What the Girls Call ‘Murder’

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A funny thing happened on the way to the “angry grrrl rock revolution which seeks to save the psychic and cultural lives of girls and women everywhere”…

The 1990s began for me on a frozen December morning in Providence, RI. Shivering in my car while waiting for the windshield to defrost, I turned on WBRU and heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time; by song’s end I was thrashing around in the driver’s seat, pounding on the steering wheel so hard I didn’t even hear the DJ name the band. Something had ended—cracked to splinters and discarded in a pile of INXS, Edie Brickell, and Peter Gabriel CDs—and if those of us in our teens and 20s hoped Nirvana would deliver us from a decade of soulless, corporate dreck, we couldn’t have imagined the wholesale cultural shift that ensued in those short years before Kurt Cobain’s death. There was no going back.

By then I was living in San Diego, editing a music magazine, hanging around in the punk clubs with sweaty, exuberant bands banking on rumors San Diego was to be “the next Seattle.” By mid-decade, it was becoming clear this was wishful thinking; more broadly, the release of Bush’s song “Everything Zen” and its ilk signaled the co-optation and degradation of the music, in accordance with the law articulated by philosopher Eric Hoffer: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

But while the mass media were focused on Seattle, something much more interesting and durable was happening just south of there, in Olympia. Centered on Evergreen State College, and a handful of female musicians who formed loud, uppity bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and 7 Year Bitch, the Olympia scene was a “matriarchy” and the birthplace of the Riot Grrrl phenomenon. Riot Grrrl, as described by Marisa Meltzer in a new cultural history, Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music, was either a radical political statement or it wasn’t, either a cultural uprising or a mere fashion trend, a definable musical style or an empty catch-all for any female performer who mouthed the shibboleths of “girl power.” Meltzer never quite irons out these contradictions, but in trying she gives a comprehensive and highly readable cultural history of a decade that upended all the paradigms for female performers.

Olympia was to the Riot Grrrl movement what Paris was to modern art: a crucible and, almost immediately, a lost Eden. Though the term was apparently coined in Washington, D.C., it was a convention held by K Records in 1991, featuring an all-female night titled “Love Rock Revolution Girl Style Now” that served as the movement’s flashpoint. The bands proliferated, as did the fanzines and the “manifestas.” It was, according to the ‘zine launched by members of Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, an “angry grrrl rock revolution which seeks to save the psychic and cultural lives of girls and women everywhere.”

What followed was an all-American story of outsized hope, sexist condescension, and media hype, followed by media dismissal, infighting, and the eventual blurring beyond recognition of the original idea. Meltzer illustrates the viciousness of male-dominated media outlets, like Melody Maker, which memorably suggested that “the best thing any Riot Grrrl could do is to go away and do some reading and I don’t mean a grubby little fanzine.” She also deftly points out the ways in which Riot Grrrl’s message was directed not only at the patriarchy but also at an earlier generation of second-wave feminists. In their plaid skirts and torn stockings, their barrettes and combat boots, with words like “rape” and “whore” scrawled across their midriffs, these artists fought for a wholesale change in strategy for female empowerment. They eschewed the earnest conferences and campfire singalongs and constitutional amendments in favor of a furious, creative, and sexual energy. They would achieve power simply by taking it and daring you to try and take it back.

Still, Hoffer would not have been surprised at the ways the movement undermined itself and lost momentum. Meltzer points to a 1992 media blackout by the Olympians as a critical error that opened a space for mainstream culture to distort the values and aesthetics of Riot Grrrl. She details the many ways in which political urgency and spontaneity devolved into shtick—for instance, the legendary throwing of a used tampon into the crowd at the 1992 Reading Festival by L7’s Donita Sparks, which soon became a tired gesture, with one member of the band Lunachicks pre-smearing a tampon in lipstick, for later crowd-tossing at that night’s show.

More tragic—or predictable—was the evolution in the performers themselves. Meltzer traces a somewhat debatable lineage from Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna to Alanis Morissette and Fiona Apple, to the Spice Girls, Avril Lavigne, and (believe it or not) Hannah Montana. “They were angry, but so much more acceptable (read: pretty and unthreatening),” Meltzer writes of Morissette and Apple, and quotes X’s Exene Cervenka scoffing, “Tori Amos straddling a piano bench—is that empowering women or is that Penthouse-ing women? I don’t know.”

This preoccupation with insiders and outsiders, with whose politics are pure enough, arises in most movements. But Meltzer’s book can fall prey to the same disease she diagnoses. She spends a lot of time mapping the movement’s geography, distinguishing founding mothers from poseurs and arrivistes. Courtney Love and Hole, in this telling, were not riot grrrls but “angry womyn” or purveyors of what Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore termed “foxcore,” as were L7, Pop Smear, Babes in Toyland, and the earlier incarnations of PJ Harvey. Spice Girls and Christina Aguilera are dismissively labeled “pop tarts.” Elsewhere quibbles over, for example, how many r’s there are in grrrl, and fixation on pointless coinages like “manifesta” and “porta-jane” serve as distractions from the narrative, as they did within the movement itself.

Meltzer’s attitude toward latecomers like Lavigne and Britney Spears is understandably confused, one moment insisting they belong in this chronology of ascendant girl power, the next reassuring the pre-postfeminist set that they needn’t be taken too seriously. “Feminism without the activism,” is her indictment—and for sure, it’s an accurate one—but these artists did find enormous fame, wealth, and respect, at least among listeners not too concerned with their political bona fides. (“The Spice Girls changed British culture enough for Girl Power to now seem completely unremarkable,” one commentator observed.) Still, within a context of Riot Grrrls and feminist trailblazers it’s hard not to see the Spice Girls, Pussycat Dolls, et. al. for the frilly, opportunistic, male-created pawns they were.

Maybe that’s the reason Girl Power has so much trouble focusing on the music itself. Meltzer was undoubtedly caught up in the scene, cutting her teeth at Berkeley’s famed all-ages club, 924 Gilman Street, moving to Olympia “at least partly because of riot grrrl superfandom,” and at one point living in the same building as Kathleen Hanna. She attended living room riot grrrl shows, Liz Phair and Ani DiFranco and Juliana Hatfield concerts, and a Spice Girls reunion, and memorably travels to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, a precursor to the Lilith Fair. But though she makes it clear the riot grrrl culture fascinated and shaped her, we’re never invited to actually listen to it with her, to sit in that winter car while the music cuts through our frozen souls like a hot chainsaw. What enabled riot grrrl and grunge to bring about cultural change was its irresistible force—the music was loud and dangerous and ecstatic and dirty and it had killer hooks and it made you want to writhe on the floor or jump around your basement playing air guitar or hurl yourself into another moving body or fight or fuck or just laugh at how fucking cool it was, how fucking unexpected—and Girl Power doesn’t do enough to convey how the “revolution” of its subtitle actually felt to those of us whom it saved.

As a result, Meltzer’s book reads as more of a longitudinal culture study than a music history; riot grrrls are a stalking horse here for the broader but perhaps less urgent question of female visibility in the music industry. By the end, as Meltzer grows maudlin while watching pre-teen girls at rock and roll camp, the days when Olympia shook with yonic rage seem distant indeed, almost abstract. This is maybe the unwritten ending to both Girl Power and to Riot Grrrl itself, the epitaph for a movement that was thrilling while it lasted: Looking back now, it’s so hard to remember it.

Andrew Altschul was the founding Books Editor at The Rumpus. He is an O. Henry Prize-winning short story writer and the author of the novels Deus Ex Machina and Lady Lazarus. Currently, he directs the Center for Literary Arts at San Jose State University. More from this author →