On Telling Stories about Sleater-Kinney & riot grrrl

Posted on January 26, 2015


I sometimes get asked to do interviews about riot grrrl by journalists. This generally happens when there is a desire to understand the spectacle of contemporary feminist activism (e.g. Pussy Riot, Slut Walk), when one of the originators has a new project (e.g. Julie Ruin, The Punk Singer) or there is a ‘new’ visibility of DIY feminist punk culture (e.g. Ladyfest). I try and answer the questions in the hope of promoting more complex discussions of feminism, gender and sexuality.

Recently I got asked some questions by Anne Nørkjær Bang who was writing an article on Sleater-Kinney, who have recently reformed and made the new record No Cities to Love, for the Danish newspaper Berlingske . Witnessing Sleater-Kinney’s amazing interview with Broad City and PBS feature it is really interesting to see that there is still public interest in thinking and talking about Sleater-Kinney’s musical practices in relation to riot grrrl. The interest in riot grrrl continues to grow, for example with the publication of the Riot Grrrl Collection by Feminist Press that showcases The Riot Grrrl Collection archive held at Fales Library & Special Collections at NYU, the selection of artefacts from my research archive on UK riot grrrl in ‘The Long March to Equality: The Treasures of the Women’s Library exhibition’ (now held at LSE), and the Alien She touring exhibition currently making its way across the US.

I am interested in how we tell stories about riot grrrl and the processes in which riot grrrl is still being remembered as a particularly addictive, affective and transformative political moment that still has the power to resonate with audiences who have had no direct involvement. I considered this in a book chapter published recently by Ashgate and you can read it here. As riot grrrl cultural memory and legacy continues to pop up in popular culture I hope the stories we tell can be more complicated, troubled and nuanced.

Corin Tucker on Riot Grrrl on PBS – the curse of the soundbite & non-verbal disruption courtesy of Carrie Brownstein

Here’s the full article I was interviewed for:Toner from the Revolution

Transcript of E-mail Interview with Anne Nørkjær Bang and Julia Downes
18 January 2015

I know that the riot grrrl-movement is quite hard to grasp, but in your words, what was the background for it? Why did it evolve?

There are two main stories about riot grrrl. There is the story of its origins, which involves a small network of individuals situated in and around Washington DC and Olympia WA. There is also the story of how the idea of riot grrrl has been taken up by wider global communities of girls and women who were interested in the creation of spaces for radical feminist culture.

The background involved communication between certain individuals (e.g. Kathleen Hanna, Tobi Vail, Johanna Fateman, Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman) who were interested in feminism, art, performance, music, fashion, critical theory and social change. They wrote each other letters, created and exchanged fanzines, began bands, and a discussion group at the Positive Force house in Washington DC began. Some individuals had experiences in which their ideas about gender, sexuality and feminism had been censored or dismissed – Kathleen Hanna had her art exhibition censored and Allison Wolfe had her essay on riot grrrl disparaged by her women’s studies professor. They also felt excluded from the sexist climate of the punk underground music scene and mainstream US culture. So there was a clear need to network and create spaces and projects to express a different politics of ways to be a girl, woman, feminist that encouraged girls and women to create politicised culture.

Early bands – e.g. Bikini Kill – did this is a didactic manner by directing feminist messages directly at female audiences using punk music and performance. Over time projects got more complex as individuals matured and became more skilled in their music making and/or expanded into different cultural arenas e.g. art, fashion, academia, social justice and writing. Riot grrrl also had wider ripple effects as girls and women in other places around the word related riot grrrl ideas to what they were already creating or were inspired to create radical feminist culture and groups using the term riot grrrl as a banner to gather under.

What characterized the movement?

Riot grrrl was not an identity; it was a call to action. So riot grrrl can be traced in diverse cultural actions including bands, fanzines, record labels, letters, friendships, events, art that were created. The practices of riot grrrl can be said to stem from bands like Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy, Bratmobile, Huggy Bear, Excuse 17, Skinned Teen and Lungleg and result in visual artists like Lucy McKenzie and Sadie Benning, academics like Tammy Rae Carland and Becca Albee, musicians like Beth Ditto and initiatives like Girls Rock Camp and First Timers.

Sleater-Kinney was one of the later bands in the riot grrrl-movement – what made them stand out?

Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney both began to create culture in the spaces afforded by riot grrrl. Corin Tucker found her voice in Heavens to Betsy and Carrie Brownstein honed her skills in Excuse 17. They met during this time and formed Sleater-Kinney. They stood out because they worked hard, wrote good songs and maintained control over their craft, image and performance.

How did the movement come to an end? And what took over from there?

Individuals who were involved in the beginning became burnt out for a lot of different and personal reasons. In the early days riot grrrl was a feminist utopia with high expectations about what it would achieve. As anyone who has experience in feminist organising knows, feminist activism can be difficult, draining and complex. Riot grrrl suffered from a lack of experience and knowledge of feminist activist history as well as a wider culture that was hostile to feminist ideas and culture and sought to diminish it.

Riot grrrl was a dynamic call to action rather than a static identity or object; it never stopped but was expanded, taken up and transformed by new generations across time and space. This meant that some people involved in and inspired by punk, riot grrrl and feminism have taken it in new directions with more emphasis on race and ethnicity (e.g. Osa Atoe – Shotgun Seamstress fanzine), trans issues, queer politics and uncovering women’s music history (e.g. Making Waves fanzine).

I think that record labels like M’Lady’s and Tuff Enuff, and radio shows like Veronica Ortuño’s Cease to Exist and Woman’s Hour are great examples of smart contemporary discussions of gender, feminism and radical culture.

Today, many mainstream pop acts, like Beyonce and Taylor Swift, is calling them selves feminists. Why is that happening right now?

Episodic declarations of the ‘year of women in music’ and ‘girl power’ are very common in popular culture. Strong and politicised women are compelling to audiences, as they should be. The problem comes from the higher level of scrutiny that women, especially women who identify as feminists, are put under in popular culture. There is a pressure to speak for all women and represent all feminism. But feminism is a broad movement. Feminism can deal with multiple issues including class, race, sexuality, transgender, disability, capitalism etc. There is no one correct way to be feminist. The more diverse feminisms and feminist leaders that are made visible in mainstream society and culture the better.

What impact has the riot grrrl-movement had on the music industry and female representation in the music industry?

I don’t think the riot grrrl movement was interested in changing the music industry. It was a very small intimate group of individuals who were interested in creating and developing their own culture in their own time and space. I think riot grrrl has since become a very visible moment in popular music history and mainstream artists like Kate Nash have been inspired by riot grrrl.

What does it mean in general to have female role models in the music industry? (is it important in order to get more girls to play music?)

I think it is important to have more diversity in the music industry and in music cultures more broadly. This is why projects that explicitly invite, make space and provide resources for the participation of girls, women, queers and people of colour in culture are so important (e.g. Girls Rock Camp and First Timers – that I already mentioned above). It is important to see people who look like you making music that does not have to be perfect. There are so many invisible barriers that prevent girls and women from making the leap. The more community encouragement – in skill-sharing, time, resources and space – the better the chances are of a music culture being really interesting.

Posted in: Music