But What of Us? UK Riot Grrrl – Part 3
The third part of Cazz Blase's series looks at the problems inherent in Riot Grrrl, disagreements within the scene over whether it had run its course, the marketing of "Girl Power" and the future of Riot Grrrl. First published in the zine "Real Girls".
Now that I have outlined and discussed the positive impact of Riot Grrrl, I intend to look at what some would say were its flaws. Whilst I do not intend to waste time dissecting the mud slinging directed at many of the Riot Grrrl bands by the press, many of the flaws pinpointed by critics revolve around the use of the phrase itself, as
the Leeds and Bradford Grrrls found out:
One of the arguments around ‘Riot Grrrl’ is about the very use of the word Girl (suggesting a pre-pubescent, unthreatening Brat) as opposed to Woman (a mature, menstrual female figure). The reasoning goes that this distinction has made ‘Riot Grrrl’ the acceptable face of feminism (recently declared unnecessary by the media) Because it supposedly comprises of cute, fifteen year old girlies having a minor temper tantrum, rather than huge, hairy, revolutionary women! (1)
The problem here lies not with Riot Grrrl in terms of its actions then, but in the connotation of the word ‘girl’, and thus ‘youth’. As the Leeds and Bradford gang pointed out, their own group comprised of girls/women aged 17-30. In terms of the fourteen girls/women and two boys/men I interviewed for this, the age group ranged from mid teens to late thirties. Hardly fifteen year old ‘girlies’ throwing a tantrum.
Sadly, this particular connotation of Riot Grrrl’s youth connection became fixed, and this led to a lot of ridicule for grrrls. They found that their ideas and visions were often not taken seriously outside of the Riot Grrrl community. Youth has, historically, always been associated with naivety, superficial style ‘rules’, and whimsical preoccupations, and this ideology has always – by its attachment to Riot Grrrl – denigrated the phrase.
Not only is this bad for Riot Grrrl, but it is bad for any kind of valid youth culture or movement. By viewing Riot Grrrl simply as a horde of bizarrely attired “fifteen year old ‘girlies’ throwing a tantrum”, such critics wrote off any positive impact the phrase might have had for those involved. The friendships that were forged, the confidence that was founded and encouraged, not to mention the creativity that abounded.
there was a notion that young women could not possibly have earned the right to call themselves feminists.
The idea of Riot Grrrls as “fifteen year old ‘girlies’ throwing a tantrum”, of “brats” and “girl gang psychopaths” was also used as a basis to the argument that Riot Grrrl denigrated and threatened the survival of “proper” feminists by reducing feminism to cheap sloganeering and stroppiness.
A dismissive response, this reaction was dependent upon the idea that young people as a group are both easily manipulated by marketing forces, and misled by them as well. Whilst assuming that young people are not capable of thinking for themselves, it also encouraged the notion that young women could not possibly have enough knowledge in their heads to have earned the right to call themselves feminists. When set against the social context of the
early to mid nineties, when feminism itself was under attack, this reaction was ironic to say the least.
“If the use of ‘Grrrl’ is still seen to imply ‘Youth'” wrote the Leeds and Bradford Grrrls,
…it might just be that this particular manifestation of feminist action was instigated by young people, not older intellectual feminists with literary careers and that they actually chose a name which they could identify with. It is worth considering that whereas rock music is ageist towards women, the feminist movement is often dominated by older, more confident women. ‘Riot Grrrl’ stems from both and whilst, according to stereotypes, the GIRLS might have the looks and the attitude, the WOMEN have the advantage in terms of experience, money and power. All those who can relate to anything about ‘Riot Grrrl’ have a right to become involved, but we should acknowledge the power relationships and differences even within our own groups and try to benefit from them rather than just use them to exploit each other.” (2)
This last comment is especially relevant when we come to look at Riot Grrrl, and at the various people the phrase has attracted. Criticism of the mainly white, middle class background of those associated with the phrase could be seen as fair comment, yet it is worth remembering that this is a curse that affects not only Riot Grrrl, but underground punk networks and the indie scene as well. Riot Grrrls have at least recognised this limitation, and spoken out against it. It is also worth mentioning that, for all the mutterings of “sexism” and “male alienation”, little has been written about the boys/men who held solidarity with Riot Grrrl. The boys/men who, whilst excluded from the meetings that were held, were inspired by Riot Grrrl, both musically and personally.
