underground since'89

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Girl Power by Marisa Meltzer Revisted

After I wrote my review of Girl Power by Marisa Meltzer I went back to read the email interview I did with her for the book. Not surprisingly a bunch of quotes she used were edited in a way that sort of changed their meaning. Several came from the body of emails I wrote her about why I hadn't gotten around to answering the interview yet. I guess it's naive of me to think that those emails were off the record, but I did assume that at the time...to have them quoted outside of that context felt a little weird but whatever, it's ultimately my fault for not being clear or guarded enough.

Regardless, I feel it's more than fair to quote from the emails given this situation. Anyhow here is one Q & A that I thought would be interesting to share, given the nature of my criticism of her book.

I'd be interested to hear how you all would answer her questions.

Marisa: How do you see the purpose of the underground? Is it inevitable that the mainstream will coopt subcultures? Is it our job to keep them pure? Is purity a good or bad thing for the underground?

Tobi: Hmm….the underground is where I am at….does it have a purpose? That is kind of like asking, does Olympia have a purpose? Or maybe, what is the purpose of Astoria? Or what is the point of Anacortes? These are places where people live. We don't all live in New York or LA and we don't all need to look to those places to be entertained or buy stuff from. We can make stuff and entertain ourselves where we are with what we have available to us.

I guess it's like asking, what is the purpose of folk music? What is the purpose of people sitting around a campfire and playing guitar? What is the purpose of having someone over for dinner? What is the purpose of growing your own food or making pickles?

As far as co-opting, that is a very good question…it can be disconcerting when that happens, but what I like to say is that the mainstream can change the meaning of something, sure, that is inevitable, meaning is not fixed and it changes.

The second part of this got lost in the email shuffle. To paraphrase the idea:

The mainstream cannot take away our ability to create new meanings. Culture then becomes an arena of political struggle where dominant meanings are contested. This is largely about hegemony. Power. Who has the upper hand and how can we be persuasive?

As far as women go, there is patriarchy to consider. How could riot grrl become mainstream without its meaning changing? The mainstream is patriarchy. Riot Grrl is feminist. Something has to give, right? I guess that's why we have The Spice Girls.

I'm not sure how to address your question about purity, can you give me an example?

I think that was the end of our discussion on this point...

Photo: Ernest Arnold (Grandma's brother) and Nellie Brown (a friend)


Melanie Taylor said...

Maybe the purpose of the underground is to have a reaction or response to the mainstream. But really, isn't just something that forms because of a collective love of something or desire for something? OR it is underground because it is art that has been created by people who don't pay any attention to the mainstream, so it's inherently not a part of that?

I don't really like the word pure. I'm not sure what that means exactly. Pure, as in protected, untained by...mainstream? consumerism?

Osa Atoe said...

When are you gonna write your own book, Tobi? You should be the one askin the questions.

Tobi Vail said...

Marisa, Lois & Molly are on the radio today talking about Girl Power http://www.kuow.org/program.php?id=19500

Unknown said...

i know there were far more important things to address in the book, but for some reason the fact that she took seriously the term 'foxcore' and applied it as a genre really got under my skin. i think the initial comment was flippant and not meant to be applied academically a decade after the fact.

as for quotes being taken out of context, that's always a risk when someone else is framing the narrative. especially when, as in this case, it's more your story to tell. everyone's interpretation of it will be different, but i think as riot grrrl is starting to be analyzed in a historical and academic context (hell, i even wrote my master's thesis in part on it a few years back) it's important that those leading the movement write their own stories.

i think the main prob with the book is it tries to be an encompassing account without really delving into the nuances of cultural, subcultural (i.e. melanie's point of defining "pure"), political, social contexts. it barely scratches the surface.

Tobi Vail said...

Hi Erica,

Yeah you are right. I guess what feels weird to me is to have lengthy excerpts quoted from these neurotic rambling emails I sent her to explain why her questions were difficult to answer... but really I don't fault Marisa for this, it just felt really weird to read that stuff standing in Powells, trying to remember what I was talking about, because I couldn't even really follow my own thought process when I read it in the book.

As for telling our own stories, please visit the Bikini Kill archive here:

I really don't think that there necessarily needs to be another book about Girl Power in order to get my voice heard. I'm more interested in using this space as a place where we can tell our own stories and have these conversations.

It's really important to me to have this history be living, interactive and connected to the present.

