Do kids still go to book fairs? I hope so. In grade school, I always anticipated them. It was at book fairs that I got some of my favorite titles, including Dyan Sheldon’s Tall, Thin, and Blonde, Sherryl Jordan’s Winter of Fire, and selections from Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series. Well, that and the odd Garfield digest because dammit if that lasagna-eating tabby didn’t garner my affection at an early age. But I’d also grab those biographies and user-friendly historical surveys about Beethoven or alternative rock. Hence why I bring up book fairs for a post on Marissa Meltzer’s Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music–it’s great for the sixth grader who’s just starting to pick up a guitar or headphones and wants some direction toward ladies who rocked when his/her parents were coming of age. If I could assign readings for my Girls Rock Camp music history workshops, I would. Perhaps I’ll tell them to consult their local library or give it a skim on Google Books. Not that I endorse Google as an intermediary.
However, I’m not sure Girl Power will do much for folks who were there or have a deeper understanding of women’s contributions to alternative rock, riot grrrl, Lilith Fair, and pop music in the 1990s. I anticipated how sentences would end before my eyes registered closing punctuation marks. Like, I was there when everyone bought Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. I’ve seen Courtney Love . . . evolve. I wore barrettes and black nail polish and made bedroom wallpaper fashioned from magazine images. I remember when girls pretended to be the Spice Girls at junior high talent shows. I didn’t know about riot grrrl in 1993, but after college and student radio, I think I could teach an undergrad course on it.
This isn’t to dismiss Meltzer’s efforts, as she succinctly outlines the players, the period, and the stakes with user-friendly, assured prose that evinces her success as a music journalist. However, I wasn’t surprised by any of her findings and was frustrated by how little there was for me to latch onto. I do commend Meltzer for attempting not to present the decade as a halcyon era whose promise hasn’t been fulfilled in subsequent generations of female musicians. However, I would have appreciated more context about why this decade is especially significant to the development of women in popular music beyond being the time in which Meltzer, some of her respondents, and her peers experienced and identified with music for the first time. At roughly 140 pages, there’s little room to explore these issues.
I certainly appreciate Meltzer’s acknowledgment that riot grrrl and alternative rock were largely the pursuits of white, middle-class musicians and that these subgenres are often privileged by third wave feminists, who reflect these racial and class identities. I empathize with her surreptitious attitude toward women’s music’s earnestness, its influence on the development of Lilith Fair, and the transphobic practices of some women’s music festivals. However, I don’t think she does a good job presenting counterexamples. Her chapter on girl groups focuses almost exclusively on the Spice Girls, without addressing the group’s racial make-up or discussing black female vocal groups like En Vogue, SWV, TLC, or Destiny’s Child. When she talks about solo artists, she inadvertently constructs a binary between commercially friendly confessional singer-songwriters like Fiona Apple or jailbait bubblegum starlets like Britney Spears. Hip hop reached its peak during the decade and several female emcees were responsible for its success, but folks like Salt-N-Pepa, Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliott, Da Brat, Foxy Brown, Lady of Rage, and Sistah Souljah get at-best minimal attention. R&B artists like Adina Howard and Aaliyah confronted and challenged cultural assumptions of black female sexuality. Selena’s influence continues to grow. Here’s hoping subsequent editions of the book include them.
This book is a good start, but begs to be dialogued with books like Sara Marcus’ Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution. I’d love to get feedback on what seventh grade musicians thinks about how these books represent their musical periods. Better yet, let’s hear how they might be honoring, improving upon, or dispensing with their legacies altogether. I have a hunch Meltzer and Marcus wanna know too.
First, an admission: like several feminist friends in my age group, riot grrrl didn’t make a profound impact of me until college. I was 10 in 1993, the year Sara Marcus claims as pivotal for the movement in her book Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution. I was moving away from Mariah Carey and getting into the Pet Shop Boys. Riot grrrl was first on my radar through mainstream distortion in the pages of Spin and in the Spice Girls’ defanged “girl power” message. In high school, I started listening to post-riot grrrl bands like Sleater-Kinney, who were in rotation on the local university radio station. But it wasn’t until hearing about bands like Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear in women’s studies courses, reading essays that connected riot grrrl with queercore, and programming a weekly show as a college deejay that I came to have any relationship with the movement. Marcus’s book is a great reintroduction and a valuable entry point for folks who have only a cursory knowledge of riot grrrl.
