Riot grrrl: 10 of the best

With Sleater-Kinney, Babes in Toyland and L7 all back in action, we look back at the life and legacy of punk’s great feminist movement

• L7 to reform for festival dates

1 Bikini Kill – Rebel Girl

The term “riot grrrl” tends to come up as soon as someone with a vagina starts a band. There are countless women considered riot grrrl figureheads: Kim Gordon, Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, the Slits, X-Ray Spex and modern musical figureheads like Beyoncé among them. Even Haim have probably been called riot grrrl at one time or another. But this list is specific to the riot grrrl scene that erupted, fanzine in hand, in the 90s Pacific Northwest, and the bands they directly inspired. The original movement ended not long after it began, as magazines started putting girls dressed in the grunge kinderwhore style on their covers and “riot grrrl was conflated with girl power”. Riot grrrl’s DIY, punk philosophy opposed alternative music’s dominant bro culture and created, through gigs and pamphlets, spaces where women could discuss issues of gender, race, sexuality, equality and enjoy being able to crowdsurf without being groped. As outlined in the manifesto that appeared in the fanzine by riot grrrl linchpins Bikini Kill (which I had pinned to my bedroom wall for all of my teens), they saw girls as a “revolutionary soul force” with the power to change the status quo.

Bikini Kill’s Rebel Girl was the scene’s rebel yell, a short, sharp shock of serrated, anthemic punk that’s an ode to attitudinal, give-a-fuck females. The titular Rebel Girl holds her head high despite people calling her a “dyke” – or, in another recorded version of the song (there are three), a “slut” – disparaging the notions of sexual ambiguity and promiscuity that the riot grrrls kicked against. But she also rides “the hottest trike in town”, imagery that matches how singer Kathleen Hanna sings the song in the style of a girlish playground taunt. Musically, it’s the ultimate riot grrrl walk-on music, with Tobi Vail’s strutty, Dr Martens-stomp of a drumbeat, guitarist Billy Karren’s crunchy, lip curl of a riff and Hanna’s exorcism-strength screech of “in her kiss, I feel the revolution”. It is, in a word, badass.

2 Bratmobile – Cool Schmool

One of the philosophies behind riot grrrl was to reject received ideas of how women were supposed to look or behave. They weren’t going to wear the clothes men thought were hot, or compromise themselves to get a boyfriend, or kowtow to traditional notions of femininity. As a teenager growing up in a time where crotch-low jeans and boob tubes were “the fashion”, that was a revelation. But riot grrrls also challenged the idea that you had to be able to play an instrument to start a band – as Spin once said, “its ideology has always been more advanced than its noise”. Enter Bratmobile, the Olympia trio credited with coining the term “riot grrrl” in their fanzine, who did not have technical ability on their side – their bob-cut garage-rock sounded as if it might fall apart at any minute. Their message, however, rose above the music. On Cool Schmool, you can imagine frontwoman Allison Wolfe clomping down the school corridors in her T-bar loafers, slamming the locker doors nonchalantly as she deadpans lines such as “I can bake a pie and look you up and down” like a no-mess Velma from Scooby Doo. It’s the middle finger to every schmaltzy prom film you’ve ever seen.

3 Heavens to Betsy – Terrorist

Heavens to Betsy only released one album, 1994’s Calculated, but the duo remain a riot grrrl cornerstone. Mainly that’s because singer Corin Tucker went on to form Sleater-Kinney, and because Betsy were one of the acts that appeared at Girl Night at Olympia’s International Pop Underground convention in 1991, the mythologised event that shone an international spotlight on the movement. But beyond these credentials, Betsy’s music has proper raw power. White Girl, for example, questioned the indie scene’s privilege and ingrained racism, while Complicated offered a six-minute wash of breakup blues (at a time when everyone else was thrashing out two-minute belters). You can’t beat Terrorist, though, for a firebomb of anger that makes Slipknot sound like baby lambs rolling around in a buttercup field. You can almost feel Tucker’s spit fly off the mic as she rages about what she wants to do to the guys who treat her “like a piece of meat”, with an intensity that sounds like nails scratching out eyes.

4 L7 – Pretend We’re Dead

L7 and other female-fronted or all-female bands of this era, such as Hole, Babes in Toyland and Veruca Salt, often got thrown in with riot grrrl (they were also dubbed “foxcore” by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore for a laugh – it took off). These bands weren’t as political as bands like Bikini Kill – L7 were a fearless LA rock band that just happened to be four women but their feminist message still hit hard. Pretend We’re Dead, from their 1992 album Bricks Are Heavy, is a schlocky, heavy metal-tinged pop jam that is said to have been originally a break-up song. But it took on new meaning with Donita Sparks’s gum-chewing, deadpan command to “say no to individuality”. It echoed their generation’s rejection of cultural conformity and – alongside feminine ideal-trashing songs like Diet Pill and Wargasm – put L7 firmly in the riot grrrl canon. They continued to inspire the riot grrrl community, too – especially when, later that same year, during a technically hampered set at Reading festival, the crowd began slinging mud at the band and Sparks retorted in the manner that only a badass grrrl would: she removed her tampon and tossed it into the crowd.

5 Huggy Bear – Her Jazz (1993)

Huggy Bear aren’t on Spotify, which is a bit of a disaster, as we like to put these 10 best … lists into a handy playlist for you to listen to in one go. But you can’t very well have an article about the best riot grrrl anthems without including these Brighton punks. They were closely linked to the Olympia bands and released a split album with Bikini Kill called Our Troubled Youth/ Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah in 1992, as well as touring the UK together. Their song Her Jazz is vital not just for its fierce anti-mainstream message of wanting to “trash the square world” and introducing their “future girl vision” but for their raucous performance of it on Channel 4’s youth TV show The Word. It was a Technicolor glimmer of a punk-rock revival, singer Niki Elliott’s bright red hair swinging as she leered over the microphone to the moshpit, and later, in what’s been called their “Bill Grundy moment”, angrily shouting at presenter Terry Christian during a segment about topless models, backed by a mob-like live audience. Watching it now, it still feels thrilling.

