In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week, as Bikini Kill reissues one of its old LPs, we’re highlighting our favorite riot grrrl bands.
Sleater-Kinney is simultaneously the best-known band to emerge from the riot grrrl scene, the band whose breakout success helped to end riot grrrl, and a band for which the “riot grrrl” descriptor is far too reductive. But whether you believe that Sleater-Kinney isn’t really riot grrrl, that it “killed” riot grrrl, or that it was so much more than riot grrrl is all beside the point. The group encapsulated the spirit of the scene, while almost immediately transcending its boundaries—which was the whole point of riot grrrl in the first place.
By the time of the band’s second album, Call The Doctor, Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein had honed the feminist indie-punk of their original groups Heavens To Betsy and Excuse 17 into the more universal rock ’n’ roll snarl they would perfect across the albums to come. And by the time of that record’s “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” Sleater-Kinney’s allegiance to the DIY riot grrrl ethos had been completely subsumed by larger ambitions: They weren’t just women hoping to stake their own small claim on the punk rock boys’ club. They were aiming to run it.
“I wanna be your Joey Ramone / Pictures of me on your bedroom door / Invite you back after the show / I’m the queen of rock ‘n’ roll.” Those lyrics, delivered in Tucker’s tremulous yelp of a voice, are hardly political. Flip the gender, and it’s the sort of stereotypical, dick-swinging boast that could have been made by any dude with a guitar—and that’s exactly what made it political.
By the time Sleater-Kinney hit its stride, “riot grrrl” had been thoroughly mainstreamed and marginalized, reduced to condescending identifiers by a media that saw it as little more than a cutesy phrase to name-drop in Spice Girls reviews and Sassy fashion layouts. “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” reclaimed riot grrrl’s original fire and exploded it outward, engulfing it in the process. And it presaged a career in which Sleater-Kinney became every bit the icons they’d only pretended to be, to the point where qualifying them as “girls” was completely unnecessary. They rocked more than most boys; what’s more riot grrrl than that?