|You're a white, suburban teenage girl in 1989. When you arrive home from school in the afternoon, Club MTV is waiting for you with a lineup of skinny, spandex-clad butts. On the weekends, you harvest the plaid hair scrunchies that grow on those indoor trees at the mall, because all the girls have them. The radio proffers the squealing guitars of Bon Jovi over and over, and everyone loves it but you.
Then one night you find the local college radio station, and hear an interview with Kathleen Hanna, a 21-year-old rock musician from Olympia, Washington, who talks just like your school friends, but has something big to say: boys aren't the only ones who can skateboard, and they're not the only ones who can play guitars. An exquisite sense of entitlement washes over you. You go to see Hanna's punk band, Bikini Kill, in concert. The music is gratingly argumentative, with melodies like a football cheer gone wrong. Hanna, a volunteer advocate for sexual abuse survivors, invites girls from the audience to take the mike between songs and talk about their experiences of sexual abuse and their stories of abortion. Incongruously, one guy in the audience yells for Hanna to take off her shirt, but she ignores him. You pick up some free zines that girls like you are publishing about how pissed they are, too-about boys ruling gym class, bras that chafe, and, in the same breath, dads who just won't stop at a goodnight kiss. You've found Riot Grrrl, a music and art movement that Hanna all but founded, an underground railroad away from the shallow cultural biosphere you've been trapped in, a network of girls around the country who, like Hanna says in her lyrics, are tired of boys being in charge.
Flash forward to the twenty-first century: an era of thriving musical experimentation and vibrant underground rock has come and gone, extinct largely because a music industry Grendel sank in his teeth and shook every indie scene until its neck snapped. Riot Grrrl was no exception. But the insular rock-musician boys club was also to blame, for continuing to evolve largely without women. Hanna played with Bikini Kill throughout her limelit Newsweek era, and during that quarter hour women were safer at shows. Her later projectsa solo record under the name Julie Ruin, and her current, electronic-inflected band Le Tigrehave been much less hyped. And after the spotlight moved off Bikini Kill, after Lilith Fair, girls ended up back at shows like Woodstock, where the cries of sexual abuse came not from the empowered women behind the mike, but from the girls in the crowd. And the pleas to "take it off" rang not from one keyed-up boy in the audience, but from several up on stage. Was it all for naught?
-interview by dylan siegler
Years ago, at a Rock for Choice benefit show that Bikini Kill played, some female fans were assaulted in the audience-one in particular by a guy who was rubbing his penis on her. You'd think at a Rock for Choice show you'd be safe, but no. And so a bunch of girls grabbed him and dragged him outside. They didn't beat him up or anything, but they were stopped by security and told that if they didn't want these things to happen they should just stay home and rent videos. In the larger context of feminism and hatred against women, sex discrimination at rock shows is just another strategy meant to keep us at home, inside. It's meant to keep public space male, and to keep us feeling afraid. And it hasn't really changed.
So, what would make a young woman today think that taking off her shirt at a concert is a good idea? Everything would make you think that. Everything! The world tells you that. Look anywhere! Watch VH1's Behind the Music, the Def Leppard one, where girls were pulling up their shirts in the crowd and the band would, like, pick the one they wanted. You learn that the only way to get rock-star power as a girl is to be a groupie and bare your breasts and get chosen for the night. We learn that the only way to get anywhere is through men. And it's a lie. Every time you turn on the TV or open Spin, or any kind of mainstream shit, what you see is just this rampant misogyny being sold as if it's the new rebellion, as if feminism completely took over and now these people are reacting against this new feminazi fascism that supposedly exists. Part of that has to do with the backlash against the Lilith Fair and the fake "year of the woman in rock" bullshit that happened recently. It's like, well, you girls got your 15 minutes and now we need to literally, you know, "take back the night." Except now it's Fred Durst, Limp Bizkit's singer, taking back the night.
When I think about it, the little girls at Korn concerts, like a lot of girls and women, probably have dads and other members of their family who are really sexist, and they're used to being discounted for being female. And if they're suffering psychological abuse and possibly sexual and physical abuse as well, that partly has to do with the fact that they're female.
That's how it was for me: suffering from sexism as a kid made me think that was what the world was all about, and I ended up seeking out men who replayed that for me. I think for female fans of openly misogynist groups and performers, possibly there's a little bit of that going on. Like, "Oh look, it's my dad onstage with a mike!" It's the Bad Dad syndrome.
I'm 31, and I'm really not that interested in mainstream music (though I did like that song on the radio by Kelis, "Caught Out There," where she goes, "I hate/ You so much right now!"). I would never go to, like, a Prodigy concert anyway - I'm not a fan of that kind of music. But what if I was? And I couldn't go? Sure, there's Lilith Fair. But what happens to the women who don't like a lot of the folky stuff, who don't like the sweet, peace-and-love vibe? Where do those women go? Where is the smart, aggressive, angry female presence onstage and in the crowd? I think there's some in hip-hop and I think that's where a lot of women are turning.
There are so many great things happening right now. Like my band Le Tigre just did a short tour with The Need, an incredible lesbian power duo from Olympia. This summer, they're putting together a full-fledged, radical rock opera called The Transfused with singer-writer-activist Nomy Lamm. And then there are women DJs like Kuttin Kandi and Big Tara and Invincible of Anomolies. And the record label I'm on, Mr. Lady, is just doing so much to promote music, videos, and art in the feminist and queer communities. It's a pretty amazing thing to be a part of; it gives me a lot of hope.
I feel bad for young girls and musicians who can't call themselves feminists, but I don't think everyone has to be unified under one banner. With young women musicians, it may be a fear that if they call themselves feminists no one will ever talk about their music. But I think people are coming around. I've started to have more experiences where people are talking about my music. With Le Tigre, the fact that we're experimenting musically confuses people, because we're supposed to be toeing this political line: Women, good! Men, bad! My catchphrase for a while was a line from a Lung Leg song, "What we need is/ Kung-fu grip/ Not emotional content." We need to impart skills and teach each other to do things. We need to be acting and not always sitting around talking about it. I want both. I want theory and I want action and I want it all wrapped up together. And going out and performing music is one way to do that. One of the reasons I even got in a band was because I used to go to so many shows and feel so alienated. I was like, someday I'm going to take the stage and I'm going to make a safe space for women. There's so much to be had in women working together and completely saying fuck it to the whole male power structure.
Dylan Siegler is an editor at "CMJ New Music Monthly."