“I think men had a lot to learn from what Riot Grrrl was all about.” Wrote Pete Slampt “I never really regarded myself as a real part of it, but the whole period taught me a lot.” He added,
It was a good way to witness other people of my generation grappling with notions of gender, sexuality, the corrupt nature of the media and the corporate control of major labels. It fitted very well with my interest in writers like Dale Spender, Simone de Beauvoir, etc. It was a time of great personal development for me, and though I kind of cringe now at some of the personal zines
I wrote around that time, I regard it as an incredibly important part of my life. It helped me get into the idea of politics as something you do rather than something you talk or write about.
The dilemma of what to call a male who identifies himself with Riot Grrrl, or indeed – in the wider sense – feminism, is a problem both the underground and society as a whole are still grappling with. This was something that Andy, a fanzine writer/cartoonist from Oxford, and guitarist in Linus, was very aware of:
“I’ve always considered myself a supporter of feminism rather than a feminist” he wrote, “(men who call themselves feminists always seem to be very dodgy characters!) or an honorary riot grrrl or whatever, and in that role I’ve generally been accepted.”
He later added, with regard to allegations of ‘ghettoising’ and the more separatist aspects of Riot Grrrl:
It’s up to individual women whether they want men to be involved in what they do. We (Linus) played an all-women gig (men allowed on stage, but not in the audience) early on, and I thought it was a good idea – all-women spaces can be very useful at times, but some of my female friends thought it was sexist to exclude men.” He added: “Contrary to the ignorant stereotypes portrayed in the press, I never got shit from anyone for going to riot grrrl events: the atmosphere was almost always open and fun, even though riot grrrls themselves took a lot of shit from men (and some women).
Another problem, one which was reflected within these interviews, was the contradiction of Riot Grrrl as dead (that is, Riot Grrrl as an entity that existed between the years 1991 and 1995 or Riot Grrrl as a continuing touchstone of inspiration and support). No pattern emerged when comparing these interviews, although those who came to the term post 1994 were perhaps less divided, and overall, were more inclined to see Riot Grrrl in terms of now than those who had come to the term in 1992/3.
However, ever since the demise of the “original” (British) Riot Grrrl bands – Huggy Bear, Mambo Taxi, Pussycat Trash and the Voodoo Queens, the use of the term Riot Grrrl has been afflicted by these two polarised viewpoints.
As Kate Vickers wrote: “‘Riot Grrrl’ is a term from the
past for me, or more accurately, it is ‘of its time’.” She later added “Ultimately I think the whole nature of Riot Grrrl proved itself to be short lived – it was such a rich vein of musical/political passion and inspiration that it seemed to burn itself out” Her conclusion, however, was that “Riot Grrrl is certainly not forgotten and more importantly, I don’t think, because of that, it can be seen as a failure.”
“In general I prefer the word ‘feminist’ to riot grrrl” wrote Sophy. “A lot of the people outside of the riot grrrl scene don’t take it that seriously, and, paradoxically, the longer riot grrrl lingers on after its media death, the more its message seems to be ridiculed and eroded.” She added,
For me, riot grrrl is an important part of feminism because it is where I have based myself culturally, because it relates specifically to music, and because it has been a great source of friends. To some extent I have outgrown riot grrrl now, which is why I prefer to describe myself as a feminist who like punk rock.
This sense of personal change and the need to move on was echoed by Jane “Shag Stamp” Graham:
Now it (Riot Grrrl) means little more than a piece of history which has passed – then, I don’t know, I was always ambivalent about it – both excited and a little embarrassed by it. I liked some of the stuff, but always hated the name and the overt girlishness, the ‘fashion rules’ that seemed to grow out of it.
Rachel Slampt meanwhile, writing in 1996, saw the past/present debate as largely irrelevant:
Some of these girls don’t call themselves riot grrrls anymore. Some have conformed big-time. Some have carried the ideas they had through. But anyway it doesn’t matter. Riot girl just acted as a point of focus for a lot of females. The term riot girl was just useful to help others recognise that you were someone you could have some sort of feminist discourse with, and some sort of support from. What it has helped to bring about is more important than the word itself. (3)
But Natasha Morris, writing in 1995, held a very different view:
People suddenly say ‘nah, I’m not into Riot Grrrl anymore’ and that hurts. How does someone suddenly decide that the hopes, fears, beliefs and rights
of their sisters, friends, lovers, like-minded strangers and, most importantly, themselves are no longer valid? That we no longer have thoughts, ideas and future
strategies that are worth the days of long loving revolutionary commitment we spent on them? I’ll never understand it but you can’t tell another how to think and although it hurts to see a friend change we can only hope they’ll forever be a friend and one summers day we’ll all be back in the park together and laughing again at those who think they ever possessed the means to destroy us. (4)
Whether Riot Grrrl was see as a redundant term in 1995 or not, arguably what happened a year later in the summer of 1996 must have raised a few eyebrows amongst those who had all but forgotten about the concept of “Grrrl Power”. For in the summer of 1996 – The Spice Girls landed.
