First, an admission: like several feminist friends in my age group, riot grrrl didn’t make a profound impact of me until college. I was 10 in 1993, the year Sara Marcus claims as pivotal for the movement in her book Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution. I was moving away from Mariah Carey and getting into the Pet Shop Boys. Riot grrrl was first on my radar through mainstream distortion in the pages of Spin and in the Spice Girls’ defanged “girl power” message. In high school, I started listening to post-riot grrrl bands like Sleater-Kinney, who were in rotation on the local university radio station. But it wasn’t until hearing about bands like Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear in women’s studies courses, reading essays that connected riot grrrl with queercore, and programming a weekly show as a college deejay that I came to have any relationship with the movement. Marcus’s book is a great reintroduction and a valuable entry point for folks who have only a cursory knowledge of riot grrrl.
I especially appreciate that, despite the book’s monolithic title, Marcus incorporates the shared experiences of many girl participants. Riot grrrl tends to be defined by its adult-aged bands, with Bikini Kill and Bratmobile representing the movement. But many teenage girls were inspired by these bands. Some formed ‘zines and bands of their own, like Girl Friend founder Christina Woolner and Heavens to Betsy’s Tracy Sawyer and Corrin Tucker. Not all of their contributions were preserved or recorded, so the book’s intervention is all the more important. Some of these girls also came from working class or single-parent households or did not attend college. Furthermore, while much is made of the movement’s Pacific Northwest origins and identification with liberal arts colleges like Evergreen, Marcus is quick to refute essentializing class assumptions. Riot grrrl’s class heterogeneity becomes more pronounced when Bikini Kill and Bratmobile relocate in Washington D.C. and contend with the hardcore scene, which was primarily peopled by diplomats’ children.
By dialoging band members’ and movement participants’ shared experiences, Marcus challenges the notion that riot grrrl was sustained exclusively by white, middle-class, college-educated women. She also points out the movement’s aspirations toward queer inclusiveness were complicated by the efforts of predominantly straight or bi-curious cisgender females. Previous interpretations of riot grrrl represent it as a celebration of white girls challenging gender politics in a vacuum. Marcus points out how some girls created ‘zines, formed organizations, chaired panels, and created conferences challenging feminism’s inherent white privilege, racism, heteronormativity, and class politics, often causing contention and defensiveness from within.
Thus, I also liked reading that riot grrrl was an imperfect, discursive movement comprised of many conflicting opinions, belief systems, and identities. Despite third wave feminism’s investment in the fragmented female self, so often riot grrrl is depicted as a halcyon period for a then-nascent third wave. While it’s sad to read about in-fighting and rivalries, it’s refreshing to read differing opinions on philosophies and movement imperatives. As someone who’s participated in collective and politically-minded non-profit organizations, it seems a more honest representation.
Furthermore, the presence of male oppression from within informs riot grrrl in interesting ways. Riot grrrl formed in response to the right wing’s attack on feminism’s political gains as well as the cultural silencing of incest, sexual abuse, intimate partner violence, poor body image, and low self-esteem. It also opposed punk and hardcore’s exclusionary, homophobic, and misogynistic tendencies, best symbolized by the mosh pit, and implemented “girls in front” or “girls only” policies at shows. So it was really interesting to read about how bands like Fugazi aligned with riot grrrl, but were less willing to cede control over their audience. In 1992, Fugazi and Bikini Kill played a Supreme Court protest. Frontman Ian MacKaye bristled at the idea of sharing the bill out of concern that the event would be misunderstood as a concert. He was also unable to reign in the aggressive inclinations of his predominantly white male fan base, and blamed the women in the audience who defended their space in the pit.
Marcus also does a good job addressing controversial figures like Jessica Hopper. Now an established music journalist who penned The Girls’ Guide to Rocking, Hopper was associated with the St. Paul/Minneapolis scene and came to notoriety as the girl who sold out riot grrrl by speaking out of turn to Newsweek, which hit newsstands in November 1992. Many riot grrrls, who already witnessed message dilution in other mainstream publications, interpreted her interview with Farai Chideya as an attempt to further her own media career. By her mid-teens, Hopper launched a successful ‘zine, Hit It And Quit It, interviewed Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, and corresponded with Courtney Love. Marcus honors the opinions of girls who knew and felt betrayed by Hopper, but also tries to represent the writer’s viewpoint as well.
