Grrrl Can’t Help It

Illustration from Razorcake #57 by Brad Beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #57 by Brad Beshaw

Strangely enough, I remember buying my first Bikini Kill record. It was in Vinyl Fever in Tallahassee, Florida sometime in early ’92. My buddy Pete and I were flipping through records and Pete pulled out Bikini Kill. He said, “You’ll like this. It’s kinda like the Butthole Surfers.” I remember looking at the picture on the cover: the grrrls looking so geeky and tough, the trails of light following the bassist as she moved faster than the camera’s shutter. I checked the track listing and liked how the words looked like they’d been etched into cover with some kind of makeshift blade. So I chanced the six bucks and picked up the record.

Of course, there’s problems with this memory. First, I also remember that my record player was stolen when I was away for Christmas in ’91 and I didn’t buy a new one for a couple of years. This means I would’ve been flipping through CDs at the time, not records. Also, that Bikini Kill album came out in June of ’92 and I moved away from Tallahassee in May of ’92.

Clearly, my memory rejects the tyranny of chronological time and verifiable facts. It will reconstruct the past as it sees fit.

I also remember there being a kind of conventional wisdom around the guys in the Tallahassee music scene at the time. It went like this: wear a Bikini Kill T-shirt and punk rock girls will dig you. I never actually tested this wisdom. I rarely had enough money to buy T-shirts at shows and Bikini Kill didn’t come through Tallahassee when I lived there. I think my memory may have made up this conventional wisdom.

I bring this up because, lately, I’ve been trying to remember the riot grrrl movement firsthand. I should be able to remember it. I was alive then. I was in college. A few of my closest friends were in bands. I went out to shows at least two or three nights a week. A lot of the bands I saw had women in them. I knew some of those women. I knew most of the deejays at the university radio station. My next door neighbor was the station manager. Because we shared a porch, we spent a fair amount of time on that porch listening to new music. So I was in the know.

I also have a lot of the music, and I’ve had it for so long that I don’t remember buying it. If I didn’t buy that Bikini Kill record at Vinyl Fever in ’92, I must’ve got it somewhere in Atlanta a couple of years later. Pete lived there then, too. Maybe that conversation happened at Criminal Records in ‘94 instead. And, of course, there’s other stuff that I have around. I have a Kill Rock Stars comp that’s so old it has Courtney Love the band on it. (If you’re like just about everyone else, you probably didn’t know or forgot that before Courtney Love was the stage name of Courtney Harrison, it was a band featuring indie rockers who were not named Courtney and did not marry anyone in Nirvana.) I still have mix tapes so old they may fall apart the next time I try to play them, and they’re full of riot grrrl bands. I have CDs that are equally old and equally representative. I have more Sleater-Kinney albums than I want to admit to in the pages of Razorcake. And how many, exactly, is that? Three. I still listen to two of them regularly. Don’t judge me. At least one of the members of the band—I’m not sure if it was Sleater or Kinney—wanted to be my Joey Ramone.

So what do I remember firsthand about the riot grrrl movement? Only that I went to see L7 in the spring ’92. This I remember clearly because there’d been a girl in my Freshman English class who I’d had a crush on, but she had a boyfriend. Over the next few years, I’d see her on campus and she was fun to hang out with, but she still had that boyfriend. I ran into her again while I was walking over to see L7 and not only did she have no plans for the night, but she was up for walking over to the show with me. And did she still have that boyfriend? No, she did not.

L7 must have put on a hell of show because I remember it. I remember a packed house and everyone going nuts. I remember leaving the show sweaty and the girl I went to the show with leaving sweaty and a mist rose up from her when she stepped into the cold night air. I remember exactly the way she looked at that moment. But I don’t remember a grrrl revolution. I’m not even sure if we can lump L7 in with riot grrrl.

Regardless, I start here to make one simple point: I’m not the person to write the history of riot grrrl. Even though I was around at the time, I barely remember it, and what I do remember is highly questionable. I can’t even write about it without making lame jokes that suggest I don’t know that no one in Sleater-Kinney was named Sleater or Kinney. This doesn’t mean, of course, that the movement is insignificant. It’s not. It’s important. It opened the door for a lot of young women to create and foster an exciting and productive community. It invited more women onto the stage and into punk rock. It helped a lot of women take steps toward becoming empowered.

