Politics for tired people

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Riot Grrls: as a teenager, I never wondered - why is all my music made by men?

"Riot Grrrl, with its DIY culture and its handmade, handposted fanzines is about making what should exist instead: the greatest political work in the world is to invent, invent, invent."

Bikini Kill performing in New York City, July 1994. (Photo: Getty)

It’s 1994 and I’m in the car with my dad. I’m 12 or 13 and we’re listening to music, and it must be 1994 because the cassette we’re listening to is a power pop tracklist from Mojo magazine published in 1994. It’s a good C90, with well-timed peaks and lulls, and pleasing segues and contrasts. The Byrds (The World Turns All Around Her), Marshall Crenshaw (Cynical Girl), Big Star (September Gurls), Badfinger (Baby Blue). We listen to this tape a lot, and I know all the words.

At some point on this journey, I turn to my dad and say: “The girls in these songs get a bit of a rough deal, don’t they dad? They’re either cold heartbreakers or unobtainable.”

“Hmmm,” says my dad. “That’s true.” And I chime out my wonky soprano version of The La’s There She Goes, enjoying the music and satisfied with today’s proof of my preciosity.

But I didn’t know anything. I wondered why the girls had been written like that, but I never questioned who was doing the writing. What I didn’t think to wonder was: why is all this music made by men?

***

In fact, the article my dad took the tracklisting from had made a gesture towards the gender issue. In the entry for the one female-fronted track (Fifty Years After the Fair by Aimee Mann), the author Will Birch writes: “It would be politically incorrect to include a girl for girl’s sake and, apart from The Bangles, it is hard to think of many young ladies who have entered this musical arena.”

Well, that’s that covered then. One woman gets through the door, and half of her entry is spent explaining why no more can come in. In retrospect, I think, Birch could have picked something by the scratchy, punky Go-Go’s. He should have had something by Kirsty MacColl – maybe the gorgeous, nothing-but-chorus They Don’t Know. It’s 1994, so Juliana Hatfield’s Hey Babe is only two years old, and that’s all close harmonies, big chords, catchiness and wist: the definition of power pop.

I listen to all these girl bands. I make my own mixtapes. I start reading the music press on my own: my dad takes the monthlies, I get the weeklies. One week, an Aimee Mann gig is reviewed. This is quite exciting: mature American singer-songwriters don’t usually break through the Camden throng. But the review is dismissive, and it ends with a crack about the length of the queue for the men’s toilets after the gig, because of course the audience is only there to wank over her.

I feel embarrassed. I put my Aimee Mann tape at the bottom of my wardrobe, and I don’t want to listen to it again for a long time, not until I’m in my 30s.

***

While all this is happening, something else is happening too: the thing is Riot Grrrl. Riot Grrrl does not make much of an impact in rural Rutland, which is where I grow up. There’s some controversy in the letters page of the NME about Bikini Kill’s girls-only mosh pit policy, and about Huggy Bear’s appearance on The Word, but none of these records filter through to the record shops I go to and I’m never quite intrigued enough to mail-order.

Then in 1999 I go on holiday to Singapore and I hit the record racks hard. I load up on the lo-fi and indie-type stuff I know I like, like Jon Spencer and The Make-Up, and because CDs are cheap, I take a punt on a bunch of stuff I’ve heard of but not heard. I get Bikini Kill’s The Singles, and Dig Me Out and The Hot Rock by Sleater-Kinney.

And then, my world changes.

Actually, it doesn’t really. I love these records, and I love the ideas in them, but they’re not my first introduction either to feminism or to women making music: women pushing playfully against the idea of what being a girl is, like Kenickie, and women making wracked and furious music about being a woman, like PJ Harvey and Kristin Hersh. (All the women I listen to are white, with the exception of Sonya Aurora Madan and Debbie Smith of Echobelly. I don’t notice this for a very long time.)

What Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney are is my first introduction to the idea that the personal is the political. I listen to Anti-Pleasure Dissertation on The Singles, a song addressed to a treacherous boyfriend:

    Go tell your fucking friends
    What I thought and how I felt
    How punk fucking rock
    My pussy smells
    Now did you tell them?