Spice Girls, Riot Grrrls, and 21st Century Girls
The Spice Girls – five English girls with contrived images, shiny pop songs and a ‘Girl Power’ slogan were to become the most successful girl band ever. In 1996, tabloid newspapers and advertising firms worshipped at their alter, and the girls faces were plastered everywhere.
Not just tabloid darlings, the Spice Girls sparked intellectual debate in the broadsheets and amongst academics. They also graced several advertising campaigns, allowing their brand name to be associated with a variety of products – everything from crisps to Pepsi to deodorant to the official Spice Girls dolls.
Although the band were a runaway success, little thought was given to the origin of the group’s ‘Girl Power’ slogan, despite many debates concerning what the phrase actually meant.
Just exactly who coined the phrase ‘Girl Power’ is up for dispute, but it definitely wasn’t the Spice Girls. Both the Swansea band Helen Love (in 1993) and Plumstead duo Shampoo (in 1995) beat them to it in terms of song lyrics, and Grrrl Power can obviously be seen to pre-date Girl Power, so this is not a chicken and egg issue.
little thought was given to the origin of the ‘Girl Power’ slogan
What is at issue is why the Spice Girls happened, why they used the phrase ‘Girl Power’, and whether it is
accurate to link Spice Girl Power with Riot Grrrl.
“It’s funny” wrote Karren Ablaze! “Simone (Ivatts) pointed out to me that she’s still wearing a Girl Power t-shirt we made in ’92. 4 years later you could buy such things at any branch of Woolworths”
For Karren, the connection is a puzzling one. How can a highly contrived, chart topping pop band have anything in common with Riot Grrrl? The connection seems at once implausible yet at the same time accurate, for the answer lies not with the bands presentation or music, but with what the Spice Girls sheer existence is purported to have done for the average girl pop fans self esteem.
Many of my interviewees remained to be convinced of this argument.
“I like some of the Spice Girls music” wrote Simone “(and I fancy Mel B!), but it’s pretty fucking empty sloganeering, isn’t it? I don’t like the ‘acting like the lads whilst looking sexy = girl power’ idea.” Like Ablaze!, she hoped that young girls could look beyond the superficial nature of the Spice Girls and become inspired, but she concluded, “I’m glad the Spice Girls exist, but I’m not sure what they’re harm:good ratio is.”
Kate Vickers held an overall more positive view.
It’s all too easy to dismiss the Spice Girls” she wrote “as it was all too easy to dismiss Riot Grrrl. You can’t ignore the manufactured birth of the Spice Girls, or the way in which they use or are used as traditional subversive images of femininity. But what you can’t forget are the thousands of girls who have had, at least the seed of possible empowerment given to them.
‘Girl Power’ or no ‘Girl Power’, one thing that cannot be questioned is the sheer success of the Spice Girls, and of the countless girl pop bands to follow them. The July 2000 issue of Q Magazine estimated that over forty girl groups had been launched by various record companies in the first six months of the year alone. Such investment – albeit in slick pop creations – would have been unthinkable ten, even five years earlier.
The success of many of those bands has been surprising, remarkable even. Not because the all girl pop band was a new concept – it wasn’t – but because bands such as The Spice Girls, All Saints, Hepburn, and Atomic Kitten seemed to have been created, or created themselves, in a way that was very different to girl pop bands of – for example – the nineteen eighties, and (even) girl pop bands of the early nineties.
In 2000 over forty girl groups had been launched by various record companies in the first six months of the year alone
When we watch old footage of mainstream eighties girl pop bands, we usually (with a couple of exceptions) see women rather than girls performing in bands. We see them in dresses, jumping up and down, often fronting male bands, but rarely playing instruments. Bananarama being the most obvious example of this.
The more ‘indie’ girls could perhaps get away with swinging the odd guitar, like Voice of the Beehive’s Tracey and Melissa, or throwing the odd rock’n’roll style strop, like Transvision Vamp’s Wendy James. Likewise, girl rappers such as The Wee Papa Girl Rappers, Betty Boo, Neneh Cherry, Salt’N’Pepa et al could dress more ‘street’ and were generally less contrived. But by and large girls in bands were badly marketed and distinctly limited.
