Note from Peck: I am beginning to write about music. This piece, on the Riot Grrrl movement and other women musicians was originally an assignment for my Graduate Humanities Program at Dominican University. Comments are very welcome, thanks for reading.
ISOLATION IS THE ENEMY
Riot Grrrl, Feminism in Rock and Roll, and the Situation Today
The Riot Grrrl movement, a collective of feminist musicians, writers, artists and publishers chose revolution as their central aim, particularly the overthrow of male hegemony as it affects young women, girls. After some high-profile misrepresentations in the mainstream media, the group adopted a policy of total media blackout. Only writers from within the movement, or those identified as kindred to the movement, were allowed in. Mostly through their own fanzines, cameras and meta-memoirs, the group is well-documented, and their history is accessible to anyone interested today.
With this essay, I want to look at the groups successes, frustrations, and predecessors and heirs, in an attempt to answer these questions: Has the climate improved for DIY women musicians in America? How does a cultural movement begin, recruit its members, and coalesce into a shared identity? How did Riot Grrrl begin to know who they were as a group? Lastly and ultimately, how can any contemporary art group learn from Riot Grrrl and address their chosen social/cultural struggle in a world that is markedly different from the late 1980’s origins of Riot Grrrl? Let me start with two stories of coalescence.
Riot Grrrl began and ended with writing and research. While it is often regarded as primarily a musical movement, most of the important connections were formed through self-published fanzines, often called “Zines”. Tobi Vail, the eventual drummer of Bikini Kill, a central group in R.G., was first the editor of the Jigsaw Zine. Her own writings for Jigsaw often blended the political, personal and artistic:
“I’ve always been interested in playing music with other women, and it always seems like I’ve been misunderstood and gotten called sexist for it. I don’t know, maybe I’m crazy, but to me it seems natural to notice the difference between men and women and I don’t understand WHY I’m constantly told to ignore that in the context of rock and roll.” (Girls to the Front, pg.43-44)
While parts of this quote may raise eyebrows in the gender theory world (“natural to notice the difference between men and women” etc.) there is an importance to Vail’s voiced intention to play music with other women. For instance, it was this paragraph that inspired Kathleen Hannah, a bandleader, sex abuse counselor and writer to get in touch with Vail. They would become the nucleus of Bikini Kill. But first, they interacted as writers, thinkers. While on a cross -country tour with another band, Hannah began interviewing and counseling women after her shows about traumatic sexual experiences. When she had compiled enough material, she sent the trancripts to Vail and published them in Jigsaw.
Sara Marcus, author of Girls to the Front, a history of Riot Grrrl, writes about her own teenage years in the book’s preface. “I had no social group. No pocket of belonging.” She and a few girls at her high school started a NOW (National Organization for Women) chapter, only to be taunted by boys yelling “Dykes!” in the hall outisde their meetings. When she saw a Newsweek article about the Riot Grrrls, she was stunned. “I read the whole piece twice, not even bothering to sit down. It said the riot grrrls had recently held a convention in Washington, DC. Could this be true? There were girls in my area who might understand me?” (Girls to the Front, pg.4) She goes on to describe her pre-internet era detective work, searching bulletin boards, classified ads and newsletters in feminist bookstores, sending letters to post office boxes without reply. After a year of searching, near the end of her high school career, Marcus did find her local chapter of Riot Grrrl, who met on Sunday afternoons at a co-op called the Positive Force House in Arlington, Va. “We talked about sexual harassment fro classmates and teachers, crushes on boys and girls, our favorite kinds of tampons and ice cream, and our outrage over the sexist stories and images we saw in the newspapers and on television. These girls weren’t all punk, they didn’t all have bands, and while they were the coolest girls I’d ever met, they were cool in a way that drew me closer instead of shutting me out.” (Girls to the Front, pg.8) In both Marcus’, Vail’s and Hannah’s stories, there is a searching and finding of kindred women, who had experienced similar frustrations, persucutions and joys. It is this coming together that I want to direct into the heart of this essay.
Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth has written extensively about her life in music. Emerging from New York’s noise music scene in the early 1980’s, Sonic Youth became undeniably one of the most impactful bands in rock and roll over the past 3 decades. Gordon’s half-spoken vocal approach, refined aesthetic thought process, calm intensity on stage and in music videos, and her iconic fashion sense made her a hero to successive waves of musicians in art rock and avant garde music. She also was a friend and mentor to Kathleen Hannah of Bikini Kill, beginning with a summer Hannah spent in New York City.
