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Popular Music, Women's History Month
Twist n' Shhhout!: Highlighting Rock n' Roll at NYPL: Riot Grrrl
March is Women's History Month, so I decided to celebrate the louder side of Women's History here at Twist n' Shhhout! with a post about Riot Grrrl. Riot Grrrl was a fusion of punk rock and feminism that occured during the early 90s. The movement used a wide-variety of media such as zines, bands, and art to project a message about gender equality to the very male-dominated punk rock scene.
Here to talk with me about riot grrrl is Stephanie Kuehnert, author of I Wanna be Your Joey Ramone and Ballads of Suburbia. Stephanie often speaks about her participation in the Chicago riot grrrl scene and the way in which it has shaped her novels.
How were you first introduced to riot grrrl?
I started learning about riot grrrl in a couple of different ways. When I was in junior high/early high school, you couldn't seek out music on the internet the way you can now. So I learned about bands in old fashioned ways. First of all MTV actually played videos and they had this show called 120 Minutes that played indie and punk bands. I first saw Hole and Babes In Toyland on there and that was what really got me searching for female punk bands. Then I heard Hole's first album Pretty on the Inside through a friend's cool older cousin.
Thanks to another cool friend, I'd also gotten into Nirvana right before they got famous. And I had no idea Kurt and Courtney were a couple until I saw them on the cover of Sassy magazine. I read up a lot on my favorite bands through magazines and also by pouring over the liner notes of their CDs (or umm cassette tapes...). Both Kurt and Courtney had mentioned the term riot grrrl in interviews. Nirvana toured with Bikini Kill, so I decided to check them out. 7 Year Bitch and L7 were also mentioned in interviews so I checked them out. I read about Bratmobile in Sassy Magazine. So I was starting to get all these bits and pieces about riot grrrl through various sources.
Then at the end of eighth grade or beginning freshman year, I read this interview with a girl not much older than me named Jessica Hopper and she was talking about what riot grrrl was to her and about doing zines and I thought that was the coolest thing in the world, so I kept seeking out information. I read more about it in a book called Girl Power by Hillary Carlip and that's when I decided I identified with what riot grrrl was all about, so I started using that label to describe myself and making 'zines and meeting up with grrrls in the Chicago area and ordering zines from across the country.
Oh and I have to add, that I had a total fangirl moment last summer when I was on a YA panel with Jessica Hopper, who now has a book out called The Girl's Guide To Rocking. Her interview with Seventeen (which she took a lot of crap for because riot grrrl didn't want to be mainstream, which I found silly because how else are girls like me who needed it going to find it?) was probably the thing that peaked my interest in riot grrrl the most and that shaped *everything*, the music I listened to, my outlook on life, the way I write. Jessica Hopper was totally my hero when I was fourteen.
Did you go to regular punk rock shows at the time? Did you notice a difference between the riot grrrl shows and the more "typical" punk shows?
I did go to regular punk shows at the time. The main difference I noticed was that there were more women and girls at a riot grrrl shows and I found it more fun and easier to dance. Don't get me wrong at the time I loved to mosh and I didn't care about getting knocked down and for the most part, the Chicago scene was good and people helped you up. But at riot grrrl shows, people were a lot more respectful while dancing and that was good. I also felt more comfortable talking to strangers because they were mainly girls and we were obviously into the same things. So that was really cool.
What do you think happened to the riot grrrl scene? It was such a dominant force in the 90s and even had "chapters" in different locations that would collectively put together zines, art, and music (I remember New York City had a chapter at one point). Do you think times have just changed and there is no need for that type of movement anymore or do you think something else happened?
Unfortunately I witnessed some of what killed riot grrrl. I knew getting into it from reading that article in Seventeen that some people felt there was an elitist attitude within the scene. There was this whole need to keep it underground, which as I mentioned earlier, I thought was pretty ridiculous. I felt that it should go beyond the punk scene, that the zines were important, the bands were singing songs with a real message that needed to be heard and if the captain of the cheerleading squad heard about it and related that was a *good* thing. You can't change culture without being involved in culture. If you want to open minds you have to *be* open to others.
