Guest blogger Revolution returns…
The Female Quota Goes Underground
Riot grrl. Riot grrrrrrrrrrrl. It has a roar to it.
My family grew up on Amy Grant, Michael Jackson, and MC Hammer – in that order of priority. We thought Ms. Grant was bad-ass for ousting the Christians to go into Rock ‘n Roll. Baby, baby, anyone?
Last week Minneapolis leading riot grrls Kitten Forever, with vocalist/song-writer Liz Elton, bassist Laura Larson, drummer Corrie Harrigan, and keytarist Deanna Steege (also of Unicorn Basement), stopped in Chicago while on their CD-release tour of the Midwest.
The band showed up in Harrigan’s gold mini-van, the kind seen in commercials for its exceptional safety rating. I had arrived early to their venue, confused by the closed flower shop with mats of paper taped over the windows. Across the street, a group of Latino men and a family on their stoop next door had been watching me spin circles on my bike. Really, really cool circles in my silver helmet.
Pilsen is a South side Chicago neighborhood composed mostly of former immigrants from Central and South America, their American-born children and grandchildren, and new immigrants. Usually in neighborhoods such as these, where rent is cheap and residents allow neighbors with rougher lifestyles, young artists buy space to host underground shows. ‘There must be a side door somewhere,’ the bands explained to me. We searched beyond the shop’s locked entrance when a skinny, shirtless guy walked out of one. He sort of smiled as he pushed out to the sidewalk to light his cigarette. He looked around for somewhere to rest his eyes.
“Uh, do you live here?” Steege asked slowly. He nodded. We shifted around for a few minutes waiting.
“Uh, we’re the, uh, band who’s playing tonight,” said someone from our group. The guy turned around talking – cool, cool, cool, cool, cool – with the cigarette in his mouth, without moving his lips. ‘Cool’ and combing fingers through his hair clicked out like fast snaps and bad habits. He laughed, then talked, then laughed, then talked. I stepped back because I think he said something about needing air and space.
Harrigan brought the van around to start unloading equipment. More naked guys pounding drums and guitars already filled the large rectangular room. Furniture, appliances, and sheets cluttered the sides, but the ceiling was high above the concrete walls. We walked to the nearest liquor store for props while waiting for the show to begin.
Steege is an old friend from college and former roommate in Minneapolis. She introduced me to the local music scene. I would go to musky basements and dive bars, with icicles growing from my ears, to watch her and fellow Unicorn Basement member, drum-machinist Max Clark, perform. In college, Steege started her music career as a joke writing songs with a friend on his computer. When future bandmate Clark launched a record label she paired the friends together to make a song and was surprised that “[she] actually liked it.” Soon after, the trio grew into a band that practiced, developed, and performed in the basement of our old farmhouse and generated a cult-like following of fans.
While in high school Steege had continually attended the concerts of her friends’ bands. She enjoyed herself in the audience dancing, jumping (not any higher than 3 inches), and listening to the music of her generation. It never crossed her mind that she would later be spotlighted on stage. She said there was nothing to be bitter about. She and her female friends never thought about joining and seeing only guys on stage was not out of the ordinary.
In middle school Larson saw her peers perform in a rock band in the gym auditorium. It was an alternative program initiated in Minneapolis for “band kids that were too stoned to play in real band.” A couple girls played along. They sang No Doubt covers. Boys were the majority who sang Blink 182 and played the guitars or drums. Some of the boys winked at girls in the audience “like they were thinking, yeah, fuck me.” Larson wanted to vomit. “Vomit”, sorry. She claims that very day she went home and bought herself a guitar. “I thought ‘I can do better than that.’”
Before the interview I had only seen Kitten Forever once, a couple years ago at a house show. I remember a glare from Elton’s glasses mostly as my friend pushed me into the sweaty mosh pit over and over.
When first hearing about riot grrl without putting faces to the name, it sounds violent, it sounds intimidating, it sounds like if you say the wrong thing someone with tits will punch you in the face. Steege and I were drinking coke bottles that she had spilled vodka into and Steege invited her touring friends over to include them in the interview. When a pony-tailed woman rode by on her mountain bike and said we should all go to hell, or something, it was an icebreaker. When she rode by again, this time on the sidewalk, and zoomed her fat tire past Larson’s and Harrigan’s backs, we chuckled a bit and bonded over not being crazy.
