What did Riot Grrrl ever do for us? – the final Part 3 by Ngaire Ruth

 

The final part of the What did riot grrrl ever do for us? and a quiz after the references 

Untypical girls, extraordinary women

Riot grrl inspired boys and girls, boy-girls, girl-boys. 
 

Today women and girls don’t think twice thinking about starting a band and in many cases, they don’t even feel the need to call out the band member’s gender. Girls in bands are the new normal. 

In a recent interview for the independent cultural magazine, THE SKINNY writer Cheri Amour – who worked on the editorial team at the girls are with me for a number of years- discussed this fab new reality with Allison Wolfe musician, journalist, writer and podcaster, a founder member of key riot grrrl band Bratmobile and LaDIYfest (see Part 2). 

“A lot of that is to do with the girl rock camps, they’re really bringing up this new generation of musicians who aren’t going to think twice about starting a band.

“It’s weird because it felt like there was an army of these girls across the country. In the early 90s, there were a lot of girl bands but by the late 90s when RG had died off there was a backlash and a lot of bands had broken up it felt like it was back to the boys and that was disappointing That’s why I started Ladyfest and championing the RG idea. OK, we’re working towards this festival. After that date rape culture/bro culture, we created our community, we participated in creating our own culture.” Allison Wolfe (2018) 

allisonwolfe
http://www.loudwomen.org Allison Wolfe, Bratmobile

You need to know

Small pleasures: the secret smugness, thrill, and feel of a brand new book arriving through the letterbox for review, and the immediate sit on the stairs pre-reading browsing routine: contents, the blurb, opening. revenge of the she punks front cover
 
Chapter 1, Womanifesto
 
“Suddenly there seem to be an awful lot of women musicians, or women bands, in the Sounds gig guide. It seems that a women’s underground is suddenly emerging overground…When women perform a professional, hard-rocking set, with no concession to female stereotypes, they’re an automatic threat. They’re a threat to men because they challenge male supremacy in a citadel that has never been attacked before; they threaten women who perhaps never dared acknowledge that THEY want to be on stage doing the energising instead of watching their boyfriends do it, in passive admiration.” Vivien Goldman, Sounds, December 11th, 1976.  
 
Revenge of the She-Punks, A Feminist Music History from Poly Styrene to Pussy Riot written by Vivien Goldman, an adjunct professor at New York University, and one of the first women writers in the mainstream music press, Sounds 1976. 
 
What the hell? I wrote my personal/professional manifesto, 1989. After seeing Ut (See Part 2). 
 
In her own words, Vivien Goldman “went into battle for the unconventional girls”, taking an unchartered route into the male-dominated music journalism canon of rock and indie. Dejavu. 
 
I’m not comparing myself to a goddess/queen/pioneer I’m saying this is a foremother, just like the She-punks are the foremothers of riot grrrl. (Journalist Cathi Unsworth, followed VG’s love of punk women for the next generation, a massive admirer of Siouxie and the Banshees.)  
 
“I got to work with The Banshees in 1991, writing bios and press releases for their Superstition LP and they were every bit as brilliant as people as their music suggests. I also got to meet one of my very best friends, Sioux’s former PA, Billy Chainsaw, through them. I did a magazine called Purr with him for a couple of years and also worked with him later on Bizarre.working for Siouxie and the Banshees.” Cathi Unsworth, (2012) The Quietus, Baker’s Dozen.  
 
FACT FANS: Cathi has a new book, co-written with the infamous punk (of her time) Jordan Mooney,  Defying Gravity: Jordan’s Story  
 
Every time I hear the voice of a fellow cultural conspirator at Melody Maker, Sounds and NME (from the 70s to 90s during its peak international weekly distribution era) it’s many years later, in a retrospective quote in an interview feature, or in a book that they should have written 20 years ago. 
 
