In 1993, riot grrrl stormed punk’s boys’ club

In 1993, riot grrrl stormed punk’s boys’ club

She stalked the stage of Boulder’s Fox Theatre, her dress dingy and her feet bare. The name of her band was Cavity: two women and two men. Lorrie was the singer, a force of nature in thrift-store clothes and wild hair. “You think that you can touch me?” she snarled that night in the summer of 1993, her voice full of taunting animosity. “N-n-n-n-no-no, NO CAN DO.” It wasn’t a warning or even a proclamation as much as it was a simple statement of fact: Her body was not at your disposal.

The song, “No Can Do,” appeared on a 7-inch single titled “Crestfallen” that the Boulder-based Cavity released in ’93. I fucking loved that single. I’d just begun working at Wax Trax, Denver’s oldest underground record store (which, I’m happy to report, is still around), and the promotional poster for Cavity’s “Crestfallen” hung in direct view of the cash register. I stared at the poster for hours every day. It wasn’t a fancy poster or anything. But it was so inspiring to me that a local band was being promoted in a record store. It was almost as inspiring as “No Can Do” itself—an under-two-minute outburst of righteous rage that was no less potent for its playful riffs and finger-wagging tone.

It didn’t hurt that I’d always gravitated toward punk bands with female singers (or any female members, really), from X-Ray Spex to the Avengers to Fire Party, Dischord Records’ underappreciated, all-woman group from the late ’80s. And ’93 saw a slew of female artists and woman-fronted bands hit the mainstream: L7’s major-label, grunge-punk breakthrough, Bricks Are Heavy, had come out the year before—made infamous by the band’s Reading Festival appearance in 1992, during which singer Donita Sparks threw her used tampon into a surly crowd—as had Babes In Toyland’s stunning Fontanelle. And ’93 boasted everything from The Breeders’ Last Splash to Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville to PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me. Cavity was something different: younger, cruder, more stridently feminist. And of course, it wasn’t a superstar, but one of those bands down the street. I soon got to know its members, but I never did ask them how they felt about the new subgenre that was floating around at the time, a label that actually came pretty close to capturing what Cavity was all about: riot grrrl.

1993 was riot grrrl’s flash point. The movement had been gathering mass for a while, but ’93 was the year that so many of the subgenre’s classic albums came out—and when the trickle of mainstream media pieces on riot grrrl turned into a deluge. As outlined on Feminist Memory’s timeline of riot grrrl media coverage, everything from Seventeen and Glamour to Rolling Stone and The Los Angeles Times ran perfunctory, and often reductive, articles on riot grrrl in ’93. Most of the attention was paid to the rebel-girl stance; little was paid to the music.

That remains the case. Maybe that’s understandable. Riot grrrl was conceived as much more than just a music style, so it makes sense that it’s viewed as a social-justice movement as much as a subgenre. But living in Colorado in the early ’90s, I didn’t have first-hand access to the riot grrrl culture emanating from Washington state, Washington, D.C., and other hotbeds. I had Cavity—which, as great as that band was, never became known outside Colorado, and most likely never called itself riot grrl. In addition, I had all those incredible, 1993 riot grrrl records.

One of the founding tenets of riot grrrl is egalitarianism—not just societally, but musically. As Sara Marcus recounts in her 2010 book Girls To The Front: The True Story Of The Riot Grrrl Revolution, “Riot grrrls didn’t want any favors […] To find their own voices, they felt, they couldn’t accept anyone else’s attempts to do it for them.” This included picking up instruments and starting bands without fear of being dismissed by more experienced musicians. What’s interesting about this quote is that it pertains to Fugazi—a band history has treated kindly in regard to its enlightened views on issues like feminism, but that occasionally butted heads with the riot grrrl scene.

