From Olympia to the Valleys: What Riot Grrrl Did and Didn’t Do for Me

[This essay first published in the Wales Arts Review, with artwork by the tremendous Dean Lewis.]

 

With riot grrrl now approaching the status of a heritage industry, not to mention Courtney Love’s current incarnation as the post-grunge Norma Desmond, it can be hard to recall that both of them helped me find my feminist footing on the slippery rocks of a ’90s girlhood. This is a roundabout remembrance of how it happened.

I.

  The arts have long been a space for radical expression by women, even if the extent of that radicalism has often gone under-acknowledged. In 1915, the author and journalist Dorothy Richardson produced Pointed Roofs, credited as the first English stream of consciousness novel, using an innovative prose style which she saw as necessary for the expression of female experience. Virginia Woolf observed that Richardson ‘has invented, or, if she has not invented, developed and applied to her own uses, a sentence which we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine gender’. If Richardson’s challenge to linguistic convention in her writing has musical counterparts, one of them is the ‘new, raw and female’ sound made possible by post-punk. Punk removed barriers of precedent and technical expertise to engagement in music, enabling trips into less-charted musical and lyrical territory. But it was in the subsequent voyage of discovery that was post-punk that punk’s revolutionary potential really bore fruit, and the untried, experimental nature of post-punk music was particularly suited to women.

Accepting a work’s artistic value doesn’t automatically mean that you’ll enjoy it, of course. It took me a long time to appreciate both experimental literature and post-punk in practice as well as in theory. One of the most acclaimed of post-punk bands were the Raincoats, a London-bred collective based around the partnership of Gina Birch and Ana Da Silva, but on my first listen, at the age of thirteen or so, their hesitant, eerie, self-effacing, gentle and loose-knit stylings were something I had no patience for and no sympathy with. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that, intrigued by Kurt Cobain’s fanboying of the band, I gave the Raincoats a second chance, or at least a second listen. This time around, I could discern something I could identify with, something that was tangled up with the altered territory of adolescence. Moreover, I realised that the Raincoats had sounded so off-puttingly alien to me at first because they were – their tentative, unfamiliar steps towards music had been a groundbreaking way of doing things.

Sure, women had been singers and musicians before now, and I had been awed and enthralled by punk, pre-punk and proto-punk women from Ma Rainey to Gaye Advert, but even Patti Smith had been reliant on male instrumentalists and male-defined musical styles (in addition to her almost exclusively male role models) to back up her creative ambition. By contrast, the Raincoats’ self-titled debut was described as the first ‘women’s rock’ album, its deconstruction of traditional forms pioneering an arresting and persuasive form of rock without the cock. The Raincoats’ music and lyrics mapped a landscape previously alien to mainstream rock; a female-centred one of self-consciousness, self-doubt, embarrassment and anxiety, its borders defined by the pressure to conform aesthetically and cosmetically as well as by family, society and biology. Punk’s preoccupation with mundane daily routine – bus rides, shopping, boredom – is rendered with drab watercolour realism rather than the gritty outlaw glamour with which The Clash tended to sculpt their cityscapes.

Postpunk was full of such subtly subversive manoeuvres as female musicians attempted to realise a self-consciously radical sound dealing with emotions – embarrassment, awkwardness, anxiety – infrequently expressed in contemporary rock. Post-punk’s concern with the politicisation of the personal, and with identifying and promoting authenticity rather than cultural and media stereotypes, lent itself to exploration from a feminine and feminist angle, resulting in lyrics which demystified and deconstructed conventional femininity, love, sex and romance, and which analysed social and cultural pressures on women, or the tensions of personal relationships, in implicitly political ways. The Slits made skanky, shadowy dub-punk hymns to sex and shoplifting, identified mainstream femininity as a profit-driven invention in ‘Typical Girls’, and scathingly dismissed its attendant angst and insecurities. The stinging lyrics of the Bush Tetras’ ‘Too Many Creeps’ conflated love, romance and consumerism, ultimately rejecting the whole package as the fruitless result of ‘shopping around’ only to find ‘nothing that’s worth the cost’. There was an obvious prototype here for riot grrrl’s alarms and anxieties: the struggle to occupy public space with confidence rather than fear, the revelation that falling in love can be more baffling nausea than fairytale bliss, the terrifying tricks that biology and psychology can play.

