The riot grrrl movement, born in the early ’90s in Washington State, wasn’t only important, it was vital. While there were many female rockers in the ’80s rock & roll scene—from Patti Smith and Siouxsie Sioux to Joan Jett and Alice Bag (who were smashing every barrier the male-dominated music industry would put in their way)—the enduring image of ’80s rock is one of testosterone-fueled rock dudes draped with scantily-clad women with the Sunset Strip titty bars acting as the unofficial afterhours hangs for the bands performing down the street at the Whisky and Roxy.
Yet there were more female bands in that scene, such as Vixen, Femme Fatale, Phantom Blue, and Lita Ford. Lorraine Lewis formed Femme Fatale, and she now fronts Vixen. She told this writer that, back then, the radio stations would only put one female band in their rotation at any one time. “It wasn’t like how it is now,” Lewis said. “If I went to a radio station and Lita’s poster was on the wall, I knew the chances of me getting played at that radio station were zero. One token female rock girl. It was so fucked up. I took it all with a grain of salt and a smile on my face, but looking back, it’s so outrageous to think that radio and airplay was so limited in their thought.”
It gets worse.
“When I came to L.A., all of these stripper girls had big knockers,” continued Lewis. “It was boob nation, for sure. What eventually happened is I got picked up at Front Line Management. I remember going in there in my regular attire — jean cutoff shorts, cowboy boots, some glitzy black and gold top that I got at the Salvation Army or something, my hair was really big. I went into Howard Kaufman’s office. We had a blast, and one of his first questions was, ‘If I buy her boobs, would she wear them?’ I said, ‘Abso-fucking-lutely.’ So that was the plan. Howard Kaufman bought me boobs.”
These stories aren’t rare. L.A. paisley underground rockers The Bangles told this writer that, back in the ’80s, they were frequently asked to have pillow fights and make out during photo shoots. They stood their ground.
“Just a click through YouTube and you’re gonna find incredibly talented musicians all over the country, which is great and exciting,” Vicki Peterson of The Bangles said. “Young women who are fearless, and thank God for that. It actually is something that I relate to. We had a sweet blind spot as to what our limitations might be out there in the world. We fully believed from day one that we would rule the world. We were very narrow-minded. It was Bangles or bust.”
And thank God for them. But still, they should never have had to put up with that crap. Something had to change. That the early ’90s and the dawn of grunge changed rock & roll forever is something that has been written about at length—a lot. That ’90s grunge and alt-rock was immediately seen as something more “real,” less superficial with lyrics that dealt with real emotions and issues, rather than simply getting laid. Suddenly, the likes of Warrant and LA Guns, while not completely on the scrap heap, were reduced to playing the sort of clubs that, a few years earlier, the punk bands were frequenting. Simultaneously, Nirvana and Pearl Jam, also Jane’s Addiction and Faith No More, became uneasy megastars.
And then riot grrl happened. The term, at least the way it came to be spelled with that double “r,” was coined by Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail. That Olympia, Washington band—also including Kathleen Hanna and Kathi Wilcox—did as much as anyone to take a stand. The Revolution Girl Style Now! Demo (1991) laid the foundations for what was to come, and then the ’93 debut studio album Pussy Whipped simply raged.
“When she talks, I hear the revolution
In her hips, there’s revolution
When she walks, the revolution’s coming
In her kiss, I taste the revolution.”
Bikini Kill, “Rebel Girl.”
Other bands involved in that key Portland-area scene included Bratmobile, Heavens To Betsy, Excuse 17 and, later, Sleater-Kinney. The lyrics were unapologetically forthright and, as a result, refreshing and inspiring. They tackled the patriarchy, rape, domestic abuse and the issue of abortion rights, as well as subject areas such as racism and classism. Forced down for so long, these incredible artists were standing up and shouting and making wonderful music in the process.
Where “riot grrl” ended and female-driven alt/punk started is blurry and often depends on who you ask. There were certainly other bands, around the country and the world, tackling similar issues. As relatively close as Los Angeles, L7 and Hole were creating some incredible sounds, as were Babes In Toyland in Minneapolis, Lunachicks in New York, and Veruca Salt in Chicago.
Donita Sparks of L7 made headlines in ’92 when the band performed at Reading Festival in England; the singer/guitarist removed her tampon onstage and threw it into the crowd. Perhaps inadvertently, she helped open a discussion about the shame attached to menstruation. Meanwhile, some lucky concert-goer went home with a souvenir.
Much like the recent LGBTQ+ and queercore columns, things appear on the surface to be much better for women in music in 2019. But dig a little, men. Ask around and serious problems still remain. Radio stations still restrict the number of females that can be in the rotation. Women are still hyper-sexualized. Body expectations are still startlingly unrealistic. And the difference in pay is still wrong.
Clearly, there’s a lot of work to be done. There are also a lot of amazing musicians out there willing to do the work. Meanwhile, men need to stand up and shout when they see wrong doings. It’s amazing what can be achieved when people get together and make a lot of noise while saying, “No.”