“I tore a guy a new one at a show a couple weeks ago,” Kate Hoos whispered. We are alone at Fales, the rare books and manuscript library of New York University, sitting at a taupe-surfaced table, flipping through Bikini Kill Zine No. 1. As Hoos carefully reads through the DIY fanzine, a cut-and-paste creation dated 1990, one of the last pages evokes a soft laugh. The page contains a list of the “Reasons To Be In An All Girls Band or Be a Girl in a Band,” compiled by Kathleen Hanna, one of the main architects of the Riot Grrrl movement, It reminded Hoos of an experience she had two weeks earlier at a benefit show for Punk Island, the free-of-charge New York summer music festival she produces that features all-women and queer bands.
“My friends were playing and this guy tackled me,” Hoos said. “He wasn’t paying attention and I was very angry, so I grabbed his arm because it’s my show and my venue, and I was like ‘Cool it now, or get out.’ He was like, ‘I’m so sorry, I was just dancing,’ which is always their excuse.” The man had violently crashed through the crowd near the front of the venue, which sent Hoos flying onto the stage. “I told him, ‘Imagine if you had hurt somebody seriously. Just look around the room. This place is full of women and full of queers––read the room. We’re trying to have fun and not watch our backs. Big white dudes like you have always taken up space and we won’t have it anymore.’”
The Riot Grrrl Collection at Fales bills itself as a gathering of “the unique materials that document the creative process of individuals and the development of the movement overall.” It includes everything from correspondence, artwork, journals and notebooks to audio and video recordings, and zines of the first wave of the movement, meaning from 1989 to 1996. For Hoos, it’s the stuff of inspiration. She devotes all of her time to providing spaces, stages, and performance opportunities where girls, women, and queers can gather to express themselves; where, Hoos said, “I can be myself, and not worry about aggressive bros,” who accuse her of hating men for being feminist and lesbian. Especially in the “very femme-focused time,” of our #MeToo era, she said, the original Riot Grrrl spirit is still relevant, especially in the way it calls out ingrained prejudices that society was mostly ignoring.
The trek from Queens to Washington Square to see the collection for the first time was a worthwhile timeout from Hoos’s hectic schedule, a warm reminder of what propelled her own engagement with the latter-day New York underground scene of the same name. Every page of Bikini Kill’s zine master suggests how Riot Grrrl has influenced not only the Grrrls of 2018, but a good bit of the wider popular culture over the past thirty years. Even the DIY look of the early posters and zines feels contemporary, so much like the edginess and political awareness that so many current fashion and music publicity trends mimic. Recently, artists like Katy Perry have begun incorporating subversive political messages into their promotions and music, an outspokenness that can be traced directly to the Riot Grrrl identity.
Hanna donated much of the original documentation from Riot Grrrl’s formative years to Fales. The political turmoil of the past few years not only gives these artifacts renewed relevance but offers insight and inspiration for those now gliding to the crest of another Riot Grrrl wave.
At Fales, we perused some of the movement’s early flyers, many of them Hanna’s handiwork from the late 1980s, when she and the movement’s other founders. At the time, they were students at Evergreen State College in Olympia, the capital of Washington State. Hoos and I imagined the flyers plastered all over campus. Olympia, population 51,000, is so central to Riot Grrrl’s origin story that Hoos actually moved to the city in the early 2000s to absorb whatever remained of its aura. At 37, she is too young to have experienced the movement’s “heyday,” as she calls it. But she said the city still retained a palpable sense of “the revolution.” It made spending nearly two years of her life in Olympia worth it.
Operating as a social movement, leaders like Hanna created music and produced zines to call attention to the causes that mattered to them—racism, homophobia and sexual assault. They provided spaces within the music world where girls could freely perform or just gather.
In that first zine, among the reasons Hanna cites for joining a band is, “To serve as a role model for other girls.” What Hanna prescribed twenty-eight years ago serves today’s movement just as well. The issues really haven’t changed. Because Hoos and other second wavers are so deeply immersed in the Riot Grrl legacy, bands like Bikini Kill, Hanna’s original group, get new life every time a girl picks up a guitar or starts a punk band, or whenever Hoos organizes another underground show. Then as now, the tone is agitated; the lyrics, politicized, and the main agenda is bringing attention to the unaddressed inequities women experience. The New York underground led by Hoos supports #MeToo and protests the Trump White House, much in the way Hanna championed women two decades ago, during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
While Kate Hoos was growing up in the 1980s, her parents kept their radios tuned to the oldies on CBS-FM despite the domination of rock ‘n roll and synth-pop on the popular playlists of the day. Her mother loved Motown and ‘60s girl groups like Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Shangri-Las and Martha and the Vandellas. Women weren’t invisible on the music scene in those days, but Hoos had the impression that the women who did achieve visibility in the industry never actually played instruments. “I used to listen to that music while imagining being in the band in my head,” Hoos said. “I told my parents I wanted to play music, and they were like ‘Yeah, yeah yeah,’ kind of ignoring me. Then I started getting really obnoxious around age 12 or 13 in 1994, just demanding that I play.”