While there are cons as well as pros to what Greil Marcus called post-punk’s ‘spontaneous amateurism’ – a lot of post-punk music sounds like it was more entertaining to make than it is to listen to – it’s difficult to deny its interest and importance as a form of self-expression, especially by those more usually found in the audience than on the stage. The musical legacy of post-punk, with its acceleration of the female self-expression which punk initiated, remained deeply embedded in underground and alternative music, occasionally rising to break the surface.

The whole climate changed in the 80s – music reverted back to being a careerist option… But we were amazed that there was this void, with no one taking up the baton. There was a ten-year gap until Riot Grrrl and Elastica came along.

– Viv Albertine, guitarist/vocalist, The Slits

The early-’90s eruption of riot grrrl bore all the musical and political hallmarks of female post-punk, continuing both its experimentalist and deconstructionist approach to form, and its mocking and subverting of conventional feminine looks, dress and behaviour. In terms of women in bands, the manufactured mainstream of the late 1980s was obviously a barren ground for post-punk’s experimentalist legacy, and I had little inkling of the alternative or underground until my adolescence, which was why it took the ’90s to introduce me to the ’70s. Riot grrrl was the other shoe dropping, the lower jaw meeting the upper to snap shut on the vacant, rapacious maw of the decade between.

II.

  Like many foreign phenomena, riot grrrl seemed to land in the Valleys slightly after the fact and almost entirely in the abstract – which was just as well, seeing as how the ’90s NME would inevitably have dubbed any Welsh equivalent something like Riot Grllll. According to retrospective mythology, the US-spawned movement was propelled into popular consciousness in Britain by Huggy Bear’s 1993 performance of ‘Her Jazz’ and subsequent disruption of an episode of The Word – something I only dimly recollect, though I do remember the acres of newsprint it generated. Radicalising existing UK indie subcultures, riot grrrl continued post-punk’s emphasis on demystifying music, not merely through forming bands but also through actively making physical space for girls at gigs and questioning gender norms and power dynamics within music and wider society.

Despite riot grrrl’s understandable and justified antipathy to mainstream media, with its well-documented tendency to sensationalise, misrepresent and exploit, the fact that I was able to experience the movement at all, in my isolated and alienated pre-internet adolescence, was due to the ’90s weekly music press. For a brief and brilliant moment, across its pages, as well as those of the associated fanzines and communiqués I subsequently acquired, there raged a range of women who made me feel that, as a teenage girl, the validity and logic of my involvement with music was never in question. Separated from the movement’s nerve-centres and unable to practically engage, I listened and I read.

At the end of the ’90s, The Spice Girls watered-down version of ‘girl power’ had me questioning whether there was a place for real independent women in mainstream pop culture, not to mention the effectiveness of the early-’90s riot-grrrl movement in the face of this blatant co-option of our terminology.

– Tobi Vail, Bikini Kill/Jigsaw

In political terms, riot grrrl in the UK felt more aligned with the self-consciously alternative and oppositional left of the ’80s, which made it feel increasingly out of place as alternative culture in the ’90s succumbed to a celebratory, conformist complacence. The major-label hijacking of the ‘girl power’ slogan was grimly predictable, and so was the hostility that riot grrrl in its undiluted form had initially faced – non-traditional music and art has a long history of rejection as incoherent and amateur. In ’90s Britain, riot grrrl was to some extent a casualty of the post-Oasis critical dismissal of experimental music as the preserve of affected middle-class art-school cliques, inferior to more well-worn and familiar forms of artistic expression. Arguing that bland and basic music is inherently superior, by dint of its appeal to a ‘less pretentious’ man-in-the-street demographic, is of course a damaging class-essentialist line which implies that the ‘ordinary’ working-class music fan is incapable of engaging with anything more challenging, and which further implies that there can be no emotional, psychological or political depth to straightforward, ‘simple’ music. No matter how loudly and frequently made, neither charge should stick.

