Riot grrrl is still relevant, says the former Violet Violet singer – and now ‘The Girls Are…’ editor
2013 was one hell of a year for feminism. The ideology of the movement may have been lost in the ladette years of the noughties – the Fratellis/Franz riff chanted across festival fields everywhere – but last year, it came back with a vengeance, across the board.
For the humble music fan, notable shifts appeared following Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ which raised an important conversation around abuse, culture and consent, and sparked a whole internet of memes and feminist parodies. Following their performances at this year’s Chime For Change concert, both John Legend (yup, that guy) and Lady B came out as a feminist – the latter remarking in an interview with Vogue UK that she “did believe in equality” and surmised she was most probably “a modern-day feminist”.
But there was something else rumbling on the other side of the Atlantic. Someone who had taken a back seat from the movement after years of battling with long progressed Lyme’s disease and instead, rather sought to make music for herself rather than living up to everyone’s expectations. Thankfully for us, as if heralded by this fourth wave of rebel grrrls in the media, Kathleen Hanna – one of the first gen-icons to quite literally beckon girls to the front – returned to the stage, and our stereos, with The Julie Ruin’s debut ‘Run Fast’.
“This is the sound of the revolution”
A direct descendant of the radical feminism of the late 1960s and early 1970s, riot grrrl represented the discomfort among many women within the punk movement who felt sidelined by the music they truly loved. Throughout the decade, riot grrrl thrived between two poles – Olympia and Washington DC, Bikini Kill’s second home, where consciousness-raising meetings were held. Their aim? To carve a space for women in a world that still saw them as groupies rather than musicians. Their call was for “revolution girl-style now” and in tackling inequality, they planned to attack other issues: abuse, rape, eating disorders.
In Olympia, Hanna was studying photography and running a small art gallery that also staged bands. In Washington, friends Molly Neuman and Allison Wolfe were bonding over their love of music, sparking their first fanzine together: Girl Germs. The pair also notoriously went on to form another of the first-generation acts of the Pacific northwest, Bratmobile. A modern day riot grrrl’s dream lineup, the band played their first show in support of Hanna’s Bikini Kill project that she formed with Tobi Vale off the back of the similarly named fanzine they both produced.
The same summer that saw these women come together, Naomi Wolf notably released her second wave feminist classic The Beauty Myth. The second wave work served to challenge the perceptions of image and the oppressions, Wolf herself stating the beauty myth to be “the last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact”. Fed to such an uprising of smart (and angry) girls already fuelled by their own beliefs and political agendas, the riot grrrl movement quickly spread across the country.
Girls across America, and beyond, were beginning to question how far feminism had taken them and riot grrrl exploded straight out of that frustration. But it wasn’t just the US feeling the feminist force. Across the pond, self heralded “boy-girl revolutionaries” Huggy Bear formed the same year in London and rode in tandem with their Olympia-based visionaries.
The band’s debut EP, Rubbing the Impossible to Burst, was released in 1992, and in the same year they began working closely with Bikini Kill as riot grrrl’s popularity peaked on both sides of the Atlantic. This collaboration culminated in a split record between the pair on Catcall Records and Kill Rock Stars (their respective labels at the time) called Our Troubled Youth/Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah.
“Turn it up, it really isn’t loud enough”
Kill Rock Stars harboured the political sensibilities of a left wing feminist and prided itself on a strong commitment to showcasing riot grrrl bands of the 90s including (the largely integrated sounds of) Heavens to Betsy, Excuse 17 and Sleater Kinney. Such a fierce commitment to gender diversity is not something that begins and ends here though as a number of independent labels and distributors still go to prove today.