But Gordon’s own coming of age was not unlike the Riot Grrrls who she would come to influence. The 1960’s Los Angeles of her youth seemed hopeless. Intimidated by boys and men, overlooked by her family and not encouraged to pursue a career in the arts, Gordon sought a way out. “L.A. in the midsixties had a desolation about it, a disquiet….High school was a dark period for me…the other kids seemed alien to me because, in fact, they were…Hypervigilance was my mode…I did know this much: I couldn’t find out who I really was until I’d left L.A. and my family…Families are like little villages. You know where everything is, you know how everything works, your identity is fixed and you can’t really leave, or connect with anything or anybody outside, until you’re physically no longer there.” (Gordon, Girl In a Band, pg.57-59) Despite Gordon’s isolation and oppressive surroundings, she did manage to connect with a who’s who of art world notables, all in their own process of becoming: William Winant, Larry Gagosian, Danny Elfman, and Barry Finnerty were all close friends or professional associates in her late teens and early twenties. It is notable though, that Gordon did not find kindred women in the arts until she arrived in New York City in 1980. Upon arrival there, Gordon stayed with photographer Cindy Sherman, saw performances by No Wave icons like Lydia Lunch, and made visual art around a cadre that included Dara Birnbaum, the visual and installation artist.
In another paralell to Tobi Vail and Kathleen Hannah, Kim Gordon would pave the way to her own first musical projects by writing about music first. “I decided to write about men, and how they interact on stage with one another and bond by playing music…In retrospect, that’s why I joined a band, so i could be inside that male dynamic, not staring in through a closed window but looking out. The piece I wrote, “Trash Drugs and Male Bonding,” was published in the first issue of a new magazine called Real Life…I got a lot of positive feedback and felt suddenly as though I had an identity in the downtown community. That essay topic unlocked the next thirty years of my life.” (Girl In A Band, pg.103) Gordon, too, was thinking and writing about gender in music, and publishing in independent outlets. Soon after her piece was published, Gordon would form her first New York band, Introjection, with Christine Hahn and Miranda Stanton.
It’s important that the artists in Riot Grrrl and in the downtown New York scene were thinkers. They read and responded to each other’s written work. Women in Riot Grrrl took it a step further, re-publishing each other’s ideas by literally cutting and pasting each other’s work from one Zine to another. This is how Kathleen Hannah’s Riot Grrrl Manifesto proliferated and helped to crystallize the movements identity. Comprised of sixteen tenants, each starting with a capitalized “BECAUSE”, Hannah’s manifesto was lucid, fun and serious, simple and weighty at once. Here are a few selections: “BECAUSE us girls crave records and books and fanzines that speak to US that WE feel included in and can understand in our own ways…BECAUSE we are unwilling to let our real and valid anger be diffused and/or turned against us via the internalization of sexism as witnessed in girl/girl jealousism and self defeating girl type behaviors…BECAUSE I believe with my wholeheartmindbody that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will change the world for real.” (Riot Grrrl Manifesto, Bikini Kill Fanzine #2)
This and its dissemination Manifesto shed light on one of my original quesions: “How does a cultural movement begin, recruit its members, and coalesce into a shared identity?” First off, the founders of Riot Grill agreed not to copyright their name or their writings, so they could be easily cut and pasted (literally, physically) from one Zine to another, if someone felt like sharing a preexisting work. It also meant that Riot Grrrl, as a name and concept, belonged to anyone who wanted to take the idea and run with it.
But how did Riot Grrrl begin to know who they were? In her Manifestos verbiage, Hannah implies a kind of intuitive, deep, shared knowledge: “I believe with my whole mindheartbody that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force”. This deep knowing was enough to create a powerful beacon, attracting girls to the meetings who would figure out the wording and details of the movement as they went along. “We didn’t even know what was going to happen. It was just like ‘What if a bunch of women met? What would happen?’” Kathleen Hannah asks in an interview, as she remembers the movements inception. (Don’t Need You, The Herstory of Riot Grrrl) (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9G45K6FgaI&t=5m10s) Because so many young women felt marginalized and alienated in the years of their youths, and knew deeply in their minds, hearts and bodies that a better community was out there for them, then Riot Grrrl needed only to call a meeting to get a movement started.
Let me turn to another of my initial questions now, and ask whether the situation has improved for young women now, particularly in and around the music scene. On a Friday night in April of this year, I attended a concert by The Dollhouses, lead by Heather Van Cleve, the band’s primary songwriter. Van Cleve is no stranger to the music of Bikini Kill, and identifies as an Intersectional Feminist. In addition to being a musician, Van Cleve is a painter, costumer and poet. The show, held at Santa Rosa’s Arlene Francis Center, was a through-conceived mutli-medium experience, involving two musical acts, circus-like set designs, black and white projections of vintage circus performances, and two live circus performers, on tour from Michigan. Both on stage and in the crowd, there was a balance of women and men in attendance. It seemed clear that people were invested in this local music scene, and vocal in praising each other’s art work and style. While a major impetus for the Riot Grrrl movement came from a dissatisfaction with male violence at live shows, the scene in Santa Rosa was small, intimate, supportive.
