Amid the grunge rock explosion in the early ’90s, Seattle’s male-defined rock scene lacked an underwhelming presence of female groups and musicians. Sure, there was L7, Hole and Veruca Salt, but their success paled in comparison to the Pearl Jams, Soundgardens and Alice in Chainses.
But close by in Olympia, Wash., an underground punk rock feminst revolution, affectionately dubbed Riot Grrrl — established by members of Bikini Kill and Bratmobile — rivaled their adversaries in Seattle both musically and attitudinally. As the years progressed, more and more bands with similar feminist ideals shaped and expanded the Riot Grrrl world. From Sleater-Kinney to Jack Off Jill to Heavens to Betsy, women of all ages who listened to punk and identified themselves as feminists (like myself) finally had the music to match their mentality. Today, the Riot Grrrl movement remains a vital source of inspiration for bands in the current music scene — and also for parents who don’t mind exposing their little girls to some heavy, heavy girl punk.
Here’s a quick guide to the Riot Grrrl essentials:
Those familiar with the Riot Grrrl movement are probably first introduced to Kathleen Hanna (see the following entry) before anyone else. But no, not me, I was a Tobi Vail gal from the get-go. My initial love for Tobi and all Grrrl-centric music happened while reading Heavier Than Heaven by Charles Cross. During my obsessive Nirvana teen years, the pages of Heavier introduced Tobi as the drummer for an unfamiliar band called Bikini Kill — as well as the love interest of Kurt Cobain. These two things placed her at the top of my Riot Grrrl list.
It would be impossible to write a list of iconic Riot Grrrls without mentioning Kathleen Hanna. As the undisputed poster woman of the Riot Grrrl movement, Kathleen methodically crafted the ideals and ethics that energized the Riot Grrrl universe and fearlessly railed against the inequality of gender in rock music. She shot feminism back into the public eye when many had thought it was dead and squashed the idea that women in bands couldn’t be taken seriously. And considering that Riot Grrrls started in the early ’90s — following the overwhelming misogyny of ’80s hair metal — the feminist message of Riot Grrrl was a refreshing change. She’s been my idol for many years, as has all of Bikini Kill, and I couldn’t imagine what I’d be like if I never discovered her. (Wow. I cry a little inside at this mere notion).
There’s an amazing documentary from director Sini Anderson that anyone interested in Riot Grrrl should watch. It’s called The Punk Singer. I saw it a few months ago, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Here’s the trailer. And this is the song from Julie Ruin (a side project of Kathleen’s) that inspired it:
No, she’s not just the super funny other half on the uber popular sketch comedy show, Portlandia, she’s also the amazing lead singer and guitarist for Sleater-Kinney and the equally impressive Riot-style band, Wild Flag. Watch the video for Romance; you’ll fall in love.
Sleater-Kinney, named after a street near an old practice space, took the Riot Grrrl movement in a more commercial direction, but with no less feminism in their lyrics and attitude. The video for Dig Me Out should make things a little more clear:
The band even opened for Pearl Jam in 2003, showing the boys how it’s done, Riot Grrrl style.
As the Riot Grrrl revolution held the American music front in the early ’90s, in England, a Riot band with equal amounts of political and social temperament was starting their own revolution as well. Niki Elliot, one of three vocalists (with Chris Rowley and Jo Johnson) for English band Huggy Bear — a group comprising both male and female members — boasted high morals and “boy-girl revolutionary” ethics. In 1992, after Huggy Bear released their debut avante-garde-y EP Rubbing the Impossible to Burst, their rise in popularity alongside Bikini Kill resulted in a split album between the two bands titled, Our Troubled Youth/Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah (on Kill Rock Stars and Catcall Records). Though not as documented as other figures, Niki Eliot’s contributions to the movement were just as important. You and your mini-Rioters should get to know her now …
In February, 2012, three members of the Russian art-punk collective Pussy Riot were imprisoned for performing in a Moscow church to protest Vladimir Putin’s oppressive regime. Following Pussy Riot’s display of Government disapproval, the outpouring of support from musicians like Madonna and Kathleen Hanna put the focus on their draconian sentencing. Pussy Riot may be a little extreme for your younger girls, but for open-minded parents with willful teens, a listen to — or look at — the Pussy Riot collective may shed some light on what it’s like to be a woman in other nations.