How NOT to write about music – 43. Bikini Kill

bikini-killYou know, it’s odd. I’ve never written about Bikini Kill.

(The following is reprinted from Collapse Board, 2011. I have no way of ascertaining these days whether any of it is accurate, relevant or indeed True.)

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After having posted that excerpt from a Melody Maker letters page, it occurred to me that this following post might be offline. Thought I better rectify that, and fast. The following was originally published on my old Music That I Like blog. I haven’t actually checked the myriad of featured links, so if any of them are dead please let me know and I’ll fix that – Ed]

So … I thought I’d put all the parts of the Riot Grrrl interviews I did with Julia Downes for her PhD thesis on DIY Queer Feminist (Sub)cultural Resistance in the UK in one place. I’d never really gone on record about any of this stuff before – but I trusted Julia because I liked her contribution to the Riot Grrrl: Revolution Girl Style Now! book, published by Black Dog. So I answered at far greater length than I’m sure she required. Anyhow, Julia kindly gave me permission to reprint my answers, which I’ve done.

melody maker riot grrrl

P.S. The hand lettering on the MM cover reprinted above was actually done by me – meant to indicate a ‘fanzine’ style of design. The effect is somewhat lessened by the addition of Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and Right Said Fred as drop-ins.

P.P.S. The answer I gave regarding my role at Melody Maker is specific to the three months surrounding the height of coverage given to Riot Grrrl in the music press. I can remember one conversation with Simon Price vividly, where he was trying to engage me in informed discussion and I kept repeating, “Which side are you on?” Clearly, I couldn’t have felt like that the entire time I worked at MM…  although, even now, I have considerable sympathy with the views stated below. Indeed, some might regard both Careless Talk Costs Lives and Plan B Magazine as natural end-results of holding those views. [And possibly Collapse Board as well – Ed]

PART ONE
1. How did you hear about riot grrrl?
“Oh jeez. So long ago. I used to travel to Olympia whenever Sub Pop flew me out to Seattle – it was one of my great, secret pleasures: turn up there, sleep on Calvin Johnson’s floor at The Martin (first time I visited there, I even recorded a single with Calvin and Tobi Vail in the garage at Tobi’s parents’ house), berate him for the Skrewdriver poster on his wall, drink hot chocolate and go to all-night dance parties, and delight in the fact alcohol didn’t seem to exist in Olympia. How little I knew! My early friends there were Nikki McLure, Calvin, Al Larsen, Lois Maffeo and Tae from Kicking Giant. I delighted in visiting the K warehouse – which was in a tiny apartment above a garage shop or something right near the Capitol Theatre – and avariciously buying up every last cassette and fanzine and seven-inch single Calvin was distributing, on Melody Maker expenses.

I can’t actually recall buying the Bikini Kill cassette and fanzine on one of those visits, but I certainly did. I think it was before I moved in with Jon and Jo (became their landlord) in Brighton, start of ’92. My timing is all weird over these years, so who knows? Tobi has a better memory of these times, I think: I’m fairly sure I didn’t buy two copies, but I may have done – cos Jon and Jo were my long-standing best friends (I’d known them since they were 15 or 16) and I knew they’d like it. I certainly would have played it to them. I knew I liked it – and it fitted in with my whole Pacific Northwest focus I was going through at the time.

Riot Grrrl would’ve been used as a phrase in the fanzine I picked up… but wait, earlier than that, I was corresponding with Donna Dresch about her using an article I was writing about alcoholism for her queercore fanzine Chainsaw (it never got used, much to my chagrin – I always suspected it was because I was by then part of the ‘mainstream’ media). And that fanzine was one of the early inspirations behind the early Riot Grrrls.

When did that Bikini Kill tape come out? Was it before or after the IPU?

