’90s Nostalgia Research Project: Not Every Girl Was a Riot Grrrl

February 21, 2012

“The 1990s were the decade of the year of the women in rock.”

–Ann Powers, at “Sex, Hope, and Rock ‘n’ Roll,” aka the Ellen Willis Conference, April 30, 2011

Lately, I’ve been grappling with nagging feelings about the first chapter of my academic book and the questions I raise in its conclusion. The first chapter, as readers of my Twitter feed may know, is on historiography, memory, and Riot Grrrl nostalgia. As it’s evolved, I’ve used the conclusion to raise issues about the women who get left out as we begin to write histories of the early 1990s. Who disappears from the narrative of history when Riot Grrrl becomes the story of women in rock and feminist musical activism in the 1990s? The nagging question goes back to thoughts that I had when working on an academic article on Liz Phair; still other nagging feelings that arose while constructing the book’s third chapter, which addresses ideas of empowerment in early 1990s hip-hop and R&B; and finally, other-other nagging feelings brought on by listening to the ’90s-alternative radio station on satellite radio on a plane.

Basically, I felt like there was something–and a bunch of someones–missing from the histories, and even from the wave of 1990s nostalgia in the past two years.

Back in November, Pitchfork posted a feature titled, “Not Every Girl Is a Riot Grrrl,” which asserted that women in bands today are tired of the connection that they are all drawing on Riot Grrrl. The article intrigued me because it revealed just how dominant Riot Grrrl is within the discourse of Third Wave feminism and in the discourse of women in/who rock, especially indie rock. The women in the article didn’t define themselves in relation to Riot Grrrl–but neither did most women in indie/alternative/punk spaces in the early 1990s. And a TON of those women considered themselves feminists. So where were they?

I had already thought about other missing women in outlining the book and in working on what is now the third chapter. When I wrote my article on Liz Phair for the academic journal Women & Music, I really started to think about how women in hip-hop have been seriously overlooked in the history of Third Wave feminism (shout out to Latoya Peterson, whose “Exile in Girlville” was the starting point/inspiration for that article). In part, I’d like the chapter on hip-hop feminism to trouble the waters of the simple, directional flow of empowerment from Riot Grrrl’s “Revolution Girl Style Now” to the Spice Girls’ “Girl Power.” That little bit of uncomplicated nonsense has floated around for years, and it deeply bothers me that ladies like Queen Latifah, TLC, and En Vogue are overlooked in that restricted view of Girl Power’s precedents. So, a reconsideration of hip-hop feminism and empowerment forms the third chapter.

But they are not the only women overlooked as the history of Third Wave music, or in 1990s nostalgia. And here’s where Sirius satellite radio comes in. I took a plane home for Thanksgiving, and back to New York, and not once–NOT ONCE–did I hear a woman’s voice in about five hours total of flight time. And I thought: Where are the Breeders? Where’s Belly? Where’s PJ Harvey? Where’s Hole? Where’s L7? Where’s Juliana Hatfield? And I realized that the ’90s were pretty circumscribed to Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and a bunch of shitty mid-90s bands that I had blocked out of my memory (I’m lookin’ at you, Sublime and Candlebox). All dudes. And, while someone could argue that Liz Phair, while critically acclaimed, never sold that many records, the Breeders and Hole were both platinum-selling artists, and they’re very rock-oriented. So where were they?

Two things bother me in about this erasure. First, leaving these women out of the story doesn’t indicate the nature of what Ann Powers’ quote at the beginning of this blog alludes to, which was the ubiquity of women in rock music in the 1990s. Second, erasing these women from the narrative presents feminism as occurring only in subcultural musics, a role that circumscribes its importance in a broader history of the intersection of music and politics.

However, I had no solution to these problems. I couldn’t think of a way to integrate the alterna-ladies in a way that didn’t seem cheesy or stupid, or drawing on the stupid “ANGRY WOMEN IN ROCK” trope. At the same time, I’ve been trying to find a new title for my novel (see previous blog post), and the novel itself had led me to research a lot about abortion rights in the early 1990s.

And then, last week, with a bunch of dudes talking about the evils of birth control, I thought about a strange absence in the present. Where are the big-name bands supporting Planned Parenthood? (I’ve seen several small ones, sure.) Where’s the equivalent to Eddie Vedder writing “pro-choice” on his arm during Unplugged? Where’s Rock for Choice?

And then I had it: Where is Rock for Choice in the story of Third Wave feminism and music? Seriously, where is it? And why shouldn’t I be the one who puts it back in the mix? Someone’s got to.

So, there you go. A long story to indicate what the new chapter two will be: a history of Rock for Choice, which presented something unique in its time in that it connected supposedly apathetic Gen X-ers with an established feminist organization. It runs counter to the pervasive idea that feminism itself was subcultural at the time, and that every girl was a Riot Grrrl. And it will round out the early 1990s tryptich that starts the book quite nicely.

Now, onward! To the monumental task of archival research, bugging people at feminist organizations, and working every possible connection I have to get in touch with the former members of L7.

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