The Feminist Music Revolution: From Babes in Toyland to Beyonce

Riot grrrl spurred on an angry generation of female musicians to take up arms, as well as guitars, and fight back against the patriarchy, both in the record label boardrooms and across society in general.

Karren Ablaze, writing recently for the Guardian about her new book, reflects on the twentieth year anniversary of riot grrrl - a feminist punk movement concocted of bands like L7 and Babes in Toyland, that shot female musicians into the limelight and challenged the male-dominated world of alternative music.

"March 1993", she says, "and a [musical] storm is about to hit... The new ethos is screamed loud and clear: girls can have the stage, and they can run the show".

It certainly did that. As Ablaze writes:

To be a girl in 1990s America meant being fed on media lies that to be acceptable you must be impossibly thin and as pretty as a photoshopped picture. The official line is that you have equality with boys, yet your reproductive rights are being eroded. You have a high chance of being raped, sexually harassed or sexually abused, and a very low chance that any perpetrator gets convicted, and you'll be told you deserved it anyway because of what you wore or where you went. Want to scream? Want to make some noise? You might, but you're only going to get told to shut up and stop making a fuss, so what's the point?

Despite the fact that the music industry was run in exactly the same fashion, riot grrrl spurred on an angry generation of female musicians to take up arms, as well as guitars, and fight back against the patriarchy, both in the record label boardrooms and across society in general.

Ablaze's own fanzine, aptly called Ablaze!, did much to generate the talk about riot grrrl and what it meant, what the fight was, who the fight was aimed at and how women could get organised. Addressing the scene, the fanzine also acted as a political voice, sold or handed out on the streets outside gigs by English bands such as Huggy Bear.

One of the main feminist criticisms of the 'zines like Ablaze! was that the reach for its audience was rather limited. Though riot grrrl was explosive it was still niche. The worth of the message was so that some feminists felt it needed to be echoed to more people, who were perhaps less inclined toward punk rock.

Caitlin Moran in her seminal book How To Be A Woman wrote, raving about riot grrrl, said that:

"the kind of girls who really need a hardcore feminist movement - in council blocks, listening to Radio 1, fantasising about New Kids On The Block - are unlikely to come across a photocopied Riot Grrrl fanzine being handed out outside a Sebadoh gig. Any revolution worth its salt needs to get its message across to as many people as possible".

So years after has the message widened out? Today we don't have the New Kids On The Block, but their equivalent in popular culture - who many girls are listening to today - are they spreading the message? Are those girls, who Moran says really need a feminist movement, catered for?

Moran, again in How To Be A Woman, talks about her encounter with Lady Gaga, who at the time was being touted as the "next big feminist icon", explaining her particular brand of this as for:

"gay equality, sexual equality, political activism, tolerance and getting shit-faced on the dance floor whilst busting out some serious moves. And wearing a lobster on her head."

In spite of the contentious use of the word "bitches" in her new single, consider also the words of Beyonce in a 2010 Daily Mail article:

"I think I am a feminist in a way. It's not something I consciously decided I was going to be; perhaps it's because I grew up in a singing group with other women, and that was so helpful to me. It kept me out of so much trouble and out of bad relationships ... I love being a woman and I love being a friend to other women. I think we learn a lot from our female friends - female friendship is very, very important. It's good to support each other and I do try to put that message in my music".

Riot grrrl was a tremendous step in the feminist political becoming, and channelled a very serious political message through the medium of music to attract multiple crowds. But its inability to reach further feeds into a very vibrant debate about popular feminism and one cloaked in "esoteric theory".

Today popular artists like Beyonce and Lady Gaga are taking a similar message to the riot grrrls to a wider audience and ensuring it is one that speaks to real life - for which we have popular feminism to thank.


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