Monday 3 March 2014

Grrrl Power

With March being International Women’s History Month I’d like to concentrate for the next few weeks on the contribution to music made by lgbt women. The profession of composer has traditionally been associated with men, but there are a few female composers who are equally of significance. I’ll be covering this subject a bit more fully later in the month.

To begin it seems obvious that the best place to start is with a movement formed by and for women which has influenced, and still continues to influence, modern music – the Riot Grrrl movement.

The global Women’s Lib movement of the 1970s gave awareness of the place women wanted to have in society. There wasn’t the same prominent fight for awareness and equality in culture – music, art, theatre. Music in particular portrayed female singers as either operatic divas or girls-next-door. Even though some women made a name in the rock and early punk movement they were basically following the female stereotype that wasn’t perceived as a threat to the male-dominated rock/punk industry.

In the early 1990s in the USA some more political and protest messages began to effect the feminist cultural world. This was the basis of the riot grrrl movement, which included direct activism and political involvement within art and media. The name of the movement came from the title of a fanzine created by Allison Wolfe, Molly Neuman, Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail in 1991. “We’re not anti-boy, we’re pro-girl”, Molly once said.

The original movement was deliberately an underground one. The last thing riot grrrls wanted was to have the male-dominated commercial rock industry dictating to them how their music should be presented or marketed. Because of this a new vibrant and creative culture developed as more women found their talents in art, music and writing became the major elements in the riot grrrl movement around the world. Several independent record labels were created by some of the riot grrrl pioneers (see below). Eventually, some male record producers with personal connections to members of the movement also began producing their music and their audience grew.

The movement spread quickly, but like all things that involve increasing numbers of people differences began to emerge – not the riot grrrl message, but the way in which it was presented and the way the movement interacted with mainstream media. It didn’t help when the media began to take an interest in other so-called “girl power” groups such as the Spice Girls who perpetuated the old sexual stereotypes of what a girl singer should be. This stereotype continues today in the sexually-overt antics of many young female singers in their videos.

The riot grrrls had a strong beginning and created much positive debate in sexual politics though it’s time came and went in a short time. New styles and movements developed out of it in a natural evolution that means that the legacy of the early riot grrrl members is still felt today, and many of them are still active.

It would be negligent of me not to mention that the riot grrrl movement was not exclusive to lesbian, bi or other female lgbt artists. It did attract many of these to its ranks and many of them form an unofficial subculture of the riot grrrl/queercore cross-over artist (I’ll write about queercore later in the year).

To end this article here’s just a few names of artists who helped to make the riot grrrl movement one which influences music today and will for a good many years to come. All of these names are contained in two online lists. These are the Afterellen list of “The 50 Most Important Queer Women in Music” published in 2010, and Lesbian Life’s list of “The Top 30 Lesbian/Bisexual Musicians” (date unknown).

Common to both lists are Donna Dresch, Carrie Brownstein and Kaia Wilson. Donna was one of the pioneers of riot grrrl/queercore music forming the band Team Dresch. One member of the band, Kaia, went on to form another influential band, The Butchies (watch out for a future reference to Kaia in my Medal Quest series). Donna and Kaia both formed their own record labels which released albums from other pioneer bands as well as their own, such as Sleater-Kinney of which Carrie was a member.

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