Over and over in Girls To The Front: The True Story Of The Riot Grrrl Revolution, Sara Marcus leans on the same arresting image of a crowd of women at a concert displacing the mosh pit to link hands and arms, protecting each other and (sometimes) the female artists onstage. It’s a striking, appropriate motif for a history of the movement, while at the same time exposing its author’s weakness up front.
Riot grrrl sprung from two cities across the country where music and art overlapped with the punk scene and political activism ahead of the 1992 election. Olympia, Washington’s small but thriving music community served as the gentler, more nurturing side of Seattle grunge, with Evergreen State College as the beacon for students like Bikini Kill founder Kathleen Hanna, who applied her volunteer experience as a counselor in a women’s shelter to connect with fans after shows. And in Washington D.C., the first Riot Grrrl meeting was held at an anarchist punk collective, initially under a call for girls who wanted to “help each other learn to play instruments + get stuff done.” In practice, it was a cross between an earlier generation’s consciousness-raising and a base for artistic collaboration. As the bands involved and the group gained media attention, though, a debate erupted about where feminist attention should be paid and what the aim of riot grrrl should be—all while the movement faced scrutiny from the cultural right wing, and the music faced unflattering comparisons with Nirvana and Soundgarden.
In her preface to Girls To The Front, Marcus recalls poring over movement zines and attending Riot Grrrl D.C. meetings, so it’s no surprise that her account, in shape and quotation, emphasizes participants’ empowerment rather than its divisions and limitations. Where its factions separated on an issue, as in formulating a media policy (which caused a scuffle among the Minneapolis group when one of its leaders opened up to a Newsweek reporter), Marcus blames exterior forces for jeopardizing the close bonds that developed among Riot Grrrl Nation. She does acknowledge the insularity and inflexibility of riot grrrl, just not often enough.
Still, her occasional lack of objectivity lets Girls To The Front treat its subjects as objects of serious study as they respond to the cultural winds around them. Brimming with insightful quotes that add depth to depictions of garage-rock shows and protest planning, the book isn’t an authoritative history, but it’s a smart, diverting one.