I especially appreciate that, despite the book’s monolithic title, Marcus incorporates the shared experiences of many girl participants. Riot grrrl tends to be defined by its adult-aged bands, with Bikini Kill and Bratmobile representing the movement. But many teenage girls were inspired by these bands. Some formed ‘zines and bands of their own, like Girl Friend founder Christina Woolner and Heavens to Betsy’s Tracy Sawyer and Corrin Tucker. Not all of their contributions were preserved or recorded, so the book’s intervention is all the more important. Some of these girls also came from working class or single-parent households or did not attend college. Furthermore, while much is made of the movement’s Pacific Northwest origins and identification with liberal arts colleges like Evergreen, Marcus is quick to refute essentializing class assumptions. Riot grrrl’s class heterogeneity becomes more pronounced when Bikini Kill and Bratmobile relocate in Washington D.C. and contend with the hardcore scene, which was primarily peopled by diplomats’ children.
By dialoging band members’ and movement participants’ shared experiences, Marcus challenges the notion that riot grrrl was sustained exclusively by white, middle-class, college-educated women. She also points out the movement’s aspirations toward queer inclusiveness were complicated by the efforts of predominantly straight or bi-curious cisgender females. Previous interpretations of riot grrrl represent it as a celebration of white girls challenging gender politics in a vacuum. Marcus points out how some girls created ‘zines, formed organizations, chaired panels, and created conferences challenging feminism’s inherent white privilege, racism, heteronormativity, and class politics, often causing contention and defensiveness from within.
Thus, I also liked reading that riot grrrl was an imperfect, discursive movement comprised of many conflicting opinions, belief systems, and identities. Despite third wave feminism’s investment in the fragmented female self, so often riot grrrl is depicted as a halcyon period for a then-nascent third wave. While it’s sad to read about in-fighting and rivalries, it’s refreshing to read differing opinions on philosophies and movement imperatives. As someone who’s participated in collective and politically-minded non-profit organizations, it seems a more honest representation.
Furthermore, the presence of male oppression from within informs riot grrrl in interesting ways. Riot grrrl formed in response to the right wing’s attack on feminism’s political gains as well as the cultural silencing of incest, sexual abuse, intimate partner violence, poor body image, and low self-esteem. It also opposed punk and hardcore’s exclusionary, homophobic, and misogynistic tendencies, best symbolized by the mosh pit, and implemented “girls in front” or “girls only” policies at shows. So it was really interesting to read about how bands like Fugazi aligned with riot grrrl, but were less willing to cede control over their audience. In 1992, Fugazi and Bikini Kill played a Supreme Court protest. Frontman Ian MacKaye bristled at the idea of sharing the bill out of concern that the event would be misunderstood as a concert. He was also unable to reign in the aggressive inclinations of his predominantly white male fan base, and blamed the women in the audience who defended their space in the pit.
Marcus also does a good job addressing controversial figures like Jessica Hopper. Now an established music journalist who penned The Girls’ Guide to Rocking, Hopper was associated with the St. Paul/Minneapolis scene and came to notoriety as the girl who sold out riot grrrl by speaking out of turn to Newsweek, which hit newsstands in November 1992. Many riot grrrls, who already witnessed message dilution in other mainstream publications, interpreted her interview with Farai Chideya as an attempt to further her own media career. By her mid-teens, Hopper launched a successful ‘zine, Hit It And Quit It, interviewed Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, and corresponded with Courtney Love. Marcus honors the opinions of girls who knew and felt betrayed by Hopper, but also tries to represent the writer’s viewpoint as well.
Girls to the Front suffers a sad ending, as many believed fell riot grrrl. Like Hanna, some riot grrrls were strippers but had difficulty negotiating theoretical rebellion against capitalism and conventional sexual politics with adult entertainment’s regressive market imperatives. More of them disbanded local chapters after internal struggle and lagging membership. Bratmobile disbanded after a major blowout on stage. Girl love is revolutionary, but it can be hard to sustain.
Marcus concludes by outlining riot grrrl’s cultural contributions and documenting the late-90s trend of commodifying girlhood and the mainstreaming of post-feminism. She mentions riot grrrl-influenced bands like Gossip, as well as the influence figures like First Lady Michelle Obama hold. I would like more of a discussion about the cultural significance of Girls Rock Camp, as well as Ladies Rock Camp. The many-armed non-profit is carving space in several cities in the U.S., Canada, Western Europe, and is catching on in countries like Argentina. Founded in Portland, Girls Rock Camp counts Hanna, Bratmobile’s Erin Smith, Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein, and Gossip’s Beth Ditto as champions. The organization is perhaps the clearest indication of riot grrrl’s influence. It certainly borrows from riot grrrl’s reliance on regionalism to spread its larger message. More importantly, it provides space for girls’ actualization and self-empowerment through music and DIY media production, which were riot grrrl’s main imperatives. As both organizations are still quite young, I understand wanting to wait and see what these organizations will become. Also, they should get their own books.
However, Marcus does something valuable with Girls to the Front. In representing riot grrrl’s imperfections and contradictions, as well as its relevance, she argues at once for its historical significance while challenging how we understand it. Make sure to check it out when it hits stores in October. Maybe it’ll convince you form a band with your best girlfriend and kick off a new revolution.