Geek obsession: Riot grrrl music.
Why it’s daunting: Women screaming about politics are scary and/or annoying. Also, they might cut your dick off.
Possible gateway: Bikini Kill’s The C.D. Version Of The First Two Records
Why: First, a caveat: Although the best riot grrrl records stand on their own, they’re inextricable from the political movement that inspired them, and which they were instrumental in spreading. When Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna opened “Double Dare Ya” by calling for “Revolution girl style now,” she knew there was an audience listening to her. So if you really want to understand what you’re listening to, or deepen your appreciation after you’re done rocking out, Sara Marcus’ comprehensive history Girls To The Front: The True Story Of The Riot Grrrl Revolution is essential reading.
If, on the other hand, you want to have your mind turned inside-out in half an hour, proceed straight to Bikini Kill’s C.D. Version, which collects the band’s self-titled EP and its half of a split LP with like-minded Brits Huggy Bear. (Still M.I.A.: BK’s initial self-released cassette, although the band rerecorded most songs for subsequent releases.) The album opens with a burst of noise in the left-hand speaker, followed by Hanna’s voice, wondering, “Is that supposed to be doing that?” The one-two combination of sonic assault and playful semi-competence serves as a fitting keynote to the band’s mixture of raw aggression and anti-rock demystification. Where the hardcore bands that preceded it carefully buffed out the cracks in their righteous façades, Bikini Kill pulled back the curtain: One second Hanna’s trying to figure out why her mic is feeding back, the next she’s screaming for revolt, her urgency more than her tiny frame can contain. The songs’ melodies often hang on a single note, as if tunes were a luxury they could not afford; Hanna’s voice cuts through the jumble of noise like an air-raid siren.
C.D. Version is the sound of four people in their early twenties both enraged and empowered by the understanding that social illnesses—particularly, but not only, pervasive sexism—reach into every corner of our lives, that the same climate in which Anita Hill was pilloried for accusing Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment might prevent a battered wife or a sexually abused child from seeking help. Or, as Hanna inartfully puts it in “Liar”: “Eat meat / Hate blacks / Beat your fucking wife / It’s all the same thing.”
There are moments when the band overreaches, when the ideas it needs to convey surpasses its ability to express them. But it’s thrilling to listen to Bikini Kill try, and even be willing to fail. “Dare you to be who you want / Dare you to be who you will,” Hanna sings on “Double Dare Ya.” “Dare you to cry right out loud / ‘You get so emotional, baby.’” Plenty of punk bands aim post-adolescent fuck-yous at The Man, but how many of them make emotional vulnerability part of the program?
“I think it’s really good for bands to go out when they’re not ready,” says Bratmobile drummer Molly Neuman in Girls To The Front. “Because then, as you do get a grasp on your instruments, people see you in a continuum, as opposed to you just jumped out of nowhere, which is what I always thought. The boy comes out of the womb with a screaming Led Zeppelin guitar, and I feel like I’ll never know how to do that.” In the days before GarageBand and CD-Rs (not to mention social media and MP3s), being in a band could seem like an impossible pursuit, but Bikini Kill made it seem like something anyone could do after working up the substantial nerve.
Bikini Kill’s first proper full-length, 1993’s Pussy Whipped, is more musically accomplished, more cogently thought-out, and better recorded, but if you want to understand where riot grrrls are coming from, you should start at the beginning.
More Bikini Kill, of course: Pussy Whipped (especially “Sugar” and “Hamster Baby”) and The Singles, which includes the definitive version of the oft-recorded anthem “Rebel Girl,” produced by Joan Jett.
Move on to Bratmobile, the second in what Marcus calls “the canonical trinity of Riot Grrrl-associated bands.” A bare-bones trio of guitar, drums, and vocals, Bratmobile took its inspiration from the ramshackle aesthetic of Beat Happening, replacing Calvin Johnson’s bass drone with Allison Wolfe’s snotty snarl. On the band’s 1993 album Pottymouth, songs like “Stab” show a political edge, but often, Bratmobile simply revels in the rejection of social norms: “Cool Schmool,” indeed.
“Bitch Theme” opens with Wolfe asking “Do you really think so?” presumably in the voice of some long-forgotten mean girl, before countering “You’re such a bitch / You’re such a bitch / You’re such a bitch / You’re such a bitch!” Wolfe, whose signature stage move was to turn her back to the audience and shake her lower half until the walls nearly caved in, acts as the cheerleader of a poison pep squad, rushing through the band’s one- and two-minute songs as if trying to clear the field before play resumes. If Wolfe merely sounds pissed-off next to Hanna’s righteous fury, she’s also far less prone to drift into simple sloganeering.
Where not to start:
After that, it gets messy. As with any scene, who’s in and who’s out was and is a matter of sometimes heated debate, intensified by the fact as soon as the media latched onto the term “riot grrl,” its unwilling spokeswomen began distancing themselves from it. There are any number of good-to-great bands with ties to the movement, from progenitors like the Slits, Mecca Normal, and Babes In Toyland to fellow travelers like the Spinanes, Slant 6, Team Dresch, Tsunami, and Excuse 17. Steer clear, at least at first, of the album by the holy trinity’s third leg: Heavens To Betsy’s Calculated. A duo comprising singer-guitarist Corin Tucker (later of Sleater-Kinney) and drummer Tracy Sawyer, the band can be galvanizing and bracing, but also turgid and humorless. If Tucker’s self-flagellating “White Girl” was the first riot grrrl song you heard, it would likely be the last.
Tucker’s anguished screaming on “Stay Away” is fierce enough to singe eyebrows, and the tables-turning “Terrorist” is furious enough to put the fear into any leering street stalker. (Sample lyric: “I’m going to kill you / I’m not your prey / I’ll make you die.”) At the time, the opening salvo from a prodigiously talented woman with a paint-peeling voice was a startling event, but now it mostly sounds like a prelude to the far better band that followed.