Calling out male entitlement, capitalist bullshit and even turning the lens on itself – these are the aural dressing downs of the movement
Riot Grrrl was a rasping, rallying cry at a time when gender norms weighed heavy on the mosh pits, and politics imposed itself dangerously on ovaries and queerness. With punk legends like Patti Smith and The Slits preceding them, the emerging DIY feminist punk movement of the 90s brought with it grievances of the third wavers. Bratmobile’s Allison Wolfe, Babes in Toyland’s Kat Bjelland and Seattle’s resident riot grrrl Kathleen Hanna fronted a charge that was sick and tired of relentless sexual harassment, domestic violence, dilapidating wars and the lack of bodily autonomy sexist institutions enacted.
Hanna – of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre – is back with her band the Julie Ruin, having just released their sophomore album, Hit Reset. The album retains that venomous flair of her previous outfits, setting seething but sugary takedowns to synths. “Planet You” absolutely decimates the social media-soured narcissist, as Hanna sings “Start a Kickstarter for yr heart” – ouch. Next is syrup-and-sarcasm dripping “Mr. So and So”, an aural dressing down of the male fake feminists and pseudo guy fans in their Sleater-Kinney shirts, spouting half-assed social commentary, who just don’t fucking get the hint y’know?
We dive into the wince-inducing riot grrrl lyrics that were never afraid to call things like they saw it.
BABES IN TOYLAND – “BRUISE VIOLET”
“You got this thing that follows me around/You fucking bitch well, I hope your insides rot/Liar, liar, liar,” Kat Bjelland screams over a punctuating drum beat and sludgy guitar riffs. “Bruise Violet” is the aggressive, blood-curdling shriek-filled opener to Babes in Toyland’s album Fontanelle. Though Bjelland has denied it, there were rumours swirling among the low-ceiling, sticky-floored gig venues that the track was aimed at Hole’s Courtney Love, who was a part of the band for a snippet of time. Gossip aside though, the entire album is a primal call to action on a major label platform, and though not always directly associating with the movement, they did what they did without compromising what they were really about.
BIKINI KILL – “WHITE BOY”
“White boy, don't laugh, don't cry, just die!/ I'm so sorry if I'm alienating some of you/Your whole fucking culture alienates me”. Hanna was the reluctant face of the movement, embracing babydoll dresses, scrawling ‘SLUT’ across her stomach and putting on a Valley Girl accent to face off with the men that slut-shamed, belittled and sidelined her and the scene. “White Boy” calls out the patriarchal, dangerous notions of “asking for it”, using the sexist vocab of the bros that threw about “dumb hoes” and “slut rocker bitches” like sleazy currency. There’s really no hiding from the radical musicians and zinesters hell-bent on placing the privileged white male in an uncomfortable position.
L7 – “SHITLIST”
L7 are fearless – we know that much is true. Donita Sparks truly didn’t give a shit when she was throwing her used tampon into the crowd at Reading or baring her ass on MTV. The band exploding fiercely onto the punk scene in the 90s with the growling “Smell the Magic”, then straight into the mainstream narrative in 1992 with Bricks are Heavy. While they were famous for their acid-tongued humour, the band also put together the pro-choice musical movement, Rock for Choice, with a mind-blowing lineup featuring Nirvana, Bikini Kill, Fugazi and Joan Jett. We’re pretty sure the anti-abortion campaigners of the time would have made the band’s “Shitlist”, or the rapists on the receiving end of their notorious onstage rants. “For all the ones/Who bum me out/Shitlist/For all the ones/Who fill my head with doubt/Shitlist/For all the squares who get me pissed/Shitlist/You've made my shitlist”.
L7 – “WARGASM”
Another venomous observational from the LA-based quartet was “Wargasm”, a sound-off against America’s fetishistic fascination with war and the insincerity of the faux-concerned authorities who may as well have pushed the missile buttons themselves. “Wargasm, wargasm, one, two, three/Tie a yellow ribbon around the amputee/Masturbate, watch it on TV/Crocodile tears for the refugee,” they drawl. It’s fuzzy, anthemic hook was a brave bash in the mainstream music scene and with a political sphere revolving around the Gulf war and the disarmament of Iraq under a Republican administration.