Girls to the Front suffers a sad ending, as many believed fell riot grrrl. Like Hanna, some riot grrrls were strippers but had difficulty negotiating theoretical rebellion against capitalism and conventional sexual politics with adult entertainment’s regressive market imperatives. More of them disbanded local chapters after internal struggle and lagging membership. Bratmobile disbanded after a major blowout on stage. Girl love is revolutionary, but it can be hard to sustain.
Marcus concludes by outlining riot grrrl’s cultural contributions and documenting the late-90s trend of commodifying girlhood and the mainstreaming of post-feminism. She mentions riot grrrl-influenced bands like Gossip, as well as the influence figures like First Lady Michelle Obama hold. I would like more of a discussion about the cultural significance of Girls Rock Camp, as well as Ladies Rock Camp. The many-armed non-profit is carving space in several cities in the U.S., Canada, Western Europe, and is catching on in countries like Argentina. Founded in Portland, Girls Rock Camp counts Hanna, Bratmobile’s Erin Smith, Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein, and Gossip’s Beth Ditto as champions. The organization is perhaps the clearest indication of riot grrrl’s influence. It certainly borrows from riot grrrl’s reliance on regionalism to spread its larger message. More importantly, it provides space for girls’ actualization and self-empowerment through music and DIY media production, which were riot grrrl’s main imperatives. As both organizations are still quite young, I understand wanting to wait and see what these organizations will become. Also, they should get their own books.
However, Marcus does something valuable with Girls to the Front. In representing riot grrrl’s imperfections and contradictions, as well as its relevance, she argues at once for its historical significance while challenging how we understand it. Make sure to check it out when it hits stores in October. Maybe it’ll convince you form a band with your best girlfriend and kick off a new revolution.
Before I went on vacation, Kristen at Act Your Age told me that PBS was going to show Dream of Life, a 2008 documentary by Steven Sebring about Patti Smith. Then yesterday, as I was sorting out my house, my friends Jacob and Melissa reminded me that it was going to be on later that night. It should be noted that I received reminder messages from them within the span of five minutes. I’m fine with being the music geek friends send these sorts of notices to. Thanks, everyone.
First, a disclaimer. I’m not a Patti Smith fan. What I mean by that is, I don’t know Smith’s music very well. Several of my friends got to know her through her music, perhaps developing their feminist and/or queer identities as a result. I’m sure the same could be said for readers of this blog I don’t know personally. This isn’t to say I’m not open to listening to her work. I’m just not very familiar with it. If there is interest in subsequent posts wherein I listen to her albums in chronological order and document my thoughts about it like Carrie Brownstein did with Phish earlier this year, show me the way.
Next, a confession. I haven’t until recently been interested in listening to Patti Smith’s music. While I haven’t listened to Horses in its entirety, I am familiar with her, and the ways in which I’m familiar with her give me pause. Here is why.
1. Each time I see a documentary where she is discussed, the opening chords to “Gloria” fade in and a bunch of musicians wax pretentious about how her music melded the sacred with the profane, or that she was not a musician but a poet and I get pissy. Not because of the song, but because of the purple prose being recited over it. I actually hadn’t heard the song in full until I was well into college.
2. With some exception, these superlatives tend to come from men: Glenn Branca, Thurston Moore, Legs McNeil, Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye, Richard Hell, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, and Michael Stipe are but a few names. I remember Alice Bag talks about her influence in the supplemental feature about women in punk in Don Letts’s Punk: Attitude and I know riot grrrl pioneers like Kathleen Hanna were inspired by her, but the praise mainly comes from the men. Established or well-regarded rock and roll dudes. Legends, if you will.
