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Thursday Three: The college years pt. 2: There’s a riot going on!

July 22, 2010

Top to bottom: Bikini Kill, Huggy Bear, Heavens To Betsy

As stated in last week’s Thursday Three post, I am dedicating these next few TT posts to the great music that came out when I was in college in the early to late 90s. A big part of my musical world in college came about as a direct result of the Riot Grrrl movement, an underground feminist movement that initially seemed to be a reaction/antidote to the male dominated punk/indie/underground scene. RG soon evolved to be more of a general, radical feminist movement although music and punk were definitely still at its core. Like any movement, it was imperfect and sometimes not so inclusive. Criticism of the movement being centered around the needs and agendas of white, class-privileged women were an echo of criticisms aimed at the larger feminist movement.

But issues of inclusion and imperfection aside, Riot Grrrl spawned a lot of loud, audacious, passionate music, largely made by women with surprisingly varied voices, even within the limits of punk. For me, Riot Grrrl was inspirational in that I saw a bunch of people making music regardless of being experts or virtuosos. I heard people singing about things – rape, incest, sexism, queer identity, capitalism, etc. – in ways I’d never experienced. Although it wasn’t a movement for me or other men, it was inspirational nonetheless and a instrumental in me first sitting down and teaching myself to play drums. It’s hard to pick simply three songs from that era but not as hard to pick three bands that I loved.

Bikini Kill – “Rebel Girl”: Although they’d probably be loathe to admit it, if there were ever an anthem for the Riot Grrrl movement then this song would be it. Bikini Kill are often cited as the progenitors of Riot Grrrl, especially lead singer Kathleen Hanna, but always seemed to resist that notion, saying that it came about as the result of several young women in their scene and that the women in the band were all different politically and creatively and not all married to the Riot Grrrl dictum. All of that aside, Bikini Kill were a ferocious and surprisingly tuneful punk band with confrontational, political songs and a knack for slogan-worthy lyrics. And “Rebel Girl” is no exception. The song is a classic slice of punk rock fury and a celebration of rebellious womanhood. This version, recorded and produced by Joan Jett, was the moment BK seemed to move beyond being just passionate and exciting in their music and started showing some real chops as a band. The song is as catchy as it is confrontational – from Tobi Vail‘s opening snare hits right on through Hanna’s dare-you-to-not-sing-along chorus. When she screams “They say she’s a dyke but I know she is my best friend!” I still get chills to this day. (And if you want to watch a fun video involving this song I made an homage to kickass ladies of various types set to “Rebel Girl” about four years ago. Watch it here.)

Huggy Bear – “Her Jazz”:  Huggy Bear were the English, mixed gender, artsier cousins of Bikini Kill, full of noise and manifestos and possible queerness. (One oft-criticized aspect of Riot Grrrl and its participants related to proclamations of “girl love” and dubious claiming of bisexual or queer identities. But I always think it’s good for people to challenge their heterosexuality, so I was all for it, even if it was often used merely to destabilize normative gender/sexual roles) They also seemed to be spiritual relatives of The Nation of Ulysses in terms of sometimes inscrutable lyrics and often overly heady/pretentious political dogma. But luckily they were also a hell of a lot of fun. I had the good fortune of seeing them live my sophomore year of college when they played at the beloved Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey. They took the stage and proceeded to make noise for about 40 straight minutes – not even stopping fully in between songs. “Her Jazz” was and always will be my most favorite of their songs – and they had a bunch of good ones – an anthemic call-to-arms against dominant culture, mediocrity and dated ideologies. It’s a piece of punk rock perfection that never gets old. This performance of it on the English TV show The Word is wonderfully chaotic and raw.

Heavens To Betsy – “Me & Her”: Heavens To Betsy will always be a band associated with the Riot Grrrl scene that has a special place in my heart. Corin Tucker (who later went on to be one-third of Sleater-Kinney, possibly my favorite band of all time) and her music seemed to be the emotional core of the RG music world. Not that the aforementioned bands or any of their other peers were emotionless, but Tucker’s lyrics and voice and musical approach often revealed as much vulnerability, longing and pain as they did anger, rage or dissent. And then there was desire. Corin Tucker will always go down in history as one of the few voices in the often sexless world of indie rock to be able to sing about desire in a way that few others can. And not just sexy desire, but actual desire, with all of its messiness, darkness, confusion, joy and, yeah, sexy parts too. Unlike the aforementioned suspect queerness, Corin identified as bisexual and sang a number of songs about her relationships with women. “Me & Her” is a breakup song and even in its raw, shambolic, nature, Tucker’s knack for nailing heartbreak is evident. I’ve always admired her lyrical ability that can veer from literal to poetic within one song.

And, because I am feeling generous and I love this next song to pieces, I also want to include the Heavens To Betsy track “She’s The One”. A sort of brighter days predecessor to me and her, it’s a great example of Tucker’s ability to capture desire. It’s also a clear indicator of the pop sensibility that would inform some of Sleater-Kinney’s work as their career progressed.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 22, 2010 12:53 pm

    Criticism of the movement being centered around the needs and agendas of white, class-privileged women were an echo of criticisms aimed at the larger feminist movement.

    This is what made it hard for me to embrace riot grrrl. That, and by the time I even knew what a riot grrrl was, the movement was sort of a parody of itself. Or, the mainstream media — what little of it managed to get a piece — made it out to be. But being a working class girl living in the middle of the country and not attending a liberal college, my exposure to everything alternative had to be filtered through the mainstream media first.

    • July 23, 2010 7:43 am

      Yeah, I feel like Riot Grrrl definitely had its flaws as a political movement. And, at the time, it was hard to be a part of it if you weren’t already entrenched in an underground scene. But the thing I liked and still like about the music is how it could stand as its own thing and be enjoyed regardless of how one felt about the RG phenomenon.

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