Grrrls gone mild

Paradigm shifts typically happen in the abstract–at the level of the Big Picture–not right in front of your eyes, real time. Nearly 20 years ago, I watched and heard the musical-cultural ground move under my feet in the dank basement of my next-door neighbor’s house (typically not the type of place where a shifting paradigm takes place).

“We want revolution, GIRL STYLE NOOOOOOOOOOWWWWWW,” Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna howled during the kick-start of the band’s set. I was standing just four or five feet away, eyes bugged out with jaw on ground. At 21, I had seen a few memorable things in my brief semi-adult lifetime, but never anything like that.

It was a total shock to the system. Not a single hipster in Harrisonburg, Virginia knew about Bikini Kill, who hadn’t yet put out a record. (There was no advance hype because we had no instamatic Interweb flinging mp3s at light speed, only paper ‘zines traveling at the pace of the U.S. Postal Service.) Bikini Kill was just a warm up act at this DIY event–opening for late, great punk provocateurs Nation of Ulysses.

N.O.U. was awesome as usual, but, well, talk about being upstaged. Hanna scrawled the word “slut” on her stomach, and she radiated all the fury of a woman scorching the earth–setting fire to the patriarchy like a pissed off Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopez tossing a flaming sneaker or Molotov cocktail. Sample lyric from “White Boy,” which they sang that night: “I’m sorry if I’m alienating some of you/Your whole fucking culture alienates me!”

This experience was brought to life again when reading Marisa Meltzer’s new book Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music (Faber & Faber). She does a great, informed job of recounting Riot Grrrl’s history, and the book also delivers excellent cultural criticism that brings the past and present into clear focus. Weaving first-person memories, interviews with key figures, and some serious crate digging, Meltzer’s brief book is the perfect primer for this game-changing period.

I remember when Kathleen Hanna cleared room in front of the band so that women could move closer (which was only fair because the guys had been dominating the pit for years). Bikini Kill’s short half-hour set wasn’t all confrontational politics. Most of all, the band kicked ass–weaving classic early-’60s girl group melodies into skuzzy guitar punk noise, going full throttle. It was a glass shard sandwich wrapped in yummy bubblegum.

Bikini Kill played most of the songs from their self-released cassette, Revolution Girl Style Now, which they sold that night while gathering names for their influential mailing list. It was a mind-blowing, transformative event–which isn’t mere hyperbole on my part. Within four weeks, at least three female-fronted (or dominated) bands had formed in the rural college town where I lived, and women like them were creeping into the mainstream.

“Something was happening in ‘90s music that isn’t happening anywhere in pop culture these days, with women making noise in public ways that seem distant now,” my friend Rob Sheffield wrote in his 2007 memoir Love Is a Mix Tape. In his loving account of this era and his rock critic wife Renée Crist, who died in 1997, Sheffield remembers it as a time pregnant with possibilities, when real change seemed around the corner, even if it was just at the level of signification.

L7 lobbed their used tampons at dicks in the audience, and Kurt Cobain was wearing dresses on MTV’s macho-metal show Headbanger’s Ball–not to mention alarming homophobes by French kissing his band mates on Saturday Night Live.

“It seemed inconceivable that things would ever go back to the way they were in the ‘80s,” Sheffield writes, “when monsters were running the country and women were only allowed to play bass in indie-rock bands. The ‘90s moment has been stomped over so completely, it’s hard to imagine it ever happened, much less that it lasted five, six, seven years.”

Despite our cautious optimism, we knew in our guts that there would be no revolution–televised, recorded or otherwise. Pretty soon, it was all over. The investments in alt-rock didn’t pay off, and so the industry went back to pushing boy bands, teen teases, cock rock, and other safe bets. Even the Spice Girls had hijacked the slogan “Girl Power,” which had originally appeared in an underground, Riot Grrrl-affiliated ‘zine.

The countercultural bubble burst, but that doesn’t mean it was all meaningless, for nothing. I know it sounds stupid and ignorant, but as a teenage guy growing up in the 1980s, I never thought twice about the sexual politics of the mosh pit. That night Bikini Kill schooled me, and I’ve tried to be a better, more thoughtful person ever since. It was an important epiphany others had as well, and we have a lot of smart, rockin’ women to thank for that gift.

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