So I just got off the phone with a colleague’s student who’s doing a ‘zine project on feminism and music. I can’t tell you how exciting it is to start your day talking about riot grrrl with a teenage girl.
I teach music history workshops with Girls Rock Camp out of an investment with creating a space for girls to recognize that they are entering into an ongoing history of women and girls coming together to make music. In addition, there’s some important historical moments happening right now. So I thought I’d acknowledge this in song form with a quick post.
First, a few videos from Wild Flag, EMA, and Cher Horowitz, a few acts that I think represent riot grrrl’s legacy.
Next, a tip of the tiara to my Queerbomb brothers and sisters, who took to the streets this past weekend. I recently made a mix CD for our discussion of Judith Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place for my cultural theory seminar, and a number of the selections were the influence of Queerbomb participants, along with Homoground and Expatriarch‘s stellar efforts. Let’s shine a light on Katastrophe, Girl in a Coma, and Miz Korona.
Looking toward the future, I’ll honor some girls in my life. Some of my friends are moms, which is tremendously important work. A lot of them are moms to boys, which is very important, since men who love, respect, and honor women usually have women who taught them that (along with the men who love, respect, honor women–some of my best friends are dads too). All of my love goes out to Sylvan, Will, Declan, Max, and Noah and the parents who are raising them to be good people. But a few girls in my life were recently brought into the world or had a birthday. So let’s honor that with some songs by Kate Bush, Norah Jones, Rosie Flores, and Little Eva–women who share their names.
And finally, tomorrow is Wisconsin’s recall election. This is serious business. I’ll be casting my vote and holding hope for a better future. YACHT, Lady Kier, and Invincible will keep me cautiously optimistic.
In the film adaptation of High Fidelity, one of the protagonist’s ex-girlfriends talks about how tall KISS bassist Gene Simmons always looks onstage. Charlie Nicholson’s point is that height—or at least the illusion of it—is central to a rock star’s iconicity. The Demon is a magnetic figure who demands our attention. The raised platforms and his stacked-heel boots force our gaze forward and upward. Height equals power over who possesses and manipulates our gaze. You’ll never see him less than 300 feet tall.
Within the context of the film, this is a throwaway line. We’re not really meant to pay attention to Charlie’s opinion. The point is made in voice-over and montage that she was always the center of attention, even if Rob Gordon was then more interested in watching her mouth than listening to her opinions. But Charlie has a point. Even if Simmons is already a tall man, he’ll always tower over his audience. That’s why he’s a rock star. But the visual parallel is not lost on Gordon. In Rob’s memory, the person articulating this opinion towers over him. He knows she’s way out of his league and dreads the day when someone sunnier and sparkier catches her eye. His name is Marco.
A tall musician is much appreciated when you’re at a show and barely clear five feet. It is often taken for granted that a venue is a site of constant negotiation, if not outright hostility, for many people. Getting there provides its own obstacles. If you don’t have a car, you have to take a bus or catch a cab or coordinate with friends who we can only assume want to see the same band you do. If you do have a car, you might have to drive alone. This could involve circling around several times to find a closer place to park, arming yourself with mace, and being on your guard to and from the gig. This routine disproportionately burdens women and girls.
Then there’s the show itself. Once you get to a concert, you usually have to stand for hours at a time. This alone can exclude potential concert-goers who live with physical disabilities. Furthermore, it is often assumed that everyone attends a concert for the same reason: the music. Let’s challenge the myth that a concert is this utopian gesture of communal good will. Even if you know all five people at some friend’s basement gig, you can’t assume that everyone’s there to see the band. Usually, you’re watching a band with strangers. The larger the venue, the likelier this is to be the case. Thus you might have to endure people spilling beer or stepping on your feet too. In some instances, folks get predatory and grabby. In my experience, it’s more common for some six-foot tower of a person—usually a guy, though not always—to take root directly in front of you. If these people have no sense of others’ personal space, they might clobber you while swaying to the music. This can be even more of a hassle if they’ve been drinking. When you tally this up, obstructed vision can be the least of your problems at a concert.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go to shows. If anything, this should motivate people to say “Oh fuck this—Wild Flag is coming to my town and I WILL BE THERE.” We shouldn’t have to hope that our friends or partners will join us for protection. While it’s fun to go to shows with people, everyone should feel safe enough to attend a concert alone. We should claim our space, insist that venues accommodate everyone and be sensitive to their individual needs, and demand safe transport for each attendee.
