While many remember the 1990s as a time when apathetic boys bashed on loud guitars, we shouldn't forget that the decade also gave birth to some truly kick-ass music made by women. Marisa Meltzer certainly hasn't -- she surveys the scene's legacy in "Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution In Music
," out now. (Meltzer's previous book celebrated that beloved '90s magazine, Sassy.)
Meltzer explores how the riot-grrrl snarl of bands like Le Tigre and Bikini Kill gave way to the frilly, commercial feminism of the Spice Girls and the angst of Alanis Morissette or Fiona Apple -- not to mention modern-day shredders like Marnie Stern, pictured here. It was an eclectic new age for empowered women, as well as a DIY punk culture anchored by zines and a tight-knit community.
We asked Meltzer to weigh in on riot's legacy, as well as "raunch culture," Courtney Love's "kinderwhore" look and how rock camps for girls
are making it safe for women to wank off on the guitar.
Lemondrop: What instantly set riot grrrl apart from female music that had come before? What made it more than just an aggressive fashion statement?
Meltzer: Riot grrrl endeavored to be a movement, both in punk and in feminism, specifically aimed at teenage and college-age girls. On one side, feminist rhetoric had been concentrated on wives and moms for so long, and then on the other side, teen girls are subject to so much shaming and alarmism over their every move by the mainstream media, so something that suggested no less than a revolution for adolescent girls was and is such a thrilling concept. And the music was fantastic, of course.It seems that a popular riot grrrl affectation was to write the words SLUT or WHORE on your stomach. This is certainly a break, as you mention, from older forms of feminism. How was this empowering for women?
I think it was about anticipating insults that would be lobbed at them and literally branding themselves with it, and in that sense it's akin to any kind of reclamation of language. But there was also something really fun and funny about scrawling on your body that's also incredibly girly. I think there's another side of it, too, in that girls who were more timid -- like me -- could write things like "slut" on their bellies in the comfort of their bedrooms and experiment with a more bold, "bad" identity.
You quote musician Honey Owens on her disdain for the "infantalization" of the riot grrrl movement: "the baby talk, the baby doll dresses, the constant mention of childhood," as you describe it. Later, you mention Courtney Love's advancement of a look that became known as 'kinderwhore.' How did this weird mix of feminism and an oddly sexualized fetish for youth come about? Did it hurt or help feminism?
Third wave feminism
was really getting going in the early nineties and a lot of it was about The Girl. Women were looking back on pre-adolescent girlhood as this happy time before girls were bogged down with boys, body image, and self-esteem issues. Another component of all of this was celebrating the frivolity of girlhood. Like, you can be a feminist and wear body glitter and mini-dresses!
We -- I guess I'm referring to "we" as a culture and we feminists -- still are wrapping our heads around these debates, so I think they're incredibly important. In recent years we've seen so-called raunch culture -- thongs, strip aerobics -- which is an extreme version of all of this. It's problematic because girls are being encouraged to act more like grown women and grown women are being encouraged to act more like little girls. I do think the reclamation was necessary for feminism, but I also think we're still sorting it all out.
As you note, the riot movement called for a media black-out -- they didn't want to be co-opted by the mainstream, and so they quit talking to the press. The same can't be said of, say, the Spice Girls. As a result, do you think they actually have more effect on young women than the riot grrrl movement?
Can you imagine if the Spices had stopped talking to the press? They're still talking to the press today! With the kind of world domination that the Spice Girls had, they certainly had a much larger scope of influence than riot grrrl. I can't deny the implicit power of some of their messages, too: "Girl Power is about being able to do things just as well as the boys -- if not better -- and being who you wanna be."
But they weren't feminists -- they've actually said some derogatory things about feminism. And ultimately the message was more about joining the consumption bandwagon. I do wish that riot grrrl had learned to work with the mainstream and had allowed itself to grow. I know that subsequent generation of girls would have identified with it.
You quote Sharon Cheslow on her reaction to the famous image of Beth Ditto, nude, on NME's cover. "That's it," she says. "riot grrrl is a success. That was the whole idea." You don't react to this in the book, but I was curious: How do you feel about that sentiment?
I like the sentiment and totally get where Sharon's coming from. Seeing a self-described fat, working class woman nude on the cover of a major magazine seemed fairly inconceivable in 1992, so it was totally a punk rock dream come true (to quote Bratmobile). But the greater message of riot grrrl was one of DIY action, and I hope that's what people take from Beth Ditto -- and my book.
What about female guitar virtuosos? You mention Marnie Stern -- I think also of St. Vincent, or Marissa from Screaming Females ... women who can truly shred on the guitar. Why do we treat these females as oddities, or feel the need to be so shocked that a woman can do this?
It definitely seems to have something to do with the body and the physicality of playing certain instruments, doesn't it? It's not very traditionally feminine to bang on drums or make orgasmic faces while shredding on the guitar. The virtuoso still feels like a male-defined, male-dominated role, but I think women are making real inroads to changing that. The rock camps, like the Willie Mae Rock Camp here in NY, are teaching such young girls how to play instruments and start bands that it's going to really normalize the playing field.
Are you more or less optimistic about the state of female rock than you were during the height of riot grrrl?
I do miss the ubiquity of all-girl bands in the nineties, as well as that angry persona of riot grrrl or even the heyday of Courtney Love or Alanis. But then I recently watched Beyoncé cover "You Oughta Know
" on the Grammys, backed by her all-girl band. I don't know how I could not be optimistic about music after that. There are some really strong women in music right now -- not just Beyoncé, but Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Rihanna -- and I hope that trend continues. Actually, I hope it's not a trend, but the new norm.
Marisa Meltzer's "Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution In Music" is out now
Scott Indrisek is an editor at Anthem and occasionally bros down with us here at Lemondrop. He's obsessed with books, unpretentious French movies and riding his bike.