underground since'89

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

In the Beginning There Was Rhythm!

Girls To The Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus came out today. I read it straight through when it came in the mail without stopping. It took about six hours. I thought "oh I'll write a review, but I have plenty of time, it's not coming out for a few months". Then I got an email from Johanna Fatemen where she mentioned she was reviewing it for Book Forum, so I decided to wait. I'm glad I did. Jo is a really, really, really good writer. She's one of the smartest and more captivating writers-who-wrote-zines-in-the-90's for sure--definitely in my top five favorites of that era of feminist fanzine writers. If you ever get a chance to read her zines you totally should do that: Snarla, Artaud-Mania or My Need To Speak on the Subject of Jackson Pollock are the ones I remember, but she may have written more. I'm imagining you finding her work in a zine library or in a musty archive or perhaps in PDF format or maybe will get a shitty xerox sold on eBay for too much $. Please sit there and read everything she has written, you will be grateful that you did and your life will be altered and enriched and you will want to make art or culture or just plain want to make something happen.

Johanna's review of Sara's book is pretty favorable, but there is a hint of criticism lurking underneath the surface. That is the part I would have liked to have read more of, but I understand she is writing the review for Book Forum. If I was reviewing this book in a pretty mainstream publication with a wide-audience I would give it a good review too. I am giving it a good review now. I liked the book. When I was done reading it I wrote to Sara Marcus and said something like "Dear Sara Marcus, Thank You For Writing This Book. I Can't Imagine How Much Work It Took. Wow! You Really Did It! Congratulations!" and mentioned that there were some things I remembered a little differently…other things I didn't know about….but really the emotion I felt when I was done reading the book was appreciation and relief and while I was reading I was totally consumed by it, not noticing that any time was passing at all. So yeah, I like the book, some things I liked about it more than others. You should read it and make up your own mind though and post your review so that there are multiple feminist voices discussing this representation.

Whenever one of these books comes out, I get a little nervous about how I will be represented. I felt a little odd about that in this book, but I tried not to let my self-image issues get in the way of my perception of the work as a whole. My own relationship to riot grrl is complex. Riot Grrl would not have happened without Bikini Kill for example, but I identified as a riot grrl for only a short time, when it had two "R"'s instead of 3 maybe. Who added the third "R"? This is a real question?! Riot GrrL/GrrrL started in Washington DC in June 1991. But it really started the year before that in Olympia, WA. Girls To The Front explains that history really well I thought. I moved back to Olympia (from DC) at the end of 1992 and the third "R" had been firmly established. It was at this time that I finished writing Jigsaw #5, which documents a pretty hard year, Fall 1991-Fall 1992. By the way if you are 23 years old and you think you should write a fanzine about everything in your brain you might regret it later because it turns out that fanzines are not ephemeral art after all, they actually last forever! I guess if you are that age now (or way younger even) then you have no illusions about anything being temporary because you grew up with the internet and you don't care about privacy. Well, I made 10 copies of Jigsaw #5. Yes, 10 copies. I am serious. It's about 92 pages long. I couldn't afford to print them. I sent them to 10 people. A few years later I printed 25 more copies. At the end of the 20th century I published Jigsaw #7 and printed about 20 more copies of Jigsaw #5 to send to friends and that was it. So even though that fanzine seems like it may have been written for a lot of people to read, I tried to keep it a secret.

There are a lot of reasons for that deliberate decision, but I think the best explanation is that the overnight success of Nirvana changed everything. I had been going to shows in Olympia since 1983, so when Riot Grrl (with one R) was formulating- pre-Nirvana success story-we were still thinking in that 80's mindset. The 90's hadn't happened yet. We were living in an underground culture that was being turned into a commodity and sold back to us, which was really disorienting. It is impossible to explain this, because it was so different, but if you use your imagination maybe you might understand a tiny bit. So when everything changed, it felt natural to take a step back. It was confusing. I was confused. Bikini Kill was confused and suddenly "riot grrRl" had a media created-definition and that was not the sound of the revolution because the media was sexist and all about selling shit and we wanted to destroy society. (Later it became obvious that the media had a positive impact as well as a negative one, but that was not clear at the time.)

