Where Have all the Riot Grrls Gone?

by | July 26, 2012
filed under Feminism

by Rachael Clemente

The nineties were an amazing time to be a woman in rock, or a woman who rocked. There was the Riot Grrrl movement with bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Sleater-Kinney, which had risen up from the eighties underground, and bands like Garbage and Hole in the top ten of every radio station’s playlist. The attitude was one of: “F*** yea, we can rock just as hard, loud, and fast as any guy band”. It was empowering to see, it was invigorating to hear, and most of all it was inspiring to know that yes, we can shred a guitar with the best of them.

Growing up, Shirley Manson was my role model; she was what I hoped that I would be like when I grew up: outspoken, in charge, and in control. Through Garbage I moved on to Hole, then Babes in Toyland, L7, Kittie, Bikini Kill, etc. Their music gave me and countless other girls female role models to look up to who were not simply selling what society dictated a woman should be. They offered up instead everything we could be.

Looking around today though the question lingers: where have all the Riot Grrrls, Kat Bjellands, and Shirley Mansons gone? The whole question really came to me sitting on the couch with my step-dad’s 13-year-old daughter. We were both listening to our music and decided to enquire about what the other was listening to. Skimming through each other’s music I couldn’t help but notice that all she had on her mp3 player was Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Madonna, and Beyonce. Now this isn’t necessarily bad, they are all artists that deserve respect for what they do, but I couldn’t help but wonder if my step-sister knew that we could rock too.

Today it seems like we’ve taken two steps back instead of pushing forward in popular music. There seems to be less female-fronted rock and less empowering music now than there was ten years ago. Sure it’s nice to sing about love and rainbows and relationships, but we are more than that. Why are we supposed to settle for sugary pop, dance, and sexed up rap/hip hop when we are so, so, so much more than those things? We all remember in middle school and high school how peer pressure dictated that you had to listen to what was popular – my step-sister is subject to that right now, so that along with the lack of fierce female-fronted groups doesn’t leave many choices in her mind.

It’s either A) Adele (sugary songs about relationships), B) Katy Perry (More sugary songs), C) Nicki Minaj (Songs about “ho’s” and being a Barbie doll) or D) Clones of the aforementioned three previous choices. Why this deflation of the momentum we had in the nineties and early 2000’s? Well, Napster is partly why. The major three record labels just stopped signing bands like Babes in Toyland and artists like Queen Latifah because with record sales plummeting like a satellite in low earth orbit the majors don’t want to “take any risks” on artists they don’t think will have mass market appeal.

Following the great purge of the late nineties and early 2000’s many major labels unceremoniously dumped the bands they had signed at the beginning of the alternative/grunge boom. As the old adage goes, sex sells, so when a female artist isn’t willing to trounce around in a tiny bikini in a music video or sing about boyfriends she has less of a chance of getting signed to a major. Non-stereotypical female artists have been pushed aside and left for the indie labels to pick up.

This being said, sure there are artists like Feist who have made it work on an indie label but let’s face it: when Universal owns nearly 40% alone of the music market worldwide, the trends they decide will be the predominant ones. The big three are notorious for being really crappy at giving people what they want: they run using the apple pie statistic. So here we are, with illegal downloading freaking out the majors, they turn around and mess up a good thing instead of evolving and adapting to the internet age. They shut us out, and now what of our children? Who do they have in popular music to turn to if they don’t want to sing about love and boy friends? Not much.

Lately we’ve seen a resurgence of nineties “heritage” acts – Garbage and Hole have both reformed and put out new albums but these have both largely been aimed at older audiences already familiar with the groups. There are strong female artists like Lady Sovereign, The Coppertone and Pack A.D., but they are all still on an indie/hipster level. We need to bring them to the forefront, we need to support them. We need to make it cool again for women to rock and rebel.

We need artists like Lady Sovereign in Hip/Hop, and all-women rock acts like Pack A.D. that are more than capable of carrying the torch in popular music. If we don’t start to push for the reinstatement of a female rock/rap market then we will be stuck listening to only Adele and Minaj for a very long time.

We need to give the next generations more options in popular music because let’s be honest, popular culture affects us when we are young. If we don’t tell girls it’s ok to rock out and rap about eating shepherd’s pie no one else will. They aren’t going to go looking for something they don’t know exists either. In our internet age we are all overloaded with info so we need to point out the possibilities. If we don’t speak out then the stereotypes we see on the tv will be the only things girls hear on their ipods.

Suggested listening for anyone looking for some good old female fronted/all woman rock and rap:

Asobi Seksu, Azealia Banks, The Kills, Pack A.D., Lady Sovereign, Metric, Feist, Dead Weather, BonJay, The Coppertone, Paloma Faith, Dirty Projectors, Hope Sandoval, FIona Apple, Dum Dum Girls, The Raveonettes, Anna Calvi, Danielle Duval, Pasale Picard, Sharon Van Etten.

(photo via Wikimedia Commons)


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  • Mark

    I’d put Amanda Palmer near the top of that list. Also complete major-label anathema.

  • Brandon

    Suggested listening for anyone looking for some very good music written and performed by kick ass women.

    St. Vincent, Bjork, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Deerhoof, Beach House, Autolux, Broadcast, Blonde Redhead, Electrelane, Stereolab (Lætitia Sadier), Grouper, Joanna Newsom, The Luyas, Múm, Ohbijou, Portishead, Shana Falana, Sky Larkin, toddle (Tabuchi Hisako).

    • Brandon

      Sorry.

      *Suggested listening for anyone looking for some very good music written and performed with kick ass women.

  • mccoys mom

    I think Gossip or the gossip are important to have on this list. Beth Ditto is an outspoken rad woman with a voice to back it all up. I think her response as well to all the haters on her size is important for girls to see. Powerful girls who define that is sexy is what you are, not what some internet troll tells you.

  • Also Austra, Bleached, Brilliant Colors, Metric, Frankie Rose, Heartless Bastards (sometimes), Kristin Hersh, La Sera, Land of Talk, The Muffs (if Kim would ever put out new music), Veronica Falls, Visqueen, Vivian Girls, Wax Idols, and White Lung.

    And the Pack a.d. a thousand times!

    Thank you for this article. Sharing on Facebook.

    • Rachael

      You should check out Atari Teenage Riot aswell. They put out an awesome album in 2011, Nic Endo has some pretty fierce vocal capabilities, I envy her!

  • May I just say thank god for resources like Girls Rock Camp that not only exposes young women to real music but empowers them by teaching them to play!

  • Jen

    Sure riot grrl was on the edge of the mainstream during the grunge era, but really why have great expectations when it comes to top 40/popular music? Not sure if you’re missing the sound or the attitude but a couple local local (van and vic) acts that honour the kathleen hanna tradition are Open Relationship and White Lung I wouldn’t hesitate to point teen friends towards their campus/community radio stn or even radio3 for decent, female-fronted beats. and a great way to find out about all ages and house shows (teen essentials) is to support your local scene!