I knew of reputed Sound’s women writers Vivien Goldman and Caroline Coon, (her contemporary, and friend), but I didn’t know the details, have examples of Vivien’s writing, her story, my story, our story. 
 
It seems there is only room for one rad girl writer pioneer each decade, and at present, the rock press archives do not represent feminist writing or writers with a feminist viewpoint or women writers who had their own women-focused agenda or subtleties like word choice, the subject of a sentence, the choice of coverage… (pauses because salivating). A feminist archive is a complicated, beautiful thing and has yet to be applied to the rock archives. (I’m in two minds what to do about this: do it myself, volunteer myself and some cleverer friends, or write an academic essay about it how it’s not done yet.) 
 
I read an article about the new NME woman editor in The Guardian, Women’s section (growl), written by ex NME writer Lucy O’Brien (2009). 
 
“But when I began – NME was a daunting place – not unlike a sixth form common room. Star writers inhabited little fiefdoms within the office, whether it was Nick Kent or Charles Shaar Murray, or Tony Parsons during punk. As a new writer, you were made aware of the cultural legacy. You might be given a trial run, a few reviews, but if you didn’t measure up that was it. And as a woman, it was doubly intimidating. The general feeling was that you couldn’t really write about music. Women didn’t have the attitude, the balls or the knowledge. As former NME editor, Neil Spencer said, ‘I tried really hard to get women writers and when I left I found out what had been going on – as fast as I’d been recruiting them, certain people on the paper had been getting rid of them, alienating them with chauvinist windups.” 
 
What the hell? Here was a foremother. By treating Lucy as a case study I started to piece together the changing role of women writers in the music press and noticed a pattern, a new type of book form in music cultural history, emerging late 80s through the 90s. 
 
  1. The Reveal, uncovering and recording, unknown, or forgotten women musicians and artists, proving the bias in the musical canon through writers, editors, publishers. Examples are Gillian G Garr, (date) She’s A Rebel, Lucy O’Brien, Dusty and She-Bop, (dates), Jacqueline Warwicks (date) Girl Groups Girl Culture.  
  2. Giving the artists’ voice, such as Liz Evans (date) Women, Sex and Rock n Roll, In their Own Words, Anne Savage, (date) They’re Playing Our Songs, Women talk about feminist rock music, or Zara Van-Burdens, (date) Women of the Underground: Music, Cultural innovators speak for themselves. 
  3. Academic clout, the introduction of feminist theory applied to music culture, such as Deborah M Withers (date), Kate Bush Theory, Lucy O’Brien (date) Madonna, updated and republished 2019, Marion Leonard (date) Gender in the Music Industry

                       THE REVEAL

 

New Writing – the part riot grrrl played 

This was the key for me about Riot Grrrl – a quantity of new writing for comparison, contrast and reassurance. I had searched out and read all the right books for young alternative women writers, for example How to Suppress Women’s Writing, (Joanna Russ 1983), and Tillie Olsen’s Silences (1965), Underground: The London Alternative press 1966-74 (Nigel Fountain, 1988), but it was riot grrrl that gave me a quantity of women’s writing about music and socio-political culture, akin to my life, and gave me the opportunity for contrast and comparison, in order to go on the adventure I’d been waiting for – to find my own creative identity, my wholeness. And get away with it for the rest of my life. 

 
Everything matters because it can all be used as evidence in shouty editorials, academic writing, a starting point for what’s next, as well as reassurance when your women contemporaries seem unphased by the boys and their canon.
It’s not that whether riot grrrl was a success or not – it had to happen. Like the She-punks, and the mainstream women writers before me, it’s part of the progression of feminism in rock. (Which still has quite a lot of catching up to do.) This is why it’s a need to know. 

You should know

Not every girl colleague or friend is going to get it. 
 
Cos us girls crave records and books and fanzines that speak to US, that we feel included in and can understand in our ways. 
 