3. In some of the things I have read on Smith, she wasn’t very kind to the women and girls around her. Blondie’s Debbie Harry talks about how dismissive and unfriendly she was during their CBGB’s days in Please Kill Me, an oral history on New York punk collected by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. It was also reported in Mark Spitz and the late Brendan Mullen’s L.A. punk oral history We Got the Neutron Bomb that Smith was nasty to The Runaways after they tried to visit her backstage after a concert, leaving a baby Joan Jett particularly crushed. Now, oral histories are tenuous at best and Smith is not asked to comment about any of this. Also, Bebe Buell speaks favorably of Smith in Please Kill Me. Kim Gordon has a prolonged friendship with her as well. But this, coupled with the fact that she doesn’t identify as a feminist makes me feel weird about her status as a feminist rock icon.
4. Add to this the very apparent sense of malecentric hero worship Smith evinces and I feel really weird about her. While I like that she likes Maria Callas, The Ronettes, and Christina Aguilera, I don’t get the sense that she had much use for women. She cut her hair to look like Keith Richards. She learned to hail a cab by watching Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back, a man who would later tune her guitar. That same guitar was a gift from Sam Shepard. Tom Verlaine apparently has the most beautiful neck in rock music, though her husband Fred “Sonic” Smith of MC5 possessed something altogether else. Pablo Picasso made inimitable art until Jackson Pollack created paintings out of the drippings from Picasso’s Guernica. Willem de Kooning’s paintings made her want to touch the art in museums, an “offense” she gleefully committed on more than one occasion.
In addition, Smith’s most well-known for covering songs by men, reclaiming Them’s “Gloria,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe,” and Nirvana’s “About A Girl.” Of course, she redefined those songs by singing them as a man without changing the male-female pronouns or amending them to be about Patty Hearst or Kurt Cobain. And, as I’m sure my friend Curran would be quick to point out, Smith often aligns herself with queer men like Arthur Rimbaud, Robert Mapplethorpe, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Michael Stipe. Curran may also posit that this makes Smith more closely as a transgendered person, which makes sense given Smith’s commitment to androgyny and sexual ambiguity.
However, I’ve always felt that Smith’s indebtedness to men has aligned herself at with a more liberal feminist, at times heterosexist view of how women play the game of rock (i.e., play the man’s game). While I get how others believe that she’s expanded how women can look and sound in rock, to me it still feels more like she’s abiding by male definitions of performance and sound rather than redefining it for female artists, a group she may not in fact feel that she is a part of.
To be clear, I don’t need her to be feminine. I’d like it if she were a feminist, but I’d be happier if it just seemed like femaleness wasn’t so burdensome or powerless or safe to her. However, this is how it’s often seemed to me that Smith views or once viewed my sex category, and with it my gender, and this has always been our wedge. I’ll let her state her case.
Of course, this outlook may evince some potential transphobia on my part. I also might be privileging binaristic norms around gender and sexuality instead of championing fluidity. This nagging feeling keeps me coming back to Smith as an idea. But maybe I should get to know her better. And with that, the documentary.
I’ll be blunt again. For the most part, I found this documentary to be indulgent yet slight. Smith of course is the subject, but I was disheartened by how much she seemed to dictate the narrative (I find it just as frustrating when men do this, though I did like when Smith ordered filming to cease backstage before a performance). I would have liked more context.
I also would’ve liked to have been surprised by it more. I didn’t learn much about the artist or the person behind her mythology. I also didn’t get much of a sense of time and place. I could deduce the passing of time by watching her children mature. I understood when we were watching her tour the Trampin’ album because she was speaking out against the Iraq War and the Bush administration. I gather that dancing on the beach in Coney Island with Lenny Kaye was fun, but don’t know why it needed to be shown in slow motion. I know that losing her husband and her friend and long-time collaborator was traumatic because she said so. I don’t know how she felt about the loss of her parents during the 2000s. I saw that she loved playing with her guitarist son Jackson, who toured with her, but I know very little about her daughter Jesse past a gender-bending pubescent trip to the bathroom and, later, a carriage ride with her mother. And past some previously captured interview footage of Smith, I don’t know why she left mundane New Jersey to become a punk poet in New York, though I think I can imagine why.
