Riot Grrrl’s Second Act

In this blog entry, Kate Eichhorn, author of The Archival Turn in Feminism: Outrage in Order, writes about the renewed interest in Riot Grrrl music, celebrities, and histories over the past year and asks: Is it about more than nostalgia?

Carrie Brownstein, riot grrrl musician turned sketch comedian (most recently, of Portlandia fame), frequently finds herself fielding interviewer’s questions about a Sleater Kinney reunion. Over the years, Brownstein has carefully evaded the question, neither ruling it out nor confirming rumors of her former band—arguably the most successful act to come out of the West Coast Riot Grrrl music scene in the 1990s—reuniting. Brownstein’s evasion of the reunion question is not surprising. In the temporally-sensitive world of popular music, any band that “comes back” is a band who has already gone away.

Whether or not Brownstein and her former bandmates reunite in 2014, the timing couldn’t be better. Over the past twelve months, Riot Grrrl music, celebrities and histories have received a lot of airplay, screen time and ink. In March, filmmaker Sini Anderson released The Punk Singer, a biopic about Kathleen Hanna featuring new and archival footage of Hanna and her former bandmates, friends and allies. A few months later, Lisa Darms, Senior Archivist at NYU’s Fales Library & Special Collections, published The Riot Grrrl Collection. A museum-catalog-style volume focused on NYU’s Riot Grrrl Collection, the book offers fans and researchers a glimpse into some of the ‘zines, posters and printed ephemera that helped to define the Riot Grrrl movement. Then, in September, Hanna released Run Fast with her new band sporting an old name, The Julie Ruin (the band’s name references one of Hanna’s earlier solo projects).

Eichorn.inddBut why Riot Grrrl again and why now? Is it, as some critics have suggested, simply about nostalgia?

Nostalgia has a bad reputation. Nostalgia is apparently not only a clever attempt to sell back to us the cultural detritus of past eras but a desire for something that never existed. And as it turns out, nostalgia is equally reviled by cultural critics (see Fredric Jameson for starters) and musicians. On the sixth track of Sleater Kinney’s final album, The Woods (released in 2005), the band belts out the following cynical lyrics,

You come around looking 1984
You’re such a bore, 1984
Nostalgia, you’re using it like a whore
It’s better than before

So has Riot Grrrl simply come around again looking, in this case, 1994?

When recently asked if she ever feels nostalgic for the 1990s, Brownstein explained, “Nostalgia is a very tricky thing. I always find that nostalgia is sort of like memory without the pain. And that’s why it feels so good to kind of bask in that, and I think it can be deceptively comforting” (Stereogum, January 6, 2014). When asked a similar question in a interview about her new album, however, Hanna was somewhat more optimistic: “If nostalgia is how people find things, that’s fine… And if people want to think it was an awesome time and they want to thank me and want to say how great I am, I’ll take it because there weren’t a lot of people thanking me and telling me how great I am at the time in a public forum” (Self-titled, December 2, 2013). What Brownstein’s and Hanna’s comments bring into relief is the complex ways in which nostalgia operates, especially when both music and politics are on the table.

When Riot Grrrl emerged in the early 1990s, many bands were still peddling their own audio cassettes off the end of the stage. The sound and style was raw and often inflected by a DIY philosophy. By the time Sleater Kinney released their final album in 2005, however, the sound and style of the bands associated with the Riot Grrrl scene had changed drastically, and many of the movement’s musicians were gaining increased recognition from mainstream music critics. If there is a demand for at least some of these musicians and bands to get back in stage, it is not necessarily driven by nostalgia for what Riot Grrrl was but rather for the music scene it eventually became.

Similarly, while interest in Anderson’s biopic or the Riot Grrrl Collection may be at least partially driven by nostalgia, there is no reason to conclude that enthusiasm for these projects is purely about a longing for another place and time. Sifting through files in the Riot Grrrl Collection, one quickly realizes that riot grrrls were not only creating a new sound and style, they were actively mining second wave feminist archives for inspiration, ideas, tactics and imagery. From clip art taken directly out of 1970s radical feminist newspapers and newsletters to song lyrics pilfered from earlier women-fronted bands, Riot Grrrl was also a savvy, sometimes ironic but respectful recycling and rethinking of past forms of feminist activism and women’s cultural production.

For all these reasons, as fans, both old and new, line up to watch The Punk Singer and dream up excuses to visit the Riot Grrrl Collection, rather than assume they are merely nostalgic for something they miss—or simply missed–perhaps we should hold open the possibility of that Riot Grrrl’s “second act” will serve as a stage for the next feminist cultural revolution.

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