In our last post we finished with the juxtaposition of two songs – one recorded by Bikini Kill in 1991, the other by Le Tigre in 2004. Both songs were written by Kathleen Hanna, yet they display very conflicting stylistic and ideological attitudes. These songs are excellent snapshots of Riot Grrrl’s musical transition across almost two decades, and their aesthetic features provide considerable insight into the intersections of political and artistic values of the times.
In this section, we’re diving deeper into the minutiae of these changes and how they both reflect and resonate within the technological and political landscapes of independent music practices from the early 1990’s and into the 21st century. Most importantly, we’re interested in how and why Riot Grrrl music was able to function as such a raw, evocative feminist blitzkrieg when played live, but falls short of this in mere audio recordings. Nowadays, even with astronomically more advanced recording technologies, crisp sound and colourful music videos, the anger and contention of early 90’s Riot Grrrl cannot quite be captured in its earlier glory.
Below are two video examples of the group Sleater-Kinney; the first is a 1996 personal recording of the band playing a small record store show, the second (ten years later) is a 2006 official music video.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHUYBeuKGW4 – Sleater Kinney, 1996
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZA_7FtttRY – Sleater Kinney, 2006
As with Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, these styles are contradictory. Whether the stylistic changes are for better or for worse is a difficult value judgment to make, however, it is evident that the latter is not quite Riot Grrrl music anymore, but something hybrid and different. This is indicative of the core ontology affiliated with the original Riot Grrrl praxis (both as a musical genre and cultural phenomenon); Riot Grrrl in its purest form encompasses both a particular set of musical choices and an ideological vehicle. The ways in which early Riot Grrrl music was expressed is an essential part of how participants articulated their goals and values. The very means by which these two songs are recorded is case and point.
This being said, since the genre’s inception there has never been a great deal of importance placed on the recording and physical dissemination of Riot Grrrl music. If anything, the focus is on ensuring that if groups do choose to record their music, they control the means of production and distribution themselves (Kearney, 75). Of course, the relative costs of digital recording and mass-production of CDs was an important pressure that led to artists being more inclined to record on cassettes or vinyl. True to their DIY, girl-power championing of the independent music scene, the majority of recordings were done with small female-owned record labels, independent producers, and were predominately distributed at shows (Kearney, 74).
The authentic-inauthentic binary of Riot Grrrl music has more to do with how music is recorded – the relationship between economics and political articulations (Feigenbaum, 149) – as opposed to whether or not it actually is recorded. Even so, the political economics of “selling out” are far more complex than simply assuming that a band such as Le Tigre switching to a corporate label marks the death of their punk rock ideologies. One Exclaim article notes that it’s not Kathleen Hanna’s politics that have changed over the years, but her tone and target audience have evolved instead (Carpenter). Though we would like to emphasize the importance of DIY production to the original form of the genre, like any cultural phenomenon Riot Grrrl is not a static, timeless musical enigma. As one grrrl explained,
“Riot Grrrl was not so much a culturally specific phenomenon as [a] mindset or form of energy. As we all know, energy is neither created or destroyed, but rather passed on.”
– Cassandra Smith (Feigenbaum, 149)
Rewriting Punk Spatial Politics
Nevertheless, we cannot erase the fact that beyond just the auditory experience, it was the physical, organic performances of these militant youth that were the foundation upon which the Riot Grrrl community existed. Riot Grrrl is no stranger to the politics of the body and the negotiation of sexed spaces (recall that the movement itself was born partially out of the dissociation that women felt at punk rock concerts). The violence of the early punk/hardcore scene resulted in females being pushed quite literally to the sidelines while the men were allowed active participation in the music scene. The forced passivity of women was incongruent with the passion that these women actually felt.
“There would be girls standing all around the corners [of shows] holding these jackets, then there would be the boys with their shirts off, y’know, playing the hardcore music… I remember looking around and being like, “Why are these girls just standing there just holding these jackets?” And I remember overhearing another person there go, “Those are the coathangers.”
– Madigan Shive of Tattle Tale/Bonfire Madigan on the treatment of women at punk shows (in “don’t need you”)
It thus became a precedent during Riot Grrrl shows to prioritize a space for women. Often in quite a confrontational and cheeky manner, females would be charged less than males to even enter Riot Grrrl shows; female co-presence was perhaps the most important part of Riot Grrrl performances. This sense of collective identity, safety, and empowerment cannot quite be reproduced in an audio recording. These sentiments are no better demonstrated than in the Bratmobile video below (from 0:10 – 0:45), and in the excerpt that follows from Kathleen Hanna’s documentary, The Punk Singer, particularly from 0:40 – 2:22.
Bratmobile Live, 1994
Girls to the Front – The Punk Singer
The “Girls to the Front” scene is perhaps one of the most significant moments in Riot Grrrl herstory. Where women have traditionally been consumers of punk rock culture, bound to the sidelines and passive in comparison to their male counterparts, Riot Grrrl gave punk music (quite literally) a stage upon which women could voice their dissent and articulate their own passions and values within the framework of countercultural rebellion set out by the earlier punk scene. The assignation of legitimacy to musical performers and subcultural producers was shifted from male to female hands, and it was at Riot Grrrl performances that this sense of legitimacy was granted and affirmed (Gottlieb & Wald, 263).
Live performance, beyond being a musical affair, was quite like the politician’s pulpit. Bikini Kill has been noted to play before ideologically charged backdrops, scrawled with messages such as, “ABORTION ON DEMAND AND WITHOUT APOLOGY” (Gottlieb & Wald, 267). Though the lyrics and tone of recorded tracks were saturated with hostility and political messages, stage performances left nothing to the imagination. In performing both on and through their bodies, voices, and environment, Riot Grrrls countered the alienation women felt with their bodies within punk culture (Gottlieb & Wald, 268). The way in which women such as Kathleen Hanna wield their bodies makes their performances highly confrontational, such that not only does it counter the male gaze, but renders it obsolete.
All this being said, the most important thing to take from this discussion is not that Riot Grrrl music lacks political power in isolation. We aim to stress that the articulation of each phrase, each note, through the performer’s body and environment elevates Riot Grrrl to something beyond musicological contexts. Though recorded music may transcend time, the genre cared more for establishing networks and both imagined/co-present communities of women through shared ideas and values. Riot Grrrl music was primarily a channel of ideological intent, not to be viewed in isolation, but part of a whole repertoire of methods utilized in working towards a greater goal. Particular values were asserted through choices regarding production and distribution, body politics and aesthetic expressions – all of these being imperative to the construction of not just a musical genre, but a communal means of addressing the inequalities faced by women both within and outside the punk body politic.
Carpenter, Lorraine. Le Tigre Raise the Stakes. Exclaim. 1 Jan. 2006. Web. 9 Feb. 2015.
Feigenbaum, Anna. “Remapping the Resonances of Riot Grrrl.” Interrogating Post-feminism. Ed. Yvonne Tasker & Dianne Negra. London: Duke University Press, 2007. 132-152. Print.
Gottlieb, Joanne. & Wald, Gayle. “Smells like Teen Spirit Riot Grrrls, Revolution and Women in Independent Rock.” The Popular Music Studies Reader. Eds. Bennet, A., Toynbee, J., & Shank, B. London: Routledge, 2006. 250-274. Print.
Kearney, Mary Celeste. Girls Make Media. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.
don’t need you: the herstory of riot grrrl. Dir. Kerry Koch. Urban Cowgirl Productions, 2006. Film.