How the Riot Grrrl Movement Created a Revolution in Rock & Punk

The Riot Grrrl move­ment feels like one of the last real rev­o­lu­tions in rock and punk, and not just because of its fem­i­nist, anti-cap­i­tal­ist pol­i­tics. As Poly­phon­ic out­lines in his short music his­to­ry video, Riot Grrrl was one of the last times any­thing major hap­pened in rock music before the inter­net. And it’s espe­cial­ly thrilling because it all start­ed with *zines*.

Women in the punk scene had a right to com­plain. Bands and their fans were very male, and sex­u­al harass­ment was chron­ic at shows, leav­ing most women stand­ing at the back of the crowd. Some zines even spelled it out: “Punks Are Not Girls,” says one.

Alien­at­ed from the scene but still fans at heart, Tobi Vail and Kath­leen Han­na, already pro­duc­ing their own fem­i­nist zines, joined forces to release “Biki­ni Kill” a gath­er­ing of lyrics, essays, con­fes­sion­als, appro­pri­at­ed quotes, plugs for Vail’s oth­er zine “Jig­saw”, and a sense that some­thing was hap­pen­ing. Some­thing was chang­ing in rock cul­ture. Kim Deal of the Pix­ies and Kim Gor­don of Son­ic Youth were heroes, Poly Styrene of X‑Ray Spex was a leg­end, and Yoko Ono “paved the way in more ways than one for us angry grrl rock­ers.” Anoth­er zine, “Girl Germs,” was cre­at­ed by Alli­son Wolfe and Mol­ly Neu­man.

Biki­ni Kill the zine led to Biki­ni Kill the band in 1990, and their song “Rebel Girl” became an anthem of a new fem­i­nist rock move­ment focused main­ly in the Pacif­ic North­west, around the same time as grunge.

Wolfe and Neu­man, joined by Erin Smith, formed Brat­mo­bile in 1991. K Records founder Calvin John­son had asked them to play sup­port for Biki­ni Kill, and out of necessity—Wolfe first admit­ted they were a “fake band”—they grabbed rehearsal space and became a “real” band on the spot. “Some­thing in me clicked,” Wolfe said. “Like, okay, if most boy punk rock bands just lis­ten to the Ramones and that’s how they write their songs, then we’ll do the oppo­site and I won’t lis­ten to any Ramones and that way we’ll sound dif­fer­ent.”

The bur­geon­ing scene need­ed a man­i­festo, and it got one in “Biki­ni Kill” issue #2. The Riot Grrrl Man­i­festo staked out a space that was against “racism, able-bod­ieism, ageism, speciesism, clas­sism, thin­ism, sex­ism, anti-semi­tism and het­ero­sex­ism” as well as “cap­i­tal­ism in all its forms.” It ends with: “BECAUSE I believe with my whole­heart­mind­body that girls con­sti­tute a rev­o­lu­tion­ary soul force that can, and will change the world for real.”

The man­i­festo (and the very healthy Pacif­ic North­west live scene) spawned a move­ment, even bring­ing with it bands that had been around pre­vi­ous­ly, like L7. Riot Grrrl set out to ele­vate women’s voic­es and music, with­out capit­u­lat­ing to male stan­dards, and return to the DIY and col­lec­tive ener­gy of the ear­ly punk scene. It also brought fem­i­nist the­o­ry out of the col­leges and onto the stage, and with it queer the­o­ry and dia­log about trau­ma, rape, and abuse—everything main­stream cul­ture would rather not talk about. Like the orig­i­nal punk scene in the 1970s, it burned bright­ly and flamed out. But it inspired gen­er­a­tions of bands, from Sleater-Kin­ney to White Lung, as well as non-rock music like the Elec­tro­clash move­ment.

Read a zine from the time, or lis­ten to the lyrics of Riot Grrrl bands and you will hear the same dis­course, and rec­og­nize the same tac­tics, as today. In some ways it feels even more rad­i­cal now-—that hum­ble, pho­to­copied zines could affect a whole scene and not be atom­ized by social media.

To delve deep­er, check out the New York Times’ Riot Grrl Essen­tial Lis­ten­ing Guide.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

All 80 Issues of the Influ­en­tial Zine Punk Plan­et Are Now Online & Ready for Down­load at the Inter­net Archive

Down­load 834 Rad­i­cal Zines From a Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Online Archive: Glob­al­iza­tion, Punk Music, the Indus­tri­al Prison Com­plex & More

How Nirvana’s Icon­ic “Smells Like Teen Spir­it” Came to Be: An Ani­mat­ed Video Nar­rat­ed by T‑Bone Bur­nett Tells the True Sto­ry

33 Songs That Doc­u­ment the His­to­ry of Fem­i­nist Punk (1975–2015): A Playlist Curat­ed by Pitch­fork

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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