Music Features

2011: Year of the Woman

1993 is the logical year for us to celebrate the birth of the riot grrrl. This is not to say that prior to 1993 we had no women in rock; Siouxsie Sioux, Exene Cervenka, Ariane Forster, and even Patti Smith had shown that women could be a major force in the punk scenes and in the wider world of music. But 1993 is when gender equality became one of the biggest lyrical issues in indie rock and punk. Kathleen Hanna quit her job as a stripper – itself symbolic of riot grrrl and third-wave feminism at that point in time – and formed Bikini Kill, who released debut record Pussy Whipped, widely considered to be the first riot grrrl album; Heavens To Betsy’s debut, Calculated, was completed, and Excuse 17 began to perform publically. Plus, the world (or a very small part of it) was introduced to Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, who would go on to form Sleater-Kinney. Sleater-Kinney, of course, epitomized the riot grrrl movement, bringing it to the forefront of rock and roll with their angry, feminist lyrics and charged guitar parts. Sleater-Kinney called it quits 2006, just over a year after the release of The Woods and 13 years after the riot grrrl was born. Neither Tucker nor Brownstein released any major material between 2006 and 2011, and the riot grrrl movement seemed dead. Sleater-Kinney were hailed by Rolling Stone as the greatest punk group ever, and women-led bands were finally getting their due, but for the next few years, male-led bands and artists were at the top of the rock and roll pyramid.

If the riot grrrl was born in 1993, she would be 18 in 2011. She would be considered a mature young woman, expected to be articulate, socially responsible, and thoughtful, not just an angry and discontent youth. She would, of course, be expected to realize this and make the transition to adulthood during her adolescence, just like the rest of us. In 2011, she would be able to vote and would have legal care of herself.

Indeed, 2011 saw several of the top albums being the work of women. St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy, PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, tUnE-yArDs’ W H O K I L L, and Wild Flag’s eponymous debut all enjoyed critical success, were seen in the upper echelons of various year-end lists, and all were praised for socially conscious lyrics. In particular, Harvey, who began every bit as angry and feminist as Sleater-Kinney with 1992’s Dry, put together what is arguably the first great war album, focusing on the tragedy of conflict and the irresponsibility of those in power, spanning from World War I to the Afghan War, to show Harvey’s global and historical awareness, complete with powerful images and rhetoric. Consider the lyrics – “I’ve seen soldiers falling like lumps of meat”; “I’ve seen a corporal whose nerves were shot”; “What if I take my problems to the United Nations?” – all of which demonstrate an aware citizen keen on making a statement through her art. Gone were the angry, distorted guitars, gnarled voice, and bitter turns of phrase that characterized her first several albums. We have a new, more mature Harvey, opting for the piano and thought provoking rhetoric and a voice almost too gentle for its subject matter at times. This dynamic change, admittedly not sudden (Uh Huh Her and White Chalk were clear steps) was met with a Mercury Prize, just like the one she got for 2000’s furious and empowering Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea. But Let England Shake is a clear example of growth and maturity both musically and lyrically, and it’s that pathway of growth that smart, aware girls in rock and roll have been following along with Harvey for the past 18 years.

Interestingly, St. Vincent’s musical growth worked opposite Harvey’s, as Annie Clark catapulted into the mainstream by complementing her velvety voice and uncertainty that characterized Marry Me and Actor with wicked guitar licks and furious vocals, showcasing that the riot grrrl is not just the simple-minded punk rocker with a loud voice anymore. Clark asks in Strange Mercy’s closer, “Oh America, can I owe you one?” She is much more concerned with the state of the world than she has been previously, and her guitar is now an instrument for conveying frustration with her country. Clark has even chosen her cover songs carefully, opting for 1980s hardcore, Big Black’s angry Kerosene and Bad Penny, and also abrasive post punk in The Pop Group’s She Is Beyond Good and Evil. Clark’s choice to cover songs concerning suicide, alienation, selfishness, and that include vague references to a global separation in morals and single parents, was more than just an ode to some of her favorite music. There is intent here, a sort of coming-of-age for a girl realizing that there are problems in the world that need to be addressed. Indeed, Strange Mercy’s “love songs” are anything but, often featuring socially conscious twists; she references the importance of image, police brutality, and idealism in separate songs.