This was true for many girls growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s who dreamed about going professional. Without many successful female instrumentalists to look up to, the stairs to the stage looked steep, if not impossible to climb, especially for anyone who didn’t look like Madonna or Annie Lennox. Inside the world of punk, it seemed that there was little room for women or feminism on stage. In her book Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music, Marisa Meltzer writes that even Patti Smith, the most famous woman to emerge from New York’s early punk scene, “had always allied herself with men rather than supporting a sisterhood.” To be seen as both a woman and a feminist would have would have only made her “non-maleness more central,” Meltzer said.
In 1994, Courtney Love and her band, Hole, released their album, Live Through This. It came out shortly after the suicide of Love’s husband, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. The album captivated Hoos. “I had heard women singing obviously, but they weren’t screaming like Courtney,” she told me. But it wasn’t just hearing Hole that pushed Hoos toward music as she entered adolescence; it was seeing the band perform, too. In December 1994, just eight months after Cobain’s death, Hole appeared on “Saturday Night Live.” Hoos watched, transfixed, in the basement of her parents’ house in West Millford, New Jersey. “This woman was yelling and jumping in the crowd, smashing things completely unapologetically. I was like, ‘Who is this and what the fuck is happening?’” Hole played two songs, “Doll Parts,” which Hoos said she didn’t like because of its slow tempo, but in their second song, “Violet,” Hoos envisioned herself right there on stage, backing Love.
Go on, take everything!
I want you to!
Love stared straight into the camera as she bellowed the lyrics. While it might have been Love’s anger that initially caught Hoos’s attention, the band’s drummer, Patty Schemel, inspired Hoos to take up the instrument. “I had never seen a woman play drums before seeing Patty,” Hoos said. “I was 13 then, and after that, I announced to my parents I was a drummer.” The next year, in 1995, after months of pleading, Hoos got a drum set for Christmas and set out to become the next Patty Schemel.
That same year at Lollapalooza in Chicago, Love punched the lesser known Hanna in the face. The incident brought Riot Grrrl major mainstream attention. And for Hanna, it was not at all welcome. On magazine covers, and even within the music industry, “Riot Grrrl Hanna,” as MTV’s Kurt Loder once called her, was cast in a girl-on-girl catfight––the kind tabloids devour.
For six years before the punch, Riot Grrrl had managed to remain mostly underground. Hanna, in her Evergreen student days, was warping into the revolution’s figurehead. She formed Bikini Kill in October of 1990, after playing with other bands for a few years, and then began publishing zines. Riot Grrrl caught on. Chapters soon sprung up across the country and other punk bands fronted by women became the movement’s major facet. One Bikini Kill song called “Feels Blind,” goes,
What have you taught me? Nothing
Look at what your world taught me
Your world has taught me nothing.
The song is on the band’s demo album, released on cassette In 1991 and titled Revolution Grrrl Style Now. The same year, Bikini Kill also published its second zine to promote the band, including an outline of the movement’s purpose that Hanna wrote and titled, the “Riot Grrrl Manifesto.” It became a sort of gospel for fans as it spread across the country. It was shared from friend to friend in the way such things traveled in the days before the Internet––repeated by phone, mailed across the country and shared at Riot Grrrl shows.
Soon, more and more girls joined up, formed local chapters, wrote their own zines, and planned a national Riot Grrrl convention in Washington, DC, in August of 1992. Hundreds of local groups popped up, holding weekly meetings in community centers and dorm rooms from San Francisco to Cleveland, Atlanta, Boston, Toronto, and Baltimore. Rock critic Ann Powers attributes the explosion of Riot Grrrl at the time to the enthusiasm for sharing zines and, more practically, to the wider public availability of Xerox machines. “Being able to make a magazine, go into a Kinko’s copy shop and copy it and mail it all over the country,” Powers said, “it was really important.