Fugazi’s album from 1993, In On The Kill Taker, is one of its best, but tracks like “Smallpox Champion” showcased the more abstract and poetic way the group had begun to grind its sociopolitical axe. Another vital, vastly influential post-hardcore supergroup, Quicksand—which featured members of New York hardcore bands Gorilla Biscuits, Youth Of Today, Bold, and Burn—was tinkering with a similar yet heavier formula on its 1993 classic, Slip

Blunt, unadorned, and outspoken, riot grrrl ran counter to that elliptical kind of songwriting. That includes the two bands that drew the most attention to riot grrrl, Bikini Kill and Bratmobile. Each released its debut album in 1993: Pussy Whipped and Pottymouth, respectively, and each was completely distinct. Pussy Whipped raged with feral potency and the four-alarm scream of frontwoman Kathleen Hanna. A year earlier, John Gray’s bestselling book Men Are From Mars, Women Are from Venus was published, and in ’93 it was still flying off the shelves and being discussed in the media, around water coolers, and everywhere in between. Its central assertion—that fundamental differences between male and female psychologies are programmed into our DNA—gave rise to a new examination of gender stereotypes, but it also reinforced the notion of essential otherness in regard to gender. Maybe it was just a function of the zeitgeist that Pussy Whipped features a song called “Alien She.” Rather than dramatizing the Mars-or-Venus differences between men and women, though, “Alien She” is Hanna’s exploration of the arbitrary labels and identities forced onto women, by both men and themselves: “feminist,” “dyke,” “whore,” and the pretty girl who just wants to go to the mall and try on lipstick.

If riot grrrls were, according to Gray’s scale, from Venus, then garage punks were from Mars. Led by groups such as the Dwarves, The Supersuckers, Didjits, The Devil Dogs, and New Bomb Turks, the early ’90s garage-punk wave combined the rootsy thump of garage rock with a louder, more revved-up punk attack. Garage rock sounded retro, but garage punk largely did not—one of the best examples being New Bomb Turks’ 1993 debut album, !!Destroy-Oh-Boy!! As Turks’ frontman Eric Davidson says in his 2010 book We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988-2001, “While it was true that we liked our three-chord crap real fast, we just wanted to play rock ’n’ roll and get the crowd wrapped up with us like fingers balling into a fist raised against the wall of approaching adulthood drab.”

That juvenile-delinquent sneer is partly what makes ’93-vintage discs like !!Destroy-Oh-Boy!!, The Devil Dogs’ Saturday Night Fever, and Didjits’ Que Sirhan Sirhan so good. But it also added to the dick-swinging, testosterone-soaked bro-ness of the garage-punk scene. There were women in garage-punk bands (among them the trash-pop trio Supercharger and the surf-rock combo The Trashwomen, who released Supercharger Goes Way Out and Spend The Night With The Trashwomen in ’93), but they were few and far between. Even Supercharger’s blisteringly infectious, New York Dolls-like “You Irritate Me” comes with the woman-blaming line, “Am I the only man on Earth for you to wreck?” Judging from the mock-astronaut cover of Goes Way Out, Supercharger might have been a joint Martian-Venusian punk expedition that went somehow horribly right.

Funny enough, there was no shortage of garage-punk ethos in the riot grrrl camp. Unlike the more strident sound of Bikini Kill’s Pussy Whipped, Bratmobile’s Pottymouth is ramshackle, jangling, and full of the same ragged charm that made garage punk such a blast. Was it as artful and dynamic as, say, Fugazi or Quicksand? Fuck no. People love to complain about the melodicism and commercialism that infected punk rock in the ’90s—but one of the biggest issues punk had to deal with at the time was competence. It was no longer quite as acceptable to simply pick up a guitar, write sloppy songs, and make it up as you went along, despite the fact that such an ostensibly limited methodology led to bands that often sounded far more interesting and expressive than the average Bad Religion clone.



