Monday, February 13, 2012

Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, by Sara Marcus


This book has been hailed as the first "real" book on riot grrrl by some of the movement's movers and shakers. Riot grrrl, an early 90's, female-centric movement/scene, is one of the most interesting chapters in the history of punk. The movement centered around a few all-(or mostly-)girl bands that started in a bicoastal scene with poles in Olympia, Washington (on the campus of Evergreen University) and Washington, D.C. Before reading this book, you might want to pull out your copy of This Band Could Be Your Life and reread the chapters on Fugazi and Beat Happening, which could function as de facto prequels.



The two bands that founded the movement were the harsh and aggressive Bikini Kill and, contrasting with BK's straight-on attack, the lo-fi, nerdy Bratmobile. The two bands form in Olympia, where they are soon joined by a third band, Heavens to Betsy, featuring the powerful pipes of Corin Tucker. If you were around in the 90's, reading about this movement, there seemed to be a lot of other bands associated with it. Now, I always understood that Hole, for instance, weren't "really" part of the riot grrrl movement, and L7 seemed like a metal band that kept getting mistakenly lumped in there, but there were lots of bands, like Babes in Toyland, Seven Year Bitch, Slant 6, Tribe 8 and Lunachicks, that I always thought were part of riot grrrl, but Marcus has a more specific definition of the movement. In fact, most of those bands are actually mentioned in the book, in passing, but it's always clear that they're just other female-centric punk bands outside of riot grrrl. The only other band she gives insider status to is the British band Huggy Bear (although Ian Sevounias' band Nation of Ulysses seems to be granted a sort of honorable riot grrrl status for helping Bikini Kill and the rest get going in the early days).

Instead, the primary medium of the riot grrrl movement is zines. Zines are circulated in a sort of underground economy among these girls all over the country. This actually turns out to be a more fascinating story than the bands. Fans would mail self-addressed envelops to the various zines, and put a layer of glue stick over the stamps on their envelopes so that the postmark could be wiped off and the stamps reused--a great, cheap way to do it, although in my experience, half the time the P.O. doesn't bother to cancel the stamps in the first place. In addition to the zines, there are pen pal connections and local meetings where punk girls talk about issues in their personal lives. You really get a sense that there's this strong community, something that the punk scene at large always promised but, in practice, seemed a bit deficient in providing, you know? So in a lot of ways, the riot grrrl scene fulfilled a lot of the promise of punk. The girls were, after all, probably more accustomed to genuine disenfranchisement than the boys.



There's a lot of drama in the story around the idea of riot grrrl being misrepresented by the media. After a few articles are written about the movement in which the participants feel they are being misrepresented and trivialized, they agree to a media blackout, convinced that their message will be inevitably distorted. Some of their complaints seem overly sensitive. For instance, one reporter refers to riot grrrl as "feminism with a star dotting the 'i'." They take this as condescending and trivializing, but it seems to me a great phrase to capture their style. Most of the zines are composed in a scrapbook-y layout with stars and hearts around the borders and other "cute" designs. This is a good example of what I think is actually one of the coolest aspects of riot grrrl, the way it launches a feminist attack from both sides: women can do things that are traditionally considered "masculine," like front an aggressive punk band or stand in the front of a mosh pit, but at the same time it reclaims things that are marginalized for being "girly"--the idea that knitting and scrapbooking can be punk rock, for instance, is commonly accepted in 2012 (if anyone actually says "punk rock" anymore).

This all blows up when Newsweek does a feature on riot grrrl, and 16-year-old Jessica Hopper defies the media blackout to talk to them. Hopper really ends up being the breakout character of the book, so much cooler than anyone else. A loudmouth teen running a surplus of swagger, she's just so much cooler than her peers, at least until she acts like a total asshole on a roadtrip to meet up with a small-town chapter of riot grrrl, but even then, she acts like exactly the kind of asshole that I acted like when I was her age. And the baffling rage she encounters just for trying to get her version of the story to the media is kind of awful.



I call these attitudes baffling, and in some way they are, but in another sense I do understand where they come from. Above, I referenced the riot grrrl style, but that's just the thing--to someone who's enmeshed in a scene, "style" seems like such a simplistic and inconsequential word to use to describe your movement. This thing changed your life, and it has the potential to change the world, and all they can see is a bunch of girls writing on their arms!

There's one scene where Bikini Kill is opening on a bill with Nirvana and Mudhoney. It's right around the time Nevermind drops, and all these major label guys are sniffing around, and Nirvana are old friends, and they're still the same guys, but something's wrong. Everyone is careful not to put the blame on Nirvana, but there's some evil shit going on. What, exactly? Well, nobody can really put their finger on it. They just hate it. And I sort of get it. I lived through the 80's. I remember people raging against the heavens at the fact that R.E.M. weren't huge, then a few years later tearing their hair out over the fact that their favorite band was being tainted by the embrace of the mainstream. And I know I felt that way myself at least a few times. Suspicion of commercial success was just part of the landscape at the time.

Things get pretty nasty, but at the same time, it's kind of cool that, when shit goes down, these girls are all so open about what's bothering them. Not to get all gender essentialist or whatever, but after reading Please Kill Me, This Band Could Be Your Life and the rest of those punk history books, I found Girls to the Front kind of a relief. When these people have problems with each other, they talk about them directly. They break down and cry on stage. They actually communicate. I mean, it can be so exhausting reading about Henry Rollins punching a hole in a wall over some shit that Greg Ginn did to piss him off, or whatever guitarist sublimating their hatred for their singer into a heroin habit, it's actually a revelation to see musicians confront each other directly!

One other note: reading this reminded me how many great bands there were in the 90's (like any other time, right?) that I'd never even gotten around to hearing. Like Mecca Normal. I remember that name, and I'm sure I heard them plenty of times on WUOG, but I'll be damned if I could tell you what they sound like. Let's hear some Mecca Normal!

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