What did Riot Grrrl ever do for us? – Part 1 by Ngaire Ruth

Before the days of full-time contemporary music schools, there were only summer rock camps. Finally, in the pre-digital 90s, rock schools for girls arrived, thanks to Riot Grrrl.

For Emma & Mave, KitKat, Charlotte Horton, Lucy Jordan, and all the girls and boys I know and am yet to meet.

What you need to know

Riot Grrrl is the name for a pre-digital 90s feminist movement, which has been a major influence on alternative music, arts and academia across the world for boys and girls.

Riot Grrrl feminism was action/reaction in a world where feminist news or opinion was otherwise described as post-feminist, which was assumed to be a movement that belonged to a whole different generation.

The term is, arguably, incorrectly used as a genre, associated with a style of punk and grunge.

In began in the 90s, Olympia, Washington, US, where there was an emerging scene of fresh independent bands, notably Nirvana and Bikini Kill, and labels K Records and Kill Rock Stars, later home to Beth Ditto’s Gossip and the fabulous riot grrrl’s Sleater-Kinney. It wasn’t long before the Olympia crowd melded with the DC scene, home of Dischord Records, where it continued to grow into a worldwide phenomenon, including in the UK. Watch out for rare vinyl releases under the mixed moniker DisKord.

Riot Grrrl had at its heart, girl love: support each other in friendship, celebrate differences and organise, create, collaborate on creative projects, protests, ideas and events. Out of this came action groups and organisations that survive to this day, such as LaDIYfest events (the UK and the US), new writing, new music, a slow steady normalising of girls in rock and indie bands. 

Riot Grrrl feminism was about creating whatever form of beauty was comfortable for you, and not having to declare your sexuality or gender (my perspective). The essential part was don’t wear make and girly clothes because you think that’s what makes you attractive to other girls and boys. Be a girl. Don’t be a girl, if you want to be a boy. Fall in love with a girl or a boy, today, tomorrow. The era was reflected in the mainstream (Blurs, hit track ‘Girls/Boys’).

Riot Grrrl pioneers, Bikini Kill, launched the first Girls To Front (in the mosh pit/at the gig) campaign as an experiment on the UK tour with Huggy Bear.

It’s met with confusion, aggression, disdain, cynicism and outright rudeness by boys in the audience and in bands. Today, women’s safety at gigs is STILL A PROBLEM, as pointed out in the recent article in The Guardian, even though there are many organisations and bands out there championing women’s safety at concerts, for example, the excellent music site and promoter, Get in Her Ears, The Loud Women collective and Safe Gigs for Women. (Post your links and recommendations of similar organisations and groups that support women’s safety at gigs in comments. Go!)

At the time of writing, Bikini Kill is in the middle of their first tour in 23 years, London 10th & 11th June, Brixton Academy. https://bikinikill.com/tour/

Girl Power is not what the Spice Girls did.

What you should know

In 1992 Everett True wrote a controversial article in the Melody Maker, Why Women Can’t Rock (Reading festival issue). He didn’t blame the women, he blamed the traditions of rock n roll and the music press. Nirvana, who had been sixth below headliner Iggy Pop on Friday the year before, was now top of the bill on Sunday, soon to become one of the most legendary Reading performances of all time. Kurt wore dresses, and talked about women punk bands both as his contemporaries, and has been inspirational to his art (the Raincoats).

In the previous month Jo Johnson, of UK underground Riot grrrl band Huggy Bear, is photographed with RIOT GRRL written on her knuckles in the Melody Maker. I really engaged with the Riot Grrrl slogan: this is happening without your permission. Nice.

On the day of the festival, to add to the MM festival spread, I walk around the site with my walkman asking people about the women artists (on the billing), a low representation (no change there). “Can women rock?” I ask. It’s hopeless. Even the girls define the artists from the male viewpoint –

“Shonen Knife are crap. They only get away with it because they’re playing up to being girly. It makes boys feel secure.” Marsha Duvall

“I thought P J Harvey was a bloke, she’s so fucking ugly.” Evan Bruce

“Lunachicks don’t have to get their tits out on stage to grab our attention. they deserve their success.” Joanne

Tears. We’re hardwired to take these things too seriously, that’s the nature of the job.

Heart already is broken. In an interview with P J Harvey (Siren, 1992), pre her major signing that spring, and my new favourite artist, she’d said to me:

“I hate the word feminist. It can do so much more damage than good. All I want to do is write honestly, and I’m a woman, so I guess you can’t avoid it.” (1992)

I write in my diary:
I’ve seen Huggy Bear five times in a month. Where are they when we need them? Where’s the revolution? Is anyone else out there a fucking feminist?
It’s too bloody weird growing up in the old-skool, male-dominated world of music, not least because women are described according to a typology, and I’m expected to like anything created by a woman because I’m one. So many women rock bands are just shitter versions of the men’s crap bands! I want a new sound and a new language that challenges my creative writing and critical thinking skills. I want to avoid generic muso words, like ‘seminal’ and ‘undulating’. I want more feminist men like Mudhoney and Nirvana! I want more songs like Kat Bjelland’s Bruise Violet and more bands like Babes in Toyland so that I can shout Liar Liar Liiiiiiiiiii errrrrrrrrrr again in a pack of women, at a big gig.