“It meant that if you were a 15 year-old girl interested in punk rock living in Kansas City, or Pensacola, Florida,” Powers went on, “you could walk into your local indie record store and there was this thing, there was this zine that was called Bikini Kill and you picked it up, and realized suddenly that there were people in Washington, DC, and Washington State who felt the way you did.”
The unnerving tone of the manifesto was radical for its time, but in Hanna’s words, girls everywhere saw their values reflected in its pronouncements. They too were fed up with day-to-day harassment and a male-centric music industry. Two of its tenets read:
“BECAUSE we want and need to encourage and be encouraged in the face of all our own insecurities, in the face of beergutboyrock that tells us we can’t play our instruments, in the face of “authorities” who say our bands/zines/etc are the worst in the US and
BECAUSE we don’t wanna assimilate to someone else’s (boy) standards of what is or isn’t.”
Music became the portal through which the women of Riot Grrrl saw the potential for creating societal change. Hanna writes on her personal website: “From 1989-1997, I was in this Olympia, Washington punk band. Our songs mixed feminist theory with the realities of our lives and were meant to inspire more girls to participate in the music scene.” By putting, “All girls to the front,” as Hanna shouted from the stage during her shows, the hope was that music-centered activism would enable more women to overcome the inequities they experienced in all areas of their lives.
Evergreen State provided fertile ground for a movement with such ambitions to take root. On top of producing music, Hanna regularly hosted talks for girls about sexual harassment and other topics that became Riot Grrrl staples. Some of the flyers Hoos and I saw at Fales were key to getting the word out for meetings held at the Olympia Community Center. The impact was infectious. Olympia became home to dozens of Riot Grrrl bands, among them, Heavens to Betsy, Bratmobile and Excuse 17. The local indie label, Kill Rock Stars, signed them all.
Olympia’s ever-cloudy skies no doubt played into the Riot Grrrl mood. Even in mid-March, they cast a murky darkness over the innumerable pines on surrounding hillsides, as if to express their own anger with the world’s injustices. Nirvana, which changed the terrain of grunge and punk forever, also got its start in Olympia. At an New York City show in 2010, Hanna took credit for inspiring “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” one of Nirvana’s most popular songs. After Hanna and Cobain effaced a fake abortion clinic in Olympia, one run by pro-lifers, they went back to his apartment, where an inebriated Hanna took a Sharpie and scrawled “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on one of his walls. The epithet was a reference to his girlfriend at the time, Hanna’s bandmate, Tobi Vail, the group’s drummer. She wore a deodorant of the same name. In fact, it was Vail who coined the name Riot Grrrl.
Even today, Olympia still feels like a place designed to foment revolution. Remnants of Riot Grrrl can be found everywhere. The most unsuspecting coffee shops like Bar Francis in the Historic District offer glimpses into the past. Kill Rock Stars stickers still adhere to the cafe’s filing cabinet. For the most part, the bands publicized their albums and shows, but shied away from major corporate labels and wider media attention, wanting to stay authentic in their protest of sexism in society and in the commercial music industry.
In 1992, the movement went so far as to institute a media blackout after members reacted angrily to a series of articles in the mainstream press that they felt misrepresented them and what they were really about. The attitude persists to this day. Many of the original underground band members still avoid publicity. Several of them, including Hanna, declined my requests for interviews. Hanna does, however, maintain an active personal website and did help publicize the 2013 documentary about her, The Punk Singer.
The author Sara Marcus, in her book Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, reports that the anti-press attitude emanated from USA Today’s coverage of the first national Riot Grrrl convention in DC in 1992. The August 7th story, headlined “Feminist Riot Grrls Don’t Just Wanna Have Fun,” infuriated movement leaders by characterizing convention-goers as, “self-absorbed” “teen angster” “punkettes” with “unshaven armpits and legs,” wearing “heavy, black Doc Martens boots, fishnet stockings and garter belts under baggy army shorts.”
It’s not that the descriptive choices were inaccurate. But as the guitarist Corin Tucker explained in a later interview, the media focus on the Riot Grrrl “dress code” made the movement “look like ridiculous girls parading around in our underwear,” \and not as a group of young women focused on bringing attention to important topics such as sexual assault and abuse. Tucker played with Heavens to Betsy before it broke up and still plays with Sleater-Kinney.
And will there will always be concerts where women are raped?
Watch me make up my mind instead of my face.
The number one must have is that we are safe.