Jigsaw #5 basically kind of says "fuck you" and "get away from me" and "we don't need you" and "we go with the kids yeah yeah yeah yeah" over and over and over again, in an attempt to navigate the distance between the 80's underground idea and the early 90's pop culture crap that was for sale at the mall. I was trying to say, "hey let's not all become capitalists, let's try to make something revolutionary happen." But I was also freaking out and fluorescent lights were shining on us and we were naked and lots of flashbulbs were going off and people were being exploited and no one had any money. Ok, well some bands on major labels did, but nobody in a "riot grrrl" band was getting paid, but a lot of money was being made off of our image. It's fine to make shit for free, but to make shit without a profit motive and to see something you helped create being used to make money for corporations without your permission totally sucks. So Jigsaw #5 uses terms like "squares" a lot, to try to set up the idea that if you are against capitalism, you are not interested in "the square world", you want to create an alternative, where making money and being successful in those terms is not the point of art or music or whatever it is you do.

I feel like I need to explain this, because Sara Marcus quotes Jigsaw #5 in her book. In fact, she kind of uses a quote from me in her book in a pivotal way in the story arc. I wrote a long-winded Gertrude Stein-meets-Jack Kerouac inspired rambling girl of an essay that tries to address this 80's underground mindset collision with the still emergent 90's pop culture reality where I say that I do not identify as a riot grrrl anymore and say some kind of insulting sounding stuff about "well intentioned hopelessly enthusiastic isolated young girls who still feel that label is meaningful to them". Looking back on this now, it sounds really harsh! But I am me and I can remember writing it and I know what I meant at the time. I was ready to give it up and start something new! I wanted to move things forward. I thought that it had become meaningless and that we needed to start the next era. It had seemed miraculously easy to make riot grrl happen, so why couldn't we just re-invent punk rock feminism again and again and again? In fact, isn't that what we are still doing over and over and over again even now in the year two thousand and ten?!!! We are still making things happen, creating independent culture, self-representing, making work, participating in community life, sharing ideas, listening to each other, disagreeing, discussing, making mistakes, learning and living our lives with our eyes and ears and mouths and hearts open. Right?

History is tricky. For instance now everyone calls that whole time period of punk feminism "riot grrl" and it has a much broader definition than it did back then. There is a market for "riot grrl" history, so we have to be suspicious of that economic factor but we shouldn't let this stop us from documenting our own scenes. Nostalgia is the enemy. Just look at what happened to the baby boomers. 60's radicalism was actually radical, but you have to unearth that radical history, it will not be handed to you. Read Marissa Magic for more on this theme.

Bringing up the question: Is punk rock feminism dead? No. Is "riot grrrl" dead? Well I will not make that claim now because in retrospect, it was certainly not dead in 1993, it had relevancy to all kinds of girls then, even if I no longer felt it was a useful term, and I think the same is probably true today. In fact I know it is true, because I get letters (ok emails) from girls all over the world all the time who tell me they are riot grrrls and love Bikini Kill and that they believe in "The Revolution, GRRL STYLE NOW!" By the way, I still think that the emphasis needs to be on "now" and "revolution" rather than on "grrl" or "style", but if you disagree, please let me know why! But if you are a Riot Grrl then own it! Don't get all caught up in early 90's retro crap. Start a fucking riot!!!!

Riot Grrl belongs to whoever needs it and believes it has the power to give their lives meaning and change things. That is the reason for all of this. Change the world. Don't accept things "the way they are now". Create your own meanings. Make your own definitions. Use culture as a tool. Just know you will have to be quick and constantly on your toes and maybe it's harder than ever to create something ephemeral, to live in the moment, but maybe it's even more than necessary now. The now of now.

