Faber & Faber (2010), Edition: 1, Paperback (ISBN 0865479798 / 9780865479791)
Nonfiction (music/women’s studies), 176 pages
Source: personal/purchased copy
Reason for reading: topic of interest; blogger recommendation (Viva la Feminista)
Opening Lines (Chapter 1): “The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, is the kind of university that offers neither grades nor majors. Its central quad is called Red Square; its concrete-block, riot-proof buildings are nestled among acres of forested land; and the chili in the main café is always vegan. As can be expected from its left -of-center reputation, the school has attracted a mix of outcast students since its inception in 1967: hippies, slackers, and punks. It’s also my alma mater. And I count myself as one of them.”
Book Description (via the publisher’s website): In the early nineties, “riot grrrl” exploded onto the underground music scene, inspiring girls to pick up an instrument, create fanzines, and become politically active. Rejecting both traditional gender roles and their parents’ brand of feminism, riot grrrls celebrated and deconstructed femininity.
The movement’s message of “revolution girl-style now” filtered into the mainstream as “girl power,” popularized by the Spice Girls and transformed into merchandising gold as shrunken T-shirts, lip glosses, and posable dolls. Though many criticized girl power as at best frivolous and at worst soulless and hypersexualized, Marisa Meltzer argues that it paved the way for today’s generation of confident girls who are playing instruments and joining bands in record numbers.
Girl Power examines the role of women in rock since the riot grrrl revolution, weaving Meltzer’s personal anecdotes with interviews with key players. Chronicling the legacy of artists such as Bratmobile, Sleater-Kinney, Alanis Morissette, Britney Spears, and, yes, the Spice Girls, Girl Power points the way for the future of women in rock.
Comments: By the time I knew about the riot-grrrl movement of the early 1990’s, I’d missed it. However, as a relatively short-lived and deliberately noncommercial development in music, its influence on what followed it outstripped its immediate impact, and I suspect a lot of women who were past high-school and college age (I was in my late 20’s, already married and a mother) missed it at the time. In this exploration of women in music during the last couple of decades, Marisa Meltzer looks at the music’s “anyone can do it” roots in punk, its filtering into mainstream consciousness, and its sometimes-shaky connections to modern feminism.
Meltzer argues that the original riot grrrls viewed their independent music-making, writing and publishing activities as feminist, political acts, but their determination not to be exploited diluted their potential impact on the direction of third-wave feminism. However, the 1990’s were notable for the assimilation of “alternative” culture into the mainstream, and stylistic elements of riot grrrl – assertiveness, embracing and expression of “negative” emotions, an upfront expression of sexuality, and reclaiming “girl” as a positive term harking back to a more authentic self – became part of a pop-culture-based “empowerment” that may have helped produce more confident girls, but affected little genuine social change. The sense of community, sisterhood and “women for women” that spurred the feminist movement through the 1960s and into the early 1980s was present in riot grrrl, but it too became diluted and the focus shifted to the individual. Meltzer suggests that without a revived sense of community, genuine progress for feminist values may be limited – and I think she’s right.
Girl Power is a fast read that touches on a lot of material, but doesn’t explore much of it in great detail, and I admit I was somewhat disappointed by that – I’d have liked more, not just about the politics but about the music; too many of the early-’90s artists Meltzer references were unfamiliar to me. The book’s appendices include a bibliography and filmography; I’d have liked a discography as well, but I’m not sure that some of the music discussed is even available (several playlists linked in the book’s website may help with that). It’s not enough to satisfy your 1990s nostalgia, but it may pique your appetite for more. Hopefully, it will also get you thinking about further exploration of the feminist questions it raises.
This book counts for the Read Your Own Books Challenge (18/20)