Punk Rock Grrls

When Kathleen Hanna screamed, "Don't need your dick to fuck!" on Bikini Kill's first album, she defined the burgeoning riot-grrl movement in one blunt lyric. It was 1990, and a network of punk rock "grrls" in Olympia, Washington, had formed bands to rail against male domination in the punk scene and society as a whole, confronting in underground fanzines and punk shows issues like childhood sexual abuse, rape and abortion rights.

By 1992, riot-grrl punk had snagged the attention of the mainstream media. CNN broadcast images of grrls with "SLUT" and "RAPE" painted across their stomachs, USA Today sneaked into the Riot Grrl Convention in Washington, D.C., and ABC news producers, frustrated by vain attempts to crack open the insular scene, attempted to pay off riot grrl-ies to report a news special on the movement.

Most of the stories portrayed riot grrls as naive, baby-doll radicals who lacked the talent to match their strident ideology. The grrls responded with a media blackout and slipped back to the underground. The media refused to relinquish their new favorite buzz phrase and slapped it on everyone from Courtney Love (who dissed the movement as immature) to Gwen Stefani. Last year, New Times music editor David Holthouse, who knows better, even put chick rockers L7 in the riot-grrl category.

Out of the spotlight, the grrls were left to grow up and refine both their politics and songwriting talents. Last year, Bikini Kill released its most accomplished album (Reject All American). Other formative riot grrls left their original bands for new ones--Bratmobile's Allison now fronts Cold Cold Hearts. Molly from Bratmobile drums for the Peechees, and Heavens to Betsy's Corin Tucker is now the lead vocalist and guitarist for Sleater-Kinney.

Last year, Sleater-Kinney, comprising guitarists Tucker and Carrie Brownstein (of Northwest punksters Excuse 17) and drummer Lora MacFarlane (of Australia's Sea Hags) released a benchmark album for riot grrls' newfound maturity: Call the Doctor. That album, released on Donna Dresch's (of queer-core mainstay Team Dresch) Chainsaw label, drew critical acclaim from both the mainstream and underground media for its raw vulnerability and evolutionary punk sound. Sleater-Kinney members resigned themselves to interviews and became the media darlings of post-riot-grrl femi-rock, making the Top 10 of '96 lists in several major magazines.

Last December, former lovers Carrie and Corin went into the studio again, this time with Janet Weiss of Quasi on the drum set, to record Dig Me Out, their first recording for Kill Rock Stars. Dig Me Out is the definitive document of three young women rocking out--the songs are about rock 'n' roll ("Words and Guitar"), love ("Heart Factory"), breakups ("One More Hour") and all the confusion in between. The songwriting chemistry between Carrie and Corin, as well as the interplay between Carrie's background screaming and Corin's quavering voice, is the critical element that should make Sleater-Kinney the buzz band of the late '90s.

Although the band has no plans to go major on us, it has one hell of a publicity grrl, and you can bet on seeing S-K everywhere soon. Revolver tried to get a jump on the rest of the vultures in a recent interview with Carrie Brownstein, but the frenzy was already under way. By print time, Rolling Stone had scooped us by an issue.

Revolver: So how is it, being the next big thing?
Carrie Brownstein: It's getting pretty old. This is my sixth interview today, actually. I hope we have more staying power than the "next big thing," 'cause the "next has-been" comes right after that.

R: Was turning media-friendly a calculated move?
CB: Well, we wanted to reach a wider audience because I think the music we write is transcendent of any specific genre or age group or gender or whatever. So we had to make compromises, and open ourselves up to doing interviews with the big magazines. It's a little strange seeing myself in Rolling Stone, though.

R: Let's talk about Dig Me Out. What's your perspective on the first album versus the second?

CB: I think Call the Doctor was very desperate and out of control. It's energetic and powerful, but the intensity came from a darker place. Dig Me Out is a much more celebratory album. The energy is a lot lighter, but I also think it's equally political and powerful in terms of what we're writing about--desire and about wanting. I think it's important for women to write about that, 'cause traditionally we're taught to suppress those things, not to have those desires. Musically, I think we've gotten much better and our songwriting is better. Corin and I speak a very similar musical language, so we find it easy to co-write, but I think we put a lot more thought into how we wanted to shape the songs on this album. We've tried to make our songs more metaphoric and channel them through different filters, so hopefully anyone of any gender can hear a song and apply it to her life or be affected by it. It's important for us to be empowering to other women especially, but we don't really have one specific agenda.

R: How important was the community in which you grew up [Olympia] to Sleater-Kinney's success?

CB: I'm really glad you asked that, 'cause everyone tries to take us out of context from where we're from. The reason Corin and I even started playing music has so much to do with artists and musicians and friends we have here that inspired us. You can't separate us from the fact that we come from an amazing community of people. We wouldn't exist without it.

Rock 'n' Roll High School
Between the Riverdales, the Queers, Boris the Sprinkler and the Mr. T Experience, there are enough Ramones tribute bands out there to last 'til the Hale-Bopp Comet comes by again. Not that said bands aren't talented, but if the most they accomplish is sounding just like the Ramones, what's the point? How do you put a new spin on something as replicated as the forerunners of American punk rock? Enter the Donna's, four 17-year-old girls from South City, California; and, yeah, they're all named Donna.

The Donna's self-titled debut LP is in a class of its own. The songs are still about high school, love, partying and rock 'n' roll, but these girls are actually teenagers (how old are Joe Queer and Ben Weasel now? 32?). Besides that, the Donna's are damn good musicians for 17-year-olds--they steal simple three-chord melodies as well as anybody. These girls are the true heirs of sneering, black-leather-bubblegum punk. I just hope they don't sign on with Lollapalooza when they're 40. (Super*Teem Records, P.O. Box 63, South City, CA 94083)

Mad at Who?
Tempe's Mad At 'Em, winners of the '97 New Times Music Awards punk category, just released its first seven-inch on Aviator Records. This three-girl, one-boy (he drums) pop-punk outfit throws down two songs, "Stalker" and "Zovirax." "Stalker" is a hyperactive thriller narrated by wailing vocals, "I think I really love you/I'm gonna have to/Have to, have to cut you"; "Zovirax," a plea for pain relief, carries the same blistering energy. The record suffers from the same low production values as most local vinyl, but it's a worthy documentation of the Valley's best grrl band. (Aviator Records, P.O. Box 40865, Mesa, AZ 85274-0865)

--Brendan Kelley


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