So go the lyrics from one of Sleater-Kinney’s most politically charged songs, “No. 1 Must Have” on the band’s 2000 record, All Hands on the Bad One. A rash of sexual assaults at music festivals the previous year inspired the song, which called attention to the systemic issue of assault and rape. Tucker said reporters at the time “refused to do serious interviews with us, they misprinted what we had to say, they would take our articles, and our fanzines, and our essays and take them out of context.”
In 1996, Spin outed Tucker and Brownstein, who had not yet shared their sexual orientation publically. “Neither Corin nor I had ever told the journalist that piece of information,” Brownstein said, “nor was it something that we had ever mentioned to out parents or anyone in our families,” Brownstein mentions the incident in her 2015 memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, writing: “I felt like the ground had been pulled out from underneath me.”
At the same time, however, quality commentary about the movement was being published in the mainstream press, thanks to women like Ann Powers, who wrote rock criticism for The Village Voice and The New York Times during the ‘90s. Powers was among those who helped raise the visibility and solidify the legitimacy of music made by women–– changing the way we talk about it. Along with Evelyn McDonnell, who was her editor at San Francisco Weekly, the two edited a book-length anthology of writing by women about music made by women. Rock She Wrote includes a couple of references to Riot Grrrl, among them what the editors describe as the first “systematic overview of Riot Girl in the national press”—an article published in 1992 in the L.A. Weekly.
Good coverage notwithstanding, unwanted media attention persisted. As bands broke up and zine production slowed, a communication proxy appeared to keep the movement going: online Riot Grrrl forums. They attracted an even larger community than zines were able to amass as more people got Internet access. The forums enabled fans like Hoos to learn more about the movement and its bands. Hoos recalls going into her high-school library soon to use the computers to search out pictures of Bikini Kill and Bratmobile and printed them to hang in her room.
Among the forum participants was a Pennsylvania Riot Grrrl named Jessica Rosenberg. In 1997, she collaborated with Signs, one of the leading journals on women’s and gender studies, to create a questionnaire that went out to other forum participants, asking them to respond to a series of questions exploring various aspects of the movement. Jamie Rubin was one of two of the featured respondents whose involvement with Riot Grrrl had begun three years earlier, when she was 13—the same age Hoos was when she started playing the drums.
Rubin’s answers to the questionnaire expressed her frustration with the difference between the ridiculous Riot Grrrl identity she was seeing in the press and what she’d been learning about the movement online and from the zines. “I didn’t understand exactly what it was,” she said, “only that it was a bunch of girls like myself who were tired of the laws society has forced on women for … well, forever.” Like Tucker of Heavens to Betsy, Rubin and other respondents objected to seeing a movement they cherished reduced to a bunch of screaming lesbians with guitars.
Another respondent to the questionnaire was Lailah Hanit Bragin. “It’s important that Riot Grrrl as a movement is documented as a ‘youth feminism’ of the 1990s,” she said in a comment often repeated in essays about the movement. “Riot Grrrl has made really significant contributions to the lives of many girls and should be recognized as a valid form of feminism and youth resistance.”
Love, as it happens, even before the Lollapalooza punch, disparaged Riot Grrrl in public several times. Once, in a 1994 Spin Magazine cover profile, she is quoted as saying:
But then the whole riot grrrl thing is so . . . well, for one thing, the Women’s Studies program at Evergreen State College, Olympia, where a lot of these bands come from, is notorious for being one of the worst programs in the country. It’s man-hating, and it doesn’t produce very intelligent people in that field.
As Hoos and I wrap up our time at Fales, a research assistant hands us another folder from the Hanna collection. It includes all of the court documents from the Lollapalooza altercation; both Love’s and Hanna’s opposing statements to the court of what actually happened, and a scathing letter Hanna wrote that includes her recommendation that Love seek anger management counseling. The Grant County Court in Ephrata, Washington, in fact, ordered her to do so.
The opportunity to read the documentary record of the incident was riveting for Hoos, whose involvement with Riot Grrrl started with reports of the fight. Before that, Hoos said, she had only heard of Hanna and Bikini Kill in passing.
“It was after that moment when I was like, ‘Who is this that Courtney Love is punching?’” Hoos told me. The next year when Hoos was 14, she found a Bikini Kill seven-inch vinyl while browsing a record store in a neighboring New Jersey town, that included cult favorites like “Rebel Girl” and “Demirep.” By this time, Hoos was regularly attending shows at venues that allowed entry to young teenagers. Punk was popular in those days, but heavily dominated by white, all-male bands. Despite how much she loved the music, the sheer maleness of these events felt oppressive to her. Men at punk shows are often violent, she said, moshing and diving into crowds with little regard for physical safety––a problem she still encounters at the shows she herself organizes.
