Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Why I'm not a Riot Grrl

Laina Dawes, a music writer for Metal Edge, recently penned a piece for Bitch Magazine titled "Why I Was Never a Riot Grrl." A black woman, Dawes cites race as a key factor for her lack of affinity for the movement.  Her notes on the intrinsic whiteness of the movement were insightful. But for me, a white feminist in love with loud, angry music, her column inspired a different kind of consideration.  Why wasn't I a riot grrl?

Part of the reason lies in geography.  I grew up in Indianapolis; and the riot grrl movement was based out of Olympia, WA.  Nowadays, the internet somewhat nullifies the role regional concerns play in cultural exposure.  But then, to know about things happening in cities other than yours, you had to be tapped in to the underground zine scene. I knew a guy who was; but his interest was death metal, not angry girl bands. As a result, I knew about bands like Brujeria and Xysma and Demilich.  But I knew nothing of Bratmobile.

Because of my Midwestern nativity, I initially relied on my parent's menial record collection, my older brother, and mainstream media like MTV and Top 40/Classic Rock radio for musical exposure. I listened to hair metal, grunge, classic rock and funk, and pop music. During this time, I was also learning to play guitar and I had started writing songs. In the mid 90s, when women performers began enjoying that brief moment of musical popularity, I loved the Luscious Jacksons, Poe, Garbage, Alanis, L7, Hole, and The Cranberries.  Still, riot grrl bands remained off my radar.


And then I moved to LA. Somewhere around that time, I became aware of the term "riot grrl" and of bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile; and eventually, I heard Bikini Kill at a listening station at Tower Records in Sherman Oaks, CA. I fucking hated it!  Now, to give context, I came from cock rock not punk rock; and I aspired to be a female Jimmy Page, not a female Steve Jones.  As such, my first response was to disdainfully assert "They can't play their fucking instruments!" to my comrade Kelly, a barely legal KISS fan, who was on a three year hiatus from college. "Yeah," she agreed. "They do suck!"  When I heard part of the riot grrl philosophy was to make music regardless of their relative mastery of their instrument, I grew even more incensed. I had worked hard to develop a decent level of guitar mastery; and I never really liked the idea of sucking on purpose. I was definitely not a riot girl, I thought. I am better than that.

Jimmy Page - My Lifelong Guitar Hero

Over the next few years, I learned some things I hadn't understood about the music business.  For one, I learned that female instrumentalists are evaluated as "sucking" by male musicians unless their mastery is so extreme it cannot be denied. I learned that I should actually consider "you're pretty good for a girl," a compliment. I learned that girls who were in known bands, and who didn't meet the criteria for musical savant, were judged as benefactors of their marketable physical image; and as Fay Funk notes in "What I Learned from D'arcy Wretzky," I learned that success scored with merely mediocre instrument mastery, leads to severe criticism, and easy dismissal of  said mediocre female musician's cultural importance while successful mediocre male musicians are spared such extreme vitriol.     

Darcy Wretzky - How dare she be mediocre AND successful!

By owning their awfulness as musicians, riot grrl bands were able to subvert the judgmental shit so many female musicians have faced for not being goddamned Mozarts. By shamelessly sucking at playing their instruments, riot grrl bands became acceptable. They found a niche. The guys that still ruled rock (and I'm talking performance as well as the means of production, distribution, promotion, booking etc. here) didn't feel musically threatened by the riot grrl. They thought, "they're girls and they suck, but they're not trying to not suck, so it's kind of cool and punk rock." Meanwhile, girls, or perhaps I should qualify based on Dawes's article, white girls, could see other white girls occupying the stage, representing an untethered white girl point of view where only the male point of view previously existed. Moreover, those girls were forwarding a feminist agenda to which other girls could relate; and it was done with the attitude that male approval was not required to take the stage and forward that message.

It took me a long time to fully understand the whole point of the riot grrl movement and appreciate its value and influence on a whole generation of female musicians and artists.  But I still don't consider myself a riot grrl.  Don't get me wrong - even at almost 40 I'm a pretty pissed off feminist; and I've made some loud, dark, and angry riotgrrl-esque music in my day too.  But I also felt incredible pride when Dave Immergluck, the guitarist from the Counting Crows complimented my playing after seeing me perform with singer songwriter Arrica Rose; and a few years later, when I auditioned and got the gig playing guitar with a band of boys who had no intention of hiring a female player, I felt more pride than I had felt playing with any of my previous "girl" bands. In my mind, getting that gig was proof that I wasn't kidding myself when I set out to give a music career a shot. I may not have been Mozart, but I didn't suck; I was good enough to play with the boys - good enough to take a shot at the same success male musicians who also aren't Mozart strive for.  But, a true riot grrl wouldn't have needed that validation I needed to prove that she deserved to be there. Riot grrls are better than that.


Chef V said...

Great article! I was in Bs As, Argentina when I first heard of Riot Grrl and I was, actually, part of a signed female band. I have to be honest, even though I shared the political view behind it I felt that the fact that it was predominantly a group of white women it was easiest for men to accept them. AND I also thought they sucked! We were practicing countless of hours to get our music out to the world. Thanks for sharing!

AAK! said...

Thanks Vi for the comment!