That said, there were little snatches of Patti Smith the daughter and the artsy gender rebel that I enjoyed and did help me get to know her better. Seeing her eat hamburgers at her parents’ time-warp home. Seeming both proud and embarrassed when her father admits that he can’t go to his daughter’s concerts anymore because he lost his hearing at the earlier gigs he did attend while wearing one of her concert t-shirts. Trading chords with Shepard. Reminiscing about eating hot dogs in Coney Island with Maplethorpe. Holding up her children’s baby clothes and proudly declaring their cleanliness and her refusal to use bleach. Talking about how wanting to touch original paintings in museums is easily satisfied by making your own art. Playing woodwinds with Flea on the beach and swapping stories about how expertly both musicians can pee into bottles while traveling. And seeing her performances and hearing her words, her songs. I wish I was given a timeline to find out when all of these works were created, but I’m content to find out for myself. Let’s start by revisiting ”Redondo Beach.”
My mom raised me right. Roseanne was required family viewing when I was a kid. I remember watching season eight’s “The Getaway, Almost” with her — I was in seventh grade. In it, Roseanne and Jackie pick up a musician named Garland who’s involved with riot grrrl and then get righteously, proactively pissed about sexism and dumb boy shit.
I’m gonna co-teach a Music History class for Girls Rock Camp Austin in two weeks, and, in thinking about curriculum and how to go about discussing riot grrrl, I was like, “dude, I gotta watch that again.”
Now, I know there’s some weirdness. For one, Jenna Elfman is a riot grrrl? Dharma? Whatever, that’s cool, even if she’s a Scientologist (she’s also in the music video for Depeche Mode’s “Halo”). For another, the episode aired in November 1995. By that point, riot grrrl was already co-opted, commodified, and compromised by the mainstream media.
Some may argue that the discussion itself may be a little on-the-nose, but I’m so thrilled that ABC devoted eight minutes (roughly 1/3 of an episode) to a discussion about riot grrrl, sexism, and feminism! And they played Bikini Kill’s “Don’t Need You”! WHAT?!?!?!? I know that their rawkus sound is played for laughs, but you can’t beat the look on Roseanne’s face when she starts absorbing the sound and message.
Man, I really miss this show.
Truth be told, my musical tastes and my penchant for feminism both developed early on, and didn’t have much to do with one another. I was lucky enough to grow up in an environment that supported women’s rights. I was taught that I lived in a world where sexism existed, but that ladies could still do anything they wanted. As time went on, I realized that this was called “feminism” and that it was pretty cool.
I believe the first record I listened to that coincided with my realization that feminism was a real thing was Ani DiFranco’s Not a Pretty Girl. I was ten when the record came out, but it wasn’t until my thirteenth birthday, when my older sister put “32 Flavors” on a mix entitled “Songs to Get You Through Being a Teenager,” that I heard any songs from it. I listened to this track over and over and over (and over) again. When I would crave more Ani, I would sneak into her room and steal her CD. It was a window into the outside where someone besides my relatives were talking about what it was like to be a lady in that day and age.
It wasn’t until college that I had my second feminist musical awakening when I heard “Deceptacon” off of Le Tigre’s self-titled album. I had recently joined a very rad feminist organization with very rad feminist ladies, many of whom were—dare I state the obvious?—music geeks. Fun, dancey, in-yr-face feminism. I danced to that song countless times, either by myself or in (small or large) groups of people. I think I’m going to go dance to it right now, actually.
But you know what records also affirmed my belief in feminism? All those nu metal and rap/rapcore bands from the late ’90s/early ’00s that were always on TRL. It made me a very angry fourteen year old. Actually, it makes me a very angry twenty-four year old. I think I need to listen to “Deceptacon” again.
Honorable mention would go to Sarah McLachlan’s Surfacing (though her songs were more personal than political), Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville (though I was already identifying as a feminist when I first heard this album), the entire discography of Bikini Kill (though that was later in my life, too, because I considered that more my sister’s band, where Le Tigre was mine), and anything Prince did from 1984 to 1987 (because it connected with one aspect of feminism—sex is a good thing and it’s ok for women to desire and be desired).
The moral of the story: ladies rock, and listening to ladies rocking out is a good way to remind yourself of this fact.