Hoos never got to see Bikini Kill play live, something that still upsets her. The band broke up only a year after she learned it existed. Looking at these documents at Fales made her feel closer to the band’s origins, even more than her sojourn in Olympia. The next file that the assistant handed us included some of Hanna’s personal items from Riot Grrrl’s formative period. Among the artifacts was a small, tattered address book. Anybody who was anybody in the Riot Grrrl scene was listed on those lipstick-smeared pages: Carrie Brownstein; Corin Tucker; Molly Neuman of Bratmobile and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, just to name a few.
Brownstein and Tucker are the two Riot Grrrl defectors who formed Sleater-Kinney, one of the only Olympia bands to achieve mainstream fame in early 2000s. While abandoning the underground, the group still maintained the movement’s “Girls to the front” ethos, although it did not subscribe to the media blackout. In Brownstein’s 2015 memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, she addresses the tension that grew between Sleater-Kinney and other Olympia-area bands after Sleater-Kinney’s second record, Call the Doctor, attained “modest success,” stimulating interest from both indie and mainstream labels. Nirvana’s propulsion to mainstream fame, and the subsequent death of Cobain, made many bands weary of “selling-out” for fear of both the corporate music world and the pressures of possible fame. Brownstein writes that, “Many of my reservations about signing to one of these larger labels could be boiled down to––I’ll borrow a phrase from an old Cat Power record––‘What would the community think?’” Sleater-Kinney initially signed with Kill Rock Stars, and then later moved to Sub-Pop.
Over the next few years, Sleater-Kinney blew up, scoring an opening spot with Pearl Jam’s “Riot Act” tour in 2003. In 2006, Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone dubbed them “America’s best punk band, EVER.” The timing was unfortunate because the band went on hiatus that same year and did not reunite until 2015 with the release of their eighth studio album,“No Cities to Love.”
As it happens, Sleater-Kinney, named for a crossroads near Olympia, was my path to the new Riot Grrrl movement. I hadn’t heard anything like that record until a friend from my internship introduced me to it. He had seen them the night before at Terminal 5, and played the song “A New Wave” for me. I was hooked, and it wasn’t long before that I began immersing myself in the band’s earlier discography, which, in turn, sent me on the hunt to learn all that I could about the original Riot Grrrl.
Six months later, I got an assignment to cover the January 2017 Women’s March on Washington DC. In the car, all the way south from New York City, I researched the history of women’s marches, including the National Organization for Women’s March for Women’s Lives in April of 1989 and its crowds that drew comparisons to the turnout for the Vietnam protests and previous women’s marches in 1969, 1970, and 1971. Riot Grrrl traces some of its ideological origins to the 1989 NOW march, so learning this made me all the more excited to participate in 2017. Great masses of women were expected, as was the possibility of actual work getting done for social change. I felt we were on the edge of a brand new movement.
Something about a political and social movement animated by music felt contagious, especially during the 2016 election cycle. Listening to Riot Grrrl music, specifically Sleater-Kinney, absorbed the chaos. So it seemed beyond fitting that Sleater-Kinney would be playing at an after-march party hosted by Planned Parenthood. Immediately, I bought a ticket to see them at DC’s legendary 9:30 Club, along with a slew of celebrity speakers, comedians and other music acts. The 9:30 Club is located right outside Howard University and was a perfect setting for the performance. By 8 pm, the crowd outside on V Street stretched the entire length of a side of the club’s two-story brick building. A Sleater-Kinney fan in the queue could have been speaking for me when she said, “It just felt right to see them tonight, too, especially after marching.”
As soon as the band stepped on stage, Brownstein went to the mic and offered an apology, warning the audience about how loud the set would be. Her first wham on her cream-colored Thinline Telecaster relieved the numbness in my feet from standing all day. A cool chill down my spine followed as the whole band begin playing. The crowd at the show, all of whom had been marching that day, knew every lyric. The music, more than my exhilaration from the day’s spectacle, or the year I had spent working at a women’s “fashion, beauty, pop and politics” magazine, gave new meaning to the word “empowerment.” Lead singer Tucker belted out the words to the eponymous title track of the album, Call the Doctor.
Your life is good for one thing /
You’re messing with what’s sacred /
They want to simplify your needs and likes /
To sterilize you.
Whether the anonymous “they” meant the government or all of society didn’t matter. I went to the show alone but a shared sense of, well, liberation in the crowd made the possibility of social change feel tangible. After a day of interviewing activists and counter-protesters, that vocal expression was invigorating. I wanted to be a part of this, which in turn made me wonder if an active Riot Grrrl movement was still extant. And that was just from the first song.
