Riot Grrrl and inventing feminism

Sleater-Kinney

It’s 1994 and I’m in the car with my dad. I’m 12 or 13 and we’re listening to music, and it must be 1994 because the cassette we’re listening to is a power pop tracklist from Mojo magazine published in 1994. It’s a good C90, with well-timed peaks and lulls, and pleasing segues and contrasts. The Byrds (The World Turns All Around Her), Marshall Crenshaw (Cynical Girl), Big Star (September Gurls), Badfinger (Baby Blue). We listen to this tape a lot, and I know all the words.

At some point on this journey, I turn to my dad and say: “The girls in these songs get a bit of a rough deal, don’t they dad? They’re either cold heartbreakers or unobtainable.”

“Hmmm,” says my dad. “That’s true.” And I chime out my wonky soprano version of The La’s There She Goes, enjoying the music and satisfied with today’s proof of my preciosity.

But I didn’t know anything. I wondered why the girls had been written like that, but I never questioned who was doing the writing. What I didn’t think to wonder was: why is all this music made by men?

***

In fact, the article my dad took the tracklisting from had made a gesture towards the gender issue. In the entry for the one female-fronted track (Fifty Years After the Fair by Aimee Mann), the author Will Birch writes: “It would be politically incorrect to include a girl for girl’s sake and, apart from The Bangles, it is hard to think of many young ladies who have entered this musical arena.”

Well, that’s that covered then. One woman gets through the door, and half of her entry is spent explaining why no more can come in. In retrospect, I think, Birch could have picked something by the scratchy, punky Go-Go’s. He should have had something by Kirsty MacColl – maybe the gorgeous, nothing-but-chorus They Don’t Know. It’s 1994, so Juliana Hatfield’s Hey Babe is only two years old, and that’s all close harmonies, big chords, catchiness and wist: the definition of power pop.

I listen to all these girl bands. I make my own mixtapes. I start reading the music press on my own: my dad takes the monthlies, I get the weeklies. One week, an Aimee Mann gig is reviewed. This is quite exciting: mature American singer-songwriters don’t usually break through the Camden throng. But the review is dismissive, and it ends with a crack about the length of the queue for the men’s toilets after the gig, because of course the audience is only there to wank over her.

I feel embarrassed. I put my Aimee Mann tape at the bottom of my wardrobe, and I don’t want to listen to it again for a long time, not until I’m in my 30s.

***

While all this is happening, something else is happening too: the thing is Riot Grrrl. Riot Grrrl does not make much of an impact in rural Rutland, which is where I grow up. There’s some controversy in the letters page of the NME about Bikini Kill’s girls-only mosh pit policy, and about Huggy Bear’s appearance on The Word, but none of these records filter through to the record shops I go to and I’m never quite intrigued enough to mail-order.

Then in 1999 I go on holiday to Singapore and I hit the record racks hard. I load up on the lo-fi and indie-type stuff I know I like, like Jon Spencer and The Make-Up, and because CDs are cheap, I take a punt on a bunch of stuff I’ve heard of but not heard. I get Bikini Kill’s The Singles, and Dig Me Out and The Hot Rock by Sleater-Kinney.

And then, my world changes.

Actually, it doesn’t really. I love these records, and I love the ideas in them, but they’re not my first introduction either to feminism or to women making music: women pushing playfully against the idea of what being a girl is, like Kenickie, and women making wracked and furious music about being a woman, like PJ Harvey and Kristin Hersh. (All the women I listen to are white, with the exception of Sonya Aurora Madan and Debbie Smith of Echobelly. I don’t notice this for a very long time.)

What Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney are is my first introduction to the idea that the personal is the political. I listen to Anti-Pleasure Dissertation on The Singles, a song addressed to a treacherous boyfriend:

Go tell your fucking friends
What I thought and how I felt
How punk fucking rock
My pussy smells
Now did you tell them?

I remember the time, a few years ago, that a male acquaintance one of my friends was flirting with told us how a girl he’d had sex with had “smelled of tuna”, and we’d laughed: thrilled at the intimacy, thrilled not to be the ones who smelled of tuna, washing a little more carefully afterwards. I start to understand that the way I treat other women is part of the practice of sexism by which all women lose too.

I listen to The End of You by Sleater-Kinney: “Bless me with Athena, there’s no meaner, she’s the best!” I scream out this prayer to the goddess of knowledge (and war) in my room in halls, because I’m 18 now and at university. But I’m not a feminist yet. It’s easy to rack up marks from older male lecturers by writing in an ostentatiously apolitical style (i.e. antifeminist), and for a year or so I do this. (In one essay, I write the smug footnote: “I will be using the pronoun ‘he’ for the reader, for brevity and in accordance with accepted style.” I feel a stab of shame when I see the big tick the marker has put next to this.)