I’ve read that Courtney Love passed it along to me and to Huggy Bear, and that’s not true. She was an initial enthusiastic and loud champion (also a primary influence for Kathy from Bikini Kill) while she still thought there might be something in it for her (it was also a way of gaining Kurt’s approval) but she dropped it pretty fast… and I can’t help feeling she gained almost all her information about Riot Grrrl early on via me (not vice versa). It was via Calvin I discovered Bikini Kill (Beat Happening was one of my favourite bands ever at the time), but I already had encountered many of the initial prime movers.

Unlike grunge – which was a term I unwittingly popularised via my writing in Melody Maker – Riot Grrrl came fully-formed (so it seemed to me) and thought out. By the time Jon and Jo had moved in with me in Brighton – start of ’92 – me and Jo were having all-night conversations about feminist language and doctrine and behavior. Before Huggy Bear discovered Bikini Kill I think they were out-and-out cutie. It would have made sense they were, knowing my friends’ musical preferences. Encountering Tobi, Kathy and Kathleen’s writing and songs politicised them.

And let’s not forget the influence of Sonic Youth…

2.  What, in your opinion, was riot grrrl about (feel free to talk about any aspect you like e.g. fanzines, music, gigs, audiences)?
Riot Grrrl was Nikki McLure going for walks through the forest, able to name every flower, and attending Swap Meets and Pot Lucks; Riot Grrrl was Stella Marrs and her indelible array of homemade postcards; Riot Grrrl was never supposed to be static, definable, but ever-changing, fluid – a movement in every respect of the word. My take on what got called Riot Grrrl was straightforward: I was reared on the female underground cartoonists of the Seventies and the post-punk Rough Trade music of the last Seventies (wherein it seemed entirely natural women should be treated as the equal of men in every respect). I never understood the need for differentiation but certainly I believe(d) in positive discrimination – to those who decried the need for women-only shows, for actively encouraging and favouring female musicians and critics over male (but obviously only if each were worth encouraging and favouring) I would say, “Just look around. Look at this patriarchal society which for years, decade… fucking centuries… has been structured in such a way it favours male over female every time.” Every fucking time. And they’d begrudge the scales tipped fractionally in the opposite way for a brief period of time? Jesus.

In 2006, NME placed a series of stories across the national media stating how cool it was Beth Ditto had made their Top 10 ‘Cool’ List – that, finally, women were ‘cool’. Which fucking century were they living in?!! UK magazine Word ran articles proclaiming “The Rise of The Indie Hottie” in 2007 and no one seemed to bat an eyelid. And people still think Riot Grrrl was needless…?!

Riot Grrrl was basically about female empowerment – females doing stuff on their own terms, separate from men, making up their own rules and systems and cultures. Sure, men were welcome, but they had to understand that for once they weren’t going to be automatically given first place. (One of the reasons my own role in the gestation of Riot Grrrl as a popular cultural movement became so confused was that after a certain period of time I began to listen to those around me – female musicians, activists, artists, human beings – who felt that having such a high-profile male associated with a fledgling female movement was counter-productive. Agreed. This is the first time I’ve spoken to anyone since then.)

The music of Riot Grrrl was a distraction: its purpose was never to give the music press another handy catchphrase to pigeonhole and thus dismiss a certain type of music. I always perceived it went far deeper than that: penetrating every aspects of lifestyle. I never once trusted or particularly liked the hippies of the Sixties – despite having much sympathy for some of their beliefs – because they were so male-dominated. I cannot place my faith in any movement that just dismissed half the world’s population without a second thought.

3. How did you reconcile your role and responsibilities as a music journalist with your relationships with those involved with riot grrrl, e.g. members of Huggy Bear?
Ah fuck. Yeah. Well, first up – the only reason I avoided seeing Huggy Bear from the off was because I was worried that I’d really like them and that if I really liked them I’d have to write about them and if I wrote about them it was going to cause an awful lot of trouble. I was fucking itching to start a revolution from within. I used to walk into Melody Maker (a paper which, let’s not forget, I was both a primary writer and Assistant Editor for) at the height of Riot Grrrl and have five different journalists screaming at me simultaneously.