For example, the American band the Go-Go’s upon signing to IRS records, told the label that they expected to go platinum. The label reps laughed in their faces. The Go-Go’s debut album ‘Beauty and the Beat’ proceeded to go double platinum. Yet the band were the exceptions rather than the rule. Bananarama, for example, did not start to make serious money as individuals until they released ‘Wow!’, their first album working with producers Stock Aitken and Waterman.
Whilst bands like the Go-Go’s and Bananarama probably had less money invested in them than the Spice Girls, this is not the only way in which the new bands differed from the old.
The likes of All Saints, B*Witched, and Hepburn were younger, ‘cooler’, more sophisticated in their marketing, and, well, stroppier. There was an air of the ‘Post’ Riot Grrrl to these groups, an air of slick, industry commodification that I found unnerving rather than inspiring, for, as Casino wrote: “riot grrrl was such an unpopular movement press wise”
Maybe though, as Jane “Shag Stamp” Graham wrote, the commercialisation and commodification of Riot Grrrl was inevitable, what with being British and all: “Underground becomes mainstream” she wrote “Always.”
This is Angela, writing about the way in which the press portrayed Riot Grrrl in 1993:
Riot Grrrl became the new ‘Grunge’, they commercialised that and made it palatable for the mainstream market. I think they targeted bands like Hole and Babes in Toyland, etc., (two bands I never really got into) and said that they were Riot Grrrl when really they were before RG and they were considered Kinder-Whore Rock. The music press and then magazines picked up on it and started writing wee articles about it just to stay ‘cool’ and ‘hip to the kids’ when really it was just embarrassing and annoying for them to write about Riot Grrrl in such a patronising way. They had features on ‘Riot Grrrl Fashion’ which was laughable and ridiculous – Riot Grrrl was pretty much opposed to using expensive, designer clothes/names to adorn yourself with and therefore alienate others.
Whilst this particular attempt to sanitise Riot Grrrl for the masses whilst making a quick buck largely fell flat, even as late as 1998 it was still possible to pick up earrings and necklaces in the teen store Bow Bangles that bore the phrase ‘Riot Grrrl’. By then, the scene had moved on, but pop and Riot Grrrl had become not so distant bedfellows after all.
Just prior to the arrival of the Spice Girls in 1996, two things happened that brought the then burgeoning U.K underground music scene to the notice of the mainstream. Firstly, in the March of that year, the Glasgow band bis became the first unsigned band to appear on Top Of The Pops and, secondly, the cult Swansea punk pop band Helen Love had two of their songs (‘So Hot’ and ‘Let’s Go’) used as the soundtrack to Children’s BBC’s summer season.
Whilst the latter went (largely) unnoticed, the former was leapt upon by music critics, bis signed to Wiiija records a few months later, and the underground was officially designated ‘cool’ again by the weeklies.
Whilst some would see the onset of bands such as Kenickie and bis with their more ‘pop’ sound and teen-c manifestos as signs of the decay of Riot Grrrl, it is fair to say that along with Lancaster’s Angelica and the U.S band Sleater-Kinney, these bands either consciously or unconsciously owe their less than auspicious beginnings to Riot Grrrl. For bis, the link lies with their sheer love and enthusiasm for the scene and all it invokes, whereas for Kenickie, it was their patronage of Newcastle’s Slampt Underground Organisation early on it their career that linked them to the phrase.
However, as Kate Vickers wrote: “I think there is more of a (Riot Grrrl) link to be traced to the DIY record labels that have persevered thru’ the nineties like Slampt, Piao, and of course Cheshire Cat.” Here, Kate has touched on a phenomena that has only
recently begun to receive the attention that it deserves: The rebirth of the U.K indie label.
What is interesting about both Slampt Underground Organisation and Piao! Is that, not only were both organisations fuelled by Riot Grrrl, but these organisations evolved to become more than ‘just’ record labels.
Slampt, established by Pete Dale and Rachel Holborow in Newcastle Upon Tyne in the summer of 1992, put out fanzines and tapes initially, but it wasn’t long before the duo had expanded their networks to incorporate vinyl releases, gig promotion, and distribution duties.
By 1999, Slampt not only served as a key U.K distribution for American labels such as K and Kill Rock Stars, but for European labels such as Elefant (Spain) and Candy Apple (Italy). They also distributed releases on other British labels.
