Sunday, November 6, 2011

Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus

Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution
by Sara Marcus

Born in July 1983, I'm a little too young to be considered "Generation X" and a little bit too old to be considered a "Millennial." In high school, we first heard the term "Gen Y" kicked around, and some sources consider "Millennial" and "Generation Y" to be one and the same. Who decides these things, I don't know, but as is the case with any label, there is no catch-all application.

Such can be said about the label "Riot Grrrl," a movement that began in the early 90s within the indie scenes of Olympia, WA and Washington DC. Wholly defining riot grrrls into a couple of neat sentences cannot easily encompass both the origins and the destinations of the young women who participated. However, in Girls to the Front, Sara Marcus has crafted a rather well-rounded history that captures both the idealism and the problems of this "second wave" of feminism.

Maybe it's too easy to get complacent about women's rights — after the hard-fought battles of the 70s and the resurgence in the 90s, it might seem like a different world. To be fair, it is, a little.

The rape crisis centers and other pro-women organizations we might take for granted would not exist without those efforts, nor would the awareness we have regarding sexual harassment and terms like "glass ceiling."

And yet, still, victim-blaming occurs.
And yet, still, we read newspapers equating sexual assault with a fashion choice.
And yet, still, the internet breeds new forms of misogyny.
And yet, still, women are paid less than their male counterparts, still punished financially for having children, less likely to be taken seriously in male-dominated positions, and on and on and on and on.

There is much work to be done. Still.

However, the progress we have made owes a great deal to the Riot Grrrl movement — a movement that, at ten or so years old, I knew existed, but felt too young and too far away to take part. I saw these girls as unapologetically outspoken, girls who wore what they pleased, played in bands, made their own zines, and appeared to date people independent of gender. They looked artsy and fun, and I wished that I could some day be a part of something like that.

Lost on me, likely due to my age, were the political messages behind the movement. I didn't know, until later, how they reached out to girls who felt bombarded by sexist culture, familial abuse, and any number of horrible things. I didn't know of the true therapy Riot Grrrls experienced by coming together. Too young, living in Montana, and experiencing it only through magazines, all I saw were strong people. Examples. They would help change the world. (Pre-internet!)

However, no group is without its flaws and Girls to the Front does not shy away from discussing them. Sara Marcus was not a part of the original movement and came into it a few years in, growing up near the DC area. "Sometimes it's okay to have a little distance from the center of a cultural explosion," she says at the beginning of the book. "The impact may be reduced, but the burns less severe."

She talks about her frustration with hearing Riot Grrrl referred to as though it were a passé trend populated by girl bands who "couldn't play their instruments." How had this history been lost? What happened to the feelings she had when she first met these girls and knew she wasn't alone?

Talking to these girls, I began to understand that I didn't have to be miserable. Maybe being a teenager was always going to be a bloodbath to some extent, but it did not have to be this particular bloodbath. Its severity and the specific tone of its miseries were political, which meant they were mutable. I felt powerless not because I was weak but because I lived in a society that drained girls of that power.

However, apart from the introduction, Marcus does not veer into memoir territory. If no one had properly explored and recorded the history of Riot Grrrl, then she would do it herself. Through extensive interviews, scouring old zines and mainstream media coverage, she has woven together a complex narrative that avoids fangirl or cynicist traps.

She starts with a prologue, set at a 1992 Bikini Kill concert. They're a band who "has spent much of the past year on the road, building a fan base the way all independent bands do in the early '90s: piling into a van and crisscrossing the country every few months, counting on a cassette-only demo they sell, and on word of mouth, to feed enthusiasm."