I can remember a train journey to Brighton with another music critic which was composed entirely of him shouting, “You’re just a fucking music journalist!” No I wasn’t. I was Everett True. I could change worlds. If I hadn’t believed back then I could change worlds I wouldn’t have been writing for Melody Maker. It would have been a gross abuse of my responsibilities and (minimal) power. I was actively engaged in trying to bring the UK music press down from within (there was one editorial I wrote on the letters’ page which personally attacked three different journalists from my own paper). I was trying my hardest to fuck shit up.

I saw my responsibilities as a music journalist in a very different light to those around me: 1) entertain above everything, 2) compromise is the Devil talking, 3) provide alternatives, provide alternatives!, 4) make folk jealous of me, 5) get rid of the stinking rotten patriarchal mess called rock music and replace it with something far more challenging and entertaining and right-thinking.

I was aware to the point of… Christ knows… about my relationships with musicians (not just Huggy Bear)… I would go out of my way to slag friends off in print, just to prove I wouldn’t let friendship get in the way of my opinion: and I never pretended not to know someone. It was common knowledge I lived with Huggy Bear: indeed, I suspect a lot of their ideals and terminology came out of conversations they had with both me and Sally Margaret Joy (who is still about the most brilliant writer I’ve encountered). I never saw any sort of contradiction or wrongness in the fact I chose to hang out with musicians and record label bosses and not other music critics – surely that was the point, to immerse yourself in the lifestyle to such a degree that you come to represent the lifestyle?

But yeah, it rapidly got very weird. I made a major error of judgment by asking a journeyman US critic to interview Bikini Kill for the first British music press interview (instead of me) – he was so crass on both the ‘phone and in the resulting article, he pretty much put Kathleen off the mainstream music media for life. (So maybe he did serve a purpose after all.) When Bikini Kill came over to tour, I pretended not to know them – despite having recorded a single with Tobi – and didn’t attend any shows I felt I would be unwelcome at. Likewise, other Olympia musicians, some of whom only knew me from second-hand accounts and were wary of this almost mythical UK music critic who was on first-name terms with some very famous people, seemed to embody everything anybody thought of the UK music press, and yet still claimed to be down with the underground, the insurrectionists.

When Huggy Bear went off to tour the US, Jo was still living in my house – and was one of my best friends, difficulties and trauma caused by my enthusiastic championing and coverage of Riot Grrrl in Melody Maker notwithstanding. I never saw her again! (Well, once, actually.) It all got remarkably bitter, remarkably fast.

4.  Considering the conventions, structures and pressures of British rock music journalism in the early 1990s and what you knew about riot grrrl at that point, how did you and Sally figure out a way to make riot grrrl comprehensible for Melody Maker readers?
Um, that first Riot Grrrl cover… the picture of the two females fighting, covered in mud, drawn from one of the Re:Search books series of Incredibly Strange Music or something. The hand-lettering on that cover is my own, done in such a way to make it look more ‘fanzine’. I chose that image – and it’s a very strange image, in retrospect – cos I knew it would make an impact. ‘Do you wanna play?’ I believe was the tag-line. Music press readers are far more intelligent than editors and publishers give them credit for – if they weren’t, they probably wouldn’t be reading the music press. They like to think of themselves as ‘cutting edge’. So you appeal to that side of their tastes: our editor approved of my championing of Riot Grrrl because he understood (male-dominated) punk rock and he thought it was punk rock for females. Of course it wasn’t.

Sally supplied the ideas and I – being by some distance the most loved and loathed music critic at the UK music press at the time – supplied the focus. We tried to leave them in the originators’ voices as much as possible. We tried to make the stories entertaining and exciting, and also played the ‘alienation’ card as much as possible: if you’re not with us, you’re against us… but if you’re against us, you’re a total fucking square. I was in a position of power at MM at the time, my presence there was adding to sales and so of course others would listen if I said something was a good story.