7 YEAR BITCH – “DEAD MEN DON’T RAPE”
7 Year Bitch were a cult Seattle band with needle sharp social commentary and blunt rock riffs. “Dead Men Don’t Rape” is a no-holds-bars look at rape culture: “I don't have pity not a single tear/For those who get joy from a woman's fear/I'd rather get a gun and just blow you away/Then you'll learn first hand/Dead men don't rape,” they hiss. It’s a violent wish for gore and death on the world’s rapists, planning to eliminate those that use their sexual frustration as an excuse for exacting horrors on victims. The band was very much affected by the deaths of their close friend and major influence, The Gits’ Mia Zapata, who was raped and murdered while walking home in 1993. 7 Year Bitch recorded and released their second album ¡Viva Zapata! In 1994 in her honour. Drummer Valerie Agnew also became one of the co-founders of the anti-violence and self-defence organisation Home Alive. Sharp lyricism and social action combined.
TRIBE 8 – “MANIPULATE”
With unapologetic lyrical roundabouts that took feminism, sadomasochism, the nuances of nudity and trans rights into account, Tribe 8 confronted anything that bugged the fuck out of them head on. The San Fran punk dykes often performed shirtless or with strap-on dildos, and their shows were relentlessly energetic. With a name that makes a reference to tribadism (read: scissoring), Lynn Breedlove and Leslie Mah were at the forefront of telling it like it is while waving a plastic dick in your face. Their track “Manipulate” speaks from the perspective of someone exacting mental and physical abuse on their girlfriend, all the while knowing how fucked up they are for enjoying it, rejecting human consideration.
Le Tigre – “FYR”
Another band formed by Queen Kathleen, Le Tigre hit hard with the song “FYR”, which references the thinking of Shulamith Firestone's Fifty Years of Ridicule in her 1970 feminist work The Dialectic of Sex. The book zones in on the disparity between women’s liberation to vote, and the inequalities still present today. “Feminists we’re calling you/ please report to the front desk/ let’s name this phenomenon/ it’s too dumb to bring us down” Hanna cries, calling for people to unite against identity-based violence (“Can we change Title IX/ for an end to hate crime/ RU486 is we suck your fucking dick”) and shit divide between genders when it comes to salaries.
BRATMOBILE – “DO YOU LIKE ME LIKE THAT”
Correspondence between Bratmobile’s vocalist Allison Wolfe and the legendary Jen Smith of the Quails actually led to the birth of the term riot grrrl. Smith wrote to Wolfe to tell her how bad she wanted a “girl riot” from within Washington DC’s underground music scene. And it’s no wonder Wolfe and Smith shared a burning desire for rebellion: “Do You Like Me Like That” characterizes the frustration of women dealing with the relentless waves of “Nice Guys” who don’t understand the constraints of a patriarchal society. “The only thing you know is your rich boy world/You're talking politics on your pedestal/And you half-baked idea of "what it means to be a girl"/But you can't feel how we suffer or we bleed/You can't give us what we want, much less what we need” Wolfe states.
TEAM DRESCH – “TO THE ENEMIES OF POLITICAL ROCK”
“Do it yourself means do it for me, I don't' give a shit just get my video on MTV/ You know exactly what you want, so don't hide your greed behind me/Just own it you little slacker fuck, didn't you hear, there's no free money/It's not magic it's work, yeah it's cool and it's work/And it can feel like a choice between pleasure and existence,” Jody Bleyle sings across a jangly, roaming guitar, playing in circles as our shallow society does. Team Dresch were born from a fiery distaste for the Northwest's grunge scene, populated mostly by white, upper-middle-class males who side-eyed the queer movement with disdain. The band rail against the complacency of stale bands who get too comfortable in a fucked up, capitalist and elitist bubble.
HEAVENS TO BETSY – “WHITE GIRL”
Heavens to Betsy, which featured a young Corin Tucker pre-Sleater-Kinney, were a Washington band that showed a kind of self-awareness a lot of the riot grrrl movement could really lack at times. The movement was very white, and also very privileged in ways that ignored integral parts of intersectional feminism today. “White Girl” is an example of the band turning their lens on themselves. But I won’t change anything/Unless I change my racist self. It's a privilege, it's a background/It's everything that I own/It's thinking I'm the hero of this pretty white song/It's thinking I'm the hero of this pretty white world.” The lyrics showcase a critical eye on their own misgivings when they don’t check their privilege.