Slampt also produced their own fanzines – such as Fast Connection, and released a wide range of music on tape, 7″, LP and CD by such bands as Petty Crime (Brighton), Sally Skull (Edinburgh), Bette Davis and the Balconettes (Manchester), Golden Starlet/International Strike Force (Middlesborough) and their own (numerous) bands (Pussycat Trash and Milky Wimpshake to name but two).
What both of these record labels exemplify is Riot Grrrl inspiration in action
The Piao! Story is similar, yet different. Founded in London around the same time that Slampt was getting started in Newcastle, Piao! Started life as an international distribution service for records, tapes and fanzines. It was called Squab, and was to get its new name from the PIAO Weekender, an event held in February 1994 at Hammersmith Emerald Centre. (PIAO initially stood for ‘Pay In Advance Only’) This gig marked Chris and Loretta’s first forays into gig promotion, and over the years, the distribution service has disappeared, and Piao! Now concentrate on gig promotion and releasing records.
What both of these organisations exemplify is Riot Grrrl inspiration in action. Even if Slampt and Piao! No longer exist or recognise the term, it seems fair to say that without Riot Grrrl, both organisations might have happened. But would they have occurred in the same way?
Labels such as Nana – which was started in 1996 by two London schoolgirls – Where Its At Is Where You Are, Shifty Disco, Chemikal Underground, Boa, Mook and countless
others now exist in Britain as a direct – or indirect – result of Riot Grrrl.
“I think a new generation of kids realised that they didn’t need the permission of the parent culture to make the culture they wanted to” wrote Rachel Slampt “they could create their own.”
When asked if they thought the general underground bands of the late nineties owed anything to Riot Grrrl, the answers varied.
“There was a time when I was regularly sickened to see rock writers praising a whole wave of boyrock bands for the exact same qualities they’d deplored in the grrrl bands a year or two earlier” wrote Andy. “Now though” he continued, “with orthodox indie-style bands all over the charts, it seems to me that the bands who grew out of riot grrrl are the underground. I guess the real underground in music is the vast but obscure dance scene, but if there’s a rock underground in the U.K bands like Coping Saw and Yummy Fur are it.”
“I don’t think underground bands owe much to Riot Grrrl in terms of success” wrote Angel “because original, on the edge bands are still pretty much ignored by the press but I do think Riot Grrrl made a lot of people realise that they had the ability to make music. I especially think a lot of girls were encouraged to play guitars and have faith in their own talents. I would love to say that I thought underground bands like Sleater-Kinney have made it on their own merits and hard work alone, if they were a boy band they would have more coverage definitely.”
Angela agreed. “I think there are a lot of bands that owe themselves to Riot Grrrl, some of them may not admit it but if it wasn’t for Riot Grrrl they’d probably never be in a band.” She added later “I don’t want to name names but a lot of the all-girl rock/punk bands owe a lot to Riot Grrrl, probably, even if they don’t know it.”
Manda Rin had an original take on the question: “Well they owe it to them” she wrote “the continue what they started.”
But, as Casino wrote; “The bands aged 17/18 will have limited knowledge as Riot Grrrl has been written out of music history.” She did acknowledge however that “The thread of RG has run through all those bands and is now splitting off and evolving, which can only be a good thing”
It is perhaps significant (not to mention a little ironic) that just as Kenickie’s star began to falter and fall, record company moguls began the task of recruiting and launching their own spate of girl bands with guitars, as if girls with instruments were a new pop gimmick. Hot on the heels of the all singing, all synchronised dancing Spice Girls, All Saints and B*Witched came Hepburn, 21st Century Girls, Thunderbugs, Madasun, and countless others. Largely consistent of air brushed ‘babes’, these bands wore designer clothes, pouted appealingly, and made statements such as ‘Sexism’s been and gone’. They also made a healthy profit for male managers and ‘creators’ such as Simon Fuller (the Spice Girls, 21st Century Girls, and S Club 7).
Kate Galactic was wearily scathing of the development:
I suppose as a fanzine writer I ought to get upset about how bands like Hepburn and 21st Century Girls represent a watering down of riot grrrl and old mens ideas of teen girl rebellion” she wrote in the summer of 1999, “(and Simon Fuller did talk to tiara’d and glittered up zine girls in coming up with the concept of C21 Girls). But, to be honest the things that really bother me about them are the bad quality of their songs (regardless of who wrote or plays on them) and, above all, of their makeup. (5)
Perhaps because of, or indeed, despite of those factors outlined above, in 1998, there was a sudden slew of new, Riot Grrrl and feminist identified, fanzines emerging in Britain. Fanzines such as Sophy’s ‘Sista Yes!’, and Rachael’s ‘Kitten Scratches’. Early on in 1998, a series of Riot Grrrl meetings occurred in Leeds – the first in the city for five years. Later meetings took place in York, and there was even a Riot Grrrl picnic in London in September 1999, the first of many such events.