It's really hard not to get totally overwhelmed by the past and become totally immersed in it when you start to go that route, so I try to balance my archival work with the present and keep writing about feminism and punk rock that is happening today as well as "back in the day" or whatever!

I am really looking forward to reading Sara Marcus' upcoming book on riot grrl, which is coming out later this year: http://www.riotgrrrlbook.com/

I'm sure it will be the stimulus of critical dialogue and that we'll keep having these conversations here and in other interactive, public spaces...

Unknown said...

i saw that you guys put together the bk archive; i'm really excited about that. again, i just think it's really important the scene be documented from within so that the dialogue can be framed in a way that really attempts to understand what we were (and are) trying to accomplish. looking back on your comment, i think we're kinda on the same page there...

i guess it's not so much that i'm advocating another book be written by specific people, rather that we take control of the discourse so that it's productive for both historical and current cultural documentation.
misrepresentation and co-opting of our (sub)cultural texts isn't new and won't stop, but i think we're at a unique point where technology and a bit of wisdom now that we're older make facilitating these critical dialogues much easier.

fwiw, i'm really grateful you have jigsaw (as well as the bikini kill archives) online. i'll make it a point to try to interact more!

Tobi Vail said...

Yeah I was sorta replying to Osa as well.

I take writing/self-publishing a fanzine and creating spaces for participatory oral history/ discussions to be a vital part of documentation.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the dialogue here. Lets keep talking.

Viva la punk rock feminism!

Osa Atoe said...

hey, seems like the convo died down while i wasn't watching, but i just wanted to say that i'm all about documenting things in a way that allows for more perspectives & voices to be heard, but i don't think that blog discussions and online archives are ever going to replace books and printed media. they're always going to exist side by side and they also serve different purposes and reach different people. also, there are always going to be people making books about "women in rock" or "girl power" or even diy feminist culture. why shouldn't it be you? if you're interested in keeping it a "space for participatory oral history" why not make it an anthology? feminists love making and reading anthologies exactly because they allow for a variety of voices and experiences to be heard.

i'm advocating something like this because i agree with what erica said about us documenting our experiences and taking control of that discourse. instead of critiquing someone else's awkward questions, why not ask your own? as someone who does interviews, i know that the chemistry developed during a conversation where there is understanding and mutual interest is unmistakable. the end product is made better because of that kind of chemistry. in other words, your book is probably gonna come out a lot better than this "girl power" book that i will probably never read. even though i see the value of on-going online discussion where everyone can participate, i don't see it taking the place of an actual edited printed artifact.

Tobi Vail said...

Hi Osa

I'm interested in history but I don't want to get any more bogged down in the past than I already get when I read one of these books. I ask my own questions all the time, but in this case I thought I would share how I answered one and see what other people thought. I also wanted to share my response, which didn't make it into the book and seemed relevant to recent posts.

The records we made and stuff we wrote back then exists to unearth for whoever wants to examine it. The archives are accessible and our music is in print. That work is done and that period of time is over. Part of me that really wishes it would just go away, but that's not going to happen. It will always be a big part of who I am and inform the work I do today. I'm not interested creating work to fill a market-demand for 90's nostalgia but I'm proud of what we did and have always been into documentation and cultural artifacts.

I agree that print media will always exist, but as far as history goes, most people don't read books. That's not going to change. But a lot of people do go on the internet and comment on blogs-- maybe especially feminists and music culture obsessives--so that is another reason to try and have these conversations here. Also, in the writing of history some voices get marginalized and suppressed in favor of a dominant narrative. There will always be a need to engage in criticism and participate in these discussions no matter how many books are published.

Jigsaw has always been about asking questions, critical dialogue, inciting participation and documenting our own scene. It makes sense to me to keep doing that here. I hope this explains where I'm coming from on this. Thanks for your comments!

Rebecca said...

Tobi, I just found your blog, and these posts are really helpful. I'm writing a book about girl power, too--but mine is an academic one, about how real pre-adolescent girls negotiated girl power cartoons like the Powerpuff Girls and Kim Possible when they were popular a few years back.

Riot grrrl is a really important context to that form of mainstream, co-opted girl power, so I need to include a bit about riot grrrl in my introduction. I've been worried about whether I might inadvertently wind up creating one more misrepresentation of the movement.

This post is helpful, I think; thank you so much for sharing your thoughts publicly.