Thursday, March 06, 2008

Riot Grrrl: Revolution Girl Style Now!

Black Dog Publishing

There is much to be said about Riot Grrrl, the movement that spawned a phantom army of angry women and girls in the early 1990s and had a brief mainstream moment, before heading back underground. Its influence stretches from Ladyfest to the film Itty Bitty Titty Committee and it deserves proper consideration.

As it happens, this International Women's Day (8 March) is the 15th anniversary of a remarkable gig in Newport, Gwent by Huggy Bear and Bikini Kill, two bands closely associated with Riot Grrrl. I was there and it was a watershed moment for me, not just because I had conducted an intense interview with Kathleen Hanna, but also because I missed my train and ended up staying for the gig which almost became a riot. I watched open-mouthed as Hanna demanded men move to the back and girls and women come to the front by the stage. Despite my tiredness, I was energised and I thought: this is an extraordinary moment. What will happen next?

So to the book. In this long-overdue assessment, four authors give their views on various aspects of Riot Grrrl: writings, activism, punk and art. The intro by editor Nadine Monem promises that these are the authors' personal views, culled from their involvement and their research. But then no biographical information is offered about them, leaving the reader wondering: who are these people and why should I care what they think about Riot Grrrl? This is relevant, because, as is stated in the book, Riot Grrrl had no central committee. Every woman made it her own.

One might expect the information about the authors' backgrounds and, indeed, biases, to come in the actual essays. For example, Red Chidgey, in her assessment of Riot Grrrl writing, gives a brief account of her involvement before discussing the zine network that fuelled Riot Grrrl's spread.

However, the contributions of fellow writers Julia Downes and Cazz Blaze offer little personal perspective and their articles are largely cut-and-paste jobs from old sources.

In fact, the lack of original research in this book is glaringly disappointing. Most footnotes refer to published books and articles, many from the music press, which seems especially odd as the latter's hostility led to a media blackout by Riot Grrrl. Consequently, who cares what the NME said in 1993? Surely, a book coming so long afterward should be able to shed light on what was really going on, at ground level, not rehash old inaccurate material from a male-dominated press.

One bright spot, coming very late on, is Suzy Corrigan's contribution, a well-written, informative essay on the US backdrop to the formation of Riot Grrrl: the Reagan years, the AIDS crisis, the Guerilla Girls, etc. She gives a personal insight into how she felt growing up in this environment and also includes her involvement in the 1993 ICA Bad Girls conference. I take issue with her assertion that art will save us all (though I hope that it does), but I respect it as a strongly held viewpoint. A pity this is the last chapter, coming after so much dross.

The directories at the back give timelines and a list of zines, both selective, leaving one wondering: what is the point? Any novice reader coming to this would be given little to get her going.

And knowledgeable readers (hey, I'm a footnote!) will recognise the plethora of errors. I am dismayed by the shabbiness of the book's presentation: typos, mis-spellings, misnumbered footnotes, factual errors, and ink-smudged pages abound. One might think it was a deliberate attempt to echo the home-made style of zines, but I suspect not. The subject deserves better.

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