|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.
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?
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
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.
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."