6 Sleater-Kinney – Dig Me Out

After riot grrrl’s embers had died out, the scene splintered and its original messages muddled, at which point Olympia’s Sleater-Kinney arrived like a blowtorch to the ears. Formed by Carrie Brownstein of Excuse 17, Janet Weiss and Heavens to Betsy’s Corin Tucker, the trio put female-led rock back on the agenda. They played just as hard as any guy with a guitar while singing about complex feminist subject matter, both personal and political, be it motherhood or war. And they were also the only band to really transcend riot grrrl and bring it to a wider audience. Dig Me Out, their third album, was critically acclaimed and led them to sharing stages with arena bands like Pearl Jam – testament to how, as Brownstein once put it, “Sleater-Kinney are brave enough and strong enough to make a difference and get the word out”. Dig Me Out’s title track laid this out for all to hear through Brownstein’s urgent riffs, Janet Weiss’s thunderous wall of drums and Corin Tucker’s quivering wail.

7 The Frumpies – I Just Wanna Puke on the Stereo

One of riot grrrl’s less well-known bands, the Frumpies were already something of a riot grrrl supergroup when they formed in 1992, consisting of former Bikini Kill members Tobi Vail, Kathi Wilcox and Billy Karren, plus Bratmobile’s Molly Neuman on drums. Their glorious racket, which sounds like it was recorded in a tin can, is best heard on I Just Wanna Puke on the Stereo, from their underrated singles collection Frumpie One Piece. It’s a rattling cutlery drawer of distorted guitars, barking cymbals and pure punk energy, all in under 100 seconds.

8 Le Tigre – Hot Topic

Kathleen Hanna and her many musical projects over the years could easily dominate this list. She was the one who’d scrawl confrontational statements across her chest like “slut” and demanded “girls to the front” for her shows. She was the archetypal punk frontwoman – uncompromising, unapologetic, unafraid. But her next band after Bikini Kill – the electropop trio Le Tigre – ditched the grisly guitars and set their songs about feminism and LGBT issues to a upbeat, 60s-channelling rhythm. Their mix of skittering beats, beehived girl group-pop, lo-fi samples and politics sounded like 60s French singer Christine Delaroche if she’d grown up listening to NWA and proto-techno, encapsulating the feminist writer Emma Goldman’s statement: “I don’t want to be part of your revolution if I can’t dance.” Hot Topic, from their 1999 self-titled debut album, is a who’s-who guide to riot grrrl and LGBT icons – among them North Carolina-based queercore band the Butchies, Sleater-Kinney, Yoko Ono, literary theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and trans performance artist Vaginal Creme Davis. The song is only three minutes and 45 seconds long, but you could get yourself lost in the library with that list for weeks.

9 The Gossip – Standing in the Way of Control

The Aretha Franklin-big chorus. The air-drumming smash of an intro (up there with the best intros of all time, no question). The fact it makes you want to writhe your woes away in an indie club – and not just because the Soulwax remix of it was on a load of early Skins adverts. The Gossip’s Standing in the Way of Control is what happens when you move to liberal Portland from conservative Arkansas, immerse yourself in the post-riot grrrl community of labels like Kill Rock Stars, and write protest songs that combine punk and Tammy Wynette. Much in the way of queercore bands such as Team Dresch and the Butchies, the Gossip championed LGBT rights and explored gender politics, but their songs were catchy and smart enough to sneak on to the radio and become rebellion anthems for the masses. SITWOC is their emotional response to America’s then-restrictive same-sex marriage laws, making it not just one of the ultimate riot grrrl anthems but one of the ultimate protest anthems. Beth Ditto’s voice is like a wrecking ball to the ears – her band didn’t just want to take their messages to the dancefloor, they wanted to wipe the floor with them.

10 Perfect Pussy – Driver

In 2015, it feels like there’s something riot grrrlish whipping the air. Sleater-Kinney have returned with a new record, 10 years after their last and still as searing as their first. L7 are rumoured to be back in the studio, Babes in Toyland are back on the road and coming to Europe and Veruca Salt are recording again. Russia’s Pussy Riot, meanwhile, are reportedly in the studio with Le Tigre’s JD Samson. And then there’s a huge new wave of young women such as Honeyblood and Skinny Girl Diet, who are leading the charge of new all-girl punk bands.

New York’s Perfect Pussy, fronted by the straight-talking Sleater-Kinney fan Meredith Graves, are another who fly the flag for what riot grrrl stood for (though they’ve attempted to distance themselves from the term riot grrrl in the past for fear, and rightly so, of being denied the opportunity to be seen as their own force). Still, they openly criticise the male-dominated hardcore scene they come from and Graves, as well as Alanna McArdle from Cardiff’s Joanna Gruesome, have penned polemics about sexism and misogyny in music, which says something for riot grrrl manifesto’s enduring legacy. You can barely hear what Graves is singing about on Driver, her shouts smothered by distortion and an eerie krautrockish drone, like an old radio announcement crackling through a megaphone over an empty town square. But, like the riot grrrls before them, Perfect Pussy’s music is more about ethos than singalongability. Live, you can imagine that the song explodes in a torrent of feedback and eff-yous against industry double-standards, against questioning women’s authenticity in music and against anyone who refuses not to take them seriously because there’s a women out front.


Kate Hutchinson

The GuardianTramp

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