What Embers Still Burn in the Beautiful Ruins of Riot Grrrls Past?

Riot grrrls wrote, recorded and produced a wealth of cultural objects. They left trails of scribbles, screams and lipstick traces in MP3 blogs and online archives, awaiting release.

Above: Kathleen Hannah (press photo / photographer unknown)

Step One: In Search of Riot Grrrls

In the documentary The Punk Singer (2013), Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill/Julie Ruin/Le Tigre) appears under different personas. She is at once an indifferent schoolgirl, a sorry princess, a feminist diva and an angry singer. She is a chameleon, using and exhausting 100 identities. She speaks and she screams. She runs and jumps. “Girls to the front, boys to the back.” She tosses catchphrases like lassos.

And at one point – around 1996 – she disappears. She does not literally disappear, of course. Rather, Bikini Kill disappears. What is holding the riot grrrl movement together (the kinship, the soul, the zine network) slowly disintegrates.

When I saw the film in the tiny Utopia cinema in Bordeaux, most of the seats were unoccupied. But at the end of the film, as the credits appeared, every member of the audience stood up and spontaneously clapped. Outside the cinema, the sun was shining hot and hard; cinema-goers quickly dispersed and disappeared into nearby coffee-bars, searching for ice-creams and cheap epiphanies.

The show was over. I headed home, walking amidst tourists and nostalgic time-travellers, feeling alone, mechanically reducing my cinema ticket to shreds in my pocket.

Once again, I wondered at the vertiginous, quasi-magical quickness with which past cultural moments turn into ‘history’. And I thought it funny that the riot grrrl movement (which, after all, had barely existed for 20-odd years) could so soon become a piece of history (some will prefer to say ‘herstory’) – a still of Hanna’s face, a song, a quote. Xerox icons, beautiful ruins.

Perhaps it could not be avoided, though. Bands such as (in the US) Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Babes in Toyland, Mecca Normal, The Frumpies and (in the UK) Huggy Bear, Linus, Pussycat Trash, left so many things behind. They wrote, recorded and produced a wealth of cultural objects. They left trails of scribbles, screams and lipstick traces. As they lived, they inevitably built archives – fanzines, posters, records, videos, etc. These archives are both cultural and commercial.

As with underground movements before them, riot grrrls produced a capital (before they knew it). And this capital – noise, words, images – was as much a cultural capital as it was a purely economic one. Riot grrrls belonged to a revolutionary counterculture (through the works, the messages, the symbols they tirelessly spread into the world); they also inevitably participated, at the same time, into a capitalist (or micro-capitalist) cultural framework. If much of their art (most notably their fanzine production) partially escaped commercialisation, a lot of it was ultimately marketed (or re-marketed and reissued for today’s audiences).

In the course of the 20th century, the production of cultural objects has been inseparable from the production of markets and circuits of consumption. In the end, although they might fiercely embrace the most vibrant, dissident ideologies, records are simultaneously consumer goods. They are something to own, to collect and, in some cases, resell on eBay long after their release, along with selected riot grrrl accessories – barrettes, mary-jane shoes and pastel minidresses.

The release of The Punk Singer coincided with the first art exhibition dedicated to riot grrrl culture (Alien She, at the Miller Gallery, Carnegie Mellon University) and the publication of The Riot Grrrl Collection. The latter is a heavy, beautiful anthology of nearly 400 pages. It contains reprints of riot grrrl fanzines and memorabilia (flyers, gig posters, letters, etc.). The front cover shows a filing cabinet covered in stickers; a trunk of everyday treasures.

The anthology, published by the New York-based Feminist Press imprint, reads like a Xerox kaleidoscope of words and mottos. Every page is a new language, sometimes naïve, sometimes broken and inoperative, sometimes so strong that one wonders why it should have been silenced so soon. The book mainly functions as a cultural shrine – ‘Look. This is what used to be.’ The metallic filing cabinet on the cover – a cold, silent monument – is a perfect image. It quite ambiguously signifies both closure and accessibility.

Lisa Darms, who edited the book and curates the Fales riot grrrl archive in New York, writes (almost defensively) that her intentions were not to produce a ‘coffee-table book’. Rather, The Riot Grrrl Collection was intended as a journey into semi-forgotten, historically significant riot grrrl stories. Reprinting the fanzines was a tentative way of giving them another life, another chance of retrieval. Seeing reproductions of ’90s fanzines – from Jigsaw to Girl Germs and Gunk

— is a strange reading experience. They seem to be far away, as if locked in the book’s glossy pages – distant pictures of pictures. We can read them but not fully experience them.

They almost seem out of place. This is because fanzines have traditionally been a truly alternative and ephemeral media, long escaping traceability and institutionalisation. The ‘resurrected’ fanzines of The Riot Grrrl Collection, as they are made more permanent, also seem to be further removed from the everyday.

And I am sometimes afraid of handling this precious book too roughly, for fear of damaging it.

