Riot grrrl was a cultural movement of the early-’90s of which music was just a part. Born from a community of underground fanzine makers concerned with the big issues of being a woman —feminism, sexism, reproductive rights, domestic violence, body image, rape— riot grrrl emerged as a grass-roots form of community activism.
The development of riot grrrl as a musical genre grew out of this movement. Though all-female acts like grunge-rockers L7 and art-punks Autoclave —not to mention original post-punk acts X-Ray Spex, and The Raincoats— are cited as paving the way for the nascent genre, riot grrrl bands seemed to be inspired by pure punk-rock spirit more than anything.
How It Sounds:
Angry, mostly. The defining riot grrrl band is Bikini Kill, who belted out furious, frenetic, hostile, quite-often-poorly-recorded songs that seethed with an unrestrained rage. Kathleen Hanna, Bikini Kill's charismatic vocalist, would go on to discover the joys of making political-protest into a party with Le Tigre, but, at the time, she was a ball of rage.
Similarly, proto riot grrrl act Heavens to Betsy found their leader, Corin Tucker (who'd go on to front the incredibly-successful Sleater-Kinney), literally screaming at the injustice of the world.
That's easy: that riot grrrl was anti-male. This was often the perception at the time, most likely from males confronted by a banding-together of independently-minded women. Yet, rather than being misandrists, two of the defining bands of the movement, Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear, actually featured male members.
You could say that the entire movement itself was misconceived by many people in the media; glossy teen magazines reducing riot grrrl to a wardrobe, and anointing inappropriate, unrelated artists like Courtney Love as members of the movement.
Where The Name Came From:
Fittingly, Molly Neuman of Bratmobile began a zine called Riot Grrrl in 1990, which would feature contributions from her band-mate Allison Wolfe, and Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vail and Kathleen Hanna.
When it broke:
In 1991, Olympia, Washington’s punk-credentialed K Records staged a five-day gathering under the weighty name The International Pop Underground Convention. Its opening night was called Love Rock Revolution Girl Style Now, and featured performances from Bratmobile, two Hanna side-projects (Suture and The Wondertwins), Heavens to Betsy, Lois Maffeo and others.
The night is charged with bringing the simmering movement to a boil, the lasting connections made at the 'convention' spurring on those who'd fly the flag of riot-grrrl into bringing their revolution into the mass consciousness.
Bikini Kill, The CD Version of the First Two Records (1993)
Bratmobile, Pottymouth (1993)
Huggy Bear, Taking the Rough with the Smooch (1993)
Team Dresch, Personal Best (1994)
Sleater-Kinney, Dig Me Out (1997)
Riot grrrl, as it were, died long ago. What started out as a ‘Revolution Girl Style’ was commodified quicker than any of its founding mothers could’ve imagined. By 1996, soulless corporate construction the Spice Girls were being sold with the snappy catchphrase ‘Girl Power,’ reducing notions of female-empowerment-through-music to so much rubble.
Yet, riot grrrl clearly lives on: artists like Peaches, the Gossip, Erase Errata, New Bloods, and Mika Miko clearing picking up on the spirit of the movement. But, the lasting legacy of the movement may be the fact that it now seems like it encapsulated a particular time and place. The fact that being a woman in a band is no longer cause for hostility or notoriety suggests that times have changed. Of course, the causes riot grrrl fought for —like reproductive rights, for one— still remain up for debate, and one can only hope grassroots political movements have come as far as women in music over the past 15 years.