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Grrrl Power
Sara Marcus

Photo: A. Jesse Jiryu Davis

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Grrrl Power

Documenting the impact of the '90s riot grrrl movement

GRAMMYs/Oct 22, 2021 - 11:54 pm

From Bob Dylan's protest songs in the '60s to Rage Against The Machine's leftist rants in the '90s, socially conscious music has often been celebrated for its boldness and progressive vision.

In the early '90s, riot grrrl emerged as a vibrant feminist punk movement in the Pacific Northwest, led by bands such as Bikini Kill, the Butchies, Excuse 17, Heavens To Betsy, and Third Sex, among others. Riot grrrl, which generally attracted high school girls and young women not far removed from their teens, drew criticism from both the mainstream and underground music media. For the young women and girls in the movement, media accusations that they resembled whiny children rather than righteous revolutionaries felt like an extension of the institutionalized sexism that had been used to oppress women for centuries.

"We were young and we were doing something that was really important to us," says Kathleen Hanna, former vocalist for Bikini Kill, arguably the movement's preeminent band. "It was a time when feminism was considered ridiculous. There's still a lot of that around today. We were not only ridiculed in the mainstream press, but we were also hated in the underground magazines."

Approximately 20 years later, riot grrrl is receiving acceptance as a viable social and musical movement with a lasting impact. The Fales Library & Special Collections at New York University has established a riot grrrl collection to document the evolution of the movement. Fanzines, journals, flyers, clippings, photographs, and video footage are some of the materials that have been donated to the collection by riot grrrl artists. The collection will provide primary resources for scholars studying feminism, punk activism, gender theory, and music history.

The fanzines, in particular, were a critical component of the movement. Homemade riot grrrl zines, including provocative titles such as Housewife Turned Assassin, were often personal reflections on feminist issues such as reproductive rights, violence against women, unequal pay in the workplace, and stereotypical female body image expectations.

Girls To The Front, an in-depth book examining the history and importance of riot grrrl, was released this past September. Authored by former riot grrrl participant Sara Marcus, the book attempts to bring clarity to the movement and dispel lingering misperceptions. For example, the book aims to punctuate the point that riot grrrl was not just about music, but a scene that also embraced meetings on important female issues, national conventions, social activism, art, fanzines, and other devices designed to empower females.

"Riot grrrl had become this vague cloud of anything that happened in the early '90s that had to do with women and loud music," says Marcus, who first became involved in the movement as a high school student living in suburban Maryland in the mid-'90s. "But that [inaccurate definition] leaves out the zines and teenagers having meetings. It definitely became a scene of the music world, which did keep the idea that there was this thing called riot grrrl alive. So many movements that don't have a musical component completely vanish."

As an indispensable founding figure in the riot grrrl movement and one of its most political outspoken exponents, Hanna discovered firsthand the power riot grrrl and music had in bringing hope and solace to people in crisis. Her prior experience volunteering at rape relief and domestic violence shelters helped her counsel fans via letters or even in person after concerts.

"A lot of women that I met or wrote me letters would say they felt too nervous to go to a rape relief place or to call a crisis line," Hanna recalls. "They felt more comfortable talking to me because they felt they knew me through the music. I was doing crisis counseling in back alleys after shows. Then the mail started pouring in and it was mostly girls, but sometimes boys, who had experienced sexual violence. I always tried to point them in a good direction."

By the time the riot grrrl movement began to wane in the mid-'90s, chapters had been planted in major cities from New York to Los Angeles and Chicago, and in heartland areas such as Oklahoma, Minneapolis and Texas. There were also scenes in other countries, including Brazil, Canada, England, Scotland, and Switzerland. Some of these chapters were small, but provided a testament to the movement's international reach.

The youth-oriented profile may have helped energize the riot grrrl movement, but it also contributed to its demise.

"People aged out of it pretty quickly because it was largely about expressing a certain kind of anger and clearing up a certain kind of confusion that's really endemic to late adolescence," Marcus says. "For a movement to really endure, it's helpful to have some continuity. You need some people to stick around to bring the next people up to speed. That's not something that happened."

Riot grrrl's influence has been felt significantly in music and society. In the late '90s the Spice Girls adopted the scene's girl power theme. Edgier female artists such as Fiona Apple and Alanis Morissette emerged as successful mainstream artists. Today, riot grrl's theme of empowerment is also noticeable in organizations such as Girl Rock Nation, which is designed to motivate and inspire young women in music.

"Riot grrrl was obviously a huge influence on young girl's ability to see themselves as rock musicians. There's certainly no longer a sense that a girl can't play the guitar or drums," says Lisa Darms, senior archivist at Fales Library & Special Collections, who is overseeing the riot grrrl collection.

Hanna is reminded of the movement's influence whenever she hears from women who grew up with riot grrrl. Some now thank her for writing back to them when they were troubled or searching teens. Marcus and Hanna also say that there are quite a few women from the movement that are now working in the media and able to help spread the riot grrrl spirit through their work.

Is the time ripe for a riot grrrl revival?

"I'll say that I definitely hope that my book is going to help spark young people to have some of these conversations that were so important to me and my friends when we had them at that age," states Marcus. "But I hope that [there isn't] a riot grrrl revival. I hope people form something on their own that arises directly out of their own conditions and not out of a wistfulness for a past moment that they missed."

(Jon Matsumoto is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.)