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Bikini Kill and Bratmobile defined two separate approaches to riot grrrl, but they had just as many similarities. Both had grown out of and benefited from the nationwide network of riot-grrrl zines, and both approached feminism as something to walk as much as talk. More importantly, both bands whittled their music to the bone. This was punk in the truest sense of the word: raw, erratic, and strictly amateur in the ears of more practiced musicians (who more often than not were men looking for any excuse to dismiss this girl-power insurgency). Hearing these two albums in ’93 was like bearing witness to a cleansing fire. Not only did they attempt to scorch away the overgrowth of slickness and professionalism in punk, they flushed out a lot of the semi-veiled (or not-at-all-veiled) misogyny that had roosted in punk for years. Make no mistake: Many dudes were pissed off by riot grrrl. They were being forced to reassess their default settings, their assumptions, and their privilege in the punk scene—an institutionalized boys’ club that all of a sudden didn’t seem like such a radical alternative to mainstream culture.

The essential riot grrrl records released in 1993 were staggering, such as Huggy Bear’s scathing, co-ed Taking The Rough With The Smooch and a trio of strong 7-inch singles by Slant 6, a powerhouse signed to Fugazi’s label, Dischord Records. Many of these bands appeared on Stars Kill Rock, a 1993 compilation released on the up-and-coming label Kill Rock Stars, an early proponent of riot grrrl; alongside Huggy Bear, Slant 6, and The Frumpies (a short-lived precursor to Bikini Kill and Bratmobile) were the savage, all-female Tribe 8 and the catchy, all-male Pansy Division. The last two were tagged as “queercore,” a subset of punk that was openly, vocally gay. Rather than offering some monolithic front, Stars Kill Rock was a rich document of just how much diversity and range was covered within riot grrrl, post-hardcore, and queercore.

A personal favorite album of mine from ’93 never got much attention back then, and it still hasn’t. But there’s something about Jail-Bait Core/Bazooka Smooth!—a split LP between Raooul and Skinned Teen—that still hits me right in the gut. Raooul was a gang of teenage girls from the Bay Area that screeched and guitar-strangled their way through songs that owed a lot to neighboring band Blatz (especially in those dueling shrieks), but who owned their bad attitudes and sexual agency in a totally exhilarating way. Skinned Teen was from England, and as such the half-man, half-woman group owed a lot to Huggy Bear. Not that that’s a bad thing. Issued by Lookout! Records, Jail-Bait Core/Bazooka Smooth! rubbed shoulders with other Lookout! releases by Green Day and Operation Ivy. Its scruffy, street-urchin manifestation of the riot grrrl spirit might have helped consign it to relative obscurity; still, it was liberating to hear the urgency, explosiveness, and adolescent, scattershot spirit that Raooul and Skinned Teen embodied.

Five years earlier, as a troubled kid from a bad home, I’d bought into the promise of punk as a place where anyone could jump up, plug in, and broadcast themselves—the pretty, the ugly, and everything in between. Finally, through riot grrrl, I was seeing that promise fulfilled. It’s always been easy to scoff at idealism, and that goes double for the ironic ’90s. It took a lot more effort to admit that, yes, idealism has its problems, but fuck it, why not throw irony to the wind and be idealistic anyway? Even if it was the snotty, smartass social consciousness peddled by the Canadian outfit Propagandhi, whose debut album, How To Clean Everything, came out in ’93. Back in 1988, the year I got into punk, Fugazi sang “Suggestion” from the point of a view of an objectified woman—but on “Fuck Machine,” the guys in Propagandhi turned the tables by tackling misogyny head-on, yet not letting themselves off the hook just because they’re smart enough to know better.

A lot of that idealism ended in 1993. On the night of July 7, Mia Zapata, lead singer of the punk band The Gits, was raped and murdered while walking home to her Seattle apartment. The Gits weren’t riot grrrls; a lot of punk groups with female singers circa ’93 couldn’t accurately be lumped into the subgenre, and some outright resisted it. But The Gits were every inch as powerful, more along the lines of L7 in terms of heaviness and polish, at least compared to bands like Bikini Kill. But Zapata’s brutal death rallied many to the anti-violence and pro-woman cause, including heavyweights like Nirvana and Pearl Jam—and eventually Joan Jett, who recorded an album with the remaining Gits in 1995 under the name Evil Stig. The Gits’ final album, Enter: The Conquering Chicken, was set to come out in 1993, but was understandably delayed a year due to the circumstances surrounding it. In 2003, Zapata’s killer, Jesus Mezquia, was finally caught. It was a long time to wait for closure.

