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A Kore Guide to Women in Rock Music – Part Three: Riot Grrrls & Female Grunge Singers

May 13, 2020

The 1970s and 1980s saw a slew of women charging to the front of the American and British punk scene. Women such as Siouxie Sioux, Patti Smith, and Debbie Harry sowed the seeds for a new generation of aspiring female musicians. These musicians, however, wanted to mark themselves out as agents of change. Punk had always sought to dismantle institutions of authority. However, before the riot grrrl movement of the 1990s, there had never been a cohesive political vision.

Girls to the Front: The Riot Grrrl Movement 

The riot grrrl movement began at Evergreen State College, a liberal arts college in Olympia, Washington. One student at the college, in particular, would be at the forefront of this new cultural revolution. Her name was Kathleen Hanna, and the band she formed with fellow students, Bikini Kill, would become one of the defining riot grrrl bands. Hanna, her bandmates. and her peers used music to spark discussion on a range of feminist issues. 

If the riot grrrl movement were to have one anthem it would be Bikini Kill’s most-recognised song Rebel Girl. Echoing sentiments that would define third-wave feminism, Rebel Girl spoke about a defiant young woman who maintains a strong sense of self despite being branded a ‘dyke’ or a ‘slut’. While never generating significant sales, Rebel Girl is now considered one of the decade’s defining punk songs. The Washington Post called the song ‘some of the most vital rock-n-roll of the era.’ 

The riot grrrl movement sought to shatter preconceptions not only about the role of women in punk music but also about musical ability. Bratmobile is a prime example of this. Similar to Bikini Kill, Bratmobile was an all-female line up of Oregon college students who wanted to use punk music as a political platform. Founding member Alison would confess that they started as a ‘fake band’ since none of them played instruments. A 2015 article on riot grrl in The Guardian would state that Bratmobile’s ‘bob-cut garage-rock sounded as if it might fall apart at any minute.’ Nevertheless, the band would become one of the most popular riot grrrl bands, with songs such as Cool Schmool deriding stereotypes surrounding teenage girls. Wolfe’s deadpan sarcasm was undeniable when singing lines such as ‘I just want to be one of the boys. I just want to be your little fashion toy.’

As mentioned previously, what distinguished Bikini Kill and other riot grrrl bands from their predecessors was their explicit desire to use punk music as a means of female empowerment. Their flyers, for instance, would read as manifestos for the riot grrrl movement. Excerpts from these flyers would read ‘resist psychic death’ and ‘don’t let the world make you into a bitter, abusive asshole.’ These overt political statements could also be seen in ‘zines’, feminist publications that were independently created and circulated. These zines stood out for a ‘cut-and-paste’ aesthetic and were usually produced by hand. Zines produced by Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, alongside publications such as Puncture, helped to create the first official riot grrrl manifesto in 1991. 

In this same year, independent label K Records organised a punk festival in Olympia, Washington. This festival, named the International Pop Underground Convention, would dedicate their first night entirely to female punk musicians. The line-up featured not only Bikini Kill and Bratmobile but bands such as L7, Kicking Giants, and Heavens to Betsy. Live performances provided opportunities to uplift and empower women. The most famous example of this is Hanna prompting all women to move to the front of the stage. Her war cry of ‘girls to the front!’ is considered one of the defining moments of the riot grrrl movement. 

Despite being widespread in its impact, as a political movement, riot grrrl’s lifespan was short-lived. The pressures of existing simultaneously as artists, activists, and women in a male-dominated space took their toll over the years. As well as this, many figures in riot grrl became frustrated that their message was being arguably co-opted. As far as they were concerned, bands such as the Spice Girls were appropriating, diluting, and profiting from the idea of ‘girl power.’  

Nevertheless, the spirit of riot grrrl lived on in a range of incarnations. Following Bikini Kill’s amicable split, Hanna would form the energetic and irreverent electronic rock band Le Tigre. As well as this, Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, members of respective bands Excuse 17 and Heavens to Betsy, teamed up in 1994 to form Sleater-Kinney, a band that would make shockwaves upon the arrival of the 1990s grunge scene. 

Pretty on the Inside: Iconic Female Grunge Singers 

Grunge truly captured the zeitgeist of 1990s youth. Rather than centring around bravado and hedonism, grunge music introduced feelings of disaffection and alienation into the canon of rock music. 

Kurt Cobain, the undisputed king of grunge music, often criticised what he called ‘cock rock’, music that revolved around masculine swagger whilst sidelining women. Cobain would also regularly cite women as key musical inspirations, crediting Pixies (featuring Kim Deal as frontwoman and bassist) as one of the biggest inspirations for Smells Like Teen Spirit

Pixies’ tenure was marked by conflict between Deal and the band’s frontman and main songwriter, Black Francis. Following the band going on hiatus, Deal formed The Breeders with twin sister Kelley. The band soon went from a side project to Deal’s primary musical venture. Their sophomore album Last Splash was The Breeders’ mainstream breakthrough, it soon outsold all of Deal’s previous albums with Pixies and would be certified platinum by mid-1994. The commercial and critical success of Last Splash showed the pivotal role of women in grunge music. That being said, possibly no-one truly embodies the women of grunge music more so than Courtney Love. 