When I first met Hoos, we bonded over our common reaction to seeing Sleater-Kinney for the first time. Hoos went to three of their shows on the band’s Hot Rock Tour in 1999, the year she was graduating from high school. “I brought my high school best friend to the show, who I knew had a crush on me,” Hoos said. “He had asked me out once or twice, and I was like, ‘I love you, but this is where I belong.’ . . . It was just mesmerizing.”
In New Brunswick, New Jersey, Hoos also saw Le Tigre, another of the three bands that Kathleen Hanna has fronted. “They had local queer bands open for them, and I was like, ‘Whoa, this is happening here?’” she told me. The realization that there were more queer and Riot Grrrl bands in the area sent Hoos in search of where the bands were playing, and how she could get involved. Soon after, she ventured into New York City for the first time. With only the address of a DIY venue where one of the local queer punk bands was scheduled to play, she drove herself into the city.
“I had no idea how to use the subway, so I don’t know how I managed my way. But I found this tiny little DIY space in Dumbo, off Jay Street,” she said. The experience was transformative for her. “I found more local queer bands––bands that were like me,” she said.
I found out about Hoos and the current movement last year through its Facebook group. Last May, I had begun playing guitar––largely inspired by that Sleater-Kinney show––and had begun searching on social media for local groups of punk players, or even just more local shows I could attend. I knew there had to be something going on and there it was: “Punk/Riot Grrrl NYC.”
Some 700 area musicians and fans are followers, most either actively participating or just plain interested in the music. Their DIY shows appear several times a month throughout Brooklyn, in venues such as The Cobra Club, Hank’s Saloon, and The El Cortez where musicians sing out against the “White Bread President” as one Basic B-tches song goes. DIY shows like those that Hoos organizes and hosts embody the continuing need for performance spaces that feature all-girl and queer bands. Social media has become the post-zine platform through which bands and fans connect.
Debbie and Jessie Rodriguez are two current members of the Facebook group. Debbie is 22 and going to Queens College for media studies, and grew up singing and playing bass guitar. She’d always wanted to be in a band with Jessie, her punk rock older sister. The 27- year-old plays guitar and had formed a few punk bands on her own, mostly with male players. It wasn’t until she tired of competing for creative control with her bandmates that she and Debbie formed The Loneliers in 2010. The band performed locally for several years at venues like Hank’s Saloon. It wasn’t until 2012, when they met their drummer, Caitlin McMullen, that they really got into Riot Grrrl. “She just came up to us at the show and was like ‘Hey, let’s jam sometime!’’’ They did and she joined them full time.
They soon met Kate Hoos. “She booked the Loneliers for a few shows,” Jessie said, “and then after that we started attending the shows she was putting together.” The Loneliers formed friendships with other members of the community. They’re unique in that most of their music would not be categorized sonically as punk, and their lyrics are not overtly political. Nonetheless, they are active in support of movement causes and play benefits like the New York show in at Hank’s Salon in October 2017 to raise funds for Puerto Rico after the devastation of Hurricane Maria.
Before meeting Hoos, the Rodriguez sisters had no idea Riot Grrls still existed. It was surprising to Debbie that there was still so much unity among the bands involved, given how much Riot Grrrl has evolved since its origins. The Facebook conversation that Hoos leads is instructive about the changes. As in the zine days, fans and musicians talk about performances and social issues, but they also get technical: “We talk about equipment,” McMullen said, asking questions like, ‘What kind of wire did you use for this or that.’”
The camaraderie that social issues inspires continues to make Riot Grrrl successful as a movement. The group commits to a common culture and collective identity that includes the intersectional issues that Debbie and Jessie, as Latinas, represent. It is a component that was largely absent in Riot Grrrl’s first wave.
Debbie and Jessie are not the first to bring a wider context to punk. In fact, there’s an entire other Riot Grrrl-related scene composed of punk and queer bands. They feature Latinx musicians called Riot Chica. They write and sing about their experiences of injustice and discrimination as experienced in their community. Many of these groups, including The Loneliers, source inspiration from Alice Bag, a late 1970s Chicana punk singer from Los Angeles who, with her band, The Bags, released a song titled “WE DON’T NEED YOUR ENGLISH.” It tackles the intolerance that English-only-speaking Americans exhibit towards other languages.
