How To Be Smarter About... Riot Grrrl

Email a Friend
Bikini Kill performs in Washington, D.C., in the 1990s.

Let's face it: as much as we all know and love about music, everyone has at least some blind spots. In our new series, "How To Be Smarter About…" Soundcheck aims to help you become a more impressive conversation partner at cocktail parties and around the water cooler.  

As we've seen in our Summer of '94 series, the early '90s were an incredible time for musical and cultural change. Sometime around 1991, in the rich soils of gritty punk venues, a movement blossomed: riot grrrl. Riot grrrl not only called for change, it unapologetically demanded it. But what exactly is "riot grrrl"? Many know this grassroots movement had something to do with feminism and punk music, but is it a genre, a person, a subculture? All of the above? What was its message, and who were the notable acts perpetuating it?

For help, Soundcheck turns to Sara Marcus, author of Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution. In a conversation with Soundcheck host John Schaefer and producer Katie Bishop, Marcus clears up some misconceptions about riot grrrl and guides us through a bit of history about this influential moment in culture.

What is riot grrrl?

Sara Marcus defines riot grrrl this way: "A grassroots feminist movement of young women that came up in the 1990's that focused on creative production. Punk music hugely, but also zines, also visual art, also political organizing, consciousness raising groups, and national conventions were held summer after summer for quite some time."

Takeaway: Riot grrrl is music, plus a whole lot more. 

What isn't riot grrrl?

As the term "riot grrrl" became better known, people (particularly us media types) started using the term pretty liberally. "Through the '90s and the first decade of the 2000's, very often, any band with a girl in it who was singing loud, screaming, electric guitar -- it sounds like riot grrrl," Marcus says. "Not every strong female performer felt called to by this particular manifestation of feminism. The people that I wrote about in the book were all people who explicitly were claiming [the term], and negotiating with that."

Takeaway: Don't call people riot grrrl unless they themselves identify that way. 

How do I use it in a sentence?

Is it a noun? Is it an adjective? Can you be riot grrrl? Or are you "a riot grrrl"? Turns out it's not so straightforward. "That's a topic for some discussion. It did become, in the '90s, 'I'm a riot grrrl. She's a riot grrrl. Are you a riot grrrl?'" Marcus explains. However, "Tobi Vail, the drummer of Bikini Kill... had hoped it would be more like a verb -- 'Riot, girl!'"

Takeaway: Be creative with your riot grrrl grammar! Just don't call people riot grrrl who don't want to be labeled that way. 

Where was the movement based? 

A lot of people think riot grrrl and immediately associate it with Washington state -- particularly the city of Olympia (where bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile were based -- more to come about them in just a second). But as Marcus explains, the members of those two bands were going back and forth between Washington state and Washington, D.C., "and the movement really has its twin centers in those two towns." The movement also spread out from those centers, and even crossed the Atlantic over to the U.K. 

Takeaway: Just say "Washington" in your next conversation about riot grrrl, and you should be okay. 

When did riot grrrl start? 

If we're talking specifics here, Marcus says to focus in on the summer of '91. "The members of Bikini Kill and members of the band Bratmobile moved to Washington, D.C. for the summer, and started a 'zine," says Marcus. "That was called Riot Grrrl." 

Takeaway: 1991. 

What bands do I need to know?

As you've probably already guessed -- Bikini Kill is a biggie. They were an Olympia, Washington band fronted by Kathleen Hanna. Still a presence in music and feminist culture, Hanna co-founded another band, Le Tigre, and after years away from the spotlight fighting an undiagnosed case of Lyme disease, she's currently the lead singer of The Julie Ruin. Bikini Kill's other members are impressive in their own right: drummer Tobi Vail is a writer and has a blog; bassist Kathi Wilcox plays with Hanna in The Julie Ruin, and guitarist Billy Karren still lives and performs in Olympia.

Other bands of note: Bratmobile and Heavens To Betsy (both Olympia bands). Corin Tucker, lead singer of Heavens To Betsy, also went on to found the band Sleater-Kinney with Carrie Brownstein (who you might know from the TV series Portlandia). 

Takeaway: Name drop Bikini Kill for sure. 

What are some essential riot grrrl tracks?

Bikini Kill's "Double Dare Ya":

Heavens To Betsy's "Me & Her":

Bratmobile's "Cool Schmool":

What are some criticisms of the riot grrrl movement? 

When Syracuse band Perfect Pussy appeared on Soundcheck, lead singer Meredith Graves (someone who is often unwillingly labeled as "a riot grrrl") shared her thoughts about the movement: "Riot grrrl was a scene that served, like, 50 people in two cities, and was really focused on cisgender women, white women, women with a certain amount of privileges." Marcus said. "The critiques [of the movement] are real issues and at the time people were really dealing with those difficulties, so it's important to acknowledge that there were conflicts and there were shortcomings." 

Takeaway: Riot grrrl was perceived as being kind of exclusive. 

Is riot grrrl still around today? 

That kind of depends. "Summer of 1996, there were like seven riot grrrl conventions all over the country," Marcus says. "Summer of 1997, nothing. The term had acquired so many negative connotations from its detractors, it felt like it was getting in the way of doing good work."

However, even if people aren't really calling themselves riot grrrl anymore -- they are still claiming inspiration from the movement. "There was a "grrrl" fest with three 'R's at the Silent Barn in Bushwick earlier this summer, there was a riot grrrl-inspired cover band show called Girls To The Front that happened last month," says Marcus. "So it is still really alive for people." 

Takeaway: Not really, but kinda.