On Guard: The Riot Grrrl Revolution
Written by Holly Reynolds
Edited by Troy Swiatek
They created a subculture that lasted well after the initial movement began to die. Young women from all over the greater Pacific Northwest were rampaging, developing a music scene to explore their feminist thoughts and desires through garage bands. Even if the genre never exploded into the mainstream eye, the girls who riot continue to influence many emerging acts (the ever enticing Lipstick Homicide, and the like) while still engaging a strong cult following which continue to push the original goal of the first riot grrrls – to increase the significance and number of women involved in music.
“You learn that the only way to get rock-star power as a girl is to be a groupie and bare your breasts and get chosen for the night. We learn that the only way to get anywhere is through men. And it’s a lie.” – Kathleen Hanna
Riot grrrl created its own place within a male-dominated punk scene and continue to impact many aspects of indie and punk rock culture today. Bands such as the revolutionary Bikini Kill often selected their audience, changing the dynamics of punk gigs to create a place where women of the same passionate views gathered in a place where they felt empowered. Female musicians weren’t seen as week and lovelorn, as the riot grrrls expressed their thoughts on issues (like sexuality, patriarchy, rape and domestic abuse) important to their everyday life. It was a time where a woman could pick up a guitar feel her voice is heard.
Associated with third-wave feminism, the underground punk rock movement peaked within the early to mid 90s. Patti Smith, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth and Joan Jett were among the many female musicians throughout the 70s and 80s who greatly influenced the beginning embers of the genre. The first traceable evidence of riot grrrl forming as a genre included an article titled Women, Sex, Rock and Roll by Puncture in 1989, and a seemingly unknown radio show describing itself as “aimed at angry young women” by the name of Your Dream Girl which aired in Olympia where many early riot grrrl acts spawned, largely contained to small garage gigs. The phrase “riot grrrl” developed over time (all due to a letter from Bratmobile member Jen Smith, where she wrote, “This summer’s going to be a girl riot!”), but has since become a very welcomed term embraced by the bands, adding to their image and overall message.
There often comes the common misconception that all riot grrrls are male-haters, who believe in not the equality of sexes but the superiority of women. In fact, this is always rejected, once summarized: “We’re not anti-boy, we’re pro-girl.” Despite the presence of several male band members within the riot grrrl genre including Huggy Bear’s Jon Slade and Billy Karren of Bikini Kill, the bands were not always positively received at shows by male attendees. Although rising after the queer-core movement, the distinction between riot grrrl and queercore is often blurred due to bands like Fifth Column and Team Dresch.
To outsiders, the musical credibility of the riot grrrl revolution is questionable, but to fans, what the movement represents is far more important than the music itself. It’s a way of life.
#1 – Dig Me Out by Sleater-Kinney
Notable tracks: One More Hour, Dig Me Out and Little Babies
Ranked at #24 on Spin’s 100 Greatest Albums 1985 – 2005 and often regarded as the album that “defined the band’s sound”, Dig Me Out was the third Sleater-Kinney
studio album, released in 1997. Establishing at the tail end of the original movement, Carrie, Corin and Janet escaped the trap that many riot grrrl bands fell into: never approaching popular acceptance. The trio rose to a to a critically revered indie rock act, heavily due to their harmonious blend of riot grrrl passion, hooky lyrics and ingenious instrumental techniques. Dig Me Out is more than a riot grrrl album to me; this is the pinnacle of all I love, my favorite album, by my favorite band, including my favorite song. Ever, full stop.
#2 – Pussy Whipped by Bikini Kill
Notable tracks: Rebel Girl, Sugar and Speed Heart
Straight from the woman who famously spray painted “Kurt Smells like Teen Spirit” on Cobain’s wall, comes an album containing, undeniably, the most iconic girl-power anthem of the riot grrrl era, Pussy Whipped is the debut studio album by Kathleen Hanna’s Bikini Kill. Occasionally collaborating with high profiles acts such as Joan Jett and Nirvana, Bikini Kill was well known for turning down well-known labels and the mainstream music journalists. “Rebel Girl” appeared on Rolling Stone’s Most Excellent Songs of Every Year Since 1967 for the year 1993. You’ll be screaming she’s the queen of your world, I guarantee it.
#3 – Feminist Sweepstakes by Le Tigre
Notable tracks: Fake French, On Guard and My Art
Kathleen Hanna, centre of the riot grrrl universe and fabulous Bikini Kill front woman, went on to found the “protest pop” Le Tigre. Released in 2001, Feminist Sweepstakes is their second studio album and first to feature JD Samson. They find a sweet point between experimental electro and the riot grrrl ethos Hanna helped create. The entirety of the album is seamlessly fluent, even with each track noticeably unique, it just works. Admittedly, the alternative direction won’t be to everyone’s taste, but well worth trying.