Why did these meetings start to happen again?, and why did girls suddenly start to write fanzines again?
In the latter case, girls have never actually stopped writing fanzines, but they have changed what they write about. The riot grrrls who continued to write fanzines post 1994 began to concentrate increasingly on the music rather than on the politics of life, and new girl writers have tended to tread a similar line. The political was, in a sense, personal, and because that didn’t change but the music did, what remained constant began to be taken for granted.
In the case of the 1998/9 meetings, the explanation can be seen to lie – at least partially – with the growing number of Riot Grrrls who were too young to travel to
meetings in 1992/3, or who just plain weren’t aware of Riot Grrrl at that time. These girls in 1998/9 were thus exercising a natural curiosity.
“I don’t know if I am involved” confessed Casino “I guess writing pro women, pro lesbian zines and consciously supporting female bands and writers is Riot Grrrl only I’ve never titled it as such. Perhaps I am a progressive product of riot grrrl rather than a part of it, I don’t know”
This renewed activity on the part of Riot Grrrls appeared to be going largely unnoticed by British journalists, that is, until a little known American band by the name of Sleater-Kinney suddenly started to get rather bigger than anyone expected.
Here Come The Kinney: Meanderings On Post Millennium Riot Grrrls
26th July 2000, Manchester, England:
Down at the Roadhouse – a tiny basement club in the cities Picadilly area – the walls drip with sweat as the Beastie Boys blare out of the speakers onto a floor that is not so much heaving as rammed from front to back and (almost) side to side as well. A heavy fug of steam and cigarette smoke fills the air between punters heads and the ceiling; it is hard, after an hour or so, not to feel profoundly ill.
Eventually though, three women leave the adjacent dressing room and make their way onto the stage. The crowd are pushed even closer together as those further back fight to see, and Corin says hello. They are Sleater-Kinney, and they are here to rock.
Their roots firmly entrenched in the Olympia Riot Grrrl networks (Corin was a member of Heavens To Betsey, Carrie Excuse 17, Janet Junior High and Quasi), Sleater-Kinney’s star has been slow to rise. Whilst their early releases on Kill Rock Stars were respected and gained them some following – especially in America – it wasn’t until the band began to license their material to the Matador label and released the album ‘Dig Me Out’ that critics began to write reluctantly positive reviews, and Sleater-Kinney mania hit the U.K.
these women are not ashamed of their Riot Grrrl roots
The Manchester gig is part of a small British tour to promote the bands fifth album ‘All Hands On The Bad One’, possibly their most accessible and controlled album to
date. A happy bled of complex guitars, biting lyrics and crisp drums, the album has a pop sensibility but doesn’t sound in any way compromised. A preview of the Manchester gig in the Associated Newspapers News North West praises the band, yet is keen to promote them as too talented to remain a fanzine band and too musically competent to be a Riot Grrrl band. Along with comments of a “Ladyman” variety, these criticisms number prominently in much of the reporting of the band in the mainstream music press.
“It’s just a complete struggle for the press to take female bands seriously” wrote Rachael from High Wycombe. “It’s extremely rare to see a female band on the front cover of a music paper or magazine”
Whilst Rachael’s view would seem to be an accurate one, in the case of Sleater-Kinney, it seems to encompass only half of the story. The problem for many critics being not just that this is a band consistent of three women with guitars, but that these three women are not ashamed of their Riot Grrrl roots. In the new millennium, not only is this perceived by a trend hungry music press and deeply un-hip, it is also perceived as a kind of musical leprosy. Many British music journalists would rather pretend that Riot Grrrl hadn’t happened at all, and uneasy with the presence of bands such as Sleater-Kinney and what they stand for, seek to distance the bands from the phrase.
“Notice how the music press still slags RG” wrote Karren Ablaze! As early as 1997 “even if they like the bands, they disassociate them from RG saying ‘this band are ace, I know they started out as riot grrrls but thats a shit thing and these are ace and nothing at all to do with it.'” (6)
She has a point, and whether it is accurate to accuse the British music press of attempting to write Riot Grrrl out of musical and cultural history or not, this is what many of my interviewees perceived to be the case.
