Saturday Night Video: Riot Grrrls

Hole, “Violet” (Highly recommended live 1994 SNL performance here)

Here is the post I promised in yesterday’s “Frye and Popular Culture.”

Compiling this selection of video, it became apparent that it is impossible not to feature prominently the videos from Hole‘s first wide-release album, Live Through This. Three of them are here, and they’re all worth seeing, especially Violet, which may be the most powerfully realized video riot grrrl at its height produced. But there’s also music, video, and live footage from highly regarded cult bands that never broke into the mainstream on anywhere near the same scale: Bikini Kill, Huggy Bear7 Year Bitch, Babes in Toyland, Bratmobile, L7, Sleater-Kinney, and Tribe 8.

If I can advocate for must-see work here besides Hole: Bikini Kill, Huggy Bear (although not for the faint of heart), 7 Year Bitch, and Babes in Toyland.

Two recent retrospective articles on riot grrrl in The Guardian here and hereTobi Vail‘s fanzine Jigsaw, appearing regularly since 1989, here.

Hole, “Doll Parts”

Hole, “Miss World” 

Bikini Kill, “I Like Fucking”

Bikini Kill, “Suck My Left One” (Live, 1993). This is terrific footage, but the sound could be a little better. However, it needs to be seen because it really captures the mood of the time, especially in the band’s wonderfully rendered onstage performance. This is an excerpt from the U.K. documentary, Getting Close to Nothing.

Huggy Bear, “Her Jazz” (Live on U.K.’s Channel 4)

7 Year Bitch, “M.I.A.”

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMmnO34saOQ&ob=av2n

Babes in Toyland, “He’s My Thing”

Bratmobile (Live set, 1993)

L7, “Pretend We’re Dead” (Live on Letterman, 1992)

Sleater-Kinney, “Jumpers” (Live on Letterman, 1994)

Tribe 8, “Femme Bitch Top”

Hole, “Malibu”

Bringing it all the way round: at the tail end of the riot grrrl era in 1997, here was Hole again providing a glamorized power pop: it’s warm and inviting but still just abrasive enough at the edges. This video, in fact, could arguably signal the very end of the line (the terms of reference are no longer Olympia but Malibu; even so, despite the designer dresses and top-of-the-line hollow-body guitars, the world appears to be spontaneously combusting). At this point, rock begins its slow decline as the primary mainstream musical influence, with hip-hop on one side and pop on the other. In this video, and the video for “Celebrity Skin,” Courtney Love anticipates by about a year the sudden rise of a quick succession of female pop artists, who may now exert more cultural influence than their male counterparts. That is a first, and it may be in part because riot grrrls kicked a Doc Martens through the glass ceiling.

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2 thoughts on “Saturday Night Video: Riot Grrrls

  1. Bob Denham

    I think Frye would suffer some difficulty in seeing or hearing anything in the Hole’s “Violet” worthy of our attention. I couldn’t understand most of the lyrics, so looked them up, only to discover that they’re the height of inanity. As for the “music,” I hear only noise.

    Reply
    1. Michael Happy Post author

      I try not to assume that the deciding factor in this kind of situation is what Frye would or would not find “worthy of our attention.” I assume that because, as he says at least a couple of times, he “has no disciples and therefore no school,” he would expect us to use the critical tools available to engage the culture we inhabit.

      Except for the hostility this sort of music inspires in those who have no taste for it, I can see no down side. The people who listen to it with some sense of its value do not appear to have gone on killing sprees or voted Republican. They have tended in the opposite direction, exhibiting tolerance, good humor, a healthy curiosity, and a sustained inclination to make the world a better place. Thousands of young people for whom this music is a deeply embedded part of their cultural heritage are currently on the streets in protest all over the world, risking arrest, police brutality, jail, and scorn from their elders — whenever, that is, their elders decide to take any notice of them at all.

