x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

The riot grrrl returns

Bikini Kill founder Kathleen Hanna, who helped spearhead the feminist punk rock movement in America in the 1990s, is back with a heart-warming vengeance, writes Dan Hancox

Kathleen Hanna, right, and drummer Tobi Vail, centre, of the group Bikini Kill, with Joan Jett, left, in New York City in 1994. Ebet Roberts / Redferns
Kathleen Hanna, right, and drummer Tobi Vail, centre, of the group Bikini Kill, with Joan Jett, left, in New York City in 1994. Ebet Roberts / Redferns

Among the various waves of western feminism and rebellious youth sub-cultures since the 1960s, riot grrrl stands out as one of the most provocative, but also one of the most thoughtful and deliberative. Its roots were in the punk and new wave music and attitude of the late 1970s and 1980s, but it was not until the early 1990s that the term emerged from the punk scenes of Washington DC and the north-western region of the United States, drawing on a growing youth feminist movement and the DIY youth culture embodied in homemade, cut-and-paste fanzines. References to “revolution girl style now” and “riot girls” mutated into the punk growl not of docile girls but “grrrls”.

It was quickly and substantially misunderstood by the very culture they were rebelling against: as bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile began to attract attention beyond the punk underground, so did the American media’s excitement about this “new big thing”, in the aftermath of grunge. This excitement quickly manifested itself in a tendency to generalise, fetishise and trivialise the things the riot grrrls were singing about, and conveying through their broader aesthetics: in fanzines, onstage, or otherwise. “There were,” Sharon Cheslow said in the 11-part Riot Grrrl Retrospective documentary, “a lot of very important ideas that I think the mainstream media couldn’t handle, so it was easier to focus on the fact that these were girls who were wearing barrettes in their hair or writing ‘slut’ on their stomach.” Covering issues like misogyny, abuse and patriarchy were considered too contentious or complex for the American mainstream, and instead, the movement was patronised in a way which confirmed much of their original anger. “Feminist riot grrrls don’t just wanna have fun,” read the headline in USA Today – because it’s one or the other, of course: have fun or be a feminist. The article itself was even worse: “From hundreds of once pink, frilly bedrooms comes the young feminist revolution. And it’s not pretty. But it doesn’t wanna be. So there!” As the clamour grew ever louder, there was increasing suspicion of this kind of “interest”, and by the end of 1992, a media blackout had been declared.

The riot grrrl manifesto, published in 1991 in the BIKINI KILL ZINE, made clear the reason for this need for self-sufficiency: their task was to create a space for young women to speak – to one another, and in general – without outside interference or the moderating influence of capitalism and patriarchy. The first two items in the manifesto read as follows:

“BECAUSE us girls crave records and books and fanzines that speak to US that WE feel included in and can understand in our own ways.

“BECAUSE we wanna make it easier for girls to see/hear each other’s work so that we can share strategies and criticise-applaud each other.”

Bikini Kill, fronted by the iconic Kathleen Hanna, were always determined that they as a band did not define riot grrrl, nor were they defined by it – this selfless caveat aside, they have become the band many people would first associate with the sound. A raucous interpolation of American punk that produced such classics as Rebel Girl, Strawberry Julius and Reject All American – as well as numerous other great bands, especially the likes of Huggy Bear and later Sleater-Kinney – the sound made a much bigger impact on 1990s and 2000s rock music than its underground ethics would suggest.

The sound has been around long enough now that it is being historicised, fondly recalled, and discovered anew by younger riot grrrls (and boys) – becoming the subject of doctoral studies, documentaries, and books like Sara Marcus’s Girls to the Front, Nadine Monem’s Riot Grrrl and the edited Riot Grrrl Collection of original 1990s zines and writing. At a Q&A following the film premiere of The Punk Singer at America’s SXSW festival earlier this year, an audience member asked Hanna whether the response to angry young women in bands had changed since she had started making music.

“When I was first in a band, when I was in Bikini Kill, it was really hard: a lot of the men in the punk scene were super resistant, and super pissed off at us, and then there were also women who called us man haters, and spit in our faces, and were super destructive.” She continued to say that as the sound changed around the turn of the millennium, in her second band, the more electronic-orientated trio Le Tigre, the attitude did too. Le Tigre were still as radical and righteous in their politics, but bringing that fight to the dance floor found them a new audience: “Having people dance, and having people enjoy each other, felt really political, and really thrilling,” she reflected.

Following Le Tigre’s success, peaking with electro-punk dance floor classics like the single Deceptacon, Hanna disappeared for much of the 2000s. She recently announced she had been suffering from what turned out to be Lyme disease, and would be returning with a new five-piece band, under the same name she had used once before, for her little-known and underrated 1998 solo album, The Julie Ruin. Not surprisingly, since there are four more people in the band this time, their new album Run Fast is a much fuller sounding record than its predecessor 15 years ago.

It’s also the first time Hanna has shared the microphone with a man, Kenny Mellman from cabaret duo Kiki and Herb. Although Mellman’s shouty warble provides a good counterpoint to Hanna’s voice on the buzz-saw, back-and-forth adolescent reminiscences of South Coast Plaza and rambunctious, stomping album opener Oh Come On, there remains a truth that still stands up two decades on from riot grrrl’s first howls: nothing should get in the way of Hanna’s vocals. It towers, hovers, hollers, raps, wails, implores, berates and does so with such incredible power and range; withholding and then cutting loose dramatically and emotionally – along with her political nous, wit and irresistible songwriting, it has made her the stuff of modern feminist legend.

The sound underneath this force of nature is the same mixture of punk rock guitars, piano stabs, disco drums and electronic bursts that made Le Tigre the hipster’s band du jour a decade ago – most impressively on the track Ha Ha Ha, fast-paced guitar riffs and energetic, yelping vocals intertwining, the insistent rhythm section pointing straight to the dance floor. Slower, sweeter, handclap-adorned tracks like Just My Kind and Goodnight Goodbye are in an equally fine Hanna tradition – going back to classic antecedents like Stay Monkey and Eau d’Bedroom Dancing, it’s a reminder that passionate rage and warm-hearted sincerity are never mutually exclusive.

The final track, the title track, begins in a manner unusually portentous for Hanna’s projects, with a gradual, shimmering guitar-noodling intro: “epic” isn’t normally the ambience her bands are aiming for. But when the tension breaks and the vocals come in, it does so with the shiver-inducing poignancy her music has always been capable of. The song is a (granted, shorter) history of riot grrrl to rival any of the genre’s new books or documentaries: starting with a lament for the way young women in the West are treated from the time they are in kindergarten, and proceeding to the early 1990s, being “told that we weren’t real punks” by the boys, and concluding philosophically, and with justified collective pride: “In the end we made, tiny islands where we didn’t always have to be afraid / and an X will forever mark the spot, when we decided we had had just about enough / we ran so fast”.

When you compare it to the self-satisfaction of some hippie or 1970s punk nostalgia (“you weren’t there, man”), it’s striking just how rare it is for a paean to bygone youthful rebellion to be so loving, so righteous, and so true. Perhaps that’s because those were the same ethics riot grrrl began with.

Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review. His latest book is The Village Against the World (Verso).