Rough Guide to Riot Grrrl
In the early 1990s, a new punk movement started in the uppermost corner of America. One that would alter the course of the genre forever. Out of the waning energy of the American hardcore movement which dominated the alternative scene in the ‘80s, women decided to take matters into their own hands by picking up guitars, creating zines, and building networks of feminists, activists and musicians. The riot grrrl ethos has kept its momentum with scenes popping up all over the world, paving the way for many female-fronted alternative bands today who continue to take inspiration from the work of bands performing 30 years ago. By foregrounding women’s lived experience and perspectives, the scene encouraged support and cooperation between women and girls, developing into a new punk scene that reflected their real lives. The initial scene in
Washington inspired a flurry of challenging, fearsome, and creative bands to sing about women’s bodies, their relationships, their hopes, and their demands. Here is my pick of some of the best bands and tracks.
Bikini Kill – Rebel Girl (1992)
The fairy godmothers of riot grrrl, Bikini Kill are credited with kickstarting the movement and they certainly became one of its most popular contributors. Riot grrrl was about embracing the power of female friendships, and Rebel Girl is an anthem for this attitude. Against a backdrop of pounding drums and thrilling guitars, frontwoman Kathleen Hanna describes her love for the vibrant rebel girl proclaiming that this “best friend” is the “queen of my world”.
Sleater-Kinney – Call the Doctor (1996)
Although Sleater-Kinney formed relatively late in the riot grrrl scene (1994), they have become one of the most critically acclaimed bands from its original cohort. Originally a trio (there are now two of them), they have released nine studio albums, all packed full of progressive political and feminist messages. Call the Doctor – the title track from their second album – warns of society’s demand for conformity and the lengths they will go to get it: “They want to sterilise your needs and likes / To sterilize you”. A dirge-y, haunting track with Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein singing across each other, creating a suffocating, disorientating sound that reflects the song’s message.
Heavens to Betsy – Terrorist (1994)
Before Corin Tucker joined Sleater-Kinney, she was part of another seminal riot grrrl group with drummer Tracy Sawyer: Heavens to Betsy. Although they only ever released one full-length album (1994’s Calculated), the duo also released a handful of singles and EPs, as well as contributing numerous songs to compilations with fellow riot grrrl bands such as Bratmobile. In this track, the terrorist in question is a menacing street harasser. Tucker vents her anger at this assailant via a rage-filled two minutes of shout-singing about what she would do to exact revenge – including gouging out his eyes and eventually killing him. In this short track, Heavens to Betsy express the pent-up frustration, fear, and wrath that many women accumulated from men’s violence and intimidation but did not usually have a means to express. This is
one of the many reasons riot grrrl, and songs like Terrorist, were so vital for providing a voice for women’s experiences.
Bratmobile – Gimme Brains (2000)
Bratmobile began as a feminist fanzine called Girl Germs, created by Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman. The pair decided to become a band in 1991 when they were asked to open for Bikini Kill, despite not being able to play any instruments. They had experience writing and singing a cappella, but proceeded to pick up guitars, teach themselves to play and go ahead with the show. After a six-year hiatus, they released a second album Ladies, Women and Girls in 2000. It is permeated by a real surf / garage rock sound, and this track, Gimme Brains, showcases the bass and pop sensibilities that make the track fun. Vocalist Allison Wolfe sings about the perils of dating a guy in a band thinking he’s cool when he is actually a jerk, and how girls should seek to be the rockstar in their own lives.
Lunachicks – Plugg (1992)
Although they hail from New York rather than the West Coast (which was the epicentre of the scene), Lunachicks are considered part of the riot grrrl legacy because they challenge the male-centric image of rock thanks to their hardcore punk sound and their lyrics which explore pretty much every aspect of life as a modern woman – from navigating beauty standards to reproductive rights. Their second album, Binge and Purge, reflects a band that had developed their skills both musically and lyrically since their debut, with the latter combining astute political and social observations with gross humour and vulgar jokes. The song Plugg is a relatable description of having a period cramps, blood, chocolate cravings, and lamentations galore.
L7 – Pretend We’re Dead (1992)
Straddling the grunge and riot grrrl movements, L7 were actually formed in 1985 which means they predated both scenes. Donita Sparks and Suzi Gardner met and formed a friendship within the art/poetry scene of Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. With Jennifer Finch on bass and Anne Anderson on drums, they released their first album on acclaimed punk label Epitaph. There have been a few line-up changes over the years, but the band have released a total of seven albums over more than 30 years. The band have been known for some shocking antics; at Reading Festival in 1992, in response to the crowd becoming impatient at the band’s technical problems, lead singer Donita Sparks threw her used tampon into the crowd. That same year they released their single Pretend We’re Dead, a commentary on the apathy of the Reagan/Bush era which had started out as a song about a breakup, until the band changed its course, choosing “fierceness over vulnerability”.
Huggy Bear – Her Jazz (1993)
Riot grrrl was not exclusively an American scene; UK musicians also got involved in this fierce, feminist form of punk. Huggy Bear formed in Brighton in 1991 and, despite attention from major labels, they remained signed to the independent label Wiiija. They attracted the attention of their trans-Atlantic counterparts and released a joint album with Bikini Kill on International Women’s Day, 1993 entitled Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah / Our Troubled Youth. Combining indie sounds with a quintessentially punk vocal, Her Jazz calls out the sexist,
predatory behaviour of men proclaiming to be feminist allies or revolutionaries and instead calls for a ‘boy-girl revolution’ – a change in dynamic between the sexes.
Babes in Toyland – Bruise Violet (1992)
Babes in Toyland formed in 1987 – another line-up that laid the foundations for 1990s riot grrrl bands’ sound and attitude. Self-taught musicians, the band played local venues in their hometown of Minneapolis and although they started out as amateurs, they soon developed into a vibrant and exciting live act, gaining popularity. Their debut album Spanking Machine was released in 1990 and British DJ John Peel hailed it as his favourite album of that year. Their song Bruise Violet was released as a single from their second, critically acclaimed album Fontanelle. The song is definitely not about a loving friendship à la Rebel Girl, with lyrics like “You little bitch / Well I hope your insides rot”. it is rumoured to be about vocalist Kat Bjelland’s love/hate relationship with Hole singer Courtney Love. Bjelland has subsequently denied this, but whoever it’s about, it ain’t no love song.
If you're a music fan and would like to put together your own rough guide to a genre, city, country or artist, please get in touch to contribute to this series: firstname.lastname@example.org. The collection will be put together and published in a print zine by the end of the academic year.