I understand there was a need to control the message, that the mainstream media likes to convolute things and back then without the internet giving the masses more of a voice, it was hard to take the message back. But still, I wish there'd been a way to find balance and spread word about riot grrrl and be inclusive to girls who had the same types of ideals even if they didn't share the punk aesthetic. But instead it stayed small and there was infighting and there was a really limited view point at times-- a very white middle class view point. I went to a riot grrrl conference in Philly where a workshop on class and classism was led by middle class white girls; the working class girls that I was with became very upset with good reason. And sadly, it felt like the movement wasn't able to get beyond some of these limitations. I wish it had.
I still think riot grrrl had a great influence on culture. It got people thinking. There are amazing bands that came from it that I think will have a long-lasting impact on music such as Sleater-Kinney. And I still consider myself a riot grrrl at heart and always will. Riot grrrl helped me find my voice and express my opinions and ideals. And I can only hope that through my writing, I inspire more girls and the revolution will continue.
What do you think are some of the more important riot grrrl recordings? If someone wanted to get into the music for the first time, where would you suggest they start?
Bikini Kill - The CD Version of the First Two Records
Bratmobile - Pottymouth
Sleater Kinney - Call The Doctor
And following Sleater-Kinney check out the members' bands from before they formed:
Heavens To Betsy - Calculated
Excuse 17 - Such Friends Are Dangerous
And then there are the female or female-fronted bands that weren't necessarily part of the riot grrrl movement, but are often lumped in/have associations/are just as important for shaping culture at that time and music in general:
Hole - Live Through This (which would be one of my all-time favorite albums period)
Hole - Pretty on the Inside
Babes in Toyland - Fontanelle
Babes in Toyland - Spanking Machine
L7 - Bricks Are Heavy
The Gits - Frenching The Bully
7 Year Bitch - Viva Zapata
What was your zine like and how do you think zine making has influenced your writing today?
I did 8 total zines in the last two years of high school. I did a one-off lit zine with some friends called Crust which mocked our pretentious high school lit mag Crest that it seemed you had to know someone (and probably write poetry without swear words) to get into. I also did four issues of a riot grrrl zine called Kill Supermodels with some friends. We were not about killing supermodels obviously and did not endorse violence against women, it was about killing the supermodel ideal of beauty. That zine was very political and feminist. We wrote about the feminist issues that interested us or pissed us off; we wrote about our favorite female bands and about our female heroes from throughout history.
We also wrote some poetry and at times I wrote painfully personal rants about things like being called slut and having rumors spread about me and about being bullied in junior high. Writing those personal pieces was a real release for me so I went on to write three different personal zines. The first was called Goddess Defiled and dealt with a lot of self-image stuff. The second was called Hospital Gown and dealt solely with my healing from an emotionally and sexually abusive relationship that I'd been in the year before. The third I wrote after graduating high school early and moving to a new town. It was called Do Not Go Quietly Unto Yr Grave. In it, I reflected on a lot of the things I'd been through and left behind--the drug-addicted friends, the abuse stuff, self-injury. I also wrote some cryptic short stories in that one.
I grew as a writer throughout the process of making these zines. The personal zines got me into trouble at times. I really bared my soul and it made some of my friends uncomfortable while others praised me for my bravery. I stopped censoring myself through zine writing. I learned to face controversial issues and explore all aspects of my creativity. But I was also aware of my audience. If I said certain things, there would be people who wouldn't like them and I had to learn to handle that. I like to think that zine-making taught me to deal with the world as I see it, to bring complete emotional honesty to whatever I'm writing, be it fiction or a political rant. That is very much still present in my writing. I'll never censor myself and I push to get to the heart of the story even when it hurts to write it sometimes.