Vivien Goldman still battled from this position even when she became the features editor. In Revenge of the She-Punks she writes: 
 
“Sounds was typical of the world of work in the London music industry… my writers, all white and all boys insisted: ‘Women don’t buy music!’ ‘Women don’t make music!’ ‘Women don’t read music papers!'”  
 
Why do I love riot grrrl? Riot grrrl, in this case, Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, wrote it all down, in black and white – they handed out them out to girls at gigs. The masses inspired by riot grrrl, and using its politics as guidelines/reminders/reassurance, wrote endless fanzines, established the Riot Grrrl Press, started rock schools, all the time saying: 
 
Because we wanna make it easier for girls to see/hear each other’s work so that we can share strategies and criticise/applaud each other.
 

Identity politics and body image – the part riot grrrl played 

“And now here I was witnessing this strange apparition … a long-haired guitarist in jeans, who as I drew closer I realised was – a woman! Playing power chords! I had never seen a girl play on stage in a band before. … “ Vivien Goldman, (2019), Revenge of the She-Punks. 

What Vivien Goldman was seeing in 1976 was new and enormously thrilling – here are some images of how women in the 70s were represented.
 
Conforming to stereotypes through an image, such as advertising (the stereo), press shots (Suzi Quatro), or album covers of that classic album era, made the other women out there feel invisible, and promoted woman as the bearer of meaning. Have a go at the pic third from the left. Bearer or maker? 
 
The girly girl, who could not run away in high heels, or half-naked, (preferably both, as you can see), was the norm. Hot pants, high boots or long dresses or flares, the latter trip me up all the time, but I am eight years old. Music journalist Vivien had a revelation which reflects the feminism of her time, the right for equality to challenge gender stereotypes. FACT FANS: her university tutor was the always-fabulous-and confusing Germaine Greer. 
 
It’s no surprise that when the US girl bands came to London town, dressed in spotty and flowery shaped summer dresses, bare legs, lots of hair and in the case of Kat Bjelland of Babes in Toyland, bright red lipstick and golden hair (Rapunzel, Goldilocks, Cinderella, she covered a lot of bases), I had my doubts. That was before riot grrrl UK (Spring 1993)

 

 

 

I changed my mind about Babes in Toyland, and Kat Bjelland’s feminist intent. 
 
“Still, at this point in our culture, while herstory is in the making, maybe it’s more important to think how the Babes were taking responsibility for mutating the images and symbols of girlhood – musically, lyrically and visually… I was cross with them for wearing frocks and hair accessories, seeming happy to be girls when they were clearly women. Why was I automatically assuming they would be playing to boys, and behaving like girls? Why didn’t I even credit their male fans with any sensitivity or intelligence and why should the female go back to the pre-pill passive woman who thinks it’s all up to her to turn men either off, or on, anyway? Remember at that time, Kim Deal was still telling the world being in The Pixies was her priority over being in The Breeders…” (October 2nd, 1993, Melody Maker)
 

It’s good to know – white feminism

“What riot grrrl (in the UK) didn’t do particularly well was to reach out to black women. We had some non-white grrrls, but I remember failing to convince a very amazing woman that it was for her – she felt naturally excluded. So what I’m pleased about these days is the more diverse nature of punk rock feminism, the younger generation has taken it and progressed it where we couldn’t.” Jennifer Denitto, (June 2019) former member of UK riot grrrl band, Linus. 

Slipping into white feminism, understanding reaction/action as natural, when in fact it’s cultural, learned behaviour; the same thing we point out to men, is a critique of riot grrrl: non-inclusive, patronising, writing on behalf of people’s concerns, not verbatim but in a narrative of the writer’s making, like how we unpicked patriarchy/the hero from the text, assuming likes and dislikes. It was a missed opportunity because riot grrrl was driven to show and support alternatives to the male-dominated rock/indie/punk genre, and there’s no doubt these successful genres are dominated by white men.  

Imagine, all those people learning about being human, and some of them failing, because in a sense all the untypical girls had to start from scratch, the rock-poets, punks and riot grrrls. (Me, by circumstance and soul.) 

