Riot Grrrl And The Queer Punk Scene

by Billy Brooks

Image: Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill. Image Credit: Pat Graham (The New Yorker). 

The Riot Grrrl scene that flourished in nineties Olympia resulted in the movement of feminism which definitely had the coolest soundtrack, and very probably the best band names. Lunachicks, Bratmobile, Seven Year Bitch, Babes in Toyland – just reading the words which connote the genre is good fun, and the boisterous humour of the movement is not skin deep. Bikini Kill are my personal favourite progenitors of the genre, if only for the fact that Sleater-Kinney morphed into something different from Riot after a few albums, so this article is mainly about these two. Their brand of their feminism is loud, aggressive, and totally rad. The only obstacle to my being a fan of Riot Grrrl bands is that they unabashedly satirised the patriarchy by establishing and enforcing a girls only rule at gigs, so as a male listener, I do feel like something of an intruder on hostile territory. And of course, this is precisely the aim of the exclusion of men, so it worked a treat.

The persuasive techniques in Bikini Kill’s music are affective and aggressive in equal measure. Bikini Kill’s response to a negative review received while touring in Hawaii was to read the review while playing (badly and noisily) their song Thurston Hearts the Who, replete with screaming and shouting. “I was shocked at how contradictory their words and actions were”, muses Kathleen Hanna faux-thoughtfully while her bandmates generate feedback and wail incoherently. Ventriloquising their opponents is a favourite tactic of the band, and works on the same principle attendant on faith schools which makes them remarkably reliable production lines of heretics. Just repeating the kinds of things that could come out of a patriarch’s mouth and inviting listeners to think about the meaning of the words exposes the ridiculous nature of women’s subjugation without the band needing to offer any additional analysis or counter. Hear the tactic at work in Liar, which features the lines “Eat meat / hate blacks / beat your fuckin’ wife / it’s all the same thing”. Or Suck My Left One, which as well as being a devastating attack on abusive men in the family setting, attacks women complicit in their own subordination, finishing with the line “you wait till your father gets home”. Not only is this a disappointing thing for a daughter to hear from her mother, but also has a sinister undertone for the listener, who worries that he’ll “have more than talking on his mind”.

When they aren’t about feminism or the female experience, the songs aren’t a million miles away from what could be described as regular punk, or perhaps even emo. That is to say, songs like Carnival, a three minute gripe about how extortionately expensive it is to visit a fun fair, is not dissimilar in its everydayness to Rivers Cuomo singing about how much he likes his sweater and his garage. “I’ll win that Motley Crue mirror, if it fucking kills me” promises Kathleen. The sense of humour is never left in the wings, so songs about oppression are punctuated with genuinely very funny lyricism. It takes a lot of vim for a band to commit a chorus to tape that purposefully utilises the most childish rhetoric and phraseology available, as in Liar: “Liar liar, your pants are on fuckin’ fire / liar liar, on a telephone wire”.

SK are really the one Riot band that transcended the Olympia scene, and as such their music from post-2000 or thereabouts doesn’t fit inside the borders of the genre geographically or otherwise. They were far more vocal about matters of LBGTQ interest. Ballad of a Ladyman from their 2000 effort isn’t a highlight of their oeuvre but relevant here nonetheless. Their self-titled debut contains the standout tracks A Real Man and Don’t Think You Wanna, which are both characteristically vitriolic Riot tracks, even if the band’s musical chops are a cut above the norm. They both feature Bikini Kill inspired sarcasm in their point blank rejection of the illusion of hetero-normative appeal. This later matured into a more recognisably ballad-esque embrace of the love song in a still recognisably Riot Grrrl package in Dig Me Out’s One More Hour. The song features the refrain “Don’t say another word about the other girl”, which Carrie Brownstein discussed at emotional length in her (fantastic) autobiography Hungry Makes me a Modern Girl. Before I read it, it was unclear to me exactly what the extent of her relationship with bandmate Corin Tucker was, but now these lines have taken on new meaning for me; perhaps in an alternate universe there’s a very different modern incarnation of the band.

No doubt Corin and Carrie’s willingness to be remarkably open about their sexuality, which could have seemed to fly in the face of market demand if it had appeared any earlier, helped pave the way for queer punk in the intervening period. Annie Clarke of St Vincent fame, among others, have also recognised the impact of various Riot Grrrl figures publicly. This is a niche territory in the punk world that’s made a disproportionately massive impact. If it’s an alien world to you, I apologise if I haven’t done it justice, but I hope I’ve managed to give it a shadow of its sheen of allure herein.

No Seatbelt DIY are holding an evening in conjunction with Exeter Pride, in celebration of the diversity and inclusion we should all find within the DIY punk scene. Tickets are available for purchase below.