented along with a screening of Kerri Koch’s documentary Don’t Need You: The Herstory of Riot Grrrl . “We feel that it is important to critically engage with popular culture,” Devereux says, “The analysis of popular music focuses not just on the music itself but also on its affective or emotional dimensions. Music and its associated sub-cultures are a key to understanding identity politics surrounding class, gender, ethnicity and sexuality.”
It was, of course, bigger than music. Celebrating diversity, empowerment, advocating zero tolerance for sexual harassment, rape and violence against women, rejecting stereotypical heterosexual relationships and questioning the structures of the patriarchy were all topics tackled as more women created their own spaces, bands, publications, shows and started conversations about everything from body image to safe ways to mosh at gigs without being groped or assaulted.
The impact of that inclusive and inquisitive DIY approach within third wave feminism filtered through the ‘ladette’ tag of the ’90s, the plastic battle cry of the Spice Girls’ “girl power”, and into the feminist blogs of today.
“They weren’t trying to squeeze themselves into a size zero anything,” Diaz says, “and they were great performers. Kathleen Hanna wasn’t the greatest singer in the world for example, but they knew their instruments. As musicians, they knew their limits and weren’t afraid to push them. They weren’t afraid to say ‘hey, give me a chance and I’ll inspire you…’
“Those women, they inspired with their strength. That’s what it’s about: use what you got, use it to the best of your ability, and use it to inspire the hell out of people.”
Take five: Seminal riot grrrl moments
International Pop Underground Convention
The six-day music festival in Olympia, Washington organised by Calvin Johnson of K Records featured an all-female opening night. ‘Girl Night’, or officially ‘Love Rock Revolution Girl Style Now’ saw Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy, 7 Year Bitch, Mecca Normal and more play.
riot grrrl: the zine
Molly Neuman of Bratmobile along with her bandmate Allison Wolfe started the weekly publication in October 1991, with contributions from Tobi Vail and Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill. The zine covered the emerging scene, feminist theory, essays, and other articles spawning multiple similar zines around the world.
Revolution Girl Style Now!
Bikini Kill’s debut cassette was released in 1991, a call to action for women to participate in the emerging subculture.
L7 Rock for Choice concert
L7 and Sue Cummings ran an annual benefit concert for a decade beginning in 1991 in LA highlighting abortion rights and feminist organisations.
Hole at Reading Festival
“Oh yeah, I’m so goddamn brave,” Courtney Love sneered caustically into the microphone in August 1994 kicking off the first show since Hole’s bassist Kristen Pfaff died of a drug overdose and five months after her husband Kurt Cobain died.
Although Love was an extremely divisive figure within the riot grrrl movement and – depending on her mood – distanced herself from it or claimed responsibility for it, Hole’s sound, along with Love’s image, became intrinsically linked by the media to the
new wave of empowered female rock musicians.