Acting Up: Bodies, Performance, and the Importance of Visibility

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 capture 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. – Sleater Kinney, 1996 – 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 distributed at shows (Kearney, 74). Unlike Le Tigre, to this day Sleater Kinney remains with an independent record label (and we use that term loosely), Sub Pop.

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 instead evolved (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

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 (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 performance. – girls to the front – bratmobile


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