Dissecting Sleater-Kinney's Role in the Riot Grrrl Movement

Sleater-Kinney is cooler than you.
Sleater-Kinney is cooler than you.
Brigitte Sire

Veterans of the Riot Grrrl scene know that sustained success is not always easily defined or found. Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney knows a thing or two about the peaks and valleys of achievement.

Tucker, who plays a fantastic rhythm guitar and sings with a powerful yet lovely voice, was one of the leaders of Riot Grrrl in the early '90s when she fronted influential Olympia, Washington, band Heavens to Betsy. Along with Carrie Brownstein (star of IFC's -hip Portlandia), Tucker launched Sleater-Kinney in 1994 after Heavens to Betsy and Brownstein's Excuse 17 came to an end. The sound they developed is a stunning combination of punk, post-punk, indie, psychedelic, and straight-up rock 'n' roll, but with a gaggle of unique twists, including using a guitar tuning more regularly found in metal and hardcore.

"I really come from a punk rock tradition of making things up. I was mostly playing guitar to suit my own voice in Heavens to Betsy, and I had the guitar tuned down. It was a strange tuning," Tucker says. "When Carrie and I started playing together, we tried to figure out what that tuning was, and that day, it just happened to be C sharp on the chromatic tuner, so we just tuned down and, you know, started playing together."

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The foundation of Tucker's musical approach can be tied directly to the DIY ethos of the Riot Grrrl movement.

Though the movement still exists in both name and action (according to Bratmobile founder Allison Wolfe, Los Angeles continues to have an active Riot Grrrl scene), for members of bands who played a part in its formation, the term itself has become more historical in nature as the years have passed.

"From a musical standpoint, I would say that if someone wants to claim that term for themselves, I mean, that's fine, but I think it doesn't seem like there is a musical movement in terms of 'I want to be a Riot Grrrl band or have a Riot Grrrl tour,'" Tucker says. "It seems like a historical place. I think that young women today are interested in what Riot Grrrl is or was, but that doesn't necessarily mean they want to take that term on for themselves in 2015."

For Bratmobile's Wolfe (also of the Cold Cold Hearts and currently playing in the super-cool L.A.-based Sex Stains), Riot Grrrl was more about a moment in time.

"Of course, both Corin and I were there from the beginning and at the forefront and helped kind of create it. To me, Riot Grrrl does feel like it came from a certain time and place. It had its purpose and ran its course, mostly in the early '90s, based in the Pacific Northwest and in Washington, D.C.," Wolfe says.

It was bands like the aforementioned Heavens to Betsy and Bratmobile, as well as Kathleen Hanna's Bikini Kill, that really set the standard for what Riot Grrrl truly is and was: a feminist movement based on a mutual love of punk, indie, and New Wave music. Hanna wrote the "Riot Grrrl" manifesto in 1991, which proclaimed, among other things, "BECAUSE we know that life is much more than physical survival and are patently aware that the punk rock 'you can do anything' idea is crucial to the coming angry grrrl rock revolution, which seeks to save the psychic and cultural lives of girls and women everywhere, according to their own terms, not ours."

Of course, mainstream music culture tried to capitalize on the Riot Grrrl movement, attributing the term to better-known acts such as L7, Hole (fronted by Courtney Love), the Breeders, and even No Doubt, but the true roots of the movement were firmly planted in the DIY culture surrounding punk and indie rock. These women (and in some cases, men) put out their own zines, released their own records, and staged their own tours.

"I tend to see it as a strain of third-wave feminism that existed mostly in the early '90s. There has been some commercialization aspects, like some people taking some of our terms -- like, Spice Girls taking the term "Girl Power" and using it was pretty annoying. We never copyrighted the term, so what can we do?"  

A popular misconception about the Riot Grrrl movement is that it was exclusive to women, but many of the bands, including Bikini Kill, featured men in prominent roles. It also was not unusual for fans of Riot Grrrl to be male. Local DJ and promoter Tim Neilson, who works for Lucky Man Productions, still has tremendous passion not only for the music but also the ideals of the Riot Grrrl scene.

"I really do hope that the politics, if you will, of the Riot Grrrl movement are still relevant," Neilson says. "Unfortunately, it seems that many of the topics covered in Riot Grrrl zines, lyrics, etc., in the '90s are still present. I think there was a backlash against '90s political correctness, and we've seen an even more un-P.C. presence in the past decade or so."

Lynn Breedlove, leader of San Francisco's Tribe 8 in the '90s, didn't necessarily identify as a Riot Grrrl but appreciated the ideals.

"What Riot Grrrl stands for is feminism, and that continues to be crucial," she says. "Women and girls continue to be in danger more now than ever worldwide. We all need to continue to fight for their rights with special attention to race, gender, class size, and ability . . . Riot Grrrl to me meant specifically taking back one's gender, reclaiming a childhood like boys had." In some ways, this is all a moot point if bands like Sleater-Kinney, The Julie Ruin (Hanna's post-Bikini Kill project), and Sex Stains are not active. While Sleater-Kinney has never claimed to be a Riot Grrrl band, its roots are deep, and the compelling presence of Riot Grrrl royalty Tucker (and, to a lesser extent, Brownstein) cannot be denied. Along with drummer Janet Weiss (also of the excellent Portland band Quasi), Sleater-Kinney stealthily re-formed in 2014 and recorded one of the best records in recent years in its latest effort, No Cities to Love, on Sub Pop.

The record came about because Tucker and Brownstein were curious about whether they were ever going to work together again after their storied career together seemingly wrapped up in 2006.

"Having that work that we accomplished, I think we always left the door open to say we might another record again one day. We just waited a really long time," Tucker says, laughing. "Then one day I was just like, 'Huh, I wonder if we are ever going to play music together again?' to Carrie and she was like, "Well, yeah, I'd really love to do that, but I don't know how we would go about that."

With Brownstein's full schedule and each member of Sleater-Kinney being busy with her own life, there was some doubt as to whether they could make it all work again. There was a legacy to both consider and live up to.

"If we're going to do it again, how would we do it differently, what would we want to do, and all those really intense conversations began," says Tucker as she talked about how the reunion of Sleater-Kinney came into focus.

A master of the quiet/loud (although mostly loud) aesthetic so prevalent in many of the finer indie bands playing during Sleater-Kinney's first run, Tucker is modest when it comes to discussing her own prowess as a musician and her approach to the band.

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