Upset The Rhythm, a live music promoter and record label based in London, UK, is collectively run with a similarly strong sense of DIY ethic as its punk predecessors. Founder of U!TR, Chris Tipton describes his early influences when shaping the label back in 2005. “I was inspired by a lot of labels like Slampt, Dischord, K Records and KRS when growing up and I think they all helped to provide a platform for women making music. I particularly liked the way that they did this without making a novelty out of themselves and their bands, they just focussed on releasing incredible music.” So how does this translate into the reality of shaping a roster and the consciousness of gender diversity amongst a label? “Gender diversity is something worthwhile being aware of, especially when considering the lineup of a show as I personally find all-male lineups can feel a little one-dimensional (as can all-female ones for that matter). (U!TR works) “…with a lot of female artists mainly as a byproduct of wanting to work with genuinely refreshing, interesting, forward-facing music, rather than a more contrived tokenism”.
Showcasing and putting out such a wealth of incredible female identified artists and bands, it’s not surprising then to learn that the return of The Julie Ruin at the end of last year is something that hasn’t gone unnoticed in the Upset The Rhythm offices (not least as U!TR will play host to the band twice this year here in London). “Hanna…is arguably the most credible figurehead for Riot Grrrl in a mainstream sense and her lyrics and unique voice have influenced many people, myself included. But I think Bikini Kill as a band were a force of nature and their potency as a gateway band speaks directly to many female and male fans of DIY culture even today.”
In the last twelve months, the indie scene has played host to a number of powerful voices of the new wave of grrrl power; a festival hosted and curated by an indisputable radical feminist icon– with a line up that boasted the iconoclastic Kim Gordon and militant majesty of Savages, the exasperated call for equality from one woman powerhouse, Grimes (“I don’t want to have to compromise my morals in order to make a living”) and Pussy Riot penetrate the public consciousness with their outspoken cry to lift the patriarchal oppression. But does all this signify a shift in the way female musicians are perceived within the press? Fronting a DIY label such as Upset The Rhythm, Tipton deals first hand with these issues on a daily basis and admits: “A lot of lazy assumptions persist in the press specifically to the “all-girl band”. you wouldn’t think an all-male band would necessarily have a shared politics, culture and set of ideals, yet the “all-girl band” is always confined by these expectations in the press”.
“Girls Get Busy”
Historically, it tends to be the abrasive and defiant sounds of these punk pioneers who are remembered: but for those involved in the scene at the time, it was everything from forming bands, putting on shows, and guerrilla theatre. One of the central forms of communication was the zine: adoringly handwritten, typed manifestos full of collaged confessions, rants and ratings, photocopied and diligently shared and distributed at gigs or by post.
Last year The Feminist Press reproduced and published a series of Riot Grrrl Zines and original prints for the very first time since their original distribution. Before the rise of desktop publishing, the zine culture shaped the voice of a generation. Girls Get Busy is one such platform to come out of the movement with its hands held high for the support of female-identified artists, writers and musicians. First crafted within her early, GBB’s curator Beth Siveyer was first exposed to zines through the DIY punk ethos and riot grrrl culture of her youth.
Explaining the importance of such an expression in today’s socially savvy society, Siveyer expounds: “Zines act more like an anthology of feminist art and written work. When I made my first zine, it was very liberating for me….(with) zine culture, anyone can give it a go”. But there’s an interesting dichotomy played out between the role of handmade and (web) hosted nowadays though, Siveyer adds: “The blog gives me chance to post multimedia content on a daily and has definitely allowed (me)… to reach a much wider audience”. Now on its 20th issue, Girls Get Busy has grown into a 10,000 follower strong digital go-to for all things feminista.
“Putting the grrr into being a grrrl”
With the UK screenings of The Punk Singer set for later this year here in the UK and the return of The Julie Ruin to London’s live music scene this May at The Dome, it would seem our cultural lightning rod is back and brighter than ever. So what does this say for the new wave of digital feminism so rife within forums and fanzines everywhere and who are our riot grrrls of today? (almost certainly none of the lacklustre balladeers nominated for this year’s Brit Awards; it was good once wasn’t it? I swear…)
Some will argue that the separation of genders within music doesn’t serve to celebrate only alienate but within a pop culture that very rarely boasts a female cover on the front of our music magazines – and when they do, they are invariably missing most of their clothes – isn’t it time we took a leaf out of Hanna’s book and erred towards a few more of our sensational female artists to come to the front?
Oh, come on.