In light of the recent success of female-fronted bands such as Gossip, it seemed timely to look back at the Riot Grrrl movement and the inspiration it provided to a younger school of musicians.
Beth Ditto and her band, Gossip, have been splashed across the UK press in a big way this past year. Fear not, this is not just another article about squirrels! Gossip's brand of energetic punk-pop, their outspoken frontwoman and their political affiliations have caught the attention of the mainstream media and, it seems, the public. A great deal of the attention has been on Ditto herself and the fact that she is fat (and proud of it), gay (and proud of it!) and feminist (ditto – ha!). I can't seem to turn on my tv lately without seeing her face on even the most inane shows.
They started out some seven years ago. Such a big voice in such a small town (Judsonia, Arkansas) was never going to work. Ditto and Gossip guitarist Nathan Howdeshell (who goes by the moniker Brace Payne) moved from backwoods Arkansas to Olympia, Washington where, inspired by the Do-It-Yourself aesthetic of the thriving local music scene, they decided to start a band.
Gossip's first two full-length albums, 2001's That's Not What I Heard and 2003's Movement, released on the Kill Rock Stars label, are rough, unpolished affairs of short, snappy, punky songs which do not shy away from overtly lesbian lyrics and the band's political agenda. These sentiments are still there with their most recent album Standing In The Way Of Control, the title track of which is a diatribe against the Bush government's decision not to sanction gay marriage in the US. The difference is that now people are dancing to it in clubs and are blissfully unaware of its political sentiments; a nice coat of sparkly lipstick has been added to make it all a bit more presentable.
But the basics of Gossip's ethos owe a lot to Riot Grrrl. The DIY philosophy is still very much present, with Ditto doing newspaper interviews about how to make and amend your own clothing and the statement on the band's MySpace page:
“START YR OWN BAND
- PLAY BROKEN GUITARS. DO NOT WORRY ABOUT TUNING, RHYTHM AND DETONATION”.
Ditto has not been shy about her political leanings and, whilst courting the press in a way that riot grrrls at the time never did (she even has her own fortnightly Guardian column – What Would Beth Ditto Do?), she brazenly speaks her mind about issues important to her, and does not sugar her words. The music itself also shows many similarities, and it is no coincidence that their early albums were released on Kill Rock Stars. Of course one can ascribe many influences in listening to Gossip, from the bluesy wail of Janis Joplin to the soulful belting of Aretha Franklin, but the punk allegiances are very much there for all to see.
As Ms Ditto herself puts it “I don't want the world, I only want what I deserve” - a message which would have fitted perfectly with the beliefs of those early riot grrrls.
“Revolution girl style now!”
So what is Riot Grrrl? Well, it all started in 1991, around the time of the International Pop Underground Convention, in the Pacific Northwest of America, specifically Olympia, Washington and Washington DC. Disillusioned by the male-dominated, often misogynist, world of punk music, a group of women decided to take matters into their own hands.
A deeply political movement, this scene was as much about activism and 'the message' as the music that was produced. Equally important was the creation, and distribution, of zines (key zines including Jigsaw and Girl Germs), and the co-ordination of gatherings and festivals such as Pussystock, where seminars and workshops were held on such topics as sexual abuse and self-defence. Tackling head-on issues including sexuality, gender, sexism and homophobia (overlapping here with the Queercore movement), as well as rape, domestic and sexual abuse, body image, abortion and a woman's right to choose, the aim was to build communities of women, encourage communication and shared experience and, ultimately, to empower.
The popular press naturally misinterpreted the intentions of these “angry young women”, misquoted them, and wrote spiels about how they were 'man-haters' who neglected to take care of their appearance, completely missing the point about standing up for equal rights, for what you believe in, and for not being ashamed of what happens to be between your legs. So misrepresented were they that, by 1992, key members called for a “media blackout”, refusing to speak to the popular press. This had the unfortunate effect of limiting available information even further, therefore continuing to distort what was fed to the public about the intended purpose of the movement.
The roots of Riot Grrrl music were firmly in punk, with key influences including Patti Smith (to my mind the original riot grrrl), The Slits, The Raincoats, Joan Jett, Crass, The Plasmatics, The Au Pairs, Frightwig, Poison Girls, Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, and Debora Iyall of Romeo Void – to name only a few. And it wasn't only influences from the field of music that were important, but feminist writings and strong female voices in general - from performance art (e.g. Carolee Schnemann), journalism (e.g. Ellen Willis) and the world of zines (e.g. Vaginal Davis).