But height is a feminist issue, and not just because we need monitors flanking an amphitheater stage to catch a glimpse of Rihanna. It’s why the riot grrrl movement was on to something when individual bands insisted that girls stand in front of the crowd at shows. This gesture called out rock’s unspoken misogyny and influenced acts like the Beastie Boys to stop performances if they saw female concert-goers getting mistreated or swallowed up by the pit. Of course, there are plenty of short dudes who go to concerts. But more often, girls and short women are made invisible.
This extends well past the venue space. Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, a three-and-a-half-hour film about the invisible drudgery of feminine domestic labor, is brilliant for a whole host of reasons. But there are at least two meanings behind the shots where the main character’s head is cropped in the frame. One is that Dielman’s subjectivity—which we might register through facial cues—doesn’t matter to those around her. The other is that the shot illustrates the director’s point of view. This is what a short person sees. It’s why at some point I want to write a book about concert spectatorship just so the cover can be an image of what I often see at a rock show: lots of people’s heads and shoulders and maybe the band. Rejecting this perspective is how rock concerts taught me to use my elbows as a feminist.
Off stage, you’ll never see EMA’s Erika M. Anderson or YACHT’s Claire L. Evans less than six feet tall. But what they do with their height on stage is interesting. At a recent show at the Sett, Evans channeled Robyn or mid-80s Nick Rhodes with her white suit, leotard, wedge heels, and matching platinum coif. At around the same time, I also caught EMA at the Frequency. Anderson was quietly holding court in grungy clothes and reddish-brown hair—a departure from the dark-rooted blonde dye job I saw her sporting at previous concerts and in promotional photos.
The shows were very different from one another, both in terms of the music itself and in how the audiences responded to each band. In many ways, YACHT is a successor to conceptual new wave bands like DEVO and the B-52s. They’re art nerds with a chick lead singer who use cult imagery and capitalist symbols to keep the dance party going. Some of the audience got this while others wrapped their arms around amplifiers to steady themselves through a drug trip. A fair number of audience members hooted at Evans, and it was interesting to see her at once play with her sexuality and openly disdain others’ objectification.
EMA is no less interested in symbolic imagery. Like Patti Smith, Lydia Lunch, Michael Gira, and Kim Gordon before her, there’s something very Catholic about Anderson’s free-associative lyrics, particularly her emphasis on ritual, sacrifice, and erotic pain. God (or Leadbelly, or Leadbelly interpreted by Kurt Cobain) may have also taught her to negotiate, because she had the audience’s rapt attention while rarely propelling her voice above a whisper.
Granted, an intimate venue disguised as a dive bar is not the same as a state college’s multipurpose venue space. WUD booked YACHT’s show and has a partnership deal with Best Buy. I doubt 100 people were at the EMA show, but all of them seemed to focus their energies on the band and only unfolded their arms to quietly clap after each song. If the two bands swapped venues—and both bands have experience with many kinds of performance spaces—we’d have seen two different shows. Yet I was able to see Evans and Anderson very clearly. With Evans, I pushed myself to the front and craned my neck. With Anderson, I got a clear view of the stage between two sets of shoulders. Both women took ownership of their space, using their bodies to demonstrate choreographed dance moves and filling the air with their distinct voices. I couldn’t take my eyes off either of them.
Do kids still go to book fairs? I hope so. In grade school, I always anticipated them. It was at book fairs that I got some of my favorite titles, including Dyan Sheldon’s Tall, Thin, and Blonde, Sherryl Jordan’s Winter of Fire, and selections from Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series. Well, that and the odd Garfield digest because dammit if that lasagna-eating tabby didn’t garner my affection at an early age. But I’d also grab those biographies and user-friendly historical surveys about Beethoven or alternative rock. Hence why I bring up book fairs for a post on Marissa Meltzer’s Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music–it’s great for the sixth grader who’s just starting to pick up a guitar or headphones and wants some direction toward ladies who rocked when his/her parents were coming of age. If I could assign readings for my Girls Rock Camp music history workshops, I would. Perhaps I’ll tell them to consult their local library or give it a skim on Google Books. Not that I endorse Google as an intermediary.
However, I’m not sure Girl Power will do much for folks who were there or have a deeper understanding of women’s contributions to alternative rock, riot grrrl, Lilith Fair, and pop music in the 1990s. I anticipated how sentences would end before my eyes registered closing punctuation marks. Like, I was there when everyone bought Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. I’ve seen Courtney Love . . . evolve. I wore barrettes and black nail polish and made bedroom wallpaper fashioned from magazine images. I remember when girls pretended to be the Spice Girls at junior high talent shows. I didn’t know about riot grrrl in 1993, but after college and student radio, I think I could teach an undergrad course on it.
