I’ve started and re-started this post six times already, trying to come up with an intriguing angle on Girls to the Front, the book by Sara Marcus that occupied the coveted “first-book-Michael-will-read-after-the-school-year-ends” for 2010-2011. For the seventh attempt at writing this entry, I’m going to try a simpler approach. Read this book. Trust on this.
More after the jump.
Instead of trying to frame this entry around a particular theme or resonance with contemporary culture (the gist of attempts #1-6 of this post), I’ll try to give some reasons why people with different levels of familiarity with 1990s youth culture and RG in particular must (must must must!) read Marcus’ book.
For students that have no familiarity with this history, this is unquestionably the best book out there to introduce you to the multifaceted developments in feminist youth culture that came to be known (for better and for worse) under the label of “riot grrrl.” In teaching classes on popular media in the last five years, I’ve tried multiple approaches to introduce students to RG–forcing them (with much resistance) to listen to Bikini Kill and Bratmobile records, screening the documentary Don’t Need You (2006), reading Joanne Gottlieb & Gayle Wald’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit, assigning them to ” browse the EMP’s “Riot Grrrl Retrospective” online exhibit, and having them write responses to selections from Nadine Modem’s collection Revolution Girl Style Now, Alex Wrekk’s Stolen Sharpie Revolution and Steven Duncombe’s Notes from the Underground. Hell, I even dug up a clip of that one Roseanne episode where Roseanne and Jackie pick up a riot grrl hitchhiker played by a pre-Dharma and Greg Jenna Elfman.
While I was able to convince some students that maybe, maaaybe there may have been legitimate reasons that one might want to be a feminist, and there could possibly be some value in a musical aesthetic that did not adhere to traditional notions of what a band, and particularly a band with a female vocalist, should sound like, it was tough going. Honestly, I got the most mileage out of the observation that one of the most beloved figures from Millenial teen films was coded as a riot grrrl:
But while students have generally been willing to acknowledge that everyone has a right to free speech, they have rarely been able to appreciate why RG rhetorically pitched itself the way that it did. Students often feel discomfort at the notion of anger at all, particularly when it comes from women, and only a handful have ever fathomed the rationale behind the not-quite-“media blackout” (though this might be explained by the immense number of aspiring press professionals populating my courses).
Girls to the Front is the best available introduction to RG for such audiences not only because it’s immensely readable (the language is often spine-tingling, and I hate it when people say junk like that) and incredibly-well researched (Marcus clearly put in a ton time reporting, digging in archives, reading and reviewing zines, press, and concert footage). More importantly, the book provides the context behind what was happening from the years 1989-1994 — both in American society and in punk/DIY subcultures — that no other history has been able to. Marcus doesn’t just give you a list of zines and bands. More crucially, she shows how things like Faludi’s Backlash, the emergence of Rush Limbaugh, the shameful Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings, Jesus Jones’ contemptible chart-topper “Right Here, Right Now” and the growth of the Hooters restaurant chain contributed to the toxic atmosphere against which 90s youth subcultures like RG defined themselves.
For people like myself, who were either too young or too insulated from the world to really understand RG, but had some awareness of its existence (I sort of remember that Roseanne episode, but as a 14 year old in 1995 I think the furthest I got into RG was thinking that Elastica, Dance Hall Crashers, and Luscious Jackson were, like, pretty cool)–Girls to the Front will provide that external context that’s crucial for students, as well as offering a sober and sometimes critical view of riot grrrl. It’s easy, I think, for retrospectives and tributes to come across as simple celebrations, but Marcus never celebrates simply, even though it is perfectly clear that she has a personal investment in the era. The last 100 pages are particularly fantastic in this regard, not only showing what happened to those prominent figures who distanced themselves from RG practically and conceptually, convinced that sudden media attention and inevitable fatigue had rendered the movement unrecognizable to what had come before. Marcus’ account of the Jessica Hopper affair and the disappointing 2nd National Convention in Omaha display her ability to render critiques without resorting to condemnation or caricatured villains. I learned tons from this book, not only understanding who did what when, but what the motivations and tensions that motivated the big names (Kathleen, Tobi, Allison, Jessica, Ian) and lesser-known participants (there is an extended account of the founding of RG Vancouver that was really interesting).
The book’s ability to make clear-eyed assessments of what riot got right, and where it went wrong, is perhaps what makes it valuable to those audiences who had personal experience with it. Marcus isn’t just interested in saying what riot grrrl was and where it came from–there is an extended section that discusses why it’s as important now as ever. Tobi Vail’s review of the book makes this point explicitly (bt dubs if you’re not reading Tobi’s blog you should be):
Is “riot grrrl” dead? Well I will not make that claim now because in retrospect, it was certainly not dead in 1993, it had relevancy to all kinds of girls then, even if I no longer felt it was a useful term, and I think the same is probably true today. In fact I know it is true, because I get letters (ok emails) from girls all over the world all the time who tell me they are riot grrrls and love Bikini Kill and that they believe in “The Revolution, GRRL STYLE NOW!” By the way, I still think that the emphasis needs to be on “now” and “revolution” rather than on “grrl” or “style”, but if you disagree, please let me know why! But if you are a Riot Grrl then own it! Don’t get all caught up in early 90’s retro crap. Start a fucking riot!!!!
Tobi describes her position as an anti-nostalgia one, but I actually think the nostalgic affect (both pleasurable and painful) that is produced by reading a book like Girls to the Front can motivate and generate productive dialogue, practices, and tension that can move things forward, for punk, for feminism, for youth, and for culture more generally. It’s certainly sparked discussions like the one below (from the Kelly Writers’ House in Philadelphia in February), which allow those who lived RG, or those who are just learning about it for the first time, to start talking about where to go next.