In celebration of the “Are you a Riot Grrrl?” story in the latest issue of Fem, I thought it would be pretty neat to compile a list of truly great riot grrrl songs to get all your DIY juices flowing. What makes an unforgettable riot grrrl song you ask? Well, let me begin.
First, I think it’s necessary to point out some of the influencers of Riot Grrrl who paved the way for our grrrls in the ‘90s:
10. The Slits – “Typical Girls”
The Slits began in 1976 when the singer Ari Up was just fourteen with nothing but borrowed instruments and a basic knowledge of how to make music. She decided it was time for all-girl punk band and within a year of forming the band was opening for the Clash on their White Riot tour in 1977. Their early success suggested a desire for a female perspective to the British punk scene. Typical Girls is off of their first recorded album Cut in 1979.
9. Crass – Systematic Death
Systematic Death comes off of the 1981 album Penis Envy, named after Freud’s ideas concerning gender and sexual identity, and was a step away from the macho image of the group’s previous albums with Eve Libertine on vocals. Feminist themes are expressed throughout the album while also criticizing the mechanics of the system like marriage and hetero-normative gender relations.
8. X-Ray Spex – “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”
“Oh Bondage Up Yours!” was released by X-Ray Spex as a single in September 1977. The singer of X-Ray Spex, Poly Styrene, wrote the song from an anti-consumerist perspective not intending for it to have feminist associations though it would later be adopted by the riot grrrls as a feminist catchphrase for their own movement. Styrene was a natural Riot Grrrl role-model because she rejected any typical notions of beauty and opened her shows by screaming, “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard but I think, oh bondage, up yours!”
Riot Grrrl songs are loaded with feminist lyrics ranging from boy problems to superficial friends and most notably to political commentary about the state of being a woman in a male-centered world.
7. Viva Knieval – Boy Poison
It would be impossible to compile this list without a heavy Kathleen Hanna presence. Viva Knieval was Hanna’s second band after Amy Carter and before meeting Tobi Vail and forming Bikini Kill. “Boy Poison” was playing the first time Allison Wolfe saw Hanna perform and would inspire her to form her own band, Bratmobile. This song is perfect for so many reasons, but I especially love the sweetness of Hanna’s voice in the beginning and ending with the screaming of boy poison as a way of telling girls not to give up control.
6. Bikini Kill – “Alien She” (Honorable mentions: “I Like Fucking” and “Rebel Girl”)
Bikini Kill is synonymous with Riot Grrrl because the front woman, Kathleen Hanna, was without a doubt the biggest personality and influence within the movement. I love so many Bikini Kill songs so it was super hard to choose just one, thus the honorable mentions, but I decided to go with “Alien She” off of Pussy Whipped simply because I identify with it so much. As a feminist, it is often hard to balance a powerful side with a girly side and this song deals with the struggle between societal expectations of femininity and what we actually feel as women and feminists. This song talks about the balancing of this sort of split personality between what is bad (feminist, dyke, whore) and good (pretty, pretty alien).
5. Julie Ruin – “The Punk Singer”
Julie Ruin, Kathleen Hanna’s solo project, came about in 1998 after Bikini Kill finally broke up. The band first began as a solo act but later picked up Sadie Benning and Johanna Fateman to perform live before becoming the more well-known trio Le Tigre. Hanna has always been really explicit with her feminist lyrics and this song talks about the difference between male and female musicians’ objectives. “The Punk Singer” is alluding to all the singers of all those typical male punk bands who want recognition and to be remembered as a sort of macho mark while female bands are trying change things.
4. Bratmobile – “Cool Schmool”
Since my entire article is exclusively centered on Bratmobile, I will skip the backstory and force you to read all about it in the Winter issue (out this week!). This is my favorite Bratmobile song because it’s fun and calls out those superficial people who take themselves too seriously.
3. Heavens to Betsy – Terrorist
Quintessential riot grrrl band Heavens to Betsy began in Olympia, Washington in 1991 and Tucker would later form Sleater-Kinney. This song is great because it talks about going from innocent victim to active assailant against a presumably male attacker. Corin Tucker is such a badass and this song makes me really believe she’ll actually kill someone.
2. Sleater-Kinney – “Dig Me Out”
This song comes from the album of the same name released in 1997 and is considered by critics to be the best Sleater-Kinney album. In 2005, Dig Me Out was ranked #24 in Spin’s “100 Greatest Albums, 1985-2005” and in 2008 the song “Dig Me Out” was ranked #44 in Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time.” Not bad.
1. The Frumpies – “We Don’t Wanna Go Home”
The Frumpies formed in 1992 with the original line-up consisting of Tobi Vail, Kathi Wilcox, Billy Karren (all of whom were previously part of Bikini Kill), and the drummer of Bratmobile Molly Neuman. Not every Riot Grrrl song has to be angry and super political as the Frumpies demonstrate here. “We Don’t Wanna Go Home” is about girl ol’ fashioned girlfriends and being bummed out when your friends move away.
So there you have it. Just like any decent top ten list, there will be some dispute which I will gladly embrace. If you are super pissed off about a song that I might have missed (which I surely have) by all means post it in the comments. A top ten list of any nature is bound to exclude some but hopefully this gives you an idea of who inspired the riot grrrls and how they made feminist music their own. Read our latest issue online and learn more about the Riot Grrrl movement!
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