photo by nacrowe
for me SARA MARCUS' unflinching examination of the RIOT GRRRL movement of the early 1990s in GIRLS TO THE FRONT: THE TRUE STORY OF THE RIOT GRRRL REVOLUTION (HARPER COLLINS, 2010) was a challenging read.
i think part of that was the nature of the movement itself, which despite being started by a small cluster of artists and musicians in OLYMPIA and franchised out to WASHINGTON DC and various towns and cities beyond thereafter, was essentially not centralized. this meant there was no clear voice by design. it was meant to be a localized support network for women to bond over their trauma and abuse and re-channel such pain into political and creative efforts that were, again, local in scope. MARCUS gives a direct overview of the career trajectories of the major bands within the scene, namely BIKINI KILL, BRATMOBILE, HEAVENS TO BETSY and HUGGY BEAR, but only as a means of contextualizing how the brand was dispersed and ultimately transformed by those thousands of girls across the UNITED STATES that got the message. and that friction is the crux of this book to me.
what started out as a personal communal idea of a connected supportive sisterhood in the face of a culture that diminished and infantilized their role in society and objectified their physical being was commendable beyond reproach. where it all broke down, as is a familiar narrative with second-wave feminism in general, was along lines of identity, specifically race. this was pre-INTERSECTIONAL FEMINISM, which essentially expanded the idea of womanhood beyond that of the white, educated, largely middle-class demographic and expanded along lines of race, education and class. and much of the conflict of this book was internal with coastal acolytes not checking their own privilege at the door. but learning is difficult even when participating in a revolution.
so basically this book is complicated because the ideas they were confronting were complicated. during this period women were in danger of losing their constitutional right to control their own bodies and were the subject of harassment and increasingly elevated levels of rape and sexual abuse as teens (1 in 4 is what the book states). so to fault their efforts as imperfect or pedantic in nature is not the point.
the point is they forced a conversation in popular culture that we are still having to this day and in essence, for bands today, male or female to do benefits or be outwardly vocal about their views against ABUSE AGAINST WOMEN should be accredited to their advocacy.
as a guy reading this book i was constantly wondering what room their strident worldview had for male allies of the cause. such was never really addressed in the book but this is fine, not a criticism. the movement can almost be described as a primal scream against male oppression and the corporate machine that marginalizes women and markets them with messages meant to minimize them down to the physical presentation.
for me i found this book to be rewarding in that it presented the worldview of this movement which still has value to this day in the work of artists and bands addressing these issues with full confidence thanks to the fearless RIOT GRRRLS and their transformation of the consciousness within the stateside PUNK ROCK and INDIE ROCK scenes nationwide.
its the type of book i will be revisiting and thinking about long after this review is published. in essence any movement, much like in MONTY PYTON's comedy LIFE OF BRIAN is subject to the whims of its adherents re-contextualizing idea and ritual into new traditions that may not square with the original intent. its like a game of telephone and the RIOT GRRRL movement was no different.
insightful read. highly recommended.
photo by nacrowe
when the british concocted their COTSWOLD GAMES in the 17th century, a forerunner to the modern olympic games, they touted "amateurism" as a way of assuring that the sporting event was kept pure from debased notions of professionalism. after all, they wanted to showcase their self-assured physical superiority over the constituents of their imperialistic holdings without looking as if they actually tried.
this was the prism i viewed CALVIN JOHNSON and the cult surrounding his legendary indie label K RECORDS and the whole 1980s INDIE music scene of OLYMPIA, WASHINGTON through in general. primarily known for his decidedly non-professional musicianship in his notable group BEAT HAPPENING, as well as late projects including THE HALO BENDERS, DUB NARCOTIC SOUND SYSTEM, and THE HIVE DWELLERS, JOHNSON has been renowned for popularizing what has since to become known as TWEE POP. this genre usually denotes music by amateur or non-technical musicians.
before reading MIKE BAUMGARTEN's "LOVE ROCK REVOLUTION" (SASQUATCH BOOKS, 2012), i mistook JOHNSON and his ilk as being inept, arts-fartsy elitists that look down upon musicians with actual talent, like say the concurrent GRUNGE scene that blew in neighboring SEATTLE. perhaps that notion came from reading books about NIRVANA and PEARL JAM and SOUNDGARDEN and how acolytes of the underground made them question the purity of their careerist motives in making music.
BAUMGARTEN's portrayal of JOHNSON in essence is that of a curious music fan that sought out an artistic community that didn't exist in his youth. the narrative of K RECORDS is the story of his efforts to nurture that community, employing a strong DIY ETHIC that put artistry above profit margin. this mindset comes directly out of his involvement with various INDIE and HARDCORE scenes in the early 80s and his connections to institutions like DISCHORD RECORDS and arguably most importantly, EVERGREEN STATE COLLEGE's unconventional KAOS 89.3FM college radio station. if anything, the story of the label is an outgrowth of the community surrounding the radio station, university and the underground independent tape-trading communities across the nation.
i can understand how successful GRUNGE musicians felt pigeonholed by "Calvinist" acolytes from OLYMPIA and the burgeoning scene including fiercely strident labels like KILL ROCK STARS. by making their bed with the "corporate ogre," they were essentially a part of the machine, a by-line on a quarterly report, a commodity and they knew it. yes, the music produced by K RECORDS was decidedly unsophisticated and had what FRANK ZAPPA famously coined in another era as "zero commercial potential," but their motivation was to sell records but to showcase artistic freedom.
and on that scale he flourished having collaborated with/and or helped promote a fertile cultural scene that gave the world HEAVENLY, BIKINI KILL, MECCA NORMAL, BRATMOBILE, HEAVENS TO BETSY / SLEATER-KINNEY, UNWOUND, HEAVENLY, MAKE-UP, THEE HEADCOATS, KICKING GIANT, THE GO TEAM, D+, THE MICROPHONES, BECK, MUDHONEY, TIGER TRAP, THE MELVINS, and even NIRVANA.
so there you go. K RECORDS is almost a modern VELVET UNDERGROUND-like phenomena in their cultural relevance wasn't rooted in the records they sold, but in the bands they influenced. and their influence according to the book was their DIY ETHIC, GRUNGE bands be damned.