If you are interested in starting a young feminist movement rooted in your generation, my advice to you is not to let anyone stop you. People will laugh at you. Ignore the sound of their voices and listen to your own. Scream if you have to, even if you think that no one can hear you. If you are actually threatening the status quo you will not have the approval of the status quo. Call it whatever you want, the point is to fuck shit up. This is true for feminists of all ages and eras by the way.

And never forget what Ari Up taught us: silence is a rhythm too.

22 comments:

Tobi Vail said...

I should add that Jigsaw #5 was available through GERRL distro for a short time in the mid-90's, but I don't know how many copies they made.

de la Cruz, Cathy said...

I was one of those hopelessly enthusiastic grrrls reading a copy of JIGSAW I bought from GERL distro! I have to say I am really thankful for that experience and also thankful it's like 15+ years later and I am reading your amazing blog. Seriously, thank you, Tobi! Really looking forward to reading Sara's book. xo

diana said...

your writing is amazing and touching. i'll think about your text and come back to you.. and yes, i'm looking forward to read the book as well! x di

mikki said...

There is nothing better than a review that becomes a call for revolution. Thanks Ms TV

Eric Johns said...

I always thought two 'r's was an alternate spelling and three was the standard... apparently I was wrong!

Thanks, Tobi!
~ Eric

Tobi Vail said...

Hi Eric, you could be right! I just remember at first grrl had the one r and then after awhile there were three! It might have happened that way from the start, which is why I was asking, I actually don't remember.
When Johanna writes that she didn't identify as a riot grrl because she didn't go to meetings but then goes on to situate her work in a continuum from riot grrl I can totally relate.
That was another reason I didn't want to call myself a riot grrl. I didn't go to meetings and a lot of grrls did.
Bikini Kill was seen as representing riot grrl to the world, but by 1993, none of us were really going to riot grrl meetings, so it was important to me to be honest and clear about that.
Kathleen always identified with the term a little more than I did, but was I less than a feminist, no.
I also was feeling a little critical of riot grrl, but I didn't feel like, as a member of Bikini Kill, it was appropriate to voice those criticisms, so in a way, my strategy was to try and move on to the next punk rock feminist scene.
What really happened though is that Bikini Kill took over our lives and became our means of feminist expression.
I hope that explains a little more when I am coming form on this!
Tobi

Tobi Vail said...

Hi Cathy, I remember! I loved getting your letters! Please post your review after you read the book. xoxo Tobi

Eric Johns said...

Tobi - Thanks for the clarification!

Maybe the media felt it would be more "brandable" with three 'r's? I don't know, I wasn't around for all this. G.B. Jones wrote to me in a letter a few months ago about the media in the 90s attempting to define and restrict queercore and riot grrl (actually, I don't remember where I put the letter, so what she said may have been somewhat different). I vaguely remember that she mentioned the media-sanctioned "safe" bands (Extra Fancy, for instance). I think strict identification with labels may have assisted that, but at the same time names can help with explanations, I guess? I'm rather tired, so what I'm writing probably isn't too coherent.

I do remember reading somewhere that you and the other BK members weren't involved in meetings after a while - I've just assumed that being in a band would've taken up too much time for (weekly?) meetings. I find "punk rock feminism as a continuum" to also be a useful way at looking at riot grrl and how it fits into the larger feminist and punk movements. Like, 70s (X-Ray Spex), 80s (Fifth Column), 90s (riot grrl, Bikini Kill, etc.), and so on including today's bands like The Two Funerals and Layers/Quake.

Anyway, sorry for writing so much. I'm really looking forward to getting the book, it's supposed to arrive on Saturday.

~ Eric

Debb G. said...

Re: Spelling...thinking back to mid-late 90s zines from when I was in high school...I've seen Grrl spelled with everything from two "r"s to maybe 10 "r"s. Admittedly, this is after R.G. had already been commodified and commercialized, though the zines were still underground. The quantity of "r"s in Grrl seemed to be related more to the emotion (mostly anger, frustration...) that the author was trying to convey than to any agreed upon spelling convention. It varied between and among authors.

