The Phenomenon of Riot Grrrl Movement

A brief overview of the '90s Grrrl Powered Rock.

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The Phenomenon of Riot Grrrl Movement

So What’s Riot Grrrl exactly?

Before we start talking about Riot Grrrl music, we’ll have to rewind it back and talk about punk first. As many of you already know, the arrival of punk rock and an introduction of iconic bands like The Clash, The Slits and The New York Dolls in the late 1970s and early 80s has forever changed the world. A revolutionary subculture was born.

In the late '80s and early '90s, few years after the punk’s heyday, a new underground movement of DIY grunge bands (Nirvana being the most famous) made an exciting alternative to mainstream pop, but was less than kind to minority fans like women and the LGBTQ community who were victims of numerous assault and sexism during the shows.

In response to feeling unsafe and unwelcome at gigs, a few women went on to form their own revolutionary and inclusive space to tackle such topics as the patriarchy, sexuality, race, rape, and empowerment. They were at the forefront of a new movement. This was “riot grrrl.”

The Trailblazers

In 1990, in Olympia, the US state of Washington, singer/songwriter Kathleen Hanna, bassist Kathi Wilcox, guitarist Billy Karren, and drummer Tobi Vail got together to start a band that came to be known as Bikini Kill, which name was taken from one of the fanzines that they created together.
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Their purpose was «denouncing the links between social classes and genders, and to show that you can be sexual without having to wear a nylon miniskirt’.» In 1991, other students (Allison Wolfe, Molly Neuman, and Erin Smith) who also wrote a feminist fanzine, founded the band called Bratmobile without knowing how to play a single instrument between them.
The meeting of these two groups and the complaints of many girls that were sidelined in the music world will give rise to a suggestion that one of her friends (or a journalist according to sources) made to a member of Bratmobile: «we need to start a girl riot.»

Bikini Kill and Bratmobile were far from the only bands involved, of course. There was also Sleater-Kinney, Huggy Bear, Heavens to Betsy, Team Dresch, Skinned Teen and many, many more.

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What did they stand for?

What was great about the Riot Grrrl movement, is that even though bands didn’t necessarily have the same sound, they shared the same beliefs and attitudes - they were mainly by and for women. Female empowerment and freedom of creative expression were at the core of riot grrrl movement. They've also encouraged girls to be themselves, creating a sense of safe community where they were discussing important issues such as domestic abuse and shunning patriarchal, heteronormative discrimination and outdated gender roles through their lyrics.
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In a flier from the period, Bikini Kill summed up themselves what theywantedtoachieve:
“BECAUSE we girls want to create mediums that speak to US. We are tired of boy band after boy band, boy zine after boy zine, boy punk after boy punk after boy… BECAUSE we need to talk to each other. Communication/inclusion is the key. We will never know if we don’t break the code of silence… BECAUSE in every form of media we see us/myself slapped, decapitated, laughed at, objectified, raped, trivialized, pushed, ignored, stereotyped, kicked, scorned, molested, silenced, invalidated, knifed, shot, choked and killed. BECAUSE a safe space needs to be created for girls where we can open our eyes and reach out to each other without being threatened by this sexist society and our day to day bullshit.”
They pushed the conventions in the 1990s showing that rock could also be a girl's thing. Twenty-seven years later and they’re as relevant as ever. It seems as if we need another feminist revolution similar to that of riot grrrl. One that uses art, creativity, passion, talent and whatever it is that we possess, to speak messages that are relevant to our lives and to support one another.

Oh, and if you were wondering, some riot grrrl bands included men too (like Bikini Kill), because feminism is for everyone.

28 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I think Calvin Johnson (Beat Happening) deserves some mention here, he pretty much cultivated the Olympia indie movement since the early 80s with his K Records label. Heather Lewis being part of Beat Happening, the distribution of all girl japanese band Shonen Knife and his partnership with Kill Rockstars Records (Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney) helped the development of the riot grrrl movement. 
    The Riot Grrrl magazine from New York was the be all end all of Riot Grrrl music news in the 80s and 90s. Out of all the hundreds and hundreds of issues, only one black rocker was ever given focus, Asian Americans had to create their own magazines to spread info about their bands. The point is that racism can still creep up in even the most best meaning movements, still, to this day, riot grrrl is very much a white woman's genre, while many black women use rap or hip hop as an outlet. They might have been breaking gender roles, but certainly enforcing race roles.
    I mean, black men and women are usually under represented in rock music in general. I don't think that the riot grrrl movement would be opposed to an entirely black women or entirely asian women group appearing. I don't think they enforced racial roles. 
    We moved to Olympia a few years ago and I thought it was so cool the first time I drove on Sleater-Kinney road  
    Bands like L7 and Sleater-Kinney were great. Kathleen Hanna is really kind of a terrible person, though. She was a stripper when she formed Bikini Kill, who were supposedly anti-objectification, and she's said A LOT of questionable things and then backpedaled on them over the years. The entire scene was also quite racist. Not to the level of Oi/skinheads, but still. It's a scene that had good intentions (mostly) but really fell short.
    You can be both a stripper and a feminist. The point is that you can choose to be what you want to be. It's funny how you equate this movement with racism but not the male dominated music scenes that were much worse at excluding everyone who wasn't a white male.
    Being a woman doesn't excuse one from making terrible music. None of the examples listed above set themselves apart from poorly written, poorly executed music.
    "poorly written, poorly executed music" is one of the characteristics of hardcore punk, the idea of not needing to be an accomplished musician in order to play in band or put out stuff that challenges the mainstream idea of music these girls opened the way to more polished acts in the same way minor threat and black flag did
    Which is the reason why punk music is much more of a stain on musical history rather than something to be lauded. Objective standards are necessary for any art form. Once you remove objective standards, you get crap like impressionist art and punk. They didn't open the way to more polished acts--they suppressed it.
    You clearly don't know what you're talking about, especially since punk is a darling among music critics. As an art form, music is much more than measures and people who have gone against those measures have left a legacy, raging from Mozart's german opera to Ornette Goleman's non structural jazz. I dare you to call bands like Tricot non polished.
    Going against the standard practices is not what I'm arguing against. I'm arguing against sacrificing technical ability for message alone. You can have both. I do not appreciate an undecipherable ruckus that could be recreated with a screaming 6 year olds who took no effort to develop their craft. There is an objective gauge that many millennials have done away with because they're told everyone is a winner and you get a trophy for trying. I'm here to say, "No, you do not."
    Sacrificing technical ability implies they didn't practice or polish their sound  at any point, which they actually did. And not only that, it also spawned multiples sub-genres which is a sign of ongoing creativity.  You also seem to be confusing the message of "work hard, do it yourself" with "everyone is special". 
    If they practiced, then it obviously wasn't enough because it's underwhelming, poorly executed, and leaves the audience longing for more. Just because it in itself spawned further creativity does not mean it's objectively good. Modern art can attest to my claim. My post never invoked the possibility of confusing the two since I never referred to "doing it yourself." You're putting words in my mouth.
    Their audience was perfectly ok with it, there's a reason why records like London Calling are praised by pretty much any relevant figure in the music industry.  Also, I don't think you know what modern art means. Modern art is a movement that ended in the 70s. You're thinking of contemporary art and even so, ignoring a lot of it.