Rethinking the riots: 2017’s bedroom heroes reinvent feminist rock
Mike Donovan | Tuesday, April 4, 2017
Many staunch indie rock fans hold up the Riot Grrrl movement, a surge of feminist punk that started in the late 80s and continued through the 90s, as a glowing embodiment of indie rock’s progressive power. Sara Marcus, in her 2010 history of Riot Grrrl, “Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Movement” presents Kathleen Hanna, the fiery frontwoman of Seattle’s Bikini Kill, as the angry face of the crusade. “[Hanna] screws her eyes tight, pushing words from her body with a visible effort. Tendons pop out on both sides of her neck,” Marcus writes in a description of a Bikini Kill live show. Hanna’s theatrics, Marcus later claims, embodied the “noisy message of self-empowerment voiced by several punk musicians and a few of their friends” that eventually “evolved into a whole mess of things from the half-formed to the full blown.”
Bikini Girl, along with their fellow Riot Grrrl stalwarts Sleater-Kinney and Bratmobile, fit nicely into the indie rock’s progressivist mythos (see Melena Ryzik’s New York Times piece, “A Feminist Role that Still Inspires”), but the Riot Grrrl’s themselves are quick to admit that their methodization ignores some critical faults in the Riot Grrrl ideology.
Hanna, in a 2013 interview with SPIN, illuminates the Riot Grrrl movement’s complicated relationship with race. Detailing a Riot Grrrl Convention in Washington D.C., Hanna talks about how “There were women of color there, and there were white women there, and it ended up being a lot of white women talking about how they felt discriminated against.” She goes on to describe how, “when [she] did go to meetings in the PNW [Pacific Northwest] or different places, it sorta would be white women arguing about who was more racist in an all-white environment.”
Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney, makes a different, equally pertinent point about the pressures of the Riot Grrrl ideology in her 2015 memoir “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.” Discussing Sleater-Kinney’s attempts to renounce the overly simplistic Riot Grrrl movement, Brownstein writes, “It was also exhausting to continually try to separate who we were from what we made. And each time I wanted things to be transcendent, to disregard gender dynamics and sexism, those things reared their ugly heads. It’s hard to divorce yourself from that conversation.”
Riot Grrrl, while it opened doors for women in indie rock, couldn’t move past its racial and political undertones. This, I would argue, is a natural side effect of pioneering movements. Unfortunately, many of history’s great social movements — especially those which seek equality in race and gender — proceed at a frustratingly slow pace. Nonetheless, progress still occurs, and when it does, it’s a cause for excitement.
Recent trends in indie rock elicit progressive excitement in force. The indie rock community, which once seemed so male and white, is in the process of normalizing gender and racial diversity, finally living up to its progressive image.
Budding artists Vagabon and Jay Som, both of whom released stellar albums this year, shine the brightest light on the genre’s promising future.
Vagabon, Lætia Tamko’s explosive garage rock project, uses its mere presence in the musical discourse to inspire the marginalized. “This is for black women and this is for black men,” Tamko explains in an interview with Pitchfork. “This is for women of color and this is for girls. I want to be here and present, even if it’s uncomfortable, just so that I can get to the people that I would’ve love to see when I was doubting myself.”
Fittingly, Vagabon’s album, “Infinite Worlds,” is as much a statement of identity as it is a political statement. Lyrics like “Run and tell everybody that Laetitia is / That I’m just a small fish,” and “My standing there threatens your standing too / No longer yearn to be gentle and pure and sweet” offer a message of independence and individuality — a message that Tamko reinforces with her intoxicating electric guitar riffs.
Vagabon’s work simultaneously answers Hanna’s call for racial diversity in feminist rock and Brownstein’s call for a female musician who transcends her political identity. Tamko, is, first and foremost, an artist. She appeals to human emotions on a universal level and strives to do so on an equal plane with her non-minority counterparts. In doing so, she portrays black feminism in a way that listeners of any race can immediately internalize. That’s not to say “Infinite Worlds” is colorblind. Rather, the album effectively communicates the social palette’s vast, often dissonant spectrum of colors in a digestible manner.
Melina Duterte, the talent behind Jay Som, also seeks progress through the lens of vulnerability with her album “Everybody Works.” The album’s songwriting reflects the comforting, somber introspection of Frankie Cosmos and Japanese Breakfast, while it’s dreamy musicianship lulls listeners into a delighted stupor. Lyrically, the album draws on the familiar, tangible ideas — “Why don’t we take the bus / I know you don’t like the smell” — to convey deeply personal, intimately relatable concepts — “But I like the bus / I can be whoever I want to be.” The overall effect is an inviting sense of universality.
Thus, “Everybody Works” stands on its own as an excellent example of the rapidly expanding bedroom pop genre. The effort puts Jay Som on a growing list of Asian American musicians (see Mitski’s “Puberty 2” and Japanese Breakfast’s “Psychopomp”) who make effective feminist statements through engaging, emotionally complex and outwardly nonpartisan music. Duterte, in an interview with SPIN, celebrates the simple yet profound fact that “there are little girls of color at the shows.” “I didn’t have that when I was younger,” she explains. “If I saw this bill [advertising a Jay Som, Japanese Breakfast and Mitski joint show], I would have thought that was insane.”
Jay Som and Vagabon create a culture that accepts and expects this level of diversity, making them pillars of a new indie rock norm.
It’s important to note, however, that these two artists do not represent the culmination of equality. The music industry is still undeniably patriarchal. Vagabon and Jay Som, like their Riot Grrrl predecessors, communicate their ideas on indie rock’s low-profile grassroots playing field. The ideas they champion still have to complete the arduous journey to record label executive boards, the festival organization committees and mainstream radio for equality to become reality.
Progress on this scale can only occur if listeners devote their time and resources to progressive grassroots art. They have to buy records, go to shows and tell their friends about the latest in socially progressive music to push the movement forward.