“All these artists had to trash out new ways of living, in a break from their foremothers,” explains Vivien Goldman in relation to the rock-poets and She-punks (2019). 

I spent some time comparing Nietzsche’s Will to Power theory with John Lennon, another who started from scratch, and continued to re-assess, challenge, experiment, and change – this is in fact what Madonna has materialised, in every sense. (It was an academic challenge given to me by a mentor.) 

Being told you’re a white feminist is hard to take, and in turn, proves the argument: it’s not all about you, but you have to hear it if it’s true. Girl love is not always whoops! and cheers! for everything you do. 

The argument that riot grrrls experienced a privileged position, relating to class, as well as colour, endangered the value of the political intent, and was reinforced when the internet arrived. The cost of home computers was at its highest peak, meaning that while it was important and relevant for riot grrrl to embrace this fabulous new tool of communication, it meant that the organisation and voice was the realm of the middle-class women (ones who had access to university computers). 

That said, I always felt that riot grrrl feminism wanted very much to be a progression from the first wave (the right to vote), the second wave (equality) when women of colour noted the ways in which mainstream feminism often failed to address their concerns. (Riot grrrl felt so inclusive.) Some of the second wave feminists were seen as totally uncool, even embarrassing, at the time.

For example, Mrs Rockafelller took up karate and gave public presentations with her woman only group, to show feminism at work. In the underground magazine Oz, 1970, Germaine Greer, the well known feminist and writer, dug in deep:

“Militant women owe a great deal to the media that guy them. The average housewife is dulled and confused by her day-to-day diet of pulp-journalism and crap television. She does not catch the nuances of contempt that swill around the images of Abbey Rockefeller splitting a board with her head. Treading her way through clouds of clever-clever verbiage she retains the overwhelming impression that ‘something is happening here’ even if  ‘what it is ain’t exactly clear’. Most of her life she has served fashion without demur, and now the media have created the fashion of female liberation. At last the fucking media look as if they are hoist with their own petard.” Germaine Greer (1970) The slagheap erupts, London Oz, issue 26.

Germaine-Greer
https://thearticle.in

In fact, educated riot grrrls had taken the benchmarks of identity politics, a term often credited to Demita Frazier’s, Beverly Smith and Barbara Smith’s, founders of the Combahee River Collective. Many individual riot grrrls have been influenced by some of the great poets, writers, and theorists that CRC made possible: Alice Walker (who coined the term womanist), Andre Lourde, Bell Hooks, Angela Davis. Smith launched a WOC-focused publishing company from literally around a kitchen table, calling it the Kitchen Table (1980). 

What now? Feminism is more intersectional; communities of much smaller groups with their own focus and concerns related to gender identification, sexuality, colour, for example. All the strands of alternative feminism come together for a mutual cause, such as anti-abortion, FGM, domestic violence against women, women’s right in countries around the world. This tallies with how the internet and new media public sphere has expanded the cultural and political realms – and informal discussion and debate. It’s not that you need riot grrrl in your life. You need to know the legacy of the she-punks and riot grrrl, so you can build on it, rather than start all over again. 

ngaire ruth 1993
Ngaire Ruth 1993 – So what did riot grrrl ever do for us?
  • Riot grrrl normalised women in bands, you could even be pretty, geeky, smiley, and so on 
  • Boys called themselves feminists too. Punk boys supported the women but they didn’t call themselves feminists to fans, outsiders and so on, in the same way. They didn’t declare it, or their musical tastes, such as Kurt referencing the Raincoats.
  • Riot grrl gave us new music and new writing, more women behind the scenes and as managers, agents, promoters, photographers, and artists. 
  • Riot grrrl introduced the first rock workshops, schools, and camps for girls. That’s a game changer. 
  • Riot grrrl gave us LaDIYfest.
  • Grrrl love, as a force for passion projects in music, art and theatre is a priceless tool.
  • Grrrl love makes everything else easier; self-esteem, confidence, self-love, our mental health.
  • Riot grrrl applied feminist theory into their practice: words, music, actions, philosophy (girl love, girls to the front) which effects solutions. 

