Why Riot-Grrrl Author Sara Marcus Digs Occupy Wall Street
Almost 20 years after it began, it seems like short-lived '90s phenomenon riot grrrl is making a comeback. Girls swap zines and feminist ideology via Etsy and Tumblr; fashion prodigy Tavi Gevinson recently launched the teenage-girl-geared website Rookie, where she posts themed mixes and drops tips on how to get over girl hate; hundreds of people participated in SlutWalks in cities nationwide.
Sara Marcus' 2010 book Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution helped revive riot grrrl. Tonight at 7 p.m., Marcus talks about the book at the University of Maryland's Taliaferro Hall. I spoke to her about female musicians today, my future band name, and how college-aged girls (and boys) can be part of the reblossoming riot grrrl scene.
Why did you decide to write about riot grrrl, and what did you find that was most shocking or compelling to you?
I felt that the story wasn’t being told properly and it was going down in history in a way a different than people experienced. It was important to talk to everyone before too much time went by and people forgot. Because riot grrrl had the media blackout and didn’t talk to the media, people were trying to tell the story with no facts and emphasizing what they wanted to. It felt important to do that because it’s a symptom of how not seriously young people can be taken. For example, Occupy Wall Street—a lot of people are saying that it's not real politics because it's just young people, but I don't see anything that was started by grown-ups taking off like this. It seems ridiculous for people to call attention to young people for having all this political passion and I thought that was happening with riot grrrl. The thing that was the most shocking and compelling was that when I was doing the research how much sense it made that we were all that mad then. With more research into the political context of that time, like the study that came out when I was 15 about rape that should that way more girls were being sexually assaulted than people realized. I must have read that and gotten really mad, it was really a hot-button moment for women's issues and young people's issues that just completely made sense. We were all fed up and had to band together and take action. In hindsight, our political responses were a lot more justified. Shocking might be too strong of a word but it was a nice thing to see.
It seems like there’s a resurgence in riot grrrl lately. Why do you think this happened?
When I was writing the proposal for my book and I was trying to make the case that there would be a big audience, it would’ve been cool to bring up Etsy and feminist Tumblrs, but that wasn’t happening in the beginning of the book. It’s really wonderful that it’s coming out now, because I didn’t know if women in their teens and 20s were interested in it now. I think a lot of it is that those two books [Marcus’ book and Marisa Meltzer’s book Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music], the Le Tigre documentary, the documentary about Kathleen Hanna that was recently funded, and Tavi’s blog and Rookie—I just think that they all build off all each other. The two books came out at the same time and if someone sees the word riot grrrl in the media three times in the space of the year, you’re probably going to go research it. Marisa and I are basically the same age and we grew up enough that we can do something crazy and write a book. I think each of us could’ve written the book 10 years ago, but we wrote it better now. Although, I do wish more girls started bands. You can listen to Bikini Kill but you’re never going to have that experience of seeing them live. I want all of you to start bands and you can be the bands people go see!
My roommate and I are trying to start our own band, but we can’t play any instruments. Were you ever in a band?
You should! Make a pact with yourself that you’ll write five songs before you criticize anything. Make sure to create now, and judge later. The mentality of girls from the '90s hasn’t changed—we have to do everything perfectly, have to be perfect overachievers. But you should be playing play punk rock; it’s better to be messy and play a song that sucks and be like “Whatever!” You don’t have to care what people think. The first band I joined in Maryland was during the winter break of my freshman year of college. I played bass in our band even though I never held a bass before, but they said, “That’s no problem, here’s a bass." From that first band, I learned how to play drums and bass, and I was a drummer for bands and I even toured after college. But if I had felt that the first band was perfect, I never would have gotten started. I actually have a band name for you: “Arrabiata,” which means spicy or angry in Italian. I can’t believe no one’s named their band that before.
Do you see a difference in the perception of female musicians now than in the early '90s? What music are you listening to now?
I think it’s easier now to be a female musician because it’s a lot more normalized, it’s not like, “Whoa, you’re a girl playing music.” It’s weirder to see a show where everyone in every band playing is a guy. There are certainly more people playing music, but it's more important that people don't think it's strange. That really changed in the past 10 years and I think the effect of riot grrls' “let's talk about this” mentality had a lot to do with it. Right now, I'm really into tUnE-yArDs and Mountain Man. I'm also into Talk Normal, my friends' band Christy and Emily, and Household. Those are the really good main ones right now.
What can girls in college do that are interested in riot grrrl?
I really can’t emphasize enough, because it’s great to be inspired in the past but the point is do things now. You have to let the history that you research propel you forward to the public square. You should write songs, start a band, make art and display it, start a zine or blog, apply to the student paper for a weekly column, and try and start a community. Say to a girl you know, “Hey I know you want to be a writer but what have you written? I want to make sure you keep moving forward and you know that I support you and I want to feel like you'll read and listen to my stuff." It's really important to start a community, not only girls support your male friends too! It can be hard sometimes to form supportive bonds with other girls but when you manage to do it its incredibly rewarding. That’s the message that I want to give everyone.