Re: Revolution Grrl Style Now...I think the whole phrase commands emphasis. While I agree that emphasis is justified on "revolution" and "now," I think it's tricky, because we (you and presumably anyone that reads your blog) are invariably approaching this from a feminist perspective. So it's fair to say that in emphasizing it REVOLUTION grrl style NOW, we're talking about a feminist revolution. But someone new to feminism, or even outside of feminism, might not be imputing a feminist perspective with that emphasis...which is why, I think, some folks prefer to emphasize GRRL STYLE. That makes it completely clear as to what sort of revolution we're calling for. Think of it this way...if someone spray painted REVOLUTION grrl style NOW! on a wall, and you're riding your bike past it, you might only see REVOLUTION NOW! That could mean anything. But if you see GRRL STYLE emphasized instead, you know that's some feminist graffiti! I realize this is a very literal interpretation of "emphasis," but I hope that it's helpful conceptually in explaining my point.

I ordered the book and have already cleared a day out of my schedule to read it next weekend!

Aaron said...

So happy to read a new post!!

Human scab is as amazing as it ever was.

so many times I have sung these songs in my head over the last 20+ years

his lyrics could even fit into your post.

I laughed thru the whole scolding!

watch everything disappear!

hope the jogging is still in effect and going well and your enjoying your northwest fall.

xoxo

spook

Shannon Drury said...

This thoughtful, introspective and fascinating blog post begs the question: when are YOU going to write YOUR story of riot grr(r)l, Tobi? Your audience is hungry for more!

Johanna said...

Thanks for the accolades Tobi!! I have given my 90s zines (flat copies etc) to the Fales Library RIOT GRRRL Collection.
I too thought there were but two "R"s in RG. . . it's like a radical feminist typo that way. Thanks for writing this review. I love that Sara's book has prompted such illuminating responses from some of the main "characters" in GTTF.
xoxo Jo

Lenora said...

I am one of those weirdo 12 year-old groupie fans who have been watching bikini kill videos all over and over again. For trying to enjoy it on Youtube as it could have been live 15 years ago. I wrote my long story to BK Archives a long time ago. I've been downloading riot grrrl retrospective interviews ( on video) through Internet. I downloaded some great BK shows (audio & videos). Bought april fool's day, kathleen's newsletter and bk 1 and 2 for 40 dollars only because I wanted to consider myself as a Riot Grrrl really deeply inside. I read them all over and over again. My mom founded Jigsaw 5 1/2 one day at a show not so long time ago. And I still read it. I actually live in Montreal, Canada and I know this girl who said she did an interview with you like maybe 15 years ago or something. And also there's this other girl who wrote this zine "Fight Boredom with GIRL LOVE" wich is like a riot grr(r)l retrospect and she's saying she didn't wanted to write A r.g. zine even though she talk about it a lot. I'll send you a copy if you want, people all over the world wanna know the story of it.

I can say that I've never been that much obssessed about something that much. Trying to prove myself something about how it's kinda over and that there's nothing that will happen who's gonna be "perfectly the same" but only "similar". I hope you're not offended in any way even though you're saying "Start a Fucking Riot!"

Tobi Vail said...

Hi Lenora, you should start a band! Make a fanzine! Play a show! Start a feminist punk scene (or do whatever you think needs to happen) in Montreal! Thanks for your letter and for keeping RG alive. If it means something to you now, that is great. I hope you can take that inspiration and turn it into participation, that is what it is all about! That is what I mean by "start a fucking riot!" Make something happen in your town, where you live, what what is available to you, grounded in the now. Good luck to you and thanks for writing to Jigsaw. xoxoox Tobi

Tobi Vail said...