Step Two. Feminist Screens

After seeing The Punk Singer I felt the sudden, inexplicable urge to revisit many cultural ruins. I tried hungrily, as if desperately, to recover strands and minute feminist stories from the past. It was easy enough to trawl the internet, read, watch and listen in the most complete disorder. It was an undisciplined education, a hunger which the endless mass of electronic information would fuel but not satisfy.

For days I clumsily gathered miscellaneous facts, clutching at long-forgotten oddities and trivia. I learned about the Olivia feminist record label, which was created in Washington, D.C. in 1975 – more than ten years before the riot grrrl movement started. I read Marjorie Alessandri’s pioneering book about ‘feminine rock’, Le Rock au Féminin (1980) and Lucy O’Brien’s She Bop, ‘the definitive history of women in rock, pop, and soul’ (first published in 1995). I rediscovered the American conductor Antonia Brico, who had gathered one of the first all-girl symphonic orchestras in the ’30s (immortalised in the 1974 film Antonia, A Portrait of the Woman, directed by Judy Collins).

I listened to Ma Rainey, Karen Dalton’s half-forgotten ’60s albums, and Mambo Taxi’s 1993 hit ‘Poems on the Underground’ – a single the band had sold wrapped in a cloth bag. I listened to all-female French bands The Lou’s (who had once supported the Clash) and Les Calamités, and English bands The Mo-Dettes and The Catholic Girls.

There were whole decades of music locked in MP3 blogs and streaming websites. Thousands of names resting in libraries and online archives, awaiting redemption. The online Women’s Liberation Music Archive (launched in 2011), for example, is part A-Z of forgotten British feminist bands, part secret jukebox. It’s a messy, unruly collection featuring scanned pages from the feminist magazine Spare Rib (for which Lucy O’Brien used to write music columns), miraculously rescued tracks from groups such as Siren, and faded photographs. The launch of the online archive was accompanied by the touring exhibition ‘Women & Liberation’ and a compilation CD of the same name.

Days spent inside the feminist archive made me dizzy. It was difficult not to feel crushed under the weight of recordings, documents and voices. One name inescapably led to the next, one link to another. It seemingly never ended. It was just too much. Names and moments were morosely mixing in my head.

Curiously, everything started looking the same – the same band, the same song, the same stage. Watching YouTube videos made me feel as if I had seen the same scene hundreds of times. I stopped. There was too much out there. I could have lived in the past, and consumed culture to the point of suffocation, but for now, it was consuming me.

Step Three: Out of Step

Online databases and audio-visual repositories have clearly transformed our access to the past. It’s easy, now, to become a ‘cultural tourist’ (or, perhaps more accurately, a ‘cultural voyeur’). It’s easy to effortlessly accumulate knowledge (and some might say, power). But such accumulation is stirred with an irrepressible hollowness, an acute feeling of dispossession and helplessness. It leaves a bitter aftertaste. In many ways, the quasi-immediate access to past material leads to a form of paralysis. There are too many shadows, too many names, too many sirens and unfinished swan songs.

What is valuable as a memory aid may damage our ability to step out and emancipate ourselves from earlier models, or to create new memories. In his book Present Pasts (2003), German cultural theorist Andreas Huyssen meticulously describes the ‘hypertrophy of memory’ which haunts the cultural present. He ultimately reads it as the sign of a ‘culture of amnesia’, where the past only exists in the form of scattered signs, references and allusions – a series of dislocated memories torn out of context.

In the UK and US, bands such as Gossip, Shrag!, Joanna Gruesome, The Coathangers, Standard Fare and Tunabunny have reused old combinations and rekindled fires out of yesterday’s ashes. And though the fires are beautiful, they do not threaten to burn anything down. Or perhaps they cannot touch us anymore. Derivative music – which I sometimes think of as ‘heritage music’ — does not feel real to me. Life is not derivative.

Of course, the revival of past cultural moments is nothing new. We are not the first ones to witness cultural recycling. Indeed, as soon as cultural productions become objects, they enter a life-cycle – they can be bought, forgotten, resurrected and commodified again (as explained by the British economist Michael Thompson in his 1979 opus Rubbish Theory). Artifacts keep dying and resurrecting; culture itself does not spring from nowhere. Did not riot grrrls themselves make use of ’60s girl groups imagery, borrowing their clothes and tongue-in-cheek attitude in order to coin their own style?

What is new, though, is the quickness with which revivals now take place. What is new is the speed with which oblivion comes again. It’s easy enough to see a relationship between the acceleration of recycling and the rise of internet culture, which encourages the quick digitisation and circulation of contents (via P2P platforms, blogs, second-hand marketplaces, etc.).

And the internet could certainly be compared to an ever-expanding cultural cemetery. The irony is that it could also become a formidable means to destroy and create history again under new names – from scratch, from today. Some days I dream of blank screens and blank pages. I dream of bliss and ignorance. Some days I long for nothing but the unsettling, exhilarating taste of beginnings.

Who will liberate the archive?