Since the riot grrrl has grown up and can now vote, it only makes sense for her to be thinking historically and looking at today’s issues when she is making her decisions. She is not concerned so much with gender equality so much as she is with equality in general, confronting the problems of the world.  But the riot grrrl as we knew her is not gone completely. Strange Mercy shows much of that anger which we associate with the riot grrrl when she threatens “If I ever meet that dirty policeman who roughed you up / Oh, I don’t know what.”  She doesn’t want to be a cheerleader anymore. She acknowledges her roots, confesses to her mistakes, having “had good times with some bad guys” and because she “played dumb when she knew better.” But this doesn’t stop her from asking poignant, unanswered questions. On the second track, Cruel, Clark asks “How can they be so casually cruel?” and by the end it has become, “America, can I owe you one?” as previous mentioned. The riot grrrl has become a full person while away from the spotlight. She has spent summers on her back, but can still ask questions that matter on a national and an international scale in an articulate manner. Clark’s guitar shows us she can be angry, and an uncomfortable, unconventional haze of distortion in the guitar solo of Cruel personifies that anger. We have an album full of discontent and unanswered questions that only a mature individual can make us consider and, like the riot grrrl of the ‘90s, she does it with music and lyrics, but now she does not need to scream and yell with either.

But the riot grrrl knows anger is not the only way to raise awareness of a problem. The variety of music and style shown by tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus demonstrates that she will not be pinned down. She immediately asks of her country, “Why can’t I see my future within your arms?” (echoing Clark’s, “Can I owe you one?”). But she does not stop there. She tells of the discontent Americans feel about the ethics of large corporations and those who work for them when she sarcastically asks in Bizness, “What’s the business, yeah?” before adding “Don’t take my life away,” several times to express a clear discontent with the way businesses are run in the country. Before the Occupy movement started, Garbus was already on its soundtrack and indeed, you could sometimes hear that cry permeating from speakers and radios at Zucotti Park. The evocation of danger and fear with an imitation of sirens, as well as music and vocals cutting in and out of each speaker, both featured in Gangsta, reflect the state of uncertainty and paranoia that is becoming increasingly apparent today. Just like it does with Clark, Garbus’ musical style conveys the message just as well as the lyrics.

And of course, part of being an adult is independence and realizing that no-one is there to hold your hand anymore. And as such, Carrie Brownstein, now of Wild Flag, shows us that she can have fun. Harvey, Clark, and Garbus have demonstrated that there’s plenty to be angry about, but Brownstein, having confronted such issues before, is looking on the bright side. On the opener, Romance, she says that, “we dance to free ourselves from the room.” Brownstein has found her love for music to be more than just a way to bring the problems in our room to attention, it can also get you away from all of them. She has decided, as she says in the next song, to, “Let the good times roll.” After all, what kind of adult is all angst and discontent? That seems decidedly adolescent, and the seminal riot grrrl is fully aware of that.

The riot grrrl, like the rest of us, needed those teenage years to herself. She needed personal experience and time to mature. And how fitting is it that in the year she has done so, Carrie Brownstein comes back to music with one of the most fun records of the year, a far cry from the angry punk music that made us notice her in the first place. As Merrill Garbus tells us on Killa, “I’m a new kind of woman.” A socially conscious one and one to whom you should start paying attention again. And indeed, after many of us thought her best days were behind her, Harvey fired back with what many are calling her best album to date, and Brownstein is back in the best-of lists, so we find ourselves paying attention to both of them again. Whether we are taking a look at the horrors of war that music has rarely shown us or just looking at the properties of music to free us, 2011 has shown us that the girls are a constant presence in music, and, furthermore, that riot grrrl never died, she just grew up. It just so happened that her 18th birthday was the time that so many great artists decided to prove it.