This isn’t to dismiss Meltzer’s efforts, as she succinctly outlines the players, the period, and the stakes with user-friendly, assured prose that evinces her success as a music journalist. However, I wasn’t surprised by any of her findings and was frustrated by how little there was for me to latch onto. I do commend Meltzer for attempting not to present the decade as a halcyon era whose promise hasn’t been fulfilled in subsequent generations of female musicians. However, I would have appreciated more context about why this decade is especially significant to the development of women in popular music beyond being the time in which Meltzer, some of her respondents, and her peers experienced and identified with music for the first time. At roughly 140 pages, there’s little room to explore these issues.
I certainly appreciate Meltzer’s acknowledgment that riot grrrl and alternative rock were largely the pursuits of white, middle-class musicians and that these subgenres are often privileged by third wave feminists, who reflect these racial and class identities. I empathize with her surreptitious attitude toward women’s music’s earnestness, its influence on the development of Lilith Fair, and the transphobic practices of some women’s music festivals. However, I don’t think she does a good job presenting counterexamples. Her chapter on girl groups focuses almost exclusively on the Spice Girls, without addressing the group’s racial make-up or discussing black female vocal groups like En Vogue, SWV, TLC, or Destiny’s Child. When she talks about solo artists, she inadvertently constructs a binary between commercially friendly confessional singer-songwriters like Fiona Apple or jailbait bubblegum starlets like Britney Spears. Hip hop reached its peak during the decade and several female emcees were responsible for its success, but folks like Salt-N-Pepa, Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliott, Da Brat, Foxy Brown, Lady of Rage, and Sistah Souljah get at-best minimal attention. R&B artists like Adina Howard and Aaliyah confronted and challenged cultural assumptions of black female sexuality. Selena’s influence continues to grow. Here’s hoping subsequent editions of the book include them.
This book is a good start, but begs to be dialogued with books like Sara Marcus’ Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution. I’d love to get feedback on what seventh grade musicians thinks about how these books represent their musical periods. Better yet, let’s hear how they might be honoring, improving upon, or dispensing with their legacies altogether. I have a hunch Meltzer and Marcus wanna know too.
I was at lovely SUNY Cortland over the weekend, co-chairing a panel with Kristen about Girls Rock Camp. We met some awesome scholars/activists from fourteen different countries, shook hands with enthusiastic coordinator Caroline Kaltefleiter, heard some great papers and talks on a variety of subjects, made contacts with several GRC organizers (including our roommate, who runs Girls Rock Denver and is working on her PhD in Communication Studies at Michigan), did an interview with a PhD student at OSU, and have lists of things we need to read. Here are just a few things I learned.
1. There’s a world of difference between youth organizing and organizing youth. We should strive for the former. This is a difficult process, but listening is of the utmost importance. Thinking of girls as agents of change is another.
2. My former thesis adviser Mary Kearney was present, as was keynote speaker Sharon Mazzarella. Kearney participated in the plenary and presented new research on how to fix the dropout rate amongst female production students. She managed to ask at least one transformative question in each panel we both attended. She also made several smart comments in the plenary, calling out the normalization of students’ upper-class backgrounds in the academy and hoping that the field of girls studies never achieves total legitimacy in the academy so that groundbreaking work can continue to happen outside the top-tier schools and across disciplines. Mazzarella stressed the strength of girls’ studies emphasis on an interdisciplinary approach as well. I want to be these women when I grow up.
3. Marilee Salvator’s “Moo Goes the Cow” was featured at the “Girl” exhibit that coincided with the conference. It was a series of embroidery loops with silk-screened images of anatomical diagrams of genitalia, needlepoint, cartoons, and menstrual blood serving as a commentary of recalling repressed memories of child abuse. It blew my mind.
5. Brock University’s Shauna Pomerantz and Rebecca Raby presented work they’ve done on nerdy girls, bridging representations with ethnographies. I’m interested in how this work will evolve, and hope they continue to challenge the racial dimension of female nerds, speak to girls who fit the profile of the nerd but don’t always make straight As, and address nerdy girls who engage in delinquent behavior.
6. The wave metaphor alienates many feminists and womanists of color, many of whom were excluded from its formations. White feminists should move away from using it. Also, speaking for myself, it’s always seemed like a problematic construct that doesn’t speak much to me as a feminist.
7. Regrettably, I could not attend Sunday’s film screening, which featured girl-made projects that came out of a workshop Kearney co-facilitated with Cortland’s Cynthia Sarver. I wish I had, though, as we should always include actual girls in girls’ studies conferences. We regret being unable to get girls to speak at our panel. We put out a call on the GRC listserv, but imagine that financial and parental concerns speak to their absence. As always, something to work on.
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.