Bikini Kill Announce Dates For 2020 World Tour, Including Olympia Benefit Show

Bikini Kill in 2019

Photo: Debi Del Grande

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Bikini Kill Announce Dates For 2020 World Tour, Including Olympia Benefit Show

On March 13, 2020, the legendary Riot Grrrl founders/'90s punk group will return to where it all began—Olympia, Wash., for a special show benefiting local homeless shelter Interfaith Works

GRAMMYs/Nov 7, 2019 - 05:13 am

Today, the iconic '90s punk group Bikini Kill announced a 14-date 2020 world tour, kicking off where the band was founded, in Olympia, Wash. on March 13. This first show, at Capitol Theater, is a special one, as it will benefit local female- and LGBTQ- focused homeless shelter, Interfaith Works.

The 2020 tour will also bring the iconic Riot Grrrls to U.S. cities, including Seattle, Portland, Ore, Philadelphia and Boston during the months March and May. Internationally, they'll touch down in Victoria, B.C., Montreal and Oslo. The Norway date, which will take place at Øya Festival on Aug. 12, is currently slated to be the final show of the jaunt.

The 2020 tour follows Bikini Kill's reunion at the beginning of the year, which led to four sold-out shows total in New York and Los Angeles from punk queens Kathleen Hanna, Tobi Vail, Kathi Wilcox and Erica Dawn Lyle. They also played their first-ever festival headline set, at 15th anniversary Riot Fest in Chicago in September.

The "Rebel Girl" group also recently reissued two of their classic albums on vinyl and CD, Pussy Whipped and Reject All American, from 1993 and 1996, respectively. Both have been out of print for seven years, and proceeds the release of their entire musical catalog on streaming services (Apple Music, TIDAL and Spotify) last fall.

Tickets for their 2020 tour go on sale this Fri., Nov. 8 at 9 a.m. PT/12 p.m. ET, with a fan presale beginning 24 hours earlier. A presale code will be sent out via the Bikini Kill newsletter, which you can sign up for on their homepage.

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Burger Boogaloo 2020 Lineup: Bikini Kill, Circle Jerks, John Waters & More Announced

Redd Kross performing at Burger Boogaloo in 2017

Photo: Erika Reinsel

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Burger Boogaloo 2020 Lineup: Bikini Kill, Circle Jerks, John Waters & More Announced

The initial lineup for the festival, taking place July 2020 in Northern California, also includes Carbonas, Plastic Bertrand, Bleached, Alice Bag and others

GRAMMYs/Dec 11, 2019 - 12:23 am

Summer 2020 may feel like it's an eternity away, but the slew of lineup announcements for next year's summer festival season is already starting to heat up. Today (Dec. 10), Burger Boogaloo, the quirky rock festival in Northern California, has announced the initial lineup for its 2020 edition. The two-day event, taking place July 11-12 at Mosswood Park in Oakland, Calif., will include highly anticipated performances from recently reunited punk legends and riot grrrl pioneers Bikini Kill, who are performing for the first time in the Bay Area in 25 years. Hardcore punk icons Circle Jerks and Atlanta punks Carbonas are also confirmed for the festival, marking the first Bay Area show in a decade for both acts.

The Burger Boogaloo 2020 lineup also includes Plastic Bertrand, in their debut Bay Area show, Bleached, Flipper, Chicana punk luminary Alice Bag and others. Additional acts will be announced in early 2020.

Read: Pussy Riot Announce 2020 North American Tour

Two-time GRAMMY nominee and infamous cult film director/writer John Waters returns for his sixth consecutive year as the festival's host.

In addition to the lineup announcement, Burger Boogaloo, which celebrates its 11th year in 2020, is currently offering a Holiday Ticket Special, which includes discounted general admission and VIP weekend passes while supplies last.

To view the full lineup and to purchase tickets for Burger Boogaloo 2020, visit the festival's official website.

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Legendary Riot Grrrl Band Bikini Kill Reunite, Announce Tour

Bikini Kill

Photo: Steve Eichner/WireImage

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Legendary Riot Grrrl Band Bikini Kill Reunite, Announce Tour

The "Rebel Girl" band will play all-ages shows in Los Angeles in New York City and a 16+ show in Brooklyn, N.Y. in the spring

GRAMMYs/Jan 16, 2019 - 01:24 am

Bikini Kill, the legendary politically outspoken feminist '90s punk band that launched the Riot Grrrl movement, have reunited and announced a tour.

The "Rebel Girl" band, who inspired women to express themselves via music and DIY culture, will play all-ages shows in Los Angeles and New York City, as well as a 16+ show in Brooklyn, N.Y. that will begin in the spring.

"Bikini Kill are thrilled to announce they will be regrouping to play shows in NY and LA this spring," the band said on their website. "They will perform with their iconic line-up of Kathleen Hanna on vocals, Tobi Vail on drums, and Kathi Wilcox on bass -- along with guitarist Erica Dawn Lyle."

The group formed in 1990 and were based in Olympia, Wash. and Washington, D.C. Before their break-up in 1997, they recorded and released a demo, two EPs, two LPs and three singles. They toured the U.S., Japan, Europe and Australia.  

Frontwoman Hanna went on to form band Le Tigre and a solo career as Julie Ruin. The Punk Singer documentary is based on her activism and musical career and shows the singer's life and battle with Lyme disease.

Tickets for all three shows will go on sale on Friday, Jan. 18. Both NYC shows will be on sale at 9 A.M. PT / 12 P.M. ET, while the L.A. show will go on sale at 10 A.M. PT / 1 P.M. ET. For more info, visit the band's website.

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