It’s hard to come to a fair appraisal of the Gits and their contribution to the Pacific Northwest punk scene in the early-‘90s, because the band’s music will forever be overshadowed by the death of singer Mia Zapata, who was raped and strangled to death in 1993. There is a temptation to either sensationalize her band’s music and treat it as background to the crime, or aggrandize it to make it compensate for the senseless waste of life. And for Zapata, who represented a kind of female empowerment in the traditionally misogynistic rock scene, to die in a male-perpetrated sex crime is almost too symbolic an outrage to resist expounding, but it may be trivializing to do so in the context of a record review. Suffice it to say that in light of Zapata’s death, which brought attention to danger that sexual violence continues to represent and led to a great deal of advocacy promoting female self-defense, what the Gits signify has to do with much more than their music.
Frenching the Bully, the band’s first album, appeared in 1992, placing them squarely in the midst of the riot grrl insurgency, along with L7, and later, Bikini Kill. While the Gits’ songs are not overtly feminist, it’s impossible not to hear something political, something almost revolutionary, in Zapata’s projection of raw female anger. Even today, female signers are often expected to be seductive, coquettish, demure, or introspective; Zapata was none of these. Though her snarls and sarcastic phrasings sometimes sound borrowed from Johnny Rotten and her debt to Joan Jett and Debbie Harry is unmistakable, she nevertheless makes the Gits something more than the average hardcore band they otherwise would have been. She extorts a surprising amount of evocative effects from her limited voice, using gutteral growling and varying levels of intensity in her delivery to denote a range of emotions, from insouciant confidence to surprised vulnerability to bitter rage.
But nothing about the music behind Zapata is especially compelling or innovative: it’s fast and competent and relatively hook-free, augmented by the occasional guitar flash of chops or a stop-time drum break to prove their instrumental dexterity. In their arrangements they employ several hardcore clichés—they’ll tack a slow intro to an entirely unrelated thrash song, or toss in a mosh-pit breakdown into an otherwise tightly constructed song, or take a surf riff and boost the speed and distortion. “Spear and Magic Helmet” would be indistinguishable from any Minor Threat song if it weren’t for the vocals. The Gits have none of the sing-along immediacy or hooky inventiveness of Bikini Kill or the thorny experimentation of Babes in Toyland. They attempt nothing radical in form, in fact, and the generic consequences inhibit whatever latent possibilities lay in Zapata’s lyrics.
Between Zapata’s impassioned readings and the rote backdrops there’s virtually no interplay, so the sentiment that animates songs like “It All Dies Anyway” and “While You’re Twisting, I’m Still Breathing” gets muddled or flattened rather than attenuated, and you end up with the sense that Zapata is fighting to be heard rather than being offered a showcase. A more responsive and versatile band, sensitive to nuance and interested in more flexible, dynamic structures behind her might have framed a song like “Cut My Skin It Makes Me Human” or “Here’s to Your Fuck” to enhance its idea and make it visceral and palpable; instead the provocative lyric is lost in another relentless up-tempo song that sounds like hundreds of others you’ve heard. Still, the urgency of her delivery makes these tracks worth hearing, and gives you enough of a sense of Zapata’s potential to allow you to imagine how she might have flourished in a different musical landscape.
This reissue also includes a set recorded live in Portland, Oregon, which reprises many of the songs from the album. Interesting primarily as a document of the band’s onstage energy, these performances don’t do anything to especially open up the songs and they don’t quite have the cathartic impact they may have had live.