      Yesterday’s cultural outrage often turns out to be tomorrow’s cultural standard. Going back to the 19th century and the “salon des refuses,” Manet’s painting “Olympia” – provocatively depicting a prostitute in a classical tableau — had to be hung higher during its first exhibition because persons of quality attempted to strike it with walking sticks and umbrellas. One contemporary reviewer dismissed it with typical verbal violence, expressing particular disgust for her faithfully rendered “dirty hands” and “wrinkled feet.” He evidently subjected Olympia’s threatening eroticism to such a close examination that he maybe revealed more about his response than he’d intended.

      Van Gogh so troubled viewers that he sold one portrait during his lifetime, a portrait of the doctor treating him, which he later hung in a shed.

      The 1913 premier of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” outraged the fine ladies and gentlemen who attended; there was apparently a fair amount of pushing and shoving involved afterward.

      By the 1940s jazz had developed a form of dance hall music that was very appealing to white middle-class audiences, nicely represented by Glenn Miller’s ubiquitous “Moonlight Serenade.” But the first bebop hit by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, “Salt Peanuts,” released in May 1945 barely a week after the formal end of the Second World War, confused a lot of people who were not up to the challenge of music you listened to for the sake of the performance rather than the opportunity to dance. The great English poet Philip Larkin, who loved traditional jazz and wrote extensively about it, railed against bebop and Charlie Parker particularly, referring to him as a psychotic junkie.

      Then there was the rise of rock ’n’ roll in the mid-50s which many believed threatened all notions of decency, and maybe the foundations of civilization itself. Even the Beatles were denounced a decade later as producing the devil’s music, and were subjected to mass record burnings in the U.S. by Christian zealots.

      It’s easy to go on in this vein. The punk rock that emerged in the U.K. during the 70s was, however anyone feels about the music now, an angry cry for justice against a corrupt political and economic system that consigned the young and the poor to chronic unemployment with little hope for the future.

      As for the riot girrls, they are considered the spark that ignited Third Wave feminism in the early 90s – and that was a significant development in the feminism of the generation that followed, which pushed aside the outdated sexual prudery and gender essentialism of the Second Wave.

      The lyrics for Hole’s “Violet” deal with gender inequality, including the unsettling suggestion that the underlying issue is sexual coercion on both sides, and a struggle for power between men and women in which everyone ends up a loser:

      And the sky was made of amethyst.
      And all the stars were just like little fish.
      You should learn when to go.
      You should learn how to say no.

      Might last a day,
      Mine is forever.
      Might last a day,
      Mine is forever.

      [Chorus]
      When they get what they want, they never want it again.
      When they get what they want, they never want it again.
      Go on, take everything, take everything, I want you to.
      Go on, take everything, take everything, I want you to.

      And the sky was all violet.
      I wanna give my violet more violence.
      I’m the one with no soul.
      One above and one below.

      Might last a day,
      Mine is forever.
      Might last a day,
      Mine is forever.

      [Chorus]
      When they get what they want, they never want it again.
      When they get what they want, they never want it again.
      Go on, take everything, take everything, I want you to.
      Go on, take everything, take everything, I dare you to.

      I told you from the start just how this would end.
      When I get what I want I never want it again.

      Go on, take everything, take everything, I want you to.
      Go on, take everything, take everything, I want you to.
      Go on, take everything, take everything, I want you to.
      Go on, take everything, take everything, I want you to.
      Go on, take everything, take everything, take everything, take everything.

      Add the music and the images from the video, and the song is a stirring indictment of power relations between the sexes. This is the sort of thing riot grrrl intended to confront and undo, and the lyrics make sense enough with this in mind. (I’ll throw in here that Frye considered the movie an especially comprehensive art form because of its unique ability to present simultaneously images, symbols, mythical narrative, archetypes, and music, which this video does pretty well for the purposes of this song.)

      What I hope is an appreciative response to popular culture I get from Frye’s criticism, because he reminds me of the power of art everywhere in its own right, especially when it confronts us with a potentially revolutionary expression of human concern that pushes its way past the ideological limitations which close in on us from every direction.

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