At Ladyfest in Boston in 2011, Bag told the festival audience that it is “important to validate the culture you want to see around you.” The music writer Jenn Pelly reflected on the statement in a 2015 story for Pitchfork. “Bag has a way of encouraging support among women,” Pelly wrote, “and, like an incisive punk song, her statement slashed through me. I don’t think I’ve ever been the same.”
Debbie Rodriguez also remarked that the original Riot Grrrl bands “had much more publicity, even if it was bad publicity.” There was bad rap, too, that stemmed from the movement’s tendency to privilege certain injustices over others. There was internal criticism that Riot Grrrl had become too exclusionary and too homogeneous, even though Hanna had laid out a much larger vision for the movement in the manifesto:
BECAUSE doing/reading/seeing/hearing cool things that validate and challenge us can help us gain the strength and sense of community that we need in order to figure out how bullshit like racism, able-bodyism, ageism, speciesism, classism, thinism, sexism, anti-semitism and heterosexism figures in our own lives.
In an interview with Vice in 2016, Hanna recalled an experience she had at an “Unlearning Racism” workshop in DC, at which many of the women of color walked out. “A lot of white women in the room started doing that shit that people are doing now, ‘White lives matter, too,’” she blurted out. The incident led Hanna to question her involvement with Riot Grrrl, which led to the breakup of not only Bikini Kill, but the movement’s first wave. “That group,” she said, “was never going to grow up outside of being middle-class white girls, ever.”
Over a year later, I was actually able to talk with the rock critic Ann Powers. We met at Dose Coffee in my hometown of Nashville, TN––right across the Cumberland river from the legendary Grand Ole Opry. When I arrived, Powers was seated at a table in the brightly lit cafe, finishing up her first latte. We ordered more coffee.
In one 1994 story she wrote in The New York Times titled “When Women Venture Forth,” Powers addressed the relationship between women and music as she saw it in 1984, specifically looking at how a 15- year-old girl might have experienced the exclusionary culture of rock. She then shifted gears, looking at a similarly aged girl experiencing rock a decade later. “Who would have thought rock-and-roll, that sex-crazed celebration of male bravado, which for so long had relegated most women to the role of backup singer, groupie, wife or fan, would eventually change so much under the influence of women?” Powers asked in the piece. “But it’s happening.”
She was able to identify this flux in the industry, and brought it to consciousness for many critics and listeners. So, what was it that had to change for women for them to get out front, I asked her. And why is that happening again today? I thought of Riot Grrrl as an anomaly––the first of its kind to meld punk rock with a powerful political message served up hot through aggressive lyrics. But Powers called me out. “I think Riot Grrrl is often thought of as this phenomena that came out of nowhere,” she said. “I think anyone in Riot Grrrl would say that’s not true––it came out of somewhere.” Then and now, new generations of women decided to challenge the male-domination of music culture.
Powers said several decades earlier, groups of musicians were already paving the way for Riot Grrrl. “Resistance against sexism in rock n’ roll and music culture in America kind of comes in cycles or waves, just as feminism does,” Powers told me. “In the ‘70s, there had been Womyn’s Music, which was a separatist feminist movement. Women formed their own record labels and had their own separate sphere of making music.” This changed in the 1980s, as feminist music became less separatist and began migrating to the underground as it seeped into the mainstream. This happened concurrently with the rising AIDS awareness and activism. “It was still organized,” Powers said, “but spoken through individual artists whether they were underground artists like Lydia Lunch or huge pop stars like Madonna.”
As Powers explained the lineage of activism in the music industry, it is best seen in the way pop artists of the late 1990s appropriated Riot Grrrl’s tropes. The Spice Girls, for example, swiftly picked up the phrase “Girl Power,” and it became, as Marisa Meltzer wrote, “disturbingly, feminism without the activism––and it was a resounding success.”
“Girl Power” has commercial appeal but having overt political views does not. Even when artists would individually attempt to call attention to the systemic issues that “girl power” ignored, they either got no attention or faced condemnation. In 2005, on the red carpet, Courtney Love warned young girls moving to Hollywood about Harvey Weinstein, saying, “I’ll get libeled if I say it. If Harvey Weinstein invites you to a private party in the Four Seasons, don’t go.” She told TMZ that because of the statement, Creative Artists Agency banned her.
Kathleen Hanna might have not been a technical “pop star,” but she definitely became the charismatic leader the movement needed in the 1990s. Powers said that without someone as captivating as Hanna, she didn’t believe that the movement would have gotten off the ground, or would still be making as large of an impact. Without a force at the front who leads and takes charge of the conversation around these abuses of power, change is hard to attain. This view is echoed in a Washington Post review of Brownstein’s memoir: “The female superstars of today may not have taken much from the movement sonically. But the intellectual tradition of Riot Grrrl is alive and well and mainstream in cultural criticism today.”
