Girls To The Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus came out today.
I read it straight through when it came in the mail without stopping. It took about six hours. I thought "oh I'll write a review, but I have plenty of time, it's not coming out for a few months". Then I got an email from Johanna Fatemen where she mentioned she was reviewing it for Book Forum, so I decided to wait. I'm glad I did. Jo is a really, really, really good writer. She's one of the smartest and more captivating writers-who-wrote-zines-in-the-90's for sure--definitely in my top five favorites of that era of feminist fanzine writers. If you ever get a chance to read her zines you totally should do that: Snarla, Artaud-Mania or My Need To Speak on the Subject of Jackson Pollock are the ones I remember, but she may have written more. I'm imagining you finding her work in a zine library or in a musty archive or perhaps in PDF format or maybe will get a shitty xerox sold on eBay for too much $. Please sit there and read everything she has written, you will be grateful that you did and your life will be altered and enriched and you will want to make art or culture or just plain want to make something happen.
Johanna's review of Sara's book is pretty favorable, but there is a hint of criticism lurking underneath the surface. That is the part I would have liked to have read more of, but I understand she is writing the review for Book Forum. If I was reviewing this book in a pretty mainstream publication with a wide-audience I would give it a good review too. I am giving it a good review now. I liked the book. When I was done reading it I wrote to Sara Marcus and said something like "Dear Sara Marcus, Thank You For Writing This Book. I Can't Imagine How Much Work It Took. Wow! You Really Did It! Congratulations!" and mentioned that there were some things I remembered a little differently…other things I didn't know about….but really the emotion I felt when I was done reading the book was appreciation and relief and while I was reading I was totally consumed by it, not noticing that any time was passing at all. So yeah, I like the book, some things I liked about it more than others. You should read it and make up your own mind though and post your review so that there are multiple feminist voices discussing this representation.
Whenever one of these books comes out, I get a little nervous about how I will be represented. I felt a little odd about that in this book, but I tried not to let my self-image issues get in the way of my perception of the work as a whole. My own relationship to riot grrl is complex. Riot Grrl would not have happened without Bikini Kill for example, but I identified as a riot grrl for only a short time, when it had two "R"'s instead of 3 maybe. Who added the third "R"? This is a real question?! Riot GrrL/GrrrL started in Washington DC in June 1991. But it really started the year before that in Olympia, WA. Girls To The Front explains that history really well I thought. I moved back to Olympia (from DC) at the end of 1992 and the third "R" had been firmly established. It was at this time that I finished writing Jigsaw #5, which documents a pretty hard year, Fall 1991-Fall 1992. By the way if you are 23 years old and you think you should write a fanzine about everything in your brain you might regret it later because it turns out that fanzines are not ephemeral art after all, they actually last forever! I guess if you are that age now (or way younger even) then you have no illusions about anything being temporary because you grew up with the internet and you don't care about privacy. Well, I made 10 copies of Jigsaw #5. Yes, 10 copies. I am serious. It's about 92 pages long. I couldn't afford to print them. I sent them to 10 people. A few years later I printed 25 more copies. At the end of the 20th century I published Jigsaw #7 and printed about 20 more copies of Jigsaw #5 to send to friends and that was it. So even though that fanzine seems like it may have been written for a lot of people to read, I tried to keep it a secret.
There are a lot of reasons for that deliberate decision, but I think the best explanation is that the overnight success of Nirvana changed everything. I had been going to shows in Olympia since 1983, so when Riot Grrl (with one R) was formulating- pre-Nirvana success story-we were still thinking in that 80's mindset. The 90's hadn't happened yet. We were living in an underground culture that was being turned into a commodity and sold back to us, which was really disorienting. It is impossible to explain this, because it was so different, but if you use your imagination maybe you might understand a tiny bit. So when everything changed, it felt natural to take a step back. It was confusing. I was confused. Bikini Kill was confused and suddenly "riot grrRl" had a media created-definition and that was not the sound of the revolution because the media was sexist and all about selling shit and we wanted to destroy society. (Later it became obvious that the media had a positive impact as well as a negative one, but that was not clear at the time.)
