I was very chaostic sometimes.
“That girl thinks she’s the queen of the neighborhood. / She’s got the hottest trike in town.” Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” serves as an apt clarion-call of an introduction to Girls Rock!. A snapshot of one installment of Portland’s annual Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls (ages 8-18), the film makes a case that unfortunately still needs making, that girls can sweat, shout, and rock as hard as any boy. It makes this case emphatically and mostly joyfully, walking a line between celebration and instruction, addressing viewers who know too much and not nearly enough. The girls themselves make compelling self-assessments, understanding well the worlds in which they live. Even if they don’t see themselves as queens of their neighborhoods quite yet, they’re already imagining what it’s like to have that trike.
The models are out there, both positive and less positive. Sitting on her pink-spread bed, eight-year-old Amelia, aspiring guitar player, makes clear what she isn’t: “I’m not somebody like Hillary Duff” she says, “who just wants to be famous.” Just what she’s looking for is less definite, though she’s got a collection of songs she’s written about her dog Pipi. Carrie Brownstein, camp counselor and Sleater-Kinney singer/guitarist, says the camp offers what she calls “that sense of empower,” as a transitive verb waiting to be completed with subjects and objects. “Having a microphone for the first time, having volume,” Brownstein says, “You can’t underestimate how it feels to hear your voice echo through a room.” Founded by Misty McElroy in 2000 and now affiliated with branches across the country, the camp grants girls the chance to hear themselves and also to feel heard.
The film, directed by Arne Johnson and Shane King, expands that chance, addressing a presumably broader audience, to advocate for more “empowerment.” Girls Rock! affects a kind of DIY look and appeal, its collagey intertitles offering up stats that are at once predictable and outrageous (in music videos, “women are five times more likely to appear in revealing clothing,” and “Four out of five girls in 8th-11th grade have been sexually harassed by a schoolmate”). For its brief historical background, Girls Rock! begins with the birth of Rock Camp, on the heels of great, good, rousing artists like Kathleen Hannah and PJ Harvey. Cutouts of Kim Gordon and Kim Deal tilt and pose, until they’re replaced by the “diabolical threat” that made its appearance at the end of the ‘90s, namely, as indicated by more cutouts, Britney Spears, cotton candy, and lapdogs. It’s a cute, if reductive, means to tell this story, leaving out details of DIY’s collision with commercial markets and solicitors, as well as problems even movement boys had with girls, despite and because of stars like the Breeders or L7.
This version of the story, however, sets up a recognizable target, namely, an odious model for girls’ behavior and expectations. As one girl puts it, “It’s just really stressful because I’m only 14, I don’t need people telling me how I need to be.” Et voila, at rock camp, she’s encouraged (as opposed to “told”) to be another way, her own way. Camp teacher Shemo observes, “It’s so weird how boys are not trained to apologize for the amount of space they’re taking up intellectually, emotionally, physically. And the girls are like, ‘I’m really sorry, I don’t know if I’m sorry, but I think I’m sorry.’”
There’s no sorry at rock camp. The film follows several, very compressed and energetic days, with occasional detours—girls feeling temporarily defeated, instructors briefly stymied (“How do I herd these kittens in the same direction?”)—and several “focus” girls, who occasion storylines, some more obviously constructed than others. Palace’s experience is framed by her mother’s worry (“I always struggle to try and get Palace to kind of focus more on just developing who she is instead of just focusing on the outside… I don’t think a lot of eight-year-old girls think about being marketable”), but Palace has another idea of what’s troubling her. “I punched a girl [at rock camp],” she says, “and then I worried because people might get mad at me if I told anybody that I wanted them to not be like, against me or anything, or kind of be separate from me and leave me out. I kind of kept it inside.” (Her lyrics suggest she has a few ideas about external targets: “Go to hell on the Golden Gate Bridge! San Francisco sucks sometimes! I wanna watch that city burrrrn!”)
The campers are urged repeatedly not to keep their feelings inside, to be loud, write songs that express their desires and gripes, and communicate with one another. As they learn to play instruments or pen lyrics, they also collaborate with bandmates, selected on the first day of camp, according to a general interest in a music type. This doesn’t always work out smoothly. Misty, who reports her troubled past (she has arrived at the camp from a lockdown treatment center, and has spent her childhood in group homes and shelters), grows irritated with her group, which unites initially under the rubric “hip-hop” (and the name Hip-Hop Anonymous), ends up more pop. The movie tracks this narrative as if it’s a realty TV soap opera, including a couple of “video confessionals” (“My band members are pissing me off”), and a dramatic scene where Misty leave the group, a moment marked by long shots of her, alone and sad-looking.
Other stories are less visibly dramatized. Laura, Korean-born and adopted by white parents, describes her different route to rock camp. “Asian people,” she says, question her choice of music. “Why are you trying to be white? Why do you hang out with white people and go to rock clubs?”, she mimics. She finds camaraderie and a sense of identity in her band. “When you play together,” she says, “you’re one person.”
In the movie, music—as a general concept and in the daily details of rock camp—occasions this ideal state, connected and creative. Beth Ditto (camp counselor and vocalist for Gossip) says, “Everyone needs to be saved, everyone needs to feel like someone gets them, at least for 15 minutes.” As Girls Rock! closes with a series of girls’ performances for enthusiastic girls. After lifetimes of expectations and five days of working hard together, they get each other.