Marcus has a particular gift for describing music to someone who has not heard the songs. I am aware of Bikini Kill as a band, would perhaps be able to recognize a song or two if it were played unattributed, but reading the music passages in this book provided a real sense of what the bands sounded like:

The laid-back bassist begins a three-note riff, over which a friend of the band, Molly, reads from a recent newspaper article attacking Bikini Kill: "What comes across onstage is man hate! A maniac rebellion against the world and themselves." Kathleen flails at the cymbals with exaggerated awkwardness, waving her arms like a three-year-old trying break something. Billy taps his foot to keep track of the beat. Erika's movement is almost here. Tobi is singing about rock heroes' approval: If Sonic Youth thinks that you're cool, does that mean everything to you? Then she raises her voice for the chorus, naming that band's iconic guitarist: Thurston Moore hearts the Who! Do you heart the Who too? As if in reply, Billy swings his guitar toward his amp to make caterwauling wolf whistles of feedback and jagged bursts of Thurston Moore-style noise.

The chaos mounts. Billy throws his guitar up high, letting it flip over itself in the air, and then catches it. Kathleen walks to the edge of the stage and leans down to the girls in the front row so Erika can hurl bloodcurdling screams into the mic. The two of them share the mic for a second, Kathleen's woah-oh-oh and Erika's virtuosic EEEEEEE!, and then Erika takes the microphone and climbs onstage. She belongs there and she knows it.

To properly summarize all the different figures that began what at first was called "Revolution Girl Style Now" calls for a review much longer than perhaps my (and your) patience allows. In short, the difference between the feminism of the 70s and the feminism of this group in the 90s was that it focused less on debating labels — "Does labeling something female unfairly change its perception?" and the like — because they were already aware of the disadvantages labels caused, and that did nothing to change the reality of being a girl in the early 90s. They wanted to start something cool and encouraging to anyone interested in equality, and not just the readers of their mothers' Ms. magazines. They wanted to create a new legend, where "[e]verything was accessible, everything was meaningful, everything was available to be discussed and assessed and incorporated into an exuberant and revolutionary worldview."

Olympia's punk scene already had some ties to the DC scene, as some of the key players in Olympia had once lived in Maryland, not to mention the northwest's K Records having close ties to Ian MacKaye's Dischord Records (MacKaye, of course, being the frontman for Minor Threat and then Fugazi). Pen pal friendships sprung up through postcards and zine exchanges, which also led to the fractured collective band known as Bratmobile and Bratmobile DC. With the encouragement from their Olympia counterparts, DC punk girls realized their scene was in need of an overhaul, a movement away from its often violent, male-dominated pits during shows.

It's important to note Riot Grrrl's parallel existence to what ended up being labeled "grunge." Though both incubated in the early 90s and overlapped to some degrees, they had wildly different goals. Tobi Vail from Bikini Kill once dated Kurt Cobain, and some of Kurt's subsequent heartbreak songs made it onto the Nirvana album receiving so many 20th Anniversary Tributes as of late.

The boys of Nirvana has their hearts set on fame and stardom, which made them unusual in Olympia, as did their polished, anthemic sound, all brawny power chords and cataclysmic drumming. Tobi was particularly critical of her friend's designs on success; she had nothing but scorn for "lame career-goal bands," which to her defeated the anticonsumerist raison d'etre of punk rock.

Whatever: Tobi and Kathleen had a band of their own to worry about. They knew from the beginning that Bikini Kill was going to be something special, not a feint at the Top Ten or at bourgeois stability. They had plotted it out carefully in strategy sessions: Their band was going to be a revolution. They would settle for nothing less.

I'm thinking different definitions of "success" might have helped end that relationship, no?

Allow me to veer back into personal territory once more: An old boyfriend and I used to have this same argument about success. He was a big fan of K Records and the Kill Rock Stars label (which is also mentioned in this book). Sure, he liked Nirvana and loved Pearl Jam, but something about the idea of wanting to be widely known didn't sit well with him. He wanted to start a movement of all-ages, indie shows that dealt with cassettes and low-budget tours. He was about rehearsing your ass off, but still getting up and playing shows while you were still learning, and about having something to say taking precedence over anything else. And to his credit, he has gone on to do just that with a label called Tummy Rock — to an acceptable-to-him scale, I don't know, since we're not in regular contact. (In this Facebook age? I know. Unheard of! But it's true.)

