John Foley is a summer intern at Ma’yan.
Carrie Brownstein, when discussing her acoustic ideology, has one piece of advice she gives every aspiring musician (and for that matter, every person in general): “Don’t worry about making music or stories that apply to everyone. Music that applies to everyone applies to no one.” Brownstein touts the specificity of experience and community as a critical building block for good music. “The stories you tell [through music] should only make sense to a small portion of people in the world. That is what will make them relevant.”
Brownstein first established herself artistically in the Portland and Olympia based “Riot Grrrl” scene of the 1990’s. Sleater Kinney, fronted by Brownstein, pioneered the Riot Grrrl sound (along with Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, Courtney Love of Hole, and Kaia Wilson of the Butchies among many other talents). While others in the Riot Grrrl scene concentrated on the overt politicization of their lyrics, Sleater Kinney approached the emerging girl-centric musical community from a primarily acoustic perspective. “We wanted to bring an ethic of craftsmanship, and a lyrical ambiguity, to the music,” says Brownstein. This attitude clashes with other early artists in the genre, specifically Kathleen Hanna, who felt that an exaggerated focus on guitar craftsmanship would make the music, and consequently the politics, of Riot Grrrl inaccessible to wide audiences. ‘The point of [Bikini Kill] concerts was to show girls how easy this all is, how anyone can strum these chords and sing these melodies.” Fundamentally, Brownstein and Hanna were attacking the same set of problems from different angles. In multiple interviews and tribute songs, the two artists have expressed solidarity and deference to each other’s work. If Hanna used Bikini Kill as a platform to make unsubtle political gestures about womanhood, Brownstein wanted to exert soft power with her musical cache, but a power she could unleash and use freely when needed.
After years of hiatus from the making of music, Carrie Brownstein is back with a new supergroup called Wild Flag. Many are hoping that with her return, Brownstein will bring a Riot Grrrl revival. Wild Flag is comprised of Brownstein and fellow Sleater Kinney alum Janet Weiss, along with Helium base guitarist Mary Timony and Rebecca Cole, previously of the Minders. Together, these four are some of the most venerated names in Riot Grrrl Music, and within the Punk movement generally. These voices, throughout the ‘90’s, were extremely influential in the emerging culture of girl world , a multifaceted musical and political community that aimed to create a consensus of solidarity with third wave feminists.
Kathleen Sweeney, a social researcher at the New School who specializes in the study of American Girlhood, had this to say about Riot Grrrl’s impact on teen culture in the 1990’s. “Bands like Sleater Kinney, Hole, Bikini Kill, and Heavens to Betsy took ownership of instrumentalism, artistry and the direction of Grunge rock in the 90’s. These girls made music, culture and community on their own time and terms.” Yet by the turn of the century, laments Scott Thill of Morphizm, “Girl culture has degenerated into Christina Aguilera’s (very) glossy lips and a sea of unquestioning Britney heads.”
Of course, a bitter irony of pop culture in the early 2000’s was that it adopted a gentrified version of many Riot Grrl ideologies and slogans. While artists like Brownstein and Hanna pioneered the idea of “Grrrl Power” in the 1990’s, and wanted to use it as a vehicle for women to take on political issues, pop producers and executives had other ideas about how to use it. In 1996, the Spice Girls turned “Girl Power” into a catchphrase that generated millions of dollars in merchandise and record sales. Similar pop bands began to use the idea of female empowerment to attract tween girls to the notion of female power in budding romantic relationships. Yet even when girls were encouraged to “take control” and “run the world,” heteronormative structures remained in place. Reclamation of ownership and solidarity with other women began to take a backseat to the marketing of sexual capital. The Spice Girls might have sung about “sisterhood before misterhood,” but the control exerted by their male managers and by marketing directors who hoped to commercialize their bodies was unmistakable. While many female artists of the 2000’s broke out of the national stasis of pop generica, few did so within a broader musical community like the Riot Grrrls had managed to do. “If you broke out, you did so on your own in the 2000’s,” says Kathleen Sweeney.
Could the return of this “Riot Grrrl supergroup” usher in a new age of female centered rock and roll? Pitchfork listed Wild Flag’s self-titled debut as one of the 50 best albums of 2011, and Rolling Stone listed it among its best new releases as well. Already Wild Flag has performed venue rocking performances at SXSW, Pitchfork and the Governor’s Ball. The band has 20 concerts scheduled across the country for 2012.
Other Riot Grrrl revival projects are seemingly underway. Kathleen Hanna is performing with a new band, “The Julie Ruin Project” and Beth Ditto of “The Gossip” is releasing music regularly. But at this juncture, Riot Grrrl still seems to be in limbo. No cohesive community exists to connect political ideas to the grid of artistry. But with the rapid growth of the online feminist community, and with the slow grumblings of smaller groups and tribute bands, the potential for such a community is real. While Wild Flag makes incredible music, and has many critics pining for a return to Grrrl grunge, the band is in many ways a revisit and not a reinvention. Does Riot Grrrl need to be lead by younger artists to have legitimacy in 2012? That question probably doesn’t have a good answer. However, the movement certainly needs to attract younger fans to succeed in the teens like it did in the ‘90’s.