I remember the time, a few years ago, that a male acquaintance one of my friends was flirting with told us how a girl he’d had sex with had “smelled of tuna”, and we’d laughed: thrilled at the intimacy, thrilled not to be the ones who smelled of tuna, washing a little more carefully afterwards. I start to understand that the way I treat other women is part of the practice of sexism by which all women lose too.

I listen to The End of You by Sleater-Kinney: “Bless me with Athena, there’s no meaner, she’s the best!” I scream out this prayer to the goddess of knowledge (and war) in my room in halls, because I’m 18 now and at university. But I’m not a feminist yet. It’s easy to rack up marks from older male lecturers by writing in an ostentatiously apolitical style (i.e. antifeminist), and for a year or so I do this. (In one essay, I write the smug footnote: “I will be using the pronoun ‘he’ for the reader, for brevity and in accordance with accepted style.” I feel a stab of shame when I see the big tick the marker has put next to this.)

But the other thing Riot Grrrl introduces me to is the idea that creativity is a radical act. The lyrics to Sleater-Kinney’s #1 Must Have, from the 2000 album All Hands on the Bad One, are an epitaph for Riot Grrrl, the slogan “BOY-GIRL REVOLUTION NOW!” long co-opted by the Spice Girls’ “girl power”. Corin Tucker berates herself: “And I think that I sometimes must have wished/For something more than being a size six.” But behind her Carrie Brownstein coos, “Everywhere you go, it’s die or be born,” and this builds into the song’s climax as Tucker sings:

    And for all the ladies out there, I wish
    We could write more than the next marketing bid
    Culture is what we make it, yes it is
    Now is the time, now is the time
    Now is the time to invent, invent, invent
    Invent, invent, invent

It’s insufficient to be angry at what is. Riot Grrrl, with its DIY culture and its handmade, handposted fanzines is about making what should exist instead: the greatest political work in the world is to invent, invent, invent.

***

I’m thinking about this rage to create last week, because I’m at Bristol City Hall for an event organised by Integrate Bristol, an equality charity that campaigns against FGM in the UK. The girls (many of them now women) who have worked on various projects with Integrate have chosen this cause themselves and used the arts to approach it. Through poetry, film and song, they have found a way to make women’s voices heard: not just their own, explains trustee Muna Hassan when I interview her, but those of their mothers and grandmothers who could not previously speak about the violence they suffered.

Feminism has to be more than a call-out culture. I think about Bikini Kill again, the song I Like Fucking with Kathleen Hanna yowling: “We’re not gonna prove nothing, nothing/Sitting round watching each other starve.” I think she had in mind the pinched aesthetics of 90s body-denying heroin chic, but I hear it as a reproach against the fretful, mutual monitoring that can go on when women police women. We eye each other across the table, following the hand that reaches towards nourishment and is then withdrawn, empty, shamed and hasty.

At the weekend, I hear Hanna interviewed by Lauren Laverne in a Woman’s Hour special on women in music. Laverne asks Hanna about being a role model, and Hanna answers:

I really want to allow myself to be three dimensional and to make mistakes, and to own up to them, and to say, “Oh, I wrote this lyric back in 1994 that I now think is really stupid and here’s why I think it’s really stupid.” Just because I don’t wanna have the onus of perfection on me and I think that’s a real detriment to women making great art, is that we’re supposed to come out and immediately be completely perfect lest we be judged a thousand times harsher than our male counterparts.

A women’s culture does not demand uncritical assent to everything that women make, but it does require that we take the act of creation by women seriously. Mistakes must be taken as simply that – mistakes – and not treated as a fatal flaw in all that a woman has ever done. We might even start to see disagreement as creative in itself. After all, feminism requires that we make things up as we go along. We have never lived in a culture without sexism: we don’t know what one will look like. All we can do is imagine what it might be and invent, invent, invent our way towards it.

This piece originally appeared on Sarah Ditum's blog, Paperhouse.