 

For your reference here’s what Kathleen’s been doing in her own words, since the 90s, The Punk Singer.

More references, please see Part 1 and 2 References for further recommended reading

A Girls Guide to Taking Over the World, Writing from the Girl Zine Revolution, (1997) Karen Green and Tristam Taormino, ed, St  Martins Press: New York Cherie Turner, The Riot Girl Movement, The Rosen Publishing Group: New York, p 13, p 29

I Don’t Belong Here: Cathi Unsworth’s Weirdo In 13 Albums, (that inspired her new novel Weirdo, The Quietus, July 25th, 2012, https://thequietus.com/articles/09449-cathi-unsworth-favourite-albums?page=5 [accessed May 2019] 

  (28 March 2019) Confronting racism is not about the needs and feelings of white people, TheGuardian, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/28/confronting-racism-is-not-about-the-needs-and-feelings-of-white-people?fbclid=IwAR0U8x3ZI44Dk1VXGu3r042VEHVDffgk3zl98Ll_p2_RQGYuURJuHWM_u8s [accessed June 2019] 

Vivien Goldman, Revenge of the She-Punks, A |Feminist Music History from Poly Styrene to Pussy Riot, University of Texas Press: Austin pp 1 and 3 

Lucy O’Brien, (2009), The Guardian, The NME’s First Female Editor, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2009/jul/31/nme-first-female-editor [accessed June 2019] 

 

Other stuff – as you collect riot grrrl info of your own, please add to the comments. 

To read more about women’s writing in the music press, visit Ines Punessen’s online MA dissertation, which includes an interview with myself, Professors Lucy O’Brien and Martin James, former colleagues, among others. In this case study, a male Melody Maker writer admits that they couldn’t have a pregnant music journalist (me, in 1998). Grrrr  

https://bikinikillarchive.wordpress.com/2010/02/22/21410-riot-grrrl-cover-show/ [accessed June 2019]

https://library.rockhall.com/riot_grrrl 

https://riotgrrrlpress.weebly.com/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Defying-Gravity-Jordans-Cathi-Jordan/dp/1785588362/ref=sr_1_1?qid=1559759432&refinements=p_27%3AJordan+Mooney&s=books&sr=1-1&text=Jordan+Mooney

QUIZ

Answer each question using the following point system
 
5. OFTEN 
4. SOMETIMES
3. NEVER
 
  1. If you’re in a boy/girl band, and if the venue landlord, promoter, other bands, the record labels, journalists and sound engineers are male, do they talk directly to the boys in the band, before they’ll catch your eye?
  2. Boys or elders call you darling, or sweetheart, or other when you’ve just met them (in a professional environment.)
  3. You feel you’re taken seriously in workshops, sessions, or auditions as a musician or performer?
  4. You’re expected to contribute and collaborate with friends, contemporaries, mentors?
  5. A feeling that boys have recruited you for their band because you’re a hot girl for a front person, in order to garner press and media attention? 
  6. When playing live, always being aware that there’s a camera or mobile phone, pointing at you from questionable angles?
  7. Do you know of friends or yourself who’ve experienced violence and or groping at gigs? 
  8. Have you experienced girls in a band, class, scene, on the same billing, not being supportive of other wannabe girls musicians and performers? 
  9. Have you experienced girls being competitive over their position in a band, scene, group of friends?
  10. Have you experienced other girls in a boy band making you feel invisible with the pack? 
  11. Do you start conversations with other women contemporaries?
  12. Do you follow through by making contact? 
  13. Do you invite other women contemporaries to collaborate?
A score over 45 suggests that you need riot grrrl in your life. 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s