As the lead singer of Hole, Love paints a raw and multifaceted portrait of being a young woman in America. With songs such as Pretty on the Inside and Doll Parts, Love tackles themes of body image and self-worth with both unfettered rage and quiet anguish. 

The band was formed by Love after she placed a magazine ad that read “I want to start a band. My influences are Big Black, Sonic Youth, and Fleetwood Mac.” Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon would go on to produce their debut album Pretty on the Inside. This album would mainly draw inspiration from noise-rock and the LA punk scene. 

Pretty on the Inside’s graphic lyrics covered themes ranging from beauty to sexual violence and prostitution. Many of the lyrics were autobiographical, with Love having worked as a stripper before forming Hole and in the band’s formative years. In a press release for the album, Love stated: “These songs are about my own weaknesses and impurities; things about myself that I hate.” The album would go on to be critically acclaimed following its release in 1991, with The Los Angeles Times describing Pretty on the Inside as the decade’s equivalent to Patti Smith’s Horses. 

Following the success of Pretty on the Inside, Hole signed a deal with DGC Records. Their major-label debut would be the aptly titled Live Through This, which was released two weeks after the death of Hole’s husband Kurt Cobain. The maelstrom surrounding Hole would only become more turbulent when bassist Kristen Pfaff died from an overdose two months later. 

Love addressed public opinion surrounding her personal life in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1994, ‘I would like to think that I’m not getting the sympathy vote, and the only way to do that is to prove that what I’ve got is real.’ In a 25-year old retrospective on Live Through This, the same publication would comment that Love ‘turned the act of bleeding vulnerability into an art form, and in the process, made one of rock’s most potent and timeless albums.”

While certainly one of the most recognised figures in grunge, Courtney Love was just one of several women whose fearless artistry defined 1990s rock music. Forming in 1985 and going on to release six albums over the next two decades, L7 were one of the decade’s foremost all-female grunge bands. The band occupied a compelling middle-ground between grunge and riot grrrl. Those who attended their gigs commented on the subversive nature of L7’s ‘masculine’ posturing such as ‘boastful lyrics and oversized guitars’. Songs such as Diet Pills showcased L7’s facetious take on ‘women’s issues’, brought to life by their frenzied performance style. The band also helped to organise Rock for Choice, a series of concerts designed to raise awareness surrounding safe access to abortions. 

While gaining a significant fanbase throughout the 1990s, L7 are arguably remembered most for two things. The first is their most successful single Pretend We’re Dead, which reached #8 on the U.S Alternative Chart. The second is their performance at Reading Festival in 1992, where technical difficulties led to the band being pelted with mud. In response, lead singer Donita Sparks threw her tampon into the crowd whilst screaming ‘eat my used tampon f*ckers!’ The offending article would go on to be described as the ‘most unsanitary piece of memorabilia in rock n’ roll history.’ 

The mid-90s saw the birth of ‘post-grunge’ in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death. Themes of alienation and defiance would now be filtered through a ‘less abrasive’ musical style borrowed from genres as far-flung as metal, electronica, and ska revival. Distorted guitar riffs were combined with radio-friendly pop-style hooks. 

Butch Vig, the producing mogul behind Nirvana, L7, and Sonic Youth, soon formed a post-grunge band and began looking for a female singer. He would soon come across a video from a band that were small-time, but led by a captivating Scottish singer named Shirley Manson. Manson would become the lead singer of Garbage, helping the band reach mainstream success with her vocals, which were described by The L.A Times as a ‘force of nature.’ 

What marks out the women of grunge from their predecessors is how many of their songs directly confront what it meant to be a woman at the time. Whilst singing about love, sex and heartbreak can hardly be seen as reinventing the wheel, rarely had it been such an explicit and political statement. This can be seen throughout the music of Hole, L7, and now Garbage with songs such as Queer and the ironically-titled Stupid Girl. It was clear that these offerings of female empowerment resonated with youth worldwide, with Garbage’s eponymous debut album reaching 20 on the Billboard Chart and subsequently going double-platinum. The band continues to tour, and time certainly hasn’t caused Manson’s outspoken nature to wane. In a 2019 interview with NME, Manson stated that she eagerly awaits ‘the demise of pathetic, white, patriarchal nonsense.’ 

This article brings us to the end of our series of women in rock music. We hope you’ve found this series inspiring, perhaps to the extent that you want to start your own musical project? If so, Kore Studios is the perfect place to hone your artistic vision. Want to get in the studio and see what you’re made of? Contact us to book a session in our West London recording studio.