riot grrrl was about much more than music
A girl's club in a man's world is something we can get behind even if you don't like the music.
As long as I've been into eyeliner, I've been into Riot Grrrl. I love the zine culture, the politics, the aesthetic, the aggressive, unapologetic feminism and the DIY ethos. And - of course - Kathleen Hanna. The only thing I'm not really into? The music.
Riot Grrrl's unofficial anthem, Rebel Girl, leaves me cold. It's, dare I say it, a bit 'samey'? Bratmobile tracks are great individually, but it's rare I make it through a whole album. I appreciate Heavens to Betsy as both vulnerable and confrontational (especially in the face of sexual abuse), but it's not their Spotify profile I visit every week.
Don't get me wrong, we're not talking full-blown hatred - I dig the breakneck drums, the girl voices harmonising, the ballsy lyrics juxtaposed with cutesy vocals, the shouting, the semi-surf guitar of Bratmobile - but my dip-in-and-out attitude to the music comes nowhere close to how I feel about Riot Grrrl as a whole, as a movement.
And what's worse is that each attempt to like it seems just to drive me further into the comfortable macho arms of male-led rock of the same era, which I seem to find so easy to get along with: Nirvana - the all-guy crowd-pleasers that Kathleen herself described as "totally into money and getting fucked up, getting led around by their fucking balls" - Rage Against the Machine and Pavement. Oh Riot Grrrl, how I've failed you.
I do love female voices though. On the bus reading Girls to the Front; The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution? It was Courtney screeching through the headphones into my ears, not Kathleen. On my way to watch The Punk Singer? The decidedly anti-Riot Grrrl (albeit badass) Babes in Toyland.
And it's not "difficult" music I struggle with either: give me The Raincoats or Young Marble Giants over Haim any day of the week (actually, anything over that please).
I even like Le Tigre, Kathleen's not-quite-as-riotous later band. But try as I might, I never get a real hankering to switch on Bikini Kill or Sleater Kinney. It feels like a chore, something I should do rather than something I want to do.
Despite this I try to cover up my dirty secret. I've claimed to like Riot Grrrl in conversations with much-cooler-then-me people; I've "Joined" Riot Grrrl events on Facebook. Does this make me the lowest form of life in music-loving circles; a phony? Or is it ok to buy into everything about a musical genre except the music itself?
Riot Grrrl tunes may not be the ones I turn to for entertainment, but the ethos is one I draw on daily. It helps me flip a big fat V in the face of beauty standards. If my hair looks shit? Just means I'm too cool to care. If my skinny-jeaned thighs rub together when I walk? That's 'cus I'm a woman of substance. I'm pro quotas as well as pro choice; I think being political and having opinions is a duty not a hobby.
Huggy Bear calling out the creeping (and creepy) misogyny of Terry Christian during their legendary appearance on The Word; Riot Grrrl activists marching throughout 90s America, reclaiming women's reproductive rights; Tobi Vail's spirited rejection of corporate involvement in music; Riot Grrrl chapters forming at high schools and shining an angry, bold light on violence against teenage girls; the celebration of queer culture and fluid gender; zines with totally balls-out names like I'm So Fucking Beautiful and Hit It Or Quit It…these are the tracks that make up my own personal Riot Grrrl mixtape.
Perhaps it's because I missed seeing the music in all its fresh rawness, live, as a teenager - a few years too young and a few thousand miles too far away - that I feel this way. I probably would have fallen in love with it if I'd been able to experience Riot Grrrl face-to-face. After all, the movement was far more focused on process - the coming together of (mainly) women and girls, to create and share and inspire one another - than it was on product.
And that's the key to my seeming hypocrisy: while music was a large part of the outward face of Riot Grrrl, scratch away a little at the edges and it's so much more: zines and poetry and art; an entire philosophy, a way of life. Activists, often teenagers, were so inspired by it they moved into communes, headed to Olympia and Washington just to be part of it, founded the Riot Grrrl Press, became vegans and political commentators.
You could "be Riot Grrrrl" without so much as picking up a Walkman.
Maybe I don't listen to Riot Grrrl as much as I should, but I carry the important stuff with me. Cut me and I bleed Revolution Girl Style Now. And I still rejoice in going frikkin' nuts at a gig. Guess where? Right up front.
Text Emma Finamore
Photography Greg Neate