It was rumoured at the time that the video-snatch cover of Niki from Huggy Bear performing live on The Word, emblazoned with the slogan “This is happening without your permission!” – what a great line! – was the best-selling non-promoted MM issue of the Nineties. I think I made that rumour up, but who knows? Sally’s cover feature on Huggy Bear’s television appearance was fascinating. It totally wound up male – and female – critics at the music press, by being straight reportage. They were expecting something way more sensationalist, but that’s cos they were still thinking in terms of Riot Grrrl being the female punk, which it wasn’t – cos punk was defined on male terms, and Riot Grrrl is defined on female.

Looking back, I’m not sure we particularly cared whether it was comprehensible or not. I knew I certainly wanted to alienate many of them. I can’t speak for Sally (obviously). She’s the one who should be talking about this.

Oh… and duh. The phrase “Riot Grrrl” is incredibly emotive. It’s incredibly easy to latch onto, even if you have no knowledge of what lies behind it.

5.  What impact did the music press coverage of riot grrrl have upon the British riot grrrl movement?
Um, the British Riot Grrrl movement didn’t exist before the music press coverage of it. Or if it did, we’re talking matter of weeks: everything happened and was hatched at once, for better or worse. That’s why that recent Black Dog book was great – so many varying viewpoints – and ridiculously revisionist, especially when it came to discussing the British music papers role in Riot Grrrl (UK – not US). The two sides fed off each other. It was fucking great that tons of fanzines (and also places like Girl Frenzy and Ablaze!) saw Riot Grrrl as their own and sought to exclude the ‘mainstream’ music press. Good on them. Totally. That’s one of the many, complicated, reasons I withdrew myself from the dialogue in ’93 and ’94.

But if we’re talking about initial impact… well, I’d go as far as saying that – outside of a very small clique of hipsters based round London’s White Horse and Brighton – the music press coverage of Riot Grrrl defined the British Riot Grrrl movement. For better or worse. Of course, whatever Riot Grrrl turned into rapidly outstripped such beginnings.

6.  In the oral histories I’ve done you have been constructed as some kind of music press spin-doctor, whilst others have emphasised your genuine excitement and enthusiasm about riot grrrl. How did it feel from your position to experience the media backlash against riot grrrl and the subsequent anti-media mood which saw many involved in riot grrrl distance themselves from yourself and the media?
I think there’s an element of truth in both perspectives. I’m a crap spin doctor though: I never end up with the money! I wasn’t at all surprised by the media backlash against Riot Grrrl because… look, this is what happens at the music press, the whole legendary ‘build ‘em up, knock ‘em down’ syndrome. It doesn’t actually exist, or rather it does – but it’s not as premeditated as that. What happens is this…

New band (or movement) appears.
Its handful of champions ardently and enthusiastically bring it to the outside world’s attention. All the initial articles about said band or movement are written by these folk.
Time goes by. Either new band or movement tamely disappears back into the mire from whence it came, or it becomes more popular – and hence editors need other people to write about it. These aren’t going to be the band or movement’s enthusiastic early champions: these are going to be the cynics, the critics, the ones barely bothered by music at all… those with different taste. So negative reviews start appearing…
And so on.

No, of course I wasn’t surprised by the media backlash. After all, haven’t I already stated I was actively involved in trying to bring down the institutions from within? Of course you’re going to defend your own. I only saw the backlash as proof that what we were attempting was vital.

Also, such a long time has passed since then, that those who did initially try to distance themselves from me and the media have since come back around to me again. (I’m talking about those from the first generation, not ones that came after. The reason I make this differentiation is because the former knew me, and the latter don’t.) Of course, your research might prove otherwise but ultimately… if I really cared about what strangers thought of me, there’s no way I could have been Everett True for so long.