Where riot grrrl was open to more valid criticism and challenge, however, was where it subscribed to an unexamined liberal feminism which took little account of other axes of privilege and oppression. For all that I read of riot grrrls in Leeds, Manchester, London and Brighton, I received it as an intrinsically US concept, especially in its college-age personalised and confessional third-wave feminism, and this led me to regard it with a certain degree of reservation. As has been shown in several retrospectives on the movement, its largely white and middle-class makeup meant that exclusionary tendencies – albeit often unspoken and subconscious – adhered to it in spite of its inclusionary rhetoric. In the book Girls Make Media, Mary Celeste Kearney observes:

the gender deviance displayed by riot grrrls is a privilege to which only middle-class white girls have access. Indeed, the gender (and generational) trouble celebrated within Riot Grrrl may be the primary reason for its lack of appeal to poor female youth and girls of colour, whose performance of gender and generation are structured quite differently as a result of their disenfranchised status…

I grew up a feminist as well as a socialist. The two things were intertwined for me in, for instance, the legacy of 1980s miners’ support groups through which Valleys women, while on the one hand supporting what might be seen as a macho and patriarchal industrial culture, had on the other hand gradually challenged the chauvinism in which it could be steeped. In doing so, their focus had been on material rather than abstract issues. Riot grrrl’s emphasis on questioning and disrupting conventional ideas of femininity – scrawling SLUT or UGLY on exposed skin, reclaiming or subverting sexually derogatory terms and identities – was something I accepted and experimented with on a theoretical level, but, as a pathologically underconfident small-town teenage girl, I felt entirely unable to practice it.

As anyone who’s ever over-listened to the Manics’ ‘You Love Us’ will know, antagonism can be life-affirming, and sometimes deliberately adopting a confrontationally extraordinary look, defiantly dressing ridiculous, can be a perverse form of self-defence. By the same token, though, it is at least a gamble, at most a risk, depending on its context, and those who adopt it cannot really bargain for its varying receptions. The lack of everyday space in which to aesthetically experiment was partly why the gigs I did manage to attend as a teenager, and for which I spent whole days ritually preparing, attained such value as safe subcultural spaces where one could dress up and act out – something that riot grrrl actively emphasised – even though the same gigs could also be confrontational flashpoints (See, for instance, the polarised accounts of Huggy Bear and their 1993 gig at TJ’s in Newport in Craig Austin’s zine Cocksucker Blues (February, 1993).

Mimi Thi Nguyen, in her counter-history of riot grrrl, writes that certain forms of rebellion performed by women can look different when race, class or sexuality is brought into play:

For instance, women of color wondered out loud for whom writing ‘SLUT’ across their stomachs operated as reclamations of sexual agency against feminine passivity, where racisms had already inscribed such terms onto some bodies, and poor or criminal-class women argued that feminists ‘slumming’ in the sex industry (through stripping, for the most part) as a confrontational act implied that other women in this or other tiers of the industry were otherwise conceding to patriarchy.

While the criticisms quoted above were more directly relevant to US riot grrrl than its UK manifestation, the limits that could be placed on riot grrrl’s radicalism by a lack of attention to race, class, and other dimensions of female experience, have an obvious resonance with recent debates on the need for an intersectional approach to feminism. As a working-class teenage girl, I felt that I was missing out by being unable to practically engage with contemporary riot grrrl, but I wonder whether practically engaging might only have brought its own set of frustrations, whether I would have found myself feeling more a part of the problem than the solution.