Many British music journalists would rather pretend that Riot Grrrl hadn’t happened at all
Whereas the music press appear all too eager to forget Sleater-Kinney’s roots, the band appear less eager to do so. They contributed a song to the Sichel Sisters film All Over Me for example, and in the sleevenotes to ‘All Hands On The Bad One’, issued thanks to Riot Grrrls and Ladymen alike. Likewise, many fans are also reluctant to disassociate the phrase from the band.
Whilst all Sleater-Kinney fans are not necessarily Riot Grrrls, a lot of Riot Grrrls would consider themselves to be Sleater-Kinney fans. The same could be said of many other bands – both Kenickie and bis fans, for example, number/ed Riot Grrrls amongst their ranks. Likewise more mainstream ‘indie’ bands such as Belle and Sebastian.
When Sleater-Kinney played the first Bowley festival at Camper Sands with the likes of Belle and Sebastian and the Flaming Lips, many fans would have found the bill complementary. However, a recent Sleater-Kinney album track, ‘The Ballad of the Ladyman’, would seem to suggest that backstage relations between grrrl rockers and indie boys can often be disheartening. Thank God then for the fanbase, for Sleater-Kinney fans seem to be a particularly dedicated bunch.
It is not uncommon these days for fans to follow the band from gig to gig on a tour. Not only is witnessing just one gig a tour no longer good enough, but a social element to the touring emerges when you consider the Riot Grrrl picnics that take place before many of the gigs.
the fluid nature of the term itself could infer development and growth rather than gradual death
Although the idea of a meeting is not uncommon to Riot Grrrls, the picnic takes on more of a purely social connotation. It is not so much networking as chatting.
Prior to the Manchester gig, there is a picnic in Manchester Peace Garden (Saint Peters Square). Although it is late to start, about fifteen or so people – male as well as female – attend. They bask in the July sun as they chat and share Chupa Chups and cigarettes. Although promising initially, the event seems to be a slight non starter, with those present talking mainly to those they know as they wait for something interesting to happen. Things become more social later as the crowd queue and wait to be admitted to the Roadhouse.
“To all the people who said we didn’t deserve to be here tonight” announces Valerie’s singer, with not a small trace of victory in her voice “Well you’re no rock’n’roll fun.”
Shambolic yet enthusiastic, Valerie have a self depreciation and boldness to their act that I like. Clearly inspired by Sleater-Kinney, the band are nervous as hell yet ecstatic to be supporting their idols tonight.
For this local band, the inspiration that Sleater-Kinney provide is as important, if not more so, than the end result. Bass duties are supplied by a boy called Nick
who is clad from head to foot in a pink fake fur bear suit. He likes the Slits. The drum sound is at once sparse yet unrelenting, the lyrics honest and at times sardonically observational. Occasional moments of genius occur in the set like happy accidents, highlights being the jagged, self depreciating rant of ‘All My Heroes Hate Me’, and a song about townies that sounds a little like Skinned Teen and incorporates the line ‘bubble jacket on the 192’.
As faces of the Manchester punk scene, Valerie have a large entourage and are responsible for the cities only Riot Grrrl/Punk club night – GET IN! at MacNallys basement just off Oxford Road. Sporadic, yet enthusiastically greeted, the last GET IN! night was on the 3rd of June when the basement thrilled to the sounds of X Ray Spex, Rosita, Sleater-Kinney, Le Tigre and more. People not used to Djing play records for people not used to dancing, Le Tigre’s ‘TheTheEmpty’ being the tune of the day. Thanks to the random nature of GET IN!, few know of it, yet it is much praised by those who attend.
In between Valerie songs, a heckler in the crowd shouts out the name ‘HUGGY BEAR!!’. Ten or so people ‘WHOOOH!’ encouragingly, whilst a lone voice in the crowd mutters almost silently “Oh fuck off” It is hard to tell if she finds the crowds reaction embarrassing or merely un-hip, yet the two responses juxtapositioned reflect, once again, the past/present debate hanging over Riot Grrrl at the start of the new millennium.
Certainly, the trend of picnics over meetings and the increasingly style and music orientated nature of those choosing to attend what could be termed “Riot Grrrl Gigs” seems to suggest the former, yet the fluid nature of the term itself could infer development and growth rather than gradual death.
