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Riot Grrrl in the Digital Age

The changing voice of feminism in music. By Courtney Sanders.
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Sleater Kinney and Babes in Toyland are both re-forming! They're releasing new material – in fact, Sleater Kinney already have! Aside from it being awesome to see Carrie Brownstein rocking out again after years of her playing a women's bookstore owner and fixed gear bicycle rider (I love Portlandia, I just need diversity in my Brownstein!), I can't wait to see girls rock the fuck out, while talking about issues that concern girls. Not only has the digital age kind of killed rock music, but it seems to have killed off feminism in music too, or at least the kind of in-your-face "I am very serious right now and you better listen to me or else" feminism Sleater Kinney, Bikini Kill and co. purported. But has it really? If the point of feminism in music is to effect change, are today's – much more mild mannered – female musicians, actually doing a better job?

Tavi Gevinson, the online teen queen of feminism loves Kathleen Hanna: "when you're arguing [about feminsim] and some people can just be very narrow-minded or apathetic, and that's when it's really nice to listen to Bikini Kill, hear girls scream and basically be the opposite of what girls are told to be, which is, you know, loud."

Kathleen Hanna led the Riot Grrrl movement – a cornerstone of the third wave of feminism. In her band, Bikini Kill, she performed killer songs like Don't Need You (Don't need you to say we're good / Don't need you to tell us we suck / Don't need your atti-fucking-Tude boy / Don't need your dick to fuck) wearing whatever the hell she wanted – which often wasn't very much at all – and manicuring her body in whatever way she did or did not want to. Alternative rock shows were notoriously physically brutal, and dominated by men at the time, and to stop girls getting crushed at Bikini Kill shows, Kathleen Hanna made the dudes in the audience move to the back so the women could mosh, free from assault.

Through her Riot Grrrl Manifesto, Hanna started a worldwide movement of female empowerment. She created her manifesto "because I believe with my wholeheartmindbody that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will change the world for real". She then encouraged women everywhere to create their own manifestos, which they did, and a global movement of women who wrote down their fight for gender equality and shared them with like-minded women, was born.

Joan Jett, one of the first women to fight against gender barriers in popular rock 'n' roll music, described her admiration for Riot Grrrl to me in an interview a couple of years ago: "There was a period there in the late '90s where there were a lot of all girls bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater Kinner. A lot of these bands were right on the brink of having success – they were getting played all over FM radio, but all of a sudden that momentum just went away. It's like a wave. Hopefully it'll be incremental. But the thing to is not to feel satisfied that we've arrived".

It's been two decades since Riot Grrrl burnt out. Have we achieved gender equality? No. Have we settled? Not quite.

Like every music movement before it, Riot Grrrl started in a specific geographical location, was influenced by the social and political values and problems present in that specific geographical location, and formed its sound and message as a result of all of these geographically specific influences. Think about punk in London in the late '70s, or the scene that formed around Tony Wilson's Factory Records and the Hacienda in Manchester at around the same time: it's impossible to extricate the music from the political climate, because the music wouldn't have existed without it.

We now live in a global world, and geographically significant subcultures don't really exist anymore. There's so little transparency in government processes and in their relationship with technological giants – it feels like they're now interconnected for the specific purpose of monitoring and controlling us – that we've sort of opted out of trying to change anything. We also want to use Facebook and Instagram a lot, so we're kind of doing it to ourselves. The Occupy movement is essentially a manifestation of all this, like: "hey, there are so many problems with our so-called democratic governments today that we don't know what to start to complain about, so we're sort of just complaining about everything, knowing full well that you're not going to do anything about the complains we have, even though we elected you". All of this is to say that demand for social and political change in popular culture is, for the most part, broader and less direct than ever before.

Compared to the hot, tangible mess of the '90s Riot Grrrl movement – you can see Kathleen Hanna's rage in those photos, you can feel the anxiety of the crowd, you can watch footage of them protesting in front of the White House because as bands from the Pacific Northwest Hanna felt it was their "responsibility" to be active – our new set of female feminist icons seem pretty fucking tame. I guess Lorde's dancing is kinda weird, I guess Grimes changed our perception of how short a girl's fringe can be and still look cool. Hell, Miley Cyrus is probably the most controversial among them, and she gets constantly lambasted for it.

They're not really discussing gender equality in their music, but they are discussing all the other shit we're dealing with – technology, globalisation and apathy – and we admire them all the more for this. Lorde's Royals or Grimes' Oblivion anyone? And, because they're discussing global issues in a global world, they've got a lot of fans.

When musicians become popular today, they have a huge pedestal on which to communicate messages from – their social media platforms. Lorde has 2.5 million Twitter followers and her BFF Taylor Swift has over 40 million. Women with social media followings like these do two things. Firstly, when they make statements in favour of gender equality on their platforms they're obviously increasing awareness, and increasingly awareness with people who hang onto their every word and share them as, like, meaningful quote posts on their Instagrams. But secondly ­– and perhaps more importantly – they're simply being strong women, and doing and saying stuff that people are paying attention to. Isn't that the ultimate feminist message? Then there's all the meta media commentary that goes on about everything women like Lorde say, too, which only reinforces the initial point that at people now care – care about things girls have to say, which is kind of a new thing.

Kathleen Hanna once said, "Nobody's listened to me my whole life and I have something to say", to explain why she started Bikini Kill. While today's female feminist music icons might not be literally as loud as our heroes from the past, we should celebrate the fact that their voices travel further than ever before.



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Riot Grrl in the Digital Age
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