The key proponents early in the Riot Grrrl revolution included Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill and Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman of Bratmobile. The movement was christened after a zine they had produced together (the 'grrrl' of Riot Grrrl zine coming from from a term often used in Wolfe's earlier Girl Germs zine - “angry grrrls” - the spelling symbolising a growl). Through the production of various zines and via their music, these two seminal bands incited others to join in and themselves take action – this was not about playing the most proficient or technically capable guitar; it was much more grassroots than that, setting up a garage band and playing what you could (with punky conviction, urgency and true, visceral grit).
So, how about a guide to the 'need to know' of Riot Grrrl...the two key bands mentioned above?
“BECAUSE I believe with my wholeheartmindsoulbody that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will, change the world for real.”
This is one of the principles of the Riot Girl Manifesto, as penned by Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, who became something of a 'poster girl' for the movement as a whole. They also gave us the title of this article in their song Rebel Girl.
After working together on the zine Bikini Kill, Kathleen Hanna (of Suture), Tobi Vail and Kathi Wilcox formed a band of the same name, where they were joined by Billy Karen. Known for controversial songs such as I Like Fucking and Suck My Left One (perhaps one of the most iconic songs of the movement, its lyrics about incest), they were known for eschewing major record labels and the mainstream press, and for inviting females to the front of the crowd at their shows, where they would often hand out lyric sheets. The band themselves, and many fans, would sometimes daub themselves, in lipstick or black marker, with words such as 'slut' or 'rape', in an attempt to reclaim words used against women and to bring issues out in the open. This led to great misrepresentation in the press. Vail, Karen and Wilcox (with Molly Neuman of Bratmobile) are now The Frumpies, whereas Hanna went on to form Le Tigre.
Factoid: Kathleen Hanna is responsible for coining the title of Nirvana's breakthrough song Smells Like Teen Spirit when she spray-painted 'Kurt smells like Teen Spirit' on his wall. She was, at the time, in a relationship with Dave Grohl, Vail in a relationship with Kurt Cobain. 'Teen Spirit' was the name of the deodorant which Tobi Vail wore.
“We're not anti-boy, we're pro-girl.” (Molly Neuman)
After collaborating on a zine called Girl Germs (later to become one of their song titles), Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman formed a band in response to the male-orientated grunge music scene. They initially played as a duo, before adding Erin Smith (responsible for popular zine Teenage Gang Debs), introduced to them by Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening and K Records, in July 1991. (With whom, incidentally, Beth Ditto has recorded a song - Lightning Rod For Jesus).
Their aim was to create feminist punk rock – which they did in a sassy, poppy, witty fashion. Their first album Pottymouth is a key one in the Riot Grrrl canon, and contains a great cover of The Runaways' (a Joan Jett incarnation before The Blackhearts) Cherry Bomb.
They split in 1994, in part due to the media scrutiny of Riot Grrrl, reforming in 1999 and touring with Sleater-Kinney after each working with various other outfits. Allison Wolfe was also involved in organising the first Ladyfest in 2001.
Other notables include:
Heavens To Betsy (with Corin Tucker, later of Sleater-Kinney), 7 Year Bitch, Excuse 17 (featuring Carrie Brownstein, again later of Sleater-Kinney), Mecca Normal and the UK's Huggy Bear and Voodoo Queens.
There are arguments for and against including many others in this list, and riot grrrls themselves resisted definition of the movement as it meant different things to the various people involved.
True Riot Grrrls stuck fiercely to independent records labels such as Slim Moon's Kill Rock Stars (a great place to start sifting through the back catalogue - you can even download and sample some free mp3s here), Calvin Johnson's K Records and, later, Donna Dresch's Chainsaw Records, with a few signing to Sub-Pop. Kill Rock Stars continues to release music in which the influences of the early 1990s are unequivocal, including Erase Errata, The Frumpies, Comet Gain and, of course, Gossip, as well as the now defunct Sleater-Kinney and The Need.
Without Riot Grrrl, it would be very difficult to imagine Gossip sounding as they do today. They continue the work of promoting positive self-image (picking up the baton of Bikini Kill zine and its 1991 article on fat oppression), gender equality and the necessity of standing by your convictions. They are also keen to acknowledge their heroes, as with the original scene. This is Riot Grrrl updated for the noughties...perhaps a more image-conscious, media-friendly little riot sister.
The Riot Grrrl movement, however small in size and however short-lived, has had a massive impact for women in the music industry – strong women with voices that demand to be heard – and for equality in general. Sadly, it may also be to blame for watered-down offerings such as the Spice Girls and their trite “girl power”!