But the other thing Riot Grrrl introduces me to is the idea that creativity is a radical act. The lyrics to Sleater-Kinney’s #1 Must Have, from the 2000 album All Hands on the Bad One, are an epitaph for Riot Grrrl, the slogan “BOY-GIRL REVOLUTION NOW!” long co-opted by the Spice Girls’ “girl power”. Corin Tucker berates herself: “And I think that I sometimes must have wished/For something more than being a size six.” But behind her Carrie Brownstein coos, “Everywhere you go, it’s die or be born,” and this builds into the song’s climax as Tucker sings:

And for all the ladies out there, I wish
We could write more than the next marketing bid
Culture is what we make it, yes it is
Now is the time, now is the time
Now is the time to invent, invent, invent
Invent, invent, invent

It’s insufficient to be angry at what is. Riot Grrrl, with its DIY culture and its handmade, handposted fanzines is about making what should exist instead: the greatest political work in the world is to invent, invent, invent.

***

I’m thinking about this rage to create last week, because I’m at Bristol City Hall for an event organised by Integrate Bristol, an equality charity that campaigns against FGM in the UK. The girls (many of them now women) who have worked on various projects with Integrate have chosen this cause themselves and used the arts to approach it. Through poetry, film and song, they have found a way to make women’s voices heard: not just their own, explains trustee Muna Hassan when I interview her, but those of their mothers and grandmothers who could not previously speak about the violence they suffered.

Feminism has to be more than a call-out culture. I think about Bikini Kill again, the song I Like Fucking with Kathleen Hanna yowling: “We’re not gonna prove nothing, nothing/Sitting round watching each other starve.” I think she had in mind the pinched aesthetics of 90s body-denying heroin chic, but I hear it as a reproach against the fretful, mutual monitoring that can go on when women police women. We eye each other across the table, following the hand that reaches towards nourishment and is then withdrawn, empty, shamed and hasty.

At the weekend, I hear Hanna interviewed by Lauren Laverne in a Woman’s Hour special on women in music. Laverne asks Hanna about being a role model, and Hanna answers:

I really want to allow myself to be three dimensional and to make mistakes, and to own up to them, and to say, “Oh, I wrote this lyric back in 1994 that I now think is really stupid and here’s why I think it’s really stupid.” Just because I don’t wanna have the onus of perfection on me and I think that’s a real detriment to women making great art, is that we’re supposed to come out and immediately be completely perfect lest we be judged a thousand times harsher than our male counterparts.

A women’s culture does not demand uncritical assent to everything that women make, but it does require that we take the act of creation by women seriously. Mistakes must be taken as simply that – mistakes – and not treated as a fatal flaw in all that a woman has ever done. We might even start to see disagreement as creative in itself. After all, feminism requires that we make things up as we go along. We have never lived in a culture without sexism: we don’t know what one will look like. All we can do is imagine what it might be and invent, invent, invent our way towards it.

The mix-up

My dad is a king of mix-tapes. His great works have included “original versions of songs which are better known for a cover”, the Ian-Dury heavy “list songs” and the great, unending project to get every track in Dave Marsh’s Heart Of Rock And Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made onto cassette. And he made one for me this weekend, so I’ve been piecing together a reciprocal playlist. Jiggling stuff about on iPlayer isn’t quite as fun as working with a C90 – when you’ve finessed the track listing to the exact distance the tape has to unspool, everything has a feeling of rightness that can’t be found by any amount of matching up outros and intros. After the jump: the first seven tracks of my dadmix, seven songs I love because they come from the music my dad has always played me (and as Fleshisgrass asked me ages ago to name my seven songs of the spring – here they are).

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Tell me how it feels

Growing up on the music press meant that from about the time I hit my teens until the time downloading replace CD buying, I was is a state of constant! almost unbearable! excitement! Tracking down hot fresh singles by sexy new bands takes a frightening degree of forward-planning when you live in a teeny-tiny village at the mercy of the nearest market town’s only record shop. My diary was full of release dates and upcoming TV appearances scribbled down from the NME and Evening Session. Being a music fan was serious business and it never really occurred to me that my friends wouldn’t share this burning need to flick through 25 dusty racks of promos in search of That Song That Got A Really Interesting Review.

The consumption and interpretation of reviews was key to my music acquiring success. Even with a dad who bought and sold records semi-professionally, friends to share tapes with, and a willingness to sacrifice sleep for radio shows, I could only hear a tiny fraction of the music that came out every month. Most of the time, reviews were what decided how I spent my pocket money, and David Hepworth’s post for Word magazine about reviewing sent me fluttering back to youthful days of furiously parsing numbers.

Because, like Hepworth says, there’s a technique to reading reviews as much as there is to writing them. With Q reviews, I knew that three and four stars were my patch: anything that got a five was likely to be a bit too polished and mature for me to love, not poppy or scratchy enough – so I’d only be interested in a five star review if it was of a band I already liked. Then I’d take the byline into account – there were plenty of writers I enjoyed reading, but couldn’t get my align my taste with, so I’d knaw off the prose and leave the opinion.

And the best moments of review reading would be when sheer force of text knocked me out of my assumptions.  Someone, I forget who, described a Sharkboy single as sounding “like an iceberg”. And it did, too. The album was shit, but this one gleaming song was vast and glitteringly cool, and I’d never have listened to it if the reviewer hadn’t pinned down its loveliness in one phrase. Or maybe I heard the loveliness because of the phrase. Either way, the review made the record for me. Whoever that reviewer was, they didn’t tell me what the music sounded like so much as why I should care what it sounded like.