Plus, I could sympathise with those who sought to distance themselves from me and the media – I would have done exactly the same in their stead. Fuck Everett True! At the height of (the initial media furor around) Riot Grrrl, Melody Maker was printing letters comparing me to Camille Paglia and Valerie Solanas. Whatever. I was just as confused and fucked-up and wanting change as those around me.

7. What did you learn through your involvement with riot grrrl?
Um, tons of stuff – but nothing that can be summed up in one soundbite, sorry. It’s not like it came as a surprise to me that women were just as able to create music or alternative ways of living as men… it’s central to my entire existence.

PART TWO
Considering the conventions, structures and pressures of British rock music journalism in the early 1990s and what you knew about riot grrrl at that point, how did you and Sally figure out a way to make riot grrrl comprehensible for Melody Maker readers?

You talk about how you wrote riot grrrl articles with Sally (“you’re with us or against us”) and how you put the first riot grrrl cover together. I was wondering if you could talk more about the other kinds of music press conventions this coverage also relied on – like making lists of essential riot grrrl bands, fanzines, quotes, influences etc. It just seems that, even though you had a really good grasp of riot grrrl as a structureless, flexible and undefinable movement, you still had to make riot grrrl comprehensible to your readers through using lists – which ultimately simplified and fixed riot grrrl as an identifiable property.

Back then, as hard as it may be to believe now, the rise of the Top 20 wasn’t endemic, lists weren’t everywhere. They were still overused however. But of course you’re right. We were using certain conventions with which to communicate with our readers: we were concerned with trying to make it as easy as possible for our readers, specifically female (we hoped) to be able to access the information we were providing. This was in the pre-Internet days (by a few years) so it was a concern for us to provide reference points, contacts.

We were aware that we were introducing concepts outside the frame of reference of most of our readership (even allowing for their heightened knowledge of music) and we didn’t want to fuck around and withhold information just to make ourselves seem cooler then them (a common trick among the media) – we wanted everything we knew about, pretty much, to be available to our readers. We presented that information in the form of lists simply cos of space restrictions (and yes, because it also pandered to the expectations of our colleagues). It’s possible that by doing so we ultimately simplified Riot Grrrl – but ultimately that’s true of any form of documentation, however open-ended and however wide.

The book you helped compile for Black Dog last year will be used as a benchmark for Riot Grrrl far more than our couple of original, incendiary articles ever were. It too will be used to impose structure on a structureless movement. I’m sure that wasn’t your intention any more than it was ours. Our intention was to share information. We didn’t want to be seen to be leaders, not at all: we were trying, seriously, to be selfless in our passing along of knowledge. I would have loved to put in those original articles everything else I believed Riot Grrrl stood for – most of it not musical – and we did touch upon that, but ultimately we were writing within the structure of a music paper. All we wanted to do was inspire – females specifically.

It’s worth remembering that we were very aware of the restrictions placed upon us by the medium which is why, at the end of the major Huggy Bear feature we ran in MM, we stated that the interview the reader had just finished reading was only part one of the article – part two was a fanzine they could obtain free by writing in to Sally or myself. And we dutifully, or rather Sally dutifully cos I always was fucking lazy, photocopied about 80 pages or some ridiculous amount 100 times, and sent them out to everyone who requested a copy.

There’s also aspects of tourism and rules in that first article too e.g. where Sally gives tips about visiting the embassy “Here are some tips if you ever decide to visit the embassy: (i) Don’t take ham sandwiches – they’re vegetarians; (ii) Alcohol is a big no no; (iii) As are illegal drugs – “murderous commerce chaired by the government”, says the Nation of Ulysses; (iv) As is sleeping, in case capitalism comes up and poisons you in the night”.

I’m not trying to opt out here, but I’m sure you appreciate it when I say I cannot speak for Sally. Didn’t Sally write ALL that first article? I can’t remember. I think I was only in the background giving advice (I had the musical knowledge required), but obviously I wasn’t going to tell her what to write. Sally had agendas of her own she wanted to follow – as do all individuals. That paragraph you quote above (and I really need to see the context) looks like her attempt at humour to me. Just because you support a movement doesn’t mean you have to be down with every aspect of it.