Jigsaw #5 basically kind of says "fuck you" and "get away from me" and "we don't need you" and "we go with the kids yeah yeah yeah yeah" over and over and over again, in an attempt to navigate the distance between the 80's underground idea and the early 90's pop culture crap that was for sale at the mall. I was trying to say, "hey let's not all become capitalists, let's try to make something revolutionary happen." But I was also freaking out and fluorescent lights were shining on us and we were naked and lots of flashbulbs were going off and people were being exploited and no one had any money. Ok, well some bands on major labels did, but nobody in a "riot grrrl" band was getting paid, but a lot of money was being made off of our image. It's fine to make shit for free, but to make shit without a profit motive and to see something you helped create being used to make money for corporations without your permission totally sucks. So Jigsaw #5 uses terms like "squares" a lot, to try to set up the idea that if you are against capitalism, you are not interested in "the square world", you want to create an alternative, where making money and being successful in those terms is not the point of art or music or whatever it is you do.
I feel like I need to explain this, because Sara Marcus quotes Jigsaw #5 in her book. In fact, she kind of uses a quote from me in her book in a pivotal way in the story arc. I wrote a long-winded Gertrude Stein-meets-Jack Kerouac inspired rambling girl of an essay that tries to address this 80's underground mindset collision with the still emergent 90's pop culture reality where I say that I do not identify as a riot grrrl anymore and say some kind of insulting sounding stuff about "well intentioned hopelessly enthusiastic isolated young girls who still feel that label is meaningful to them". Looking back on this now, it sounds really harsh! But I am me and I can remember writing it and I know what I meant at the time. I was ready to give it up and start something new! I wanted to move things forward. I thought that it had become meaningless and that we needed to start the next era. It had seemed miraculously easy to make riot grrl happen, so why couldn't we just re-invent punk rock feminism again and again and again? In fact, isn't that what we are still doing over and over and over again even now in the year two thousand and ten?!!! We are still making things happen, creating independent culture, self-representing, making work, participating in community life, sharing ideas, listening to each other, disagreeing, discussing, making mistakes, learning and living our lives with our eyes and ears and mouths and hearts open. Right?
History is tricky. For instance now everyone calls that whole time period of punk feminism "riot grrl" and it has a much broader definition than it did back then. There is a market for "riot grrl" history, so we have to be suspicious of that economic factor but we shouldn't let this stop us from documenting our own scenes. Nostalgia is the enemy. Just look at what happened to the baby boomers. 60's radicalism was actually radical, but you have to unearth that radical history, it will not be handed to you. Read Marissa Magic for more on this theme.
Bringing up the question: Is punk rock feminism dead? No. Is "riot grrrl" dead? Well I will not make that claim now because in retrospect, it was certainly not dead in 1993, it had relevancy to all kinds of girls then, even if I no longer felt it was a useful term, and I think the same is probably true today. In fact I know it is true, because I get letters (ok emails) from girls all over the world all the time who tell me they are riot grrrls and love Bikini Kill and that they believe in "The Revolution, GRRL STYLE NOW!" By the way, I still think that the emphasis needs to be on "now" and "revolution" rather than on "grrl" or "style", but if you disagree, please let me know why! But if you are a Riot Grrl then own it! Don't get all caught up in early 90's retro crap. Start a fucking riot!!!!
Riot Grrl belongs to whoever needs it and believes it has the power to give their lives meaning and change things. That is the reason for all of this. Change the world. Don't accept things "the way they are now". Create your own meanings. Make your own definitions. Use culture as a tool. Just know you will have to be quick and constantly on your toes and maybe it's harder than ever to create something ephemeral, to live in the moment, but maybe it's even more than necessary now. The now of now.
If you are interested in starting a young feminist movement rooted in your generation, my advice to you is not to let anyone stop you. People will laugh at you. Ignore the sound of their voices and listen to your own. Scream if you have to, even if you think that no one can hear you. If you are actually threatening the status quo you will not have the approval of the status quo. Call it whatever you want, the point is to fuck shit up. This is true for feminists of all ages and eras by the way.
And never forget what Ari Up taught us: silence is a rhythm too.