Yes, riot grrrl’s performative ‘slut’ aesthetic could be useful to women wanting to escape or overthrow an oppressive set of ‘good-girl’ expectations – but these expectations are often race- and class-dependent. If your class already leads external observers to stereotype you with a lack of respectability, a certain availability, a certain ‘easiness’ – then the deliberate adoption of that same identity is not straightforwardly empowering or liberating. To further complicate matters, this identity ran counter to the imposed notions of working-class respectability with which I grew up, and reclaiming or even challenging it would have taken more balls than I possessed in my teens. It was also a difficult role to inhabit temporarily without becoming obliged to occupy it permanently; it was difficult to convey that one was in fact merely performing a ‘slut’ role – there was, as my insufferable teenage self would have delighted in putting it, no distinction between the signifiers and the signified. You were what you wore. This was of course one of the very notions that riot grrrl was attempting to combat – but, if you don’t have the luxury of stepping in and out of your chosen role, then seeing others do so, no matter how politically praiseworthy their intentions, can feel like watching them take a holiday in other people’s misery.

Frequently, as a teenager, my body didn’t seem to operate in the same context or circumstances as my brain, and, while I gratefully escaped into the realm of abstract theory, theory remained an awkward fit with my lived experience. Out of context, and outside the teenage bedroom, the idea of applying my lipstick with the back of my hand and prowling my post-industrial shopping-centre in ripped tights and a babydoll nightdress in order to Subvert the Ubiquity of the Heteropatriarchal Gaze might well have been boundary-pushing, but as a unilateral move, without access to practical collective solidarity, it would primarily have felt ludicrous. In any case, the Olympia thrift-store Kinderwhore trappings I coveted were not yet so recuperated and commodified as to be available from my local branch of New Look. (There was in fact a building in my town called The Olympia, which, with suitable bathos, had been for some years a disused cinema and then a discount carpet showroom.)

Despite its practical limitations and occasional lack of nuance, though, what I read of riot grrrl as a small-town teenager made complete sense intellectually. Riot grrrl’s performative ways of challenging feminine convention were – to me – a new strategy of dealing with an intrusive and proscriptive external gaze. Riot grrrl enhanced the idea of musical idols as aspirational, as escapist, as inhabitants of an age yet to come where the identities they presented could be an individual choice rather than something externally and judgementally imposed. And it introduced me to a self-sexualisation which could be aggressive and confrontational rather than pliantly submissive. Riot grrrl was not the bulletproof, unfaultable realisation of punk’s political potential, but merely a tentative step on the way, and it is to the credit of the movement’s more recent subcultural offspring – local queer and feminist bands, clubnights, zines and festivals – that they seem to be taking greater account of intersectional correctives.

III.

 

A good song’s a good song. That’s my politics. Please don’t slice PJ [Harvey] in half—her assimilationist compromise has done more for us than 30 Grrrls banging on a pot and spoon.

– Courtney Love, Hole

Live Through This, my first and favourite Hole album, climactically staggers and collapses into half-smothered giggles with ‘Rock Star’, an arch burlesque of riot grrrl as just another collective enforcing homogeneity (‘We look the same, we talk the same…’), little different from the petty tyrannies of high-school. Courtney Love, a riot grrrl refusenik with a mutually antagonistic relationship with the ‘official’ movement, is of course not beyond criticism of her own music and politics. Nevertheless, her band spoke to my teenage self far more directly than the Raincoats did, in music, lyrics and delivery that were fiercely expressive, raging towards articulacy in a manner that sometimes came off, sometimes didn’t, but which always triumphed through the power of suggestion and impression. Courtney’s lyrical preoccupation with petal-stripping, in particular, seemed to exemplify a determination to peel away the decorative superficial to get to an ugly but authentic heart of the matter – the real, beyond fake, inside the pretty. Courtney’s music, like other aspects of her politics and presentation, rubbed up against riot-grrrl’s concern with anatomising female neurosis and breaching the personal/political divide, expressing what it found as a cathartic, exhilarating blend of rage and revel.