I’ve been thinking about it, though, because I’ve seen riot grrrl coming back. I haven’t seen it coming back in the cool way, with new grrrl bands and zines and music festivals. Instead, it’s returning in the form of retrospectives—articles written by people whose memory of the movement is even more questionable than mine. The articles all follow the same pattern: punk rock had no room for women; women started their own bands (but apparently only three of them); Olympia, Washington and Washington, DC became the epicenters of women who wrote “slut” on their arms and went to grrrl shows and traded zines; magazines like Sassy and People wrote articles about them; Kathleen Hanna declared a media blackout; the movement continued for another year, then the founders either became more sophisticated (read: less punk, more indie rock) or more legitimately famous (read: toured as Pearl Jam’s opening act).

These retrospectives bother me for a few reasons. First, because they’re all the same. And by all following the same pattern, they suggest that this is the objective history of a movement. Which it’s not. Though it seeks to be a definitive history, it ignores a lot. It ignores that a lot of punk rock women had taken the stage before riot grrrl. For a decade prior to it, women had been instrumental in creating the LA punk scene. Bands like The Bags, Alley Cats, The Brat, and X gave a real voice to women in punk long before Bratmobile did. All-female bands like The Runaways and The Go-Gos had even somewhat normalized the idea of women playing their own instruments before most grrrls had gotten out of elementary school. I don’t point this out to demean what riot grrrls did. I just want to point out that riot grrrl was an evolutionary stage for women in punk, not the completely original phenomena that these retrospectives paint it as.

Another problem with these retrospectives is the context in which they’re emerging. Of course there are problems when the mainstream media tackles anything that has to do with punk rock. That can go without saying. Instead, I want to look at a recent article in Bust Magazine. Because Bust is supposed to be an alternative to the mainstream media. They started out as a zine. Riot grrrl in no small way blazed the trail for them. And in their latest issue, they have a retrospective of riot grrrl. This comes in their music-themed issue. This particular issue has a movie star on the cover. This movie star has her own band. You’ve probably heard her music; it’s in a commercial for cotton. Beyond the movie star, Bust features four other women in music: Joan Jett, Kathleen Hanna, Jill Scott, and Wanda Jackson. Because, apparently, all the women in music either are movie stars or began their careers more than twenty years ago. Hardly a word is dedicated to women in new, current bands, though there is a fashion spread of indie rock women dressed in their favorite outfits.

This is where Bust has taken the trail that riot grrrl blazed for them.

What bugged me most about the retrospective, though, is not that they demonized white male punk rockers (because I like being demonized). It’s not that they portrayed riot grrrl as the first all-girl bands while also running interviews with Joan Jett and Cherie Currie—who were in an all-girl band fifteen years before riot grrrl—in the same issue. It’s not that they’re so clearly clueless about contemporary music. What bugs me is this: in 2005, Jennifer Whiteford came out with the novel Grrrl, which, though it’s fiction, is a more real, honest, and reliable history of the riot grrrl movement than any other that I’ve read. Part of what makes it so great is that Whiteford writes it from a personal standpoint. It shows what it was like for one particular person in one particular place at one particular time while amazing things were happening and she was a part of them. She creates no hierarchies. She does not pretend to be definitive. Instead, she writes a narrative that builds on the empowerment of riot grrrl. It’s a narrative that is empowering itself. And though it takes place in the past, it looks forward to new possibilities for women in the twenty-first century. In short, she does the opposite of what Bust and all of these other retrospectives do.

I’d be lying if I said that it doesn’t bug me that Bust did not review Grrrl, even though the publisher sent them two review copies and two personalized cover letters (I know this because I’m the publisher and I did it), even though the book is exactly the kind of thing Bust readers are looking for. But what really bugs me is how this example demonstrates the way we construct our shared pasts and the history of resistance movements. The people who have the definitive voices are largely ignorant while the real, honest voices are largely ignored.

 

Author’s note: This is the twentieth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #57.  For more information about the collection, read this post. If you enjoy reading my Razorcake columns, please consider subscribing to the magazine.

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