A few days after the show, I interviewed Heather Van Cleve, and asked her if she thinks the live show environment has improved since the early 1990’s zenith of Riot Grrrl. She began by describing her own youth, in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s: “The music scene I grew up in was really male-centered. I had a really hard time breaking in. There was this general attitude when I first started playing guitar of ‘Oh, you play guitar? You must know three chords and must be some horrible folk singer.’…[but now] a lot of the people who were perpetuating that chauvinist vibe, y’know, moved away or have kids…and don’t play music anymore.” She smiled in celebration of this fact. (See complete interview below) Earlier, I’d asked Van Cleve if she had any hopes for her audience’s experience at shows. “Yeah. A lot of my songs are totally autobiographical. I have a lot of songs that deal with abuse, child abuse, sexism, those sorts of things, domestic abuse, so I do have this hope I can connect with other people who have struggled in those ways. And those sorts of things can be really isolating, and make you feel really lonely or broken or damaged, and there’s a lot of stigma or shame attached to those things, so I like to be outspoken about that and sing about that to kind of remove those shameful feelings…to not feel ashamed and feel like they can speak out and connect with other people…That’s a huge reason why I started writing music is because I felt so lonely.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ruIJ1Hvr58&t=13m33s) Here we see Heather Van Cleve voicing a very similar mission to Kim Gordon’s and to Riot Grrrl’s – to put an end to the loneliness, isolation and marginalization that young women face, particularly in music scenes.
It is arguable that both Riot Grrrl and Kim Gordon’s eras of artistic and political peak activity happened before 1995. In all their personal recollections, the mediums through which they communicated are discussed with great fondness: bulletin boards at book stores, self-published Fanzines and magazines, 7” and 12” records, cassette-only music labels. It begs the question: Is it somehow harder to start an artistic or activist scene and keep it together in the age of the internet? With it’s profusion of likes, links and shares, is there a dissipation of energy between artists? It is telling that Sara Marcus prefaces her book with a personal memory of scarcity, mystery and uncovering in the physical world – a path that lead her, after two years of searching, to her first Riot Grrrl meeting at the Positive Force House.
It is also important to note that much of Riot Grrrl’s platform related to a code of behavior at live performances, where people come together in person. In a pure internet interaction, there is still an opportunity for sexism or rejection of sexism to be communicated. But it often happens in an anonymous way. The pain is still there when someone makes a hurtful or bigoted comment on the web, but perhaps it loses some of it’s catalytic power to provoke a response, like what happens at a concert. In the Punk Singer, a 2013 documentary about Kathleen Hannah and Riot Grrrl, we see many intense interactions between Hannah and her audience. “Get out!” she yells at one man who is not following the code of safety and respect towards women. To the audience at another show she says “Can all the guys in here be cool, for once in your lives, and go to the back of the room?” Here, she inverts the classic situation at early 90’s punk rock shows, in which young men danced and play-fought aggressively at the front of the room while the women stood in the back of the room and observed passively. Kathleen Hannah was also known to attend other band’s shows and hand out Fanzines, greeting strangers with a smile. Is it simply not as inspiring to find our allies and antagonists on the web, and not in a physical space?
A particular story about Kathleen Hannah came up in several of the sources I researched for this project: When Hannah was 19 years old, and a sophomore at Evergreen State University in Washington, she road-tripped to Seattle to attend a talk by her hero, Kathy Acker. Hannah hoped to meet with Acker, and managed to land an interview with her for a friend’s magazine. During their conversation, Acker asked Hannah what she did. “I’m a spoken word artist”, she replied. “And why do you do this work?” Acker asked. “Because I want so badly to be heard and reach women who’ve gone through the same abuses as me” was Hannah’s emotional reply. “Then why aren’t you in a band? Nobody goes to spoken word events and you’ll reach a lot more people if you start a band.” (Girls to the Front, pg.35)
Today, in 2015, I wonder if Kathleen Hannah might tell a young revolutionary feminist artist to do something other than start a band. Perhaps the internet era has conferred more power and influence onto a different medium. During my interview with Heather Van cleve, I learned about Amber the Activist, a young woman who survived rape a little over a year ago. Since then, she has taken to writing her ideas on the sidewalk and even onto her own body. “Blame rapists, not survivors. #StopRapeEducate,” one of her sidewalk messages reads. Her work is striking, inspiring, and translates very well to the internet. (https://twitter.com/stoprapeeducate) (https://instagram.com/stoprapeeducate)
The dangers and marginalizing forces that young women faced in the early 1990’s are still at large. But the desire to connect, thereby ending isolation, also endures. Riot Grrrl, Kim Gordon, Heather Van Cleve and Amber the Activist all deliver their messages with ingenuity, finding their kin and ending isolation.
Girls to the Front, Copyright 2010 Sara Marcus, Harper Perennial
Girl in a Band, Copyright 2015 Kim Gordon, Harper Collins
don’t need you, the herstory of riot grrrl, documentary film dir. Keri Koch, Copyright 2006 Urban Cowgirl Productions
The Punk Singer, documentary film dir. Sini Andersen, Copyright 2013 IFC Films