Like Patti Smith and her phallocentric pantheon (Rimbaud, Dylan, Morrison, Richards), Courtney’s significant idols and inspirations – McCulloch, Cope, Curtis – were mostly male, but her attachment to traditional forms of macho rock songwriting was undercut by her entire approach to it, in particular the confessional outpouring of her lyrics. She drew on tropes considered irredeemably girly – diary entries, fairytales, dolls and babydolls, plumpness and satin pumps, petals and candy – and mixed them up with the gritty, grisly business of actually being a woman, the raw, bloody meat and the mindfucking. I had to work at ‘getting’ the Raincoats, and to a lesser extent at ‘getting’ riot grrrl, finally managing to interpret the former through the latter. My ‘getting’ Courtney, however, felt instinctive, automatic, even if I didn’t quite know why, and even if it was due to the familiarity of the artistic territory on which she operated. Even if you view the electric guitar as a hopelessly compromised phallic instrument, there’s surely a subversive thrill to be had from seeing it in female hands.

Moreover, Courtney’s attempts to navigate the perilous waters of Doing It Like a Dude uncovered the existence of undercurrents which still make it difficult to do so. Unlike the acknowledged performativity of riot grrrl, Courtney did not seem to be permitted to escape her bad-girl role, appeared unable to shrug off her costume after any given performance. She was constantly reviled or ridiculed for behaviour and attitudes which got, and still get, her male contemporaries praised and indulged. Her relationship with Kurt Cobain exemplified these inequalities, seeing her automatically dismissed as a golddigger, a groupie, a modern Yoko. Her position and prominence was repeatedly explained with reference to her ‘easy’ sexuality or manipulative harpy qualities rather than her talent – regardless of Hole’s early commercial outpacing of Nirvana or the artistic equivalence between her band and his.

The clichéd debauchery of Axl Rose or Steven Tyler was accepted and even lauded as a necessary part of their appeal, but in Courtney it was judged unseemly and irresponsible. Equally, the respect accorded a contemporary like the Manics’ Richey Edwards, the mourning for his lost genius, was something for which I could not imagine a female equivalent – self-harm, alcoholism and anorexia in a male rock star was proof of tortured sensibility too delicate for this world, while in a female rock star it was just a lurid spectacle. There was a ghoulish and lascivious edge to public concern over Courtney – as there was, years on, over Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse – which was and is seldom present in attitudes to their male counterparts. Her unrepentant behaviour, and her own critique of criticism rather than bowing beneath its barrage, dragged these double standards into the spotlight where they could be openly examined.

Back in my ’90s adolescence, it is testament to riot grrrl’s unpredictable trajectory in the UK that it happened to inspire Sunderland pop-aspirational indie band Kenickie. Explicitly influenced by Courtney Love, they, like her, succeeded in extending the attitudes and lessons of the movement beyond its initial target demographic. If Courtney veered between resignation to and revelling in her ‘bad-girl’ role, Kenickie refused to grant the good-girl/bad-girl dichotomy the dignity of recognition. Through their glamorous, defiantly regional aesthetic – animal print, glitter, lashings of lipstick and towering heels – and their sleek, fierce paeans to the complexities of female independence, Kenickie demonstrated riot grrrl’s wider potential, much as riot grrrl itself had intensified the aftershocks of punk. Kenickie’s music and image offered me a more familiar and accessible way of valorizing the feminine, or, to paraphrase their song ‘Come Out 2Nite’, of ‘becoming what you can’. Drawing, like Courtney, on an aggressive femininity and a brash, ambitious and unapologetic kind of glamour, their look called to mind the trappings of working-class nights out: the meticulously, ritually constructed approximation of excitement, luxury and sophistication as an age-old reaction to being surrounded by drabness and mundanity. In doing so, it also evoked the escapist and empowering potential of that process. This, ultimately, was the kind of riot grrrl that struck the strongest chord with me – its radicalism muted in some respects, perhaps, but amplified in others.

One comment

  1. alisonchandlerwriter

    Learning so much from reading your stuff, Rhian. This piece helped me gather together what previously felt like unconnected experiences, especially around belonging/not belonging. Re-contextualising. Guess that’s what it’s all about…

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