The Gits weren’t the only band that got put in the riot grrrl pigeonhole. Fellow women-led Seattle outfit 7 Year Bitch was often mistakenly labeled as such, even though the band’s affinity for grunge was even more pronounced. There was no mistaking what kind of punk Seattle’s Fastbacks played, however: The veteran band’s 1993 album Zücker is pop-punk, pure and simple. Well, maybe not so simple. Singer-bassist Kim Warnick and guitarist Lulu Gargiulo—along with guitarist Kurt Bloch and a rotating cast of drummers that once included a pre-Guns N’ Roses Duff McKagan—had long been crafting hooky punk rock, but Zücker was a step up, incorporating more progressive, ambitious song structures and arrangements. More like Buzzcocks than anything remotely riot grrrl, Fastbacks perfected ’90s pop-punk before the sound ever hit the mainstream.

Other woman-fronted punk bands around the country released amazing albums in ’93, from Spitboy’s searing True Self Revealed and Naked Aggression’s Avengers-esque Bitter Youth to Tilt’s anthemic Play Cell and Red Aunts’ abrasive Drag. One of the most promising—even to major-label executives—was The Muffs. Formed by singer-guitarist Kim Shattuck, formerly of the glam-garage band The Pandoras, The Muffs released their self-titled debut in ’93. Unlike the cast majority of their peers, Shattuck and crew didn’t bother building indie cred; in an almost unheard-of display of brass, at least at the time, The Muffs released just a couple singles on small labels before making the jump to the big leagues. Warner Bros. put out The Muffs, and it’s a testament to how insanely catchy it is that no one really seemed to care. Considering the backlash that was about to befall Green Day just a few months later when Warner Bros./Reprise would release Dookie, a strange irony was emerging: In the topsy-turvy, flush-with-cash music industry of the early ’90s, it was almost better not to build a reputation as an independent band before trying to court the mainstream. As it turns out, The Muffs didn’t become the breakout pop-punk success that Green Day was—although Shattuck is now playing to some pretty large crowds thanks to her new role as Kim Deal’s replacement in the Pixies.

The Muffs headlined that show at the Fox Theatre in Boulder in the summer of 1993 when I saw Cavity for the first time. Cavity was the local opener, of course, but it held its own on that stage—or maybe I was just predisposed to root for the hometown underdog. At that point I’d immersed myself in the local punk scene for two years, and I’d dutifully practiced the guitar in my bedroom almost every night, trying to build up the chops and confidence to start my own band. When I saw Cavity, something clicked. These guys weren’t perfect, but they were fucking doing it. Before long, my roommate John and I were writing songs and fishing around for bandmates. Around the end of ’93, when it came time for us to pick a name, I remembered that Cavity poster I’d stared at for hours on end at Wax Trax—and particularly one word on that poster, the title of the single: “Crestfallen.” As band names went, I’d heard worse. Now all we had to do was write some songs. And learn how to kick half as much ass as Lorrie did.


Fear Of 1994: After years of bubbling away in the background, punk hit the big time with Green Day’s Dookie and The Offspring’s Smash. The death of Kurt Cobain, punk’s biggest cheerleader in the mainstream, seemed to mark a transition—people began judging things against the metric of punk, even though no one could agree on what that metric was. But as melodic, accessible bands sprang up left and right—including the bratty Blink-182, whose humble debut, Cheshire Cat, came out in ’94—so did a far weirder and artier outfit called Sunny Day Real Estate, whose sprawling first album, Diary, made quiet yet profound waves. Hardcore, after lying mostly dormant for a few years, began surging back with classics like Unbroken’s searing Life.Love.Regret. Change was in the air. But was that good or bad for a scene that stubbornly resisted it?

Filed Under: Music, 1993 Week

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