Styles & Forms | Riot Grrrl | Rock

A potent though short-lived force in the early 1990s, lyrically, riot grrrl had a strong feminist agenda, whilst musically it was strongly influenced by punk rock. The spiritual roots of riot grrrl can be traced back to the all-female British punk band The Slits from the 1970s.

With its origins in America, and an agenda of ‘cutting the tripwires of alienation that separate girls from boys’, riot grrrl was pioneered by Bikini Kill in the US, and by their spiritual cousins Huggy Bear in the UK. The movement sought to by-pass the traditional male-dominated structures of the music business by generally recording for small, independent labels and using fanzines to reach their followers while refusing to play the media game of giving interviews to the traditional mainstream music press.

In keeping with their political agenda, Bikini Kill even recorded for the Olympia, Washington-based Kill Rock Stars label. The CD Version Of The First Two Records (1992) draws together the band’s first two albums – angry, aggressive and confrontational, but also intelligent. Bikini Kill teamed up with Huggy Bear for Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! (1992), each band taking one side of the 12-inch release. Bikini Kill’s Pussy Whipped (1994) is more experimental, varied and accessible, but the band’s preference for enthusiastic performances over polished production values doesn’t help broaden their listening appeal. Ex-Runaways singer and solo artist Joan Jett helped address this by producing Bikini Kill’s ‘New Radio’ single, included on The Singles (1998).

Female-Friendly Gigs

At live shows, audiences were asked to allow women to the front. At a Huggy Bear gig in England in 1993, a male member of the audience objected to the ‘girls only at the front’ policy, the resulting melée meaning the gig ended in chaos. Bikini Kill would invite female members of the audience to take the microphone and discuss matters of sexual misconduct and sexual abuse.

Negative Publicity

The British and American media were keen to run stories on riot grrrl, but a lack of co-operation from the bands meant media publicity was outside the bands’ influence. Huggy Bear attracted controversy when they disrupted UK youth culture programme The Word because they objected to an item on ‘bimbos’. In the States, Bikini Kill’s singer Kathleen Hanna gained similar non-musical publicity when she was punched in the face by Hole’s Courtney Love – not much sisterhood there, then!

Ironically, despite having a valid feminist agenda, particularly regarding sexism in the music industry, refusing to give interviews to the music press limited the movement’s impact, and musically neither Bikini Kill nor Huggy Bear were able to move forward or capture a wider audience. Some of the spirit and influence of riot grrrl can be heard in British band Bis and in American bands L7, Babes In Toyland and Hole. The movement largely faded away with Kathleen Hanna going to graduate school in 1998, although Sleater-Kinney formed from the remnants of two first generation riot grrrl bands and kept the...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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