I discovered Riot Grrrl a decade too late.
I love music. Music has always been a part of who I am and how I define myself. And yet I would never speak about it; I would avoid discussing it, writing about it, cringe at being asked ‘what kind of stuff do you listen to?’ and certainly never, ever read music journalism. It is only very recently that I’ve begun to step out of this self-made fortress and question why. Why is it that something I’ve always been so passionate about, so interested in and dedicated so much time to, been so private and shuttered? Why is it so utterly removed from how I talk openly and keenly about my other interests, even those in which I have controversial opinions? What I am going to say is not particularly novel, not ground-breaking, not revolutionary. But this is my experience of music as a gendered space.
I went to school in the mid-nineties. I didn’t fit in and I didn’t like the musical genres of my peers, whether it was Britpop, hardcore or 90s dance. Even the friendlier folk who found solace in grunge as it moved from Nirvana to Greenday didn’t seem to offer me a home. My brother was musical and from him I cherry-picked influences, from Guns ‘n’ Roses to black metal. My parents’ folk sensibilities, the splashes of Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones clung on in the background for a while. Black metal offered a reaction against my peers and a veiling fashion to hide behind. With hindsight, it offered nothing positive or constructive for an awkward, angry girl.
Eventually, through luck and a library card I picked up Sonic Youth, the Cure, Pavement at 70p a CD and began to build a small and secretive collection of neatly-labelled copied tapes. I later shook off the grotesque misjudgements of One Hot Minute, Placebo and Silverchair but too easily rejected the Beastie Boys and Debaser. I held a very personal and obsessive relationship with Blind Melon for some years and the chords of No Rain still have the power to sting my eyes with nostalgic teenage angst.
In my second year at college I made two friends. Music stopped being a solitary pursuit. We swapped intricately-constructed mixtapes, inflated phone bills downloading one song at a time from Napster, discovered the Strokes, the White Stripes, the Hives. Danced in public. Even to Debaser. One evening, listening to John Peel, I heard the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I have a very clear memory of the following day. Walking down the corridor between the cool arts side of college back towards our A Level block, cocooned inside the metal-framed windows and that functionary, comforting public-building smell, asking my two friends if they’d heard the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They hadn’t. This was my discovery, my value. I was on equal footing with my small, select, eye-liner obsessive, single-gender friendship group.
But our social lives were not a vacuum. There were bars, parties. There was dancing, drinking, smoking, boys. The boys knew we liked music. And they liked to tell us that they liked music too.
Boys liked to tell us what sort of guitar Jonny Greenwood played (‘Who’s Jonny Greenwood?’ ‘Who’s Johnny Greenwood? How can you dance to that song and not know who Jonny Greenwood is?’). Boys liked to tell us the intricate histories of musicians as though they were football players switching clubs (knowing Bobby Gillespie’s involvement with illegal stimulants and the Jesus and Mary Chain didn’t change my favourable opinion of either of these despite my disinterest in Primal Scream, much to the chagrin of one young man). Boys liked to tell us what music we liked and what music we didn’t like (‘Aren’t you going to dance with your friends?’ ‘I don’t really like The Smiths.’ ‘Of course you like the Smiths; you just said you liked the Cure. You can’t like the Cure and not the Smiths. And anyway, the Smiths are better.’1)
Boys talked about music as though it were a purely technical, scientific and academic subject with obvious and infallible family trees as sectarian and inflexible as Northern Irish politics. To like this, you had to like that, know him, recognise that riff, remember the acrimonious split with the other guy and thus not like his new band and understand all of this to be fact which must be memorised and repeated twelve times before you could even dare fight through the cellophane and play their new record. To like a band you had to know its members, its back catalogue, its record label and their musical relatives. Only then could you argue that they were good. To dislike a band would require similar knowledge but defamation could be further shored up by knowledge of a ‘Yoko factor’; for example, any band with the exception of Nirvana which had any link to Courtney Love was obviously awful because of her.
