Thursday, February 4, 2010

Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music by Marisa Meltzer

Girl Power traces the influence of OG "riot grrl" groups (Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Heavens To Betsy) to the Spice Girls, covering "foxcore", Sleater-Kinney, Le Tigre and Ladyfest as well as several other pop stars and other all-female alternative/indie rock groups along the way.

The book is written for a mainstream audience and suffers from some of the awkwardness that comes along with trying to explain this stuff to the general public. Marissa comes across as a former indie-rocker who felt she didn't really fit into the punk scene, yet was invigorated by the feminism (and celebration of girlhood) that happened during riot grrl. This makes sense, as she admits she found out about the movement through Sassy (her previous book is a love letter to the pro-girl teen magazine) She argues that riot grrl's "media blackout" led to its demise and wishes that the original groups would have stuck around and tried to find a larger audience. Describing an experience of seeing Sleater-Kinney play to 13,000 people, she recalls wishing that riot grrl had been able to sustain itself. Paradoxically, she acknowledges that, while the Spice Girls were cool in some ways, their "girl power" was limited to marketing and questions what that means in terms of empowerment. Quoting Kathleen Hanna, she points out that buying a Spice Girls notebook is not going to change the world. This makes me wonder what would be different if it had been Bikini Kill notebooks the girls were buying.

I knew Marissa around 96/7 when she lived in Olympia and had a cute all-girl accapella group called The Skirts. In the interest of "full disclosure"--I was a big Skirts fan and she was my favorite member! It was a weird time period. It was interesting to read her take on things as someone who admits (somewhat reluctantly) that she moved here to go to Evergreen after getting into riot grrl and even "semi-stalking" Kathleen. I wish she would have told more of her own story here. Her voice comes through loud and clear when she is critiquing what she calls the elitism of independent culture. She belongs to the camp that believes that it's exclusive to play basement shows, failing to see how this can be a more inclusive model. By booking our own tours and creating a DIY feminist network through the mail, Bikini Kill encouraged girls to meet each other and start their own scene. Sure a "scene" can be clique-ish and Olympia was/is no exception, but the idea we were were working with is that if we can do it here, certainly you can do it where you live. Only a few bands can get on MTV or sign to a major label. It's far more populist to encourage kids to put on shows where they live and take their own work and friends seriously. To her credit she does acknowledge that Ladyfest was a successful attempt to take this idea to another level.

I was interviewed (via email) for the book and am quoted a lot, which is kind of embarrassing, as I don't think what I'm trying to say really comes through, which is partially my fault, not thinking about who the audience for the book would be and just neurotically rambling on to her about how strange it is to have been a part of something that had such a big cultural impact. I remember telling her how weird and hard to talk about a lot of this is for me without going into a lot of detail. I tried to explain my perspective. On the one hand you want to take credit for your work, especially because women are encouraged NOT to take credit for anything. On the other hand, it's embarrassing. Sometimes I feel like I'm lying when I talk about this stuff because what actually happened is so surreal and bizarre that I often have a hard time believing it myself.

Personal weirdness aside, I think it's cool that someone wrote this book for a mainstream audience. My hope is that teenage girls and young women who don't know this history will get inspired to find out about riot grrl. It would be really cool if it inspired girls to create a new young feminist movement rooted in their generation.

The book made me think a lot about documenting history from a strategic perspective. How could this story be told to incite participation in girls? A big part of the original "girl power" idea, was to get girls to stop being consumers of male-dominated culture and start producing our own. I guess my fear is that this kind of pop-culture history could encourage girls to simply consume "girl-culture", thereby claiming the identity of "riot grrl" or "feminism" through the act of buying a record, as opposed to starting their own band or fanzine or putting on a show. To me the point is to encourage girls to start their own young feminist movement, not just to copy what we did. That is the danger of nostalgia I think...

So I'd be interested to hear what people think about this. How can we tell our story without feeding into this consumer-oriented nostalgic trap? Or is that inevitable?


Molly Neuman said...

Thinking lots about this, I sort of always am. I don't read these books, they just aren't that interesting to me. But I know the story is interesting and important and I know I'd like to be part of telling it with you and those I love in a true and compelling way.

Taylor said...

"I guess my fear is that this kind of pop-culture history could encourage girls to simply consume "girl-culture", thereby claiming the identity of "riot grrl" or "feminism" through the act of buying a record, as opposed to starting their own band or fanzine or putting on a show."

I definitely feel this. A friend and I took a walk down riot grrl memory lane not too long ago and went to google for some memory jogging. We got a lot of sites that sold t-shirts.

The talk about indie scenes being elitist is interesting too. I don't think there's any way to combat elitism. There are always going to be people who don't want anyone else in on what they have going on, and little indie scenes getting bigger and reaching wider audiences definitely doesn't do anything to discourage that. You could even argue that it makes things worse, just spawning legions of us who could say we remember being there when we saw that band play to ten people in a basement...

Thanks for the discussion!

Holly said...

I am 24 and was therefore too young for Riot Grrrl, but I have been aware of it for a while now, so when this book came along I was really interested to read it. For me, an uninitiated reader, it was a great introduction to the movement. As a zine-maker and feminist of the generation who grew up in the 90s on the Spice Girls and so on, I was fascinated to see how much of the culture Meltzer wrote about was absorbed by me as a child and teenager without ever realising its original roots. I feel sad that the 'girl power' message got so misused by others, but I am hopeful because there are now lots of young women of my age who are making considered, intelligent music, zines and blogs etc, and I really feel that this is the continuation of the movement that my generation owes a lot to.

Tobi Vail said...