underground since'89

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tobi vail P.O. Box 2572 Olympia, WA 98507 USA

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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music by Marisa Meltzer


Girl Power traces the influence of OG "riot grrl" groups (Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Heavens To Betsy) to the Spice Girls, covering "foxcore", Sleater-Kinney, Le Tigre and Ladyfest as well as several other pop stars and other all-female alternative/indie rock groups along the way.

The book is written for a mainstream audience and suffers from some of the awkwardness that comes along with trying to explain this stuff to the general public. Marisa comes across as a former indie-rocker who felt she didn't really fit into the punk scene, yet was invigorated by the feminism (and celebration of girlhood) that happened during riot grrl. This makes sense, as she admits she found out about the movement through Sassy (her previous book is a love letter to the pro-girl teen magazine) She argues that riot grrl's "media blackout" led to its demise and wishes that the original groups would have stuck around and tried to find a larger audience. Describing an experience of seeing Sleater-Kinney play to 13,000 people, she recalls wishing that riot grrl had been able to sustain itself. Paradoxically, she acknowledges that, while the Spice Girls were cool in some ways, their "girl power" was limited to marketing and questions what that means in terms of empowerment. Quoting Kathleen Hanna, she points out that buying a Spice Girls notebook is not going to change the world. This makes me wonder what would be different if it had been Bikini Kill notebooks the girls were buying.

I knew Marisa around 96/7 when she lived in Olympia and had a cute all-girl accapella group called The Skirts. In the interest of "full disclosure"--I was a big Skirts fan and she was my favorite member! It was a weird time period. It was interesting to read her take on things as someone who admits (somewhat reluctantly) that she moved here to go to Evergreen after getting into riot grrl and even "semi-stalking" Kathleen. I wish she would have told more of her own story here. Her voice comes through loud and clear when she is critiquing what she calls the elitism of independent culture. She belongs to the camp that believes that it's exclusive to play basement shows, failing to see how this can be a more inclusive model. By booking our own tours and creating a DIY feminist network through the mail, Bikini Kill encouraged girls to meet each other and start their own scene. Sure a "scene" can be clique-ish and Olympia was/is no exception, but the idea we were were working with is that if we can do it here, certainly you can do it where you live. Only a few bands can get on MTV or sign to a major label. It's far more populist to encourage kids to put on shows where they live and take their own work and friends seriously. To her credit she does acknowledge that Ladyfest was a successful attempt to take this idea to another level.

I was interviewed (via email) for the book and am quoted a lot, which is kind of embarrassing, as I don't think what I'm trying to say really comes through, which is partially my fault, not thinking about who the audience for the book would be and just neurotically rambling on to her about how strange it is to have been a part of something that had such a big cultural impact. I remember telling her how weird and hard to talk about a lot of this is for me without going into a lot of detail. I tried to explain my perspective. On the one hand you want to take credit for your work, especially because women are encouraged NOT to take credit for anything. On the other hand, it's embarrassing. Sometimes I feel like I'm lying when I talk about this stuff because what actually happened is so surreal and bizarre that I often have a hard time believing it myself.

Personal weirdness aside, I think it's cool that someone wrote this book for a mainstream audience. My hope is that teenage girls and young women who don't know this history will get inspired to find out about riot grrl. It would be really cool if it inspired girls to create a new young feminist movement rooted in their generation.

The book made me think a lot about documenting history from a strategic perspective. How could this story be told to incite participation in girls? A big part of the original "girl power" idea, was to get girls to stop being consumers of male-dominated culture and start producing our own. I guess my fear is that this kind of pop-culture history could encourage girls to simply consume "girl-culture", thereby claiming the identity of "riot grrl" or "feminism" through the act of buying a record, as opposed to starting their own band or fanzine or putting on a show. To me the point is to encourage girls to start their own young feminist movement, not just to copy what we did. That is the danger of nostalgia I think...

So I'd be interested to hear what people think about this. How can we tell our story without feeding into this consumer-oriented nostalgic trap? Or is that inevitable?

13 comments:

Flo(rence) said...

http://tavi-thenewgirlintown.blogspot.com/2010/02/girl-power.html

Bridget I. said...

Thanks for posting that review, Tobi - I appreciate your general critique and that you share your personal issues/relationship with the book as well. Definitely raises some hard questions - about self-empowered networking being viewed as exclusivity, and how indy/DIY culture may avoid falling into/being absorbed/maligned by mainstream mediocrity. I look forward to reading the book and revisiting this post.

Chenilla-O said...

Thanks for the review. I haven't heard of this book before, shall look it up.

Tobi Vail said...

thanks for the comments! I saw tavi's post, she's a great writer and a true artist. I'm still not into fashion but my anti-fashion phase is dying down. here's a link to a free track by bikini kill that people can download from kill rock stars:

http://krsmailorderfreaks.tumblr.com/post/372739534/bikini-kill-new-radio

d.a. johnston said...