Hi Aaron, yeah The Human Skab rules! I am going to interview Travis for the first issue my new fanzine, Sham Pants #1, which isn't online as far as I know, though maybe we'll post it somewhere. Still jogging, yes. Had a shitty summer, but trying to get back to writing and playing music. I hope you are doing great! x Tobi

Tobi Vail said...

Hi Jo, I hope you are still writing! I loved your review of Girls To The Front so much that I didn't really share my analysis here so much, I just want to come out and say I support the book and appreciate all Sara's hard work. I want people to read it and to hear their responses. Reading Allison Wolfe's review was interesting. I think it's true that Bratmobile is often not taken seriously, which is really too bad, because they were a fantastic group at the center of riot grrl. I didn't get any kind of dismissive attitude towards them or Allison in the book, but then again I wasn't looking for it either and might not have picked up on it. You can definitely tell that Marcus is a big BK fan. Kathleen is the hero (shero?) of the book, at least the first 3/4, but I think SM does a good job of representing Kathleen as an artist/performer. It seemed to provide a more thorough and complete picture of Kathleen's work than I have seen before.
I did feel that GTTF represents Olympia in a slightly dismissive way that seemed sort of unfair.
If I was writing the book, I would actually credit both the Olympia and DC punk scenes (as well as the early 90's bay area and LA/San Diego punk scenes) with providing the context for what happened, both good and bad...but I guess that would require talking about the 80's and the transition to the 90's, which is difficult to explain, since we were at the center of all of that shit--and SM has emphasized that she didn't want this to be a music history so much as a history of a political movement.
I hope future tellings of this story talk a little more about "riot grrl" as a counter-culture, or as you mentioned in your email, a part of feminist art history...
Allison brings up good points in her discussion about the ethics of writing this book in the third person.
I thought that was an interesting choice. She has a subjective voice, but she writes in what is usually considered to be an objective storytelling style. Creative non-fiction as you mentioned...I think SM is a good writer and she has written a good book, but this is a partial history, as well-researched as it is (though, as Allison notes, there are some mistakes here and there)...a more complete picture will emerge as more books are published. Thanks again for writing such a great review!
xo
Tobi

Tobi Vail said...

Here is Allison Wolfe's review:
http://www.nypress.com/article-21671-reconsidering-riot-grrrl.html

Tobi Vail said...

P.S. maybe Allison Wolfe added the third "R". It is there in this reproduction of the cover of one of the first (the first) RG fanzines http://simplesocial.tumblr.com/post/1222958099 I guess there were just probably multiple spellings and this one took off! I still generally spell if with two "r"'s...

Anonymous said...

thanks, i was going to ask where we can find allison's response. also thanks for taking the time to write about something so hard to reconstruct for those of us who were not in olympia at the time.

Lenora said...

Hey Tobi. You told me to make someting happen in my town. Well, MY town has all the female musicians you ever wanted to see on stage. We've got so much basement shows and like 97% of hte bands gots a woman in it. I don't need to make something happen in my town like a new scene or something cuz we already got what we want. I'm also writing a zine with two other grr(r)ls about our fabulous scene.

Maybe you should review some of these bands ( if you have time)

myspace.com/thefacialsmtl
(electro punk dance punk siouxsie and the banshees kinda voice)

myspace.com/pantyhosmtl
(can't explain)

myspace.com/sissyfist
(gentle punkrock)

myspace.com/switzerland0101
(electronic voice effect thing)

myspace.com/doubledipmtl
(sounds like bk)

Tobi Vail said...

Hi Lenora, cool thanks for all the links! Please send me a copy of your fanzine when you are done. That's great that you have a cool scene in Montreal, but even those of us lucky enough to have a cool scene need to "make something happen" where we live, because bands don't last forever, so we always have to be creating the future! Best wishes to you
xoxo
Tobi

Lenora said...

Hey Tobi!! Yeah, I'll send you a copy for sure. Definitely. I love your writings. I know that bands don'T last on forever, but I'm still happy to say that I'm "part of" that scene where I live.

Love -xoxox