Even though some feminist ideology has gone mainstream it is important to remember the counterculture history. The bands may have broken up, the musicians faded into obscurity, but the message of their music remains and proves that feminism wasn’t just another musical trend, but an outlet for female artists, and an inspiration for future women.
Midterms are over and finals are quickly approaching. I find myself overwhelmed with readings, essays, and studying galore. But in the midst of the chaos that is being a UCLA student, I always find time to blast my favorite anti-patriarchal and women empowering songs. I’m not the only one with that specific playlist, am I?…
She was singing, face beet red, veins popping out of her neck. She screeched again, “BOY POISON!” With great intensity, the front woman kept yelling those words. Allison Wolfe stood there in the doorway of the music venue, awestruck as she thought to herself, “This is amazing.” Mostly frightened and terrified of this girl on stage, she couldn’t resist the amount of power she had over the room. Who was this girl and why could she not look away?
Wolfe had noticed this girl around town all summer, though their exchanges mostly consisted of glares on the bus around her hometown of Olympia, Wash. “She had a shaved head and was so intense I was terrified of her,” recalled Wolfe. “I was more smiley whiley, cutsie wootsie so I’m sure I annoyed the hell out of her.” They finally met when Wolfe managed to get her name on the guest list and gain free admittance to a show through the guy she was seeing. When she got there, she was confronted at the door with the familiar glare as the girl with the shaved head scoffed, “We’ve got bills to pay!”
The girl was Kathleen Hanna. Wolfe wouldn’t find out until years later when the two women were friends that the animosity came from the fact that they were both seeing the same guy and only Hanna knew about it.
When Wolfe returned to Olympia after college, she worried about her direction as she wondered around aimlessly trying to figure out who exactly she was. Meeting Hanna that summer changed everything as the two women, among countless others, would begin a new feminist movement. Combining remnants of the past with their punk rock mindset, they created an extension of third-wave feminism known as Riot Grrrl.
Need for Riot Grrrl
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, years before the Riot Grrrl movement got its name, there was a revolution brewing within the punk scene. Female punk bands like the Slits, the Raincoats and Chalk Circle paved the way for their future feminist counterparts as they dealt with a mainly male music scene. Sharon Cheslow of Chalk Circle spoke out and encouraged other women to reclaim the scene for themselves.
“For anybody out there, if you’re interested in what we’ve been saying, get up there and do something yourself!” said Cheslow in a 1982 interview with her band. “Write a fanzine, form a band, just do something! It’s the only way things are ever gonna change.” These words resonated with women like Wolfe, who took the message to heart as they created their new scene in the 1990’s.
The Beginnings of Bratmobile
When Wolfe was a teenager, she wanted what so many kids out of high school want: to get the hell away from her home town. She attended college in Eugene at the University of Oregon in 1989 and felt as though she didn’t fit into the “hippie town” quite as well as she had hoped. One night, in the hallway of her dorm, Wolfe came across a female student yelling at her boyfriend on the phone.
When Wolfe introduced herself, she and the woman, Molly Neuman, found that their personalities were complimentary and they became fast friends. They talked about feminism and formed a fanzine called “Girl Germs.” They also came up with the name of their would-be band and told people about it as if it already existed.
Though Wolfe had written some poems that would eventually become Bratmobile lyrics, it was not until a friend of theirs asked them to open a show that they actually picked up instruments. The women were clueless about writing songs and sought guidance from a local punk rock friend, who advised them to listen to the Ramones for inspiration.
“I remember something in me was like, don’t listen to the Ramones because then you’ll just sound like everyone else … or a boy band or something,” remembered Wolfe. “It’s funny. To this day I still don’t own a Ramones record.” With Neuman playing both the guitar and drums, Wolfe assumed the role of front woman.
Sticking with the name Bratmobile, the two of them had a month to get ready for their first show. “We were full of shit!” joked Wolfe. “We played and I just had no idea, are these songs? Does this suck?”
The pressure was on but their first show in Olympia on Feb. 14, 1991 was a huge success, “We played and it was fucking awesome,” remembered Wolfe. “It was just incredible and things just started rolling from there.” Bratmobile had the support of friends in the scene like Hanna’s band, Bikini Kill, and even the likes of Kurt Cobain, who showed up just as they finished their last song.
By the end of the show, Bratmobile had an offer to record. “As soon as we finished Patrick Maley came up and asked if he could record us that weekend,” recalled Wolfe.
During spring break of that same year, she and Neuman went to Washington D.C. to follow Beat Happening and Nation of Ulysses on tour. There they acquired their third band member, Erin Smith, on guitar. With the band complete, Bratmobile quickly became the face of the Northwest feminist punk mentality.
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…