Illustration by Tilly Binucci
‘Riot Grrrl’ is perhaps more accurately a movement rather than a genre of music. Although music was one of the most important avenues of expression for the Washington D.C.-based feminist movement in the early 90s, it also incorporated visual art such as zines. The term ‘grrrl’ was in reaction to the passive and demeaning connotations of the word ‘girl’ and gave women the freedom of creation outside of the cisgender heterosexualmale-dominated hardcore punk scene emerging in the 80s. The style of the genre ranges from politically-driven indie to classic rock to punk, with a consistent thread of strong female leads and rebellious lyrics. However, the early ‘Riot Grrrl’ genre has been criticised for its anti-trans rhetoric and lack of inclusivity towards artists of colour. While many artists do not want an affiliation with the genre, platforms such as Spotify often categorise current music into the genre based on an overall impression of the music and lyrics, regardless of political viewpoint. This week’s article will be an exploration of the diversity of the genre, and the impact that political controversy has on it.
First up is “Don’t Abuse Me” from the 1981 album Bad Reputation by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. This classic 50’s-style 12-bar blues anthem is a bold statement that women can do rock ‘n’ roll, but better. Joan sings that, as a woman in the music industry, she isn’t taken seriously, and often men take advantage of her. She reveals the constant misogyny, “you tie yourself to my apron strings”, which underpins why the Riot Grrrl space was so important for women to support each other. Although Joan Jett and the Blackhearts were technically playing before the official coining of the term ‘Riot Grrrl’, her influence on the genre is undoubtable as one of the most iconic rock figures of the late 20th century.
Our next track is “Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill, from their 1993 album Pussy Whipped. Often cited as one of the key Riot Grrrl anthems, this song is accompanied by a classic rock sound, cut through by the distinct texture of Kathleen Hanna’s vocals. It encourages a radical outlook for women, “when she talks, I hear the revolution”, but also acknowledges the importance of solidarity and community when seeking change: “love you like a sister always, soul sister, rebel girl”. Despite this approach in the song, Bikini Kill, along with other bands, such as The Butchies and Le Tigre, agreed to play at Mitchfest, a festival which, from 1991, had a policy of excluding trans-women from this feminist conversation, and propagated damaging rhetoric about the trans community. The ‘Riot Grrrl’ genre had long been criticised by the media for its public image, for example, when Kathleen Hanna scrawled ‘SLUT’ on her torso for a gig. They were clearly not afraid of being controversial, but Mitchfest was a crucial moment in the realisation for listeners that ‘Riot Grrrl’ was not going to provide a safe community for every woman.
Formed in 2014, the band G.L.O.S.S reacted to this TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) rhetoric with passion, perfectly encapsulated by the band’s name which stands for “Girls Living Outside of Society’s Shit”. The trans-feminist hardcore punk band shout their existence without hesitation, aided by the powerful metal vocals of Sadie ‘Switchblade’ Smith. In the track named after the band, they call themselves “future girls”, paying homage to trans people as an inherently political force, consistently at the forefront of making progress and subverting patriarchal and colonialist ideologies. Another potential issue with the genre in terms of musicality is its tendency towards slogans—slogans often lack the nuance that is necessary for supporting the intersectionality that the band aims to support. Nevertheless, their music paints an exciting vision of ‘Riot Grrrl’ as a genre that includes all women, or people that identify with womanhood (although sadly there is not much of it).
Unsurprisingly, another criticism of the ‘Riot Grrrl’ genre was the exclusion of women of colour, especially black women. This is a problem within the wider punk and alt scenes, despite the important influence that black music (notably blues) has had on rock, as well as the importance of bands such as DEATH and Pure Hell, who were key pioneers of the punk scene. Tamar-kali Brown founded the ‘Sista Grrrl Riots’ in the 90s as an alternative to both the male-dominated punk scene and the white-dominated ‘Riot Grrrl’ scene. The majority of the music was live, showcasing a variety of talented black artists, but Tamar-kali’s single “Pearl”, released in 2009, is a particularly beautiful expression of how, like a pearl, the brilliance that black artists had to offer was “roughly confined” by a society that did not want to give them creative space. Her powerful vocals resonate against heavy guitar riffs, which are increasingly dissonant to mirror the overwhelming feeling of being somewhere where “there is always some string attached”.
Recently there has been a resurgence of the genre that is perhaps less musically cohesive than the original sound from the early 90s, but the atmosphere of rebellion and political motivation remains central. Frontperson Lauren Denitzio from the band Worriers recounts their experiences as a non-binary person in the song “They/Them/Theirs”, and the pressure of having to choose a label: “what if I don’t want something that applies to me? What if there’s no better word than just not saying anything?”. This catchy pop-punk-inspired song doesn’t bend to the frustration of societies’ demands but shrugs them off with its upbeat riffs.
Next is another band that breaches complex topics with a bright outlook. Tacocat’s song “Crimson Wave”, from their 2014 album NVM, is essentially what would happen if the Beach Boys wrote a song about menstruation. The light-heartedness of the song is refreshing, with the humorous image of “all the girls surfin’ the wave, surfin’ the crimson wave today”. It addresses some key problems too, such as the lack of provisions made for women in the workplace and the fact that they are expected to perform to normal standards, despite pain and both mental and physical discomfort. The easygoing feel of their music helps make the important messages within it accessible.
Sleater-Kinney is a band that has been going strong since the late 90s. Their most recent album Path of Wellness deserves an article in itself, but their song “Complex Female Characters” is a playful dig at the doubles standards placed on women in film versus reality, such as from men who say that “I like those complex female characters, but I want my women to go down easy”. The twangy riffs, stripped back for the verses, feature an 80s synth sound that gives a classic rock feel dripping with irony. The song builds into fuzzy guitars, plenty of noise, and crashing drums after the bridge where Carrie says, “you’re too much of a woman now, you’re not enough of a woman now”. Sleater-Kinney’s satire on the audacity of men is some of the finest music, both lyrically and musically, that ‘Riot Grrrl’ has to offer.
Another band filled with energy and creativity is Dream Wife, with their song “Sports!” from the 2020 album So When You Gonna…, which is an entertaining track about sports and its role in encouraging toxic masculinity as well as the capitalist mindset of “serve it, smash it, win it, own it”. The song also encourages women to access this kind of confidence for themselves, with Dream Wife saying in an interview that “Playing sports is great if that’s for you but there are so many other ways to be physical, to be with your body. For us, more often than not, it’s the rock show. Rock n roll is an extreme sport and we’re a team.” The band has raised awareness about the lack of diversity not just in the field of artists but also in music production, producing this album working exclusively with women.
The creative and diverse contributions to the genre over the past 10 years are perhaps evidence that the controversy first associated with ‘Riot Grrrl’ has become an important learning curve to allow the genre to progress in a more inclusive way. Since punk and rock music still remains heavily dominated by white men, it remains crucial to have a safe space for all women to express themselves unapologetically. However, if the ‘Riot Grrrl’ genre is being reclaimed today, we should not forget its origins and problems when scrolling through Spotify playlists that tend to distance the music from its real-life socio-political implications.