Meanwhile, I was (and am) all about that anthemic sound and cataclysmic drumming. In the church of rock n roll, I want both the intimate, press-against-the-stage gigs and the mega sea of people singing their goddamn hearts out while the band only has to play the chords. My big, loud desires come from a different jurisdiction. I'm arrogant enough to want Rage Against the Machine-esque revolution and recognition — Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me — and to hell with terms like "selling out."

That's not to say that I am right and he is wrong — No, we just had different, incompatible ways of looking at the world.

So, while I'm with the Riot Grrrls in wanting equal rights for women, after reading Girls to the Front, I have the suspicion I would have been frustrated by much of the inner-movement politics, had I been the right age/geographical area to take part. At a certain point, their "Revolution Girl Style Now" began to get more attention from news outlets, and their discomfort with such attention grew even more widespread when they felt the movement was being wildly misrepresented in these more mainstream places. The specifics of the misrepresentations varied, but the underlying feeling was the same: They were not being taken seriously.

And they were right — Riot Grrrl certainly was not a fashion trend or only teenage naïve idealism that should be discarded— but my reaction to misrepresentation is not to institute a communication blackout as they did. I'll ramble and yell and make my point from the rooftops, man. Tell the reporters how others have got it wrong, make them feel like they've got the scoop, and in the meantime, I'll use my own methods to keep churning out my message. Just go, go, go, and do not retreat. I understand that they were anti-capitalist and felt like they didn't need Spin to do what they did, but a Newsweek article is what brought Riot Grrrl to Sara Marcus' attention. Are they going to say that they wish she'd never read it? That her experience of discovering Riot Grrrl is somehow less authentic? Come on.

It's easy to say that when you're not in it, of course. (Though it bears mentioning that, when frustrated with any "scene" in which I might be tangentially involved, I do find my own methods of semi-respectful loud-mouthing.)

Marcus explores the different ways Riot Grrrl fractured — from social climbers, to Midwest incarnations, to women who felt like returning the violence inflicted upon them. Kathleen Hanna, though there at the start, always shied away from being called any sort of "spokesperson" for Riot Grrrl, even though the popularity of her band made it seem natural. Though she was all determination and bravery onstage and in her writing, she found the attention embarrassing. Tobi Vail wondered if, because of the out of context media attention, calling yourself a riot grrrl "even means anything at this point."

The term 'poseur' gets thrown around a lot by people still, and the '90s were no different. Watching their old friends from Nirvana blowing up to be the biggest thing in the world made them uncomfortable, and they hated to see their own work become the latest fad within "lame corporate youth identity bullshit."

That's all well and good, but one can't worry about controlling others' responses so much as one can just go own living their ideals. Maybe that's my post-90s feminist privilege talking, but reading the complaints from some of these women sometimes inspired eye-rolling, "why do you care so much?" reactions. Again, that's easy to say when I wasn't experiencing it firsthand, and the intensity of the teenage experience is so much more overwhelming than that of the late-20s perspective. For all I know, I would've had the same reaction at seventeen, eighteen. It's hard to say.

What is great about Girls to the Front is that it gets one thinking about all these things — what it means to be a woman in 2011, what has and hasn't changed, and how one views their identity independent of gender. A person cannot have a neutral reaction to this book; it causes too much self-reflection.

Yes, feminism still has its work cut out for it. There are no easy answers on how we can change systems that have long been in place, but as with any hope for change, people have to make an effort. For however long we are able, we simply have to keep trying.


For further reading wherein I get cranky about gender and publishing, see "Let's make some gender graphs, y'bastards!" Or if you are more interested in me getting cranky about the term "indie" and the term "sell out," please refer to "Indie Accuracy." SPOILER: Sometimes I am a loudmouth pain in the ass. Who knew?

Full disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

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