The devotion of the Sleater-Kinney fanbase seems to encourage rather than faze the band. After the Manchester gig, Corin Tucker remains on stage to sign autographs long after the set has finished. The gesture serves as a comfort not only for those unfortunate enough to be stuck to far back to see the stage, but for those used to impersonal stadium rock attitudes.
As we leave, I am reminded of another Sleater-Kinney gig almost a year previous. Then, as now, the band had played Manchester Roadhouse.
At Picadilly train station following the gig, we were spotted by two girls from Bolton, who squealed “SLEATER-KINNEY PEOPLE!!” at us. With over two hours to wait before their next train was due to arrive, they sat down next to use in the deserted station and we began to talk enthusiastically about gigs and bands. None of us had met them before, but apparently the same two girls turned up at the London date on that tour and said hello once more.
A fortnight after the 2000 Sleater-Kinney gig, Lancaster grrrls Angelica also play the Roadhouse. As they launch into their new single – ‘Take me I’m your disease’ – singer Holly Ross pulls two girls from the crowd and leads them onstage to dance.
The Roadhouse is crowded, yet not as ridiculously so as the Sleater-Kinney gig. Friendly and chatty, Angelica play songs about the shortcomings of teenage sex, the seaside, history and mythology, and more. Their intelligence is as inspiring as their music, energy and good humour is encouraging.
Like Sleater-Kinney, Angelica have benefitted from the resurgence of Riot Grrrl activity. Girls who would turn their noses up at the contrived pop of Atomic Kitten and Hepburn, who despair over the precocious Lolita fetishes of Britney Spears, Billie Piper, and Christina Aguilera see in Angelica the kind of girls and culture that they can relate to. Whereas the music industry needs commercial pop trite to survive, fans of Sleater-Kinney, Angelica, Valerie et al need bands and individuals that inspire them and that they can relate to. It isn’t about blind consumption for them, it’s about taking and giving back.
Possibly the strangest anecdote relayed to me concerning recent Riot Grrrl activities is the one that leaves the strongest image in my mind. It concerns a Riot Grrrl picnic held in early 2000 in London just prior to a Le Tigre gig in the city.
Thirty or so girls/women meet at a tube station for a picnic at an undecided location. Lacking a venue, they instead walk together as a sort of moving convoy through London’s tourist areas. As they walk, they talk and share Cadburys mini rolls out amongst each other. They arrive at the gig together.
Riot Grrrl has come a long way since arriving on these
shores. Not only has it inspired countless girls across the country to pick up guitars, write fanzines and create a culture that is theirs and theirs alone. It has also been a good source of comfort for girls, providing them with friendship, support, and confidence. It has applied feminism to life, and perhaps changed how a generation felt about the term. It protected girls at gigs – for a while, and appealed to considerably more than fifteen year old girls in slip dresses and DM boots. It (rather worryingly) gave Simon Fuller a career, and – more importantly – it has lasted to this day. It seems a shame therefore that we are given so few opportunities to remember that.
With the increase in popularity of Sleater-Kinney in Britain, there is a sense that things have gone full circle. America brought this new, raw sound and attitude to us, and it is only fair that we should acknowledge that.
Likewise, just as the initial ‘wave’ of American Riot Grrrl spread to Britain, so too did it spread beyond Britain and the United States, as Pete Slampt noted:
Hell, even the European highly politicised anarcho/crust squatter scene has thrown up a number of bands who were directly inspired by Bikini Kill, such as Re-Sisters (Switzerland), Egizan (Germany), Hello Cuca (Spain), Guts Pie Earshot (Germany) etc. There is even a label in Poland called Emancypunx which uses the slogan ‘Revolution Girl Style Now!’.
Add to this the Italian band Juicy Shoes, and Mademoiselle Records (initially of France, now based in London), a label set up with the specific intention of releasing girl bands from all over the world, and you begin to get an idea of the sheer size of the influence Riot Grrrl has had on a wide range of individuals across the world.
I once received a letter from a girl who had dubbed herself ‘The Only Riot Grrrl in Croatia’, and at a time of conflict, that to me was Girl Power.
In finishing this essay at last, I hope that it will not serve as the last word on the subject. Those involved deserve further debate, and we cannot begin to represent ourselves accurately unless more truth (from any grrrls perspective) is written.
I shall leave the final word (for now) to Angel, who wrote that:
As far as I’m concerned feminism, as with Riot Grrrl, does not have a nice neat ending because oppression still exists and even when it doesn’t exist Riot Grrrl will still not be over, instead it will be a part of life.
Cazz Blase, 2000.