On the last day of March, Hoos threw a Riot Grrrl show at one of their usual spots, The Cobra Club. The lineup featured several local bands covering Riot Grrrl acts like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney. In the weeks leading up to the performance, Hoos shared the event relentlessly on Facebook, raging about how amazing the show was going to be––something I had to witness. All the proceeds were to go towards Hoos’s annual Punk Island music festival scheduled this year for June 23.
The Cobra Club is in the middle of artsy Bushwick in Brooklyn, right next door to another venue for pure expression, House of Yes. The two spaces are yin and yang. House of Yes is bright and colorfully painted; the Cobra Club is small, and as punky as the bands that play there night after night. Walking through the door, I ran into Hoos. She slid into the bar area from the smoking alley, and flipped her dark green velour cape out in a vampirish way as she approached. “Almost show time, I’m just trying to get everything in order,” she told me as she lifted her backwards flat cap slightly to wipe a droplet of perspiration from her forehead.
The bands were still sound-checking as I ordered a drink, paid and began walking towards the performance space at the end of the bar. A pool table stood opposite the doors to the entry, where several people decked in black studded belts and band t-shirts took turns taking shots from all sides of the table.
By showtime, the club was so packed it was hard to see the stage over the rows of heads between me and the red, crystal-adorned chandeliers that swung on both sides of the stage. The bands pulled in an audience of nearly 100 people, which Hoos calls a success for such a small venue. Many attending were either friends of band members, or had come specifically to hear one of the Riot Grrrl covers. It was exciting to consider how rare an opportunity this show was; to hear a night of covers by Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill.
As Hoos stepped upon the stage, she ripped the mic from its stand and began thanking everyone for attending, and then plugged Punk Island. She thanked all the bands for their participation: “This lineup would never happen in real life,” she continued, “so who’s ready to rock out to the Riot Grrrl lineup of our dreams?” She flipped her cape out again to expose her Punk Island t-shirt. She pointed at the tip bucket sitting to the left of the stage, suggesting additional donations to help keep the festival free for all. She hopped off the stage and landed with a thud. With hugs, she greeted some friends near the front of the venue.
I did not know the music of the first two cover bands: Against Me!, a punk band that also takes up political causes, and Christian Death, a 80s goth-rock band. While I swayed and rocked with the drums, most of the crowd was head-banging and singing along. Christian Death was covered by a mix of musicians from different bands. Hoos played drums and the lead singer named Ris was from a trans-punk band called Transrectifier. They drifted effortlessly across the stage several times between the other musicians on raging drums, bass and guitar––swinging in a way that you wouldn’t expect from a hardcore band.
After the Christian Death set, the White Stripes cover band played. Hoos came up to me in the crowd between sets, dewy and glowing from just having played, and asked me if I was excited about the Sleater-Kinney cover that was about to go on. “Of course,” I said, trying to downplay my excitement. I was beyond jazzed to hear the S-K songs live, and Lady Bits did not disappoint. Their set involved many deep cuts, including a cover of “One More Hour”––a song that’s both a queer and Riot Grrrl staple––that made me emotional.
The band that covered Bikini Kill was actually Hoos’s own, Lady Bizness. The lead singer voice was eerily similar to Hanna’s and she did knee-high kicks and jumped constantly Hanna-style. She belted out classics like “Feels Blind,” “Suck My Left One,” and “Rebel Girl” in a nearly perfect pitch. It wasn’t just the songs that made the performance wonderful, or the quality of their playing, but rather, how well they embodied the stage presence of Bikini Kill. While I have never seen a live performance, I have digested an absurd amount of footage from their earlier shows––much of which was included in Hanna’s documentary, The Punk Singer. To me, the accuracy of their re-enactment had to have emanated from their immersion in Riot Grrrl. It was a testament to how alive the movement is.
Although I wasn’t able to ask Hanna what she thinks about this Riot Grrrl resurgence in the underground, her previous interviews indicate some ambivalence, which is exactly what I would expect. Maybe the political atmosphere is too chaotic, maybe there’s just too much history. In the on-camera interview with Vice from 2016, Hanna is asked if she cares if or how Riot Grrl’s legacy endures. “Yeah,” she responds, “or appropriate it and make it something totally different. I don’t give a shit.”