On the 14th March 1993 US band, Bikini Kill plays at the ULU, London with Huggy Bear and Witchy Poo.

I loved Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna most of all because she did not say excuse me.

She did not make me feel I needed to be clever or get educated to be able to join in, and she didn’t care if I bought the records or not (but the debut album Pussy Whipped sold an estimated 75 000 copies late 1993). She wanted a revolution, and somehow it sounded possible coming from her. I related to her hard-hitting lyrics, more so than Babes in Toyland, and more than the UK Riot Grrrl bands already here who had stolen my heart: Huggy Bear and Linus. But there were more coming. More fanzines, organisations, events and changes to the structure of underground music culture. (See part 2)

Our language, our problems, our declaration of not today, tomorrow, or ever again

Out of all the early active US grrrl bands – Heavens To Betsy (Corin Tucker, and Tracy Sawyer). Bikini Kill’s contemporaries, writers and musicians, Bratmobile, (Allison and Molly, originally the women behind the fanzine Girl Germs, and later Erin), and Kathleen Hanna, Tobi Vail, Billy Silver and Jo Wilcox were pioneers of the revolution, reaching out across the States, starting close to home by American standards, touring and supporting ace bands across the Washington State (from home in Olympia), and finally moving to Washington DC. Bikini Girl crossed the Atlantic (1993) and the momentum of Riot Grrrl went at a pace, hard-wired commitment to an agenda, with joy and skipping.

They produced a Bikini Kill fanzine, and flyers and leaflets which they gave out to the girls at every show, in case the message was lost through the joy and noise. Tobi Vail, BK drummer, ran a fanzine called Jigsaw. (2010, Sara Marcus). As a singer-songwriter and performer Kathleen was one of the first to Just Do It, and always was the most powerful communicator in interviews and panels, and on the stage; a primal scream that grew to fill the room as the audience joined in. What a fucking relief, pure shared joy, a mutual fury, a declaration and warning that we/I/her/him/they will not

Keep quiet
Be polite
Listen nicely
Be too embarrassed to call you out

All wrapped up in alternative rock swagger and sass.

This intent/need/right is referenced by Vivien Goldman in Revenge of the She-Punks (2019) in reference to the women punk bands which she championed, against the odds, at Sounds and Melody Maker, during the 70s – recommended for details of the women and the bands, along with the book She Makes Noise (ed. Julian Downes, 2012).

“Over and over She-punks shout for their own space, which translates as agency.”  Vivien Goldman (2019)

Challenge (and totally ignore), the traditional standards of beauty in mainstream culture

The new thing about riot grrrl feminism was the freedom to be who you wanted. Don’t wear makeup and girly clothes just because you think that’s what makes you attractive to other girls and boys.

Another declaration of Riot Grrrl and Bikini Kill, which tallied with the academia of mainstream third wave feminism, and could be applied to both creative and commercial products and images, was the question: is the woman a maker of meaning or the bearer of meaning?

Riot Grrrl did not get away without the media and bands like the Spice Girls, “co-opting their style and language”, (Cherie Turner, 2001). The term Girl Power was, initially, the title of an issue of a Bikini Kill fanzine. 

After an extensive UK tour, the deal is sealed at a tiny venue, the Sausage Machine, my local in Hampstead, (where I first reviewed the unsigned P J Harvey), Bikini Kill with Blood Sausage and Linus as support (3rd April). See the feature picture.

Everything changes.

References and recommended reading

Images from https://library.rockhall.com/riot_grrrl the Gayle Wald Riot Grrrl Collection and the Kill Rock Stars Collection file on Bikini Kill and https://bikinikill.com

Vivien Goldman (2019), Revenge of the She Punks, A Feminist Music History from Poly Styrene to Pussy Riot, University of Texas Press: Austin, p 44.

Cherie Turner, (2001) The Riot Girl Movement, The Rosen Publishing Group: New York

Sara Marcus, (2010) Girls to the Front, The true story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, Harper Perennial: London New York Toronto

Sarah Marsh, (2019) The Guardian, Groping a big problem at gigs say promoters and campaigners https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/08/groping-sexual-harassment-a-big-problem-at-gigs-say-promoters-and-campaigners-sleaford-mods [accessed May 2019]

Women Who Make Noise, Girl Bands from Motown to the Modern, Julia Downes, ed, Supernova Books: UK

Check out The Guardian, The Art and Politics of Riot Grrrl https://www.theguardian.com/music/gallery/2013/jun/30/punk-music [accessed May 2019]

Next in part 2

Girls to the front, girl love, the Bikini Kill documentary, more bands and more revolution now, fanzines, fanzines, and more fanzines. 

You’re next

If you know bands, organisations or online sites that support women to the front link them in comments.

If you know a girl or boy who wants to start a fanzine, be in a band, or is in a girls band, or is a girl in a band please share share share.


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