There were the grunge boys, the indie boys, the heavy metal boys, the hip-hop boys, the nu-metal boys, the goths. And ne’er the twain should meet. In some ways we had the better deal; we could and did commune with all groups (with the exception of the goths; both my own history with black metal and their particular defensive insularity meant that no one approached their corner of the bar without a suitable amount of dark lace and lipstick). But my musical opinions were of no interest or consequence beyond being corrected on the sidelines of a constant game of one-upmanship. I learnt to just stay quiet.
The music press was written in the same vein. It was uninteresting, intentionally obscure and impenetrable for beginners, and fundamentally misogynist. Boys in bands could talk about their effects pedals and their personal journeys. Girls in bands were often downplayed, frequently photographed but only given agency when involved in a ‘cat fight’ or a band’s demise. I stopped reading.
But still I loved music. I collected up people’s suggestions, spent significant parts of my student loan in Fopp, went to gigs in bars, in clubs, in made-to-measure gig venues. My interest and passion for live music grew. Even now there are times when I can go to upwards of three gigs a week. But I stopped offering my suggestions, I stopped asserting my passions.
I can’t think of a single occasion when I’ve gone to a gig with just another woman.
For a long time I would stand back at gigs. Partly to avoid being trodden on. But also because of a sense of inferiority; that I didn’t deserve to be up front, that I wasn’t a true fan, I didn’t know all the words, I might mis-tap my foot or nod my head out of time. There was frequently an atmosphere that reiterated this feeling. Even now, particularly at heavier gigs where the male:female ratio resembles indie pop gigs of old, there’s an identifiable masculine atmosphere of aggression and superiority.
(I want to take a quick sideline here. I am now assertive at gigs. I will happily go alone, at least if I am familiar with the venue and safe ways home. I frequently go with friends who are taller and hang back so I split off and make my way forwards. I like watching drummers so will move to get them in my sightline. I find the most annoying character at any gig is the over-protective boyfriend who sees everyone as a threat to his delicate lady who must keep being reassured with protective holds and unnecessary PDA. I also smile a lot at gigs. This may be a strange and unnatural reaction to enjoying myself which I think can be disarming.)
I discovered Riot Grrrl a decade too late.
I love music. I didn’t like talking about music. I didn’t like reading about music. I thought my views and tastes were invalid. I couldn’t make music because I didn’t have the technical know-how. And anyway, who’d want a potential Yoko in their band?
It’s frustrating because I have loved Sonic Youth since my teens and had picked up Fugazi. I was politically and socially aware and active. Yet I never knew I was that one step away from the music and ethos of Bikini Kill, Babes in Toyland, Huggy Bear and Sleater-Kinney. That small step in that blindingly obvious direction was blocked by louder voices and disinterested music journalists.
(Another aside. I eventually found a couple of these bands through a male friend. I actually owe a lot to him in terms of finding music and feeling happy to say when I did or didn’t like something. He even gave me Sara Marcus’s book on Riot Grrrl. We jointly and unconsciously created a small space for music which was not gendered. It was small because, until recently, never involved more than the two of us.)
Yesterday I attended an immersive event based around the screening of The Punk Singer, organised by an amazing collective of young women.2 It involved stalls, crafting, workshops, performances and a gig as well as the film. Assertively open to everyone, its primary audience was young women. Late in the evening, between bands, a male friend, intelligent and self-aware, commented that he had felt less welcome in the space than he was used to, almost an intruder; that the event wasn’t for him. I think he probably felt like I have done for years at gigs and music events without ever understanding or questioning why.
I wish I’d found the music and ethos of Riot Grrrl in my late teens, not my late twenties. Maybe it would have given me more confidence. Maybe I would have found more music. Maybe I would have shared more with my friends. Maybe I would have written about music. Perhaps I would have been more confident in my own creativity. Perhaps I wouldn’t have felt like I should be apologising for taking up space.
GIRLS TO THE FRONT.
There’ll be a woman in her 30s there, smiling disarmingly.
1The use of the semi-colon here is purely for my own pleasure; I am confident that this young man’s grammar was not up to such flourishes of beauty. Also, the Smiths aren’t better and I don’t need to know the name of the bassist to assert that point.
2Girl Gang Sheffield. They do amazing things.