Sally was not familiar at all with the musical heritage of Riot Grrrl (that was where I came in) – she comes from a very different background that I don’t want to presume I know that much about. Any description of a foreign country is always going to contain traces of tourism, almost by definition. I wouldn’t have written it like that, but I wasn’t the writer. Ultimately what mattered was the impact achieved, not the means used… although the means used do fucking matter obviously.

Also there’s a lot of effort in describing how angry riot grrrls are: “young angry girls”, “talk about what’s making them angry”, “all-girl assaults” and Kathleen Hanna as “the angriest girl of them all” and simplistic demands such as “girls must rule all towns” and “all girls must be in bands” etc. I don’t know Everett but it just seems to undermine the diversities of riot grrrl experiences that I’ve been hearing and writing about and there’s a historical tendency to position feminist critique as irrational anger whose demands can therefore be easily dismissed by the majority.

Dude, seriously. Riot Grrrl DID NOT EXIST IN THE UK before our articles (at least not outside of my house, pretty much – and wait a minute, I love both Amelia as a person and musician, but where she gets this idea that Heavenly were a proto-Riot Grrrl band I have no idea, cos they sure weren’t at the time). So I’m not sure how Sally could have been undermining experiences that hadn’t actually happened. (Of course there were plenty of females around who could have been termed Riot Grrrl before the tag took hold, but is it right to call them that before the movement actually existed?) Sally was bitterly aware at the way any strong-thinking females are inevitably dismissed as ‘crazy’. She had been dismissed that way, time and time again, herself – particularly by our male colleagues at the music press. We wrote a series of articles debunking the archetypes back then – you have read them, right?

Again, the paragraph above might have been an attempt to present the argument in a language music press readers could relate to, for “young” and “angry” substitute “new”. I think Sally was trying to channel anger into a tool for expression and revolution, I don’t think for one moment she was trying to undermine Riot Grrrls by giving the media an easy tool with which to categorise and thus dismiss them. This language is Sally’s not mine – and again, she was the outsider trying to describe what she experienced in as fair and explanatory manner as possible. Again, I don’t feel too easy talking about someone else’s views. Ultimately, I suspect any revolutionary movement is built upon a welter of contradiction, misinformation and passion.

So yeah, what do you think?  Why did these lists happen in the coverage even when you knew that riot grrrl wasn’t so easily definable? What’s with the tips? Why do you think anger had to be at the forefront? What effects do you think highlighting anger in this way did to the perception of riot grrrl by the Melody Maker readership at that time?

Well… again, I can’t speak for Sally, but I’ve always been very aware of both the advantages and limitations of my chosen art form. Honestly? I never expected people to dwell on these articles, let alone ask me about them 15 or more years on: they need to be read in the context of the time, as a launch-pad for something far more interesting.

Overwhelmingly, we could see that something was – and still is – rotten to the very core of the music industry (inbuilt sexism). And we wanted to tackle that. And we saw Riot Grrrl as a tool with which to tackle it, so we used it – the idea was that Riot Grrrl would then use us, and move on. We always knew we would be turned upon and set upon by all sides, taking such a chance. It was something that I’m sure neither of us regrets. You’re focusing on the lists. It’s a fair point, but you could equally focus on a thousand other aspects of our coverage (and I think people did back then). We focused on the anger, yes – but as I say, I think you need to read that focus in the context of where we were writing, when we were writing. Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear, the main musical focuses at that point, were unequivocally angry.

Did that mean did we helped create a fatally flawed movement? Um. That question can only be answered in the affirmative if you believe Riot Grrrl to be fixed to one point in time, to be static – and I know you don’t.

Riot Grrrl is a myriad of contradictions. And that’s to the good. I hate folk who aren’t.

(ends)

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