Something else happened in France, besides my birthday. Something totally and unspeakably horrible. I heard the Katy Perry song (“I Kissed A Girl”, and you can Google it if you must) all the way through for the first time, and felt the way Twisty Faster must feel all the time.
It’s obviously a grotesque piece of exploitative gender roles trash. It’s autotuned. It doesn’t help that her marketing campaign, with all the knowing vintagey-ness, is infuriatingly close to pushing my consumer buttons, giving me an extra little shudder of self-loathing. And the song itself is a repellent farce of pop composition, winking so hard about its cherry-chapstick lezzing off that it seems to be having a three-minute stroke (as, indeed, are the FHM readers at whom this production is aimed). I mean, the convention of girlie-flirting in pop songs is well established. We all know that Britney didn’t actually go home for a sticky romp with Madonna after the MTV awards kiss, because of course it was just for show. So the Perry song is doubly insulting, not just for playing around with tawdry faux lesbianism, but for explicitly stating the fauxness of it all. “I kissed a girl just to try it”, “No big deal, it’s innocent”, “I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it” – which he won’t, because as the song points out, “Us girls, we are so magical. Soft skin, red lips, so kissable”, and if nothing’s hard then no-one can possibly be having sex, can they?
I was 12 when Riot Grrl broke and I missed it, just catching the tail of fanzine indie with Bis and the other Chemikal Underground bands. But I caught enough references to it to know I was interested, and on holiday in Singapore in 2000, I picked up a bunch of K-Punk and KRS records, including Sleater-Kinney‘s Dig Me Out and The Singles by Bikini Kill. And in a world where a song like New Radio exists, in which girl/girl relationships aren’t fetishised but celebrated, and there is not only decorous kissing but actual messy fucking, and there isn’t even a breath about what your boyfriend might think – then it’s pretty obvious that the Perry song doesn’t just exploit homosexuality for cheap porny kicks, it also spits all over the idea of relationships that aren’t defined by the presence or absence of a hard-on.
The bands at the middle of Riot Grrl – Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear – operated in a fairly narrow field of feminism. Their polemics are all about personal relationships, often heterosexual personal relationships, and furiously dissect the cultural expectations which overshadow girl-boy meetings. Strawberry Julius has the ecstatic line, “Your hand, the back of my neck, it means more than any porn, I wanna forget” – amazing sex opening up whole new continents of possibilities in love. In Accordance With Natural Law wails desperately against a partner’s gossip, and ends with the feverish assertion that the girl still has things from the coupling which the boy could never be able to tell. I Like Fucking declares, anthemically, that “Just cos my world, sweet sister, is so fucking goddamn full of rape, it doesn’t mean my body must always be a source of pain” – which sounded like the most earth-shaking thing I could hear at 18. It’s not about childcare or paygap or female infanticide or birth control, but it’s about feeling good inside your body and expecting the people close to you to be your friends.
By the time I’d caught up, Riot Grrl had peaked and faded and been subsumed into Girl Power. In 2000, Sleater-Kinney released #1 Must Have, which sums up the wreck of women’s culture in saddest terms (“And I think that I sometimes must have wished for something more than being a size six, but now my inspiration rests in between my beauty magazines and my credit card bills”), but ends with a powerful invocation to do something else: “Culture is what we make it, yes it is. Now is the time, now is the time, now is the time to invent, to invent, to invent.” Inventing means making, producing your own things to make your own culture – handcrafting doesn’t just reproduce the pattern of the 1950s housewife (with acknowledgement to Needled), it invents new objects, new relationships with objects, new relationships with people. I’m not saying there’s anarchy in a bobble hat. I’m saying there’s freedom in making.