I totally agree about the possible dangers of "nostalgia" in study, critique and proliferation of his/herstory. I'm currently doing a great deal of research on punk, no wave, transgression, riot grrrl and other movements in music (and film) and am consistently finding myself taking issue with not only the consistently male authoritarian recounting of what is and is not "important" or "relevant," (this also includes the pioneering women of punk journalism who often bought into the misogynist standards of "girls can't quite possibly be/play as good as the boys so let's talk about how short their skirts are or how they have a mustache instead to get away from addressing the revolution that is unfolding in front of our eyes") but the fact that female voices, focus of study and documents are quite scarce to begin with. I suppose being knee-deep in Helen Reddington's "The Lost Women of Rock Music: Female Musicians of the Punk Era" has a great deal to do with this. But a few months ago I did visuals for the San Francisco Part Time Punks festival with The Raincoats, Viv Albertine, Section 25, Savage Republic and others and have to say that I was completely blown away by the incredible sincerity and presence of the performances of The Raincoats and Viv Albertine especially. Having missed Riot Grrrl by growing up in rural Ohio I was always so pissed that I hadn't been a part of any of it or access to it - that I didn't even KNOW it was happening until it was basically over. It still changed my life, but in an after the fact and not directly involved kind of way. Not that it means any less - only that it was very disconnected, and perhaps further isolating. I suppose my point, or rather question, is how can women/girls close the gap or connect in a real way with these incredible things that they miss when they discover them after the fact OR after the ideas/groups/scene comes above ground or goes mainstream and turns into commodity fetish items, watered down content and image capital? (Your mention of Bikini Kill instead of Spice Girl notebooks is a very good one!) Perhaps this isn't as big of an issue now with blessings and curses such as the internet and other media access on an overwhelmingly consistent basis - or is it?

didda said...

the only thing that I can say about how I feel the grrrl, is that riot grrrl made us share our condition, our fight against 'inequality because of gender' and feel not alone: the power to feel one close to another, from a place to another, in a huge world full of 'ready-made' differences.
We are the same!
Riot grrrl is the power of feeling girl forever because everybody feels like that.
riot grrrl is the power of not being able to define riot grrrl
riot grrrl is inside you!
so, I FEEL THE GRRRL

didda said...

forgot to say that I agree with your point on the review, write for us!

Royce Icon said...

Awesome review... I definitely am going to try and check the book out to have my own opinion.

I definitely don't think that history has to become a commodity, and I think that riot grrl has actually held up pretty well historically, especially due to the internet.

Like D.A., I grew up in rural Ohio as well, and I found out about riot grrl in like 2001, when I was 14 or so. I stumbled upon it via a combination of searching via library books and the internet about punk rock and post-punk. And it's even easier to find out about now due to stuff like wikipedia and youtube (where you can see awesome footage of bratombile, frumpies, bikini kill and way more!!!)...

In addition to the internet, I think what really needs to happen is that there should be more books dedicated to the subject, because the more books you have the more perspectives you have....

But as it is now, the internet is definitely a good source of info, it just requires a little bit of effort...

I mean, if you type in feminist music into google, you'll get some relevant results pertaining to riot grrl....

Lenora said...

Tobi - I know I'm out of the subject but... - do you know what's happens with Billy K.?? Like if he's in a band or something??

write back, please

dina said...

Thanks for sharing your link with the typical girls listerv, Tobi. I think you make an important point about audience. During the 90s, I was very much interested in the underground indie movement as marisa meltzer was. (From '93-'97, I was a college student and campus radio DJ in upstate new york!) However, I never took the time to give any serious consideration of spice girls and britney spears et al. They were phenomena I derided and avoided. So, it's weird for me to take the leap from RG to Girl Power. Nonetheless, I believe she is correct in making that leap. Eye opening as I try to predict where this is all going. I do have to say that the pre-cursors to RG were somewhat absent (as she stuck closely to the time period under focus). Being creator and moderator of the TG listserv, I can see holes that are filled by books like "Lost Women of Rock" and "Cinderella's Big Score". Again, it goes back to audience.

Sami said...

I am glad there is more RG scholarship (mainstream, academic, personal, archiving) taking shape, and that work is being done in ways that are easy to get ahold of (rather than just someones thesis). That said, I think it's only really a glancing history of RG and a flawed one at that. I thought the books mistakes--factual, timeline errors, lumping unrelated bands together, drawing lines of influence where they didn't exist, talking to only three people who were actually involved in RG communities, some of her generalizations--really reduced the value of the book. It's too bad. I felt like her perspective was really influenced by her self-proclaimed outsider status--though, like you wrote, it would have been a better book if she talked more about what energized her. I also felt like I couldn't tell who the book was written for. Adults? Teens? People interested in the 90's? Certainly its generality puts it for a perhaps younger or distanced audience, or for people who are wholly unfamiliar with the tenets of those scenes. It made me more excited for the Riot Girl oral history I have been hearing about, for people to hear the real story, real lives, what changed for us and that the real legacy of impact in girls and womens lives is a much bigger deal than Hannah Montana and the other pop iconography Girl Power attempts to relate it to.

Sara Jaffe said...

For those looking for a book that's specifically focused on Riot Grrrl, its history and impact, keep your eyes out for Girls to the Front, a super smart and passionate book by Sara Marcus, coming out on Harper Perennial in October 2010. Web site here: http://www.riotgrrrlbook.com/

Tobi Vail said...

http://jigsawunderground.blogspot.com/2010/02/girl-power-by-marisa-meltzer-revisted.html