Now, obviously, if I want to know what music to buy, I find a way to listen to it and think about whether to pay for it later – but I’m still totally dependent on the people who can tell me why I should care what something sounds like before I go looking for new tracks. Fair reviews are rubbish. Tell me how it makes you feel.

New favourite song: French Navy

Love is for people in libraries who wear cardigans and stiff knee-length skirts. Love songs are for sweetly unaffected vocals and twirling Motown strings. And looking seriously into a camera and banging a tambourine is about the loveliest thing a person can do. I want that swan brooch, too.

New favourite song: Teenage Feeling

I’ve been listening to the new Neko Case album a lot lately. And, also, listening to her older albums. And the ones she did with her Boyfriends. And the New Pornographers. And just mostly listening to Neko Case, really – especially That Teenage Feeling. This song’s so brief (only 2:43) and sung with so much understatement it’s almost a sigh. “Now that we’ve met, we can only laugh at these regrets” croons Case, all romance, all detachment. “Now my heart is green as weeds, grown to outlive their season” – this tailing down to a low note as the lyrics minutely catch the feeling of youthful wants outgrown by time and circumstance. “It’s hard, it’s hard” she sings out at the end, carrying a treacherously long and high phrase as though it was the airiest thing possible.

New favourite song: Nobody Lost, Nobody Found

Cut Copy, In Ghost Colours

It’s not all old Britpop and dismantling ancient Observer columns (hello, Aaro-watchers!) round the Paperhouse way. Sometimes it’s recent electropop on repeat while I do the washing up, and wondering how dance songs about romantic self-destruction fit into the busy life of an unemployed writer and domestic slattern. My new favourite song by Cut Copy has yearning ah-ah-ahs and aching oooh-ooooohs, a naggingly plinky synth riff and a deeply insistent bassline, and a lyric which covers both “burning” and “crashing down”, which are probably in the top ten things for a pop song to be about. If someone had been out to reverse-engineer a song for me to fall in love with, it would have sounded a lot like this.

Listen to Nobody Lost, Nobody Found on Last FM

New favourite song: Valentine

Today is a bright, clean, post-pub sort of day – exactly the sort of morning which is improved by a driving, yearning, glossy pop song. Valentine starts with a rush and doesn’t let up. All the way to the middle eight, it feels like nothing but chorus, pursuing its ‘love-as-natural-disaster’ metaphor irresistibly: “Tell me, when did the water surround me?” coos the singer, like someone who doesn’t mind drowning at all. And then it all holds back for a moment before the song resurges in a cascade of sweet falsetto moans and the muscular Trevor Horn production propels it all home. Delays should be absolutely enormous and the failure of the pop-buying world to make them so is basically a massive stain on humanity.

And speaking of how amazing Trevor Horn is, Joe’s 80s song wars entry is a bit perfect.

Joe’s Incredible Song

Emergency Provisions

Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine that, somehow or other, you’ve ended up in Kettering at the death of capitalism (capitalism having unexpectedly discovered that most of the money doesn’t exist – this is a thought experiment, so bear with the incredible details). You’ve been driving up and down the country for the last fortnight and you’ve listened the Pitchfork 100 Best Tracks of 2008 CDs to death. The CDs you got for Christmas are sealed in the boot under a thick layer of dirty clothes and new toys. You’re driven to an unfamiliar expediency: you must go to a shop and buy a CD.

Trotting up and down Kettering high street a few times, you fail to find any record shops. The only plausible outlet is a ransacked branch of Woolworths. The shelves are thinly stocked and in some places stripped away, punters bundling around in an agitated fug of nostalgia and excitement as they try to score one final magnificent bargain. You feel obscurely sorry for the CDs you aren’t going to buy – someone obviously overestimated Kettering’s appettite for Mark Ronson and Timberlake’s Justified. But eventually you settle on two albums you think will keep the car entertained for the remaining three hour journey and take your place in the queue behind an enormous middle-aged punk holding a litre of pick-n-mix before him like the Olympic torch.

Emergency provisions

£5.27, including the half-price bag of Fox’s Glacier Mints. 80s high-gloss synth excess and fierce left-wing punk.¹ That’s the exact sound of the high street dying.

—–

¹ Turns out the piss-weak sounds of Jan Hammer were not much fun at all; luckily The Clash is really, really amazing.

Paperhouse at the Picturehouse: Joy Division

Best bit about having a real job (apart from the awesome colleagues, the constant fondling of beautiful clothes made from beautiful yarn, and getting to say things like “How do we feel about Oxford commas?” and “More Helvetica!”): taking my first ever proper day off. I’m not meant to be studying. I’m not meant to be writing freelance. The kids are at school or with the childminder. I’m just having a day off – which means, wearing my pyjamas til the afternoon, eating chilli noodles for lunch, doing some non-work knitting, and watching movies…

Joy Division, dir. Grant Gee (2007)

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Rebel Girls

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?

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