Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Revolution Girl Style Now!

Riot Grrrl was probably the ultimate zine-driven scene. While punk, for instance, threw up fanzines written by people who wanted to document the new music of the late 1970s, with riot grrrl the zines came first. Molly Neuman and Allison Wolfe, who formed key scene band Bratmobile, first put out Girl Germs zine in 1990. They then gave a name to the emerging movement with Riot Grrrl zine, the first issue of which came out in June 1991. Toby Vail, meanwhile, put out Jigsaw zine as a result of which Kathleen Hanna got in touch and they started Bikini Kill – inevitably the best-known of the Riot Grrrl bands also put out a zine of the same name.

Riot Grrrl – revolution girl style now! (Black Dog Publishing, 2007) gives due weight to the zine and DIY dimensions of the movement, with a chapter by Red Chidgey on Riot Grrrrl Writing. She argues that the zine ‘manifestoes were a form of wish fulfilment, conjuring up in words whatever the authors wanted to see happen in real life… “Riot Grrrl was about inventing new titles”, says Jo Huggy, ”you think up some name for a fantasy revolutionary group of girls, spread the ideas of it about and hope, for someone, it’ll come true”'.

In England, key riot grrrl band Huggy Bear declared in their Her Jazz manifesto (printed in their Huggy Nation zine, 1992): ‘Soon truckloads of Girl Groups and Girl/Boy Groups will be arriving to storm onto our platforms to start the riot they’ve been dreaming and plotting in the many hours spent waiting, growing taller with anticipation’.

Thus the bedroom dreams of a post-punk feminist youth movement gave birth to just that, initially in early 1990s Olympia and Washington DC and then in the UK and elsewhere.

The scene struggled to cope with a media onslaught, and the record industry was soon repackaging a diluted form of girl power with The Spice Girls. Nevertheless, Riot Grrrl inspired girls (and boys) across the world to form bands and write, and there continue to be riot grrrl networks to this day.

Riot Grrrl was also one of the final pre-internet movements. As Beth Ditto notes in her foreword to the book, it was ‘Built on the floors of strangers’ living rooms, tops of xeorox machines, snail mail, word of mouth and mixtapes’. In the pre-internet world ‘the main means of communicating and networking… was through exchanging zines and writing letters’ (Julia Downes). Erin Smith, who published the early Teenage Gang Debs zine recalled, there ‘was something special about having this pen-pal and then kind of calling on the phone, and then hearing about this other person, and then reading their zine, and then mailing your zine out to people and just hoping somebody’s going to understand it’.

Internet communication is much quicker and broader – I know that within minutes of writing this somebody on the other side of the world will be reading it. But arguably communication is often shallower than the exchange of gifts implied by sending tapes, zines and letters to kindred spirits.

This book is a good start at documenting Riot Grrrl, though inevitably there are gaps. In the chapter Poems on the Underground, Cass Blaze covers the UK music influenced by riot grrrl in detail. She considers Huggy Bear, Mambo Taxi, Voodoo Queens and the crossover with the indie-pop scene. I would have liked the US Riot Grrrl music scene to be treated in similar depth. The link with the related queercore scene could also have been explored more, with bands like Sister George in the UK and Tribe8 in the US.

There's lots of good Riot Grrrl stuff out there online - you could start with The Riot Grrrl Manifesto, The Riot Project and Riot Grrrl Online Blog.


Rachel said...

Thanks for writing on this. I especially liked your observation that "Riot Grrrl was also one of the final pre-internet movements." Really fabulous. Zines were the original blogs after all, and provided a venue for girls to write and communicate with one anouther outside of corporate control (though was it more based on social networking or meritocracy?). I, as you know, disagree that the Spice Girls diluted the Riot Grrrl movement. Rather, they made its ideology available to those outside the white upper-middle/upper class college-educated circles. In order to do so, they had to appeal to the so-called lowest common denominator, but their girl power was extremely porous and the grrrl revolution influence can be found in large doses if we examine closely enough!

Transpontine said...

Actually the book I mentioned does suggest a direct line from riot grrrl to the Spice Girls via Shampoo, a duo who were involved in the London indie-pop scene and who made a big noise about girl power. They got quite a lot of press/record company interest which may have prompted the idea for the Spice Girls. I guess riot grrrl was more overtly political, but yes the Spice Girls did make some great pop songs - the video for their first single with its long tracking shot is unforgettable.

grrrlriot said...

Also, My other riot grrrl site: http://www.hot-topic.org/riotgrrrl/ is another link you could add to this post.