Kitten Forever turned out to be a refreshingly thoughtful, sarcastic, smiling group of friends. Their friendship seemed to be an integral part of the supportive network they have helped create for local bands and serious female musicians in particular. When Unicorn Basement moved from college to Minneapolis, they played most of their first shows at dive bars. In an entire night’s line-up Steege was normally the only woman performing. The feeling of minority only heightened her motivation to continue in music, but also to actively seek out other women. Their very first show they happened to be lined up with Baby Guts, Larson’s second band in which she’s the vocalist. Over time they met up again at Elton’s and Harrigan’s house venue, slowly falling into what Harrigan jokes is the friendship network with a little rainbow drawn over it.
The network serves as an important discussion forum to exchange music ideas and life ideals. As an informal co-ed group, the topic of the day varies, but with women as prevalent participants, women’s issues, political and musical, inevitably come up. Elton says it was her intention to create a feminist music network. No national scene exists like theirs in Minneapolis and none of it would have occurred organically. To start, she and Harrigan require that each show hosted in their house needs one woman, solo or in a band, on the bill. They think female musicians need more airtime and want to give them the opportunity. Even within their network it’s difficult finding enough women in bands, and other houses that don’t make it a priority will schedule weeks of all-male bands.
Harrigan says they also try to focus on women in their audience. If people come up to speak with them after their show, they respond more to the women, in a way to welcome them into the music scene.
As feminist supporters, Kitten Forever still distinguishes itself from the term riot grrl. The media, in review articles, usually classify their music this way, but Larson clarifies that the correct genre would be “fun-dancy-punk”. They are supportive of riot grrl because it has heavily influenced their music, but Larson explains it is more of a political movement, not a music genre. Like riot grrl icon, Bikini Kill, the ‘90s movement created music to directly deal with feminist issues. It promoted small changes, such as moving women in audiences to the front of the stage, and hoped for large-scale transformations, such as creating a music industry more representative of our near 50/50 male-female population. “We don’t try to use the band as a vehicle for promoting political views. It’s a way to make music and have fun, I mean we definitely have mixed messages in songs, but it’s not our primary goal.”
All of this information seemed in contradiction to an article written by Kimberly Chun, former member of an all-women punk group. “A Band of Sisters” (San Francisco Bay Guardian) two years ago comments on the demise of riot grrl and the brief decade in which bands like Sleater Kinney and Le Tigre enjoyed immense popularity as all-female bands. Chun cries out her concern that only the Pussy Cat Dolls, “a sorry excuse for women empowerment if there ever was one,” is the only women’s group hitting billboard charts and earning radio airtime. Only solo acts – Nelly Furtado, Shakira, Rihanna, Christina Aguilera – were making the cut. Chun wonders if women bands are dying out or if the music industry is discriminating against feminism associated with all-female groups.
In a specific interview with Kim West, the guitarist of T.I.T.S., Chun discusses the music scene in Minneapolis. T.I.T.S. performed at Minneapolis’ End Times Festival in 2006 as the only all-female group. After their performance groups of girls ran up to them and were ecstatic. They said things like ‘This is so awesome!’ and ‘There are no all-girl bands here and it’s so rare to see this.’ On a later phone conversation I asked Larson what she thought about hearing young girls living in Minneapolis who seemed to have no idea about local groups like Kitten Forever.
“A big festival like that, if not remotely involved in punk scene, you won’t find bands like that, unless you’re looking for them,” Larson responded. “If someone’s at a festival and their one of the thousands of people at these things, they’re not going to hear women at basement shows in South Minneapolis. Even though we generally play at all-ages shows, depending on the scene, young girls would easily miss bands like ours.” It sounded like Larson would not feel comfortable playing at a festival like End Times either. “It’s not like we’d be refusing access to the band. No one at this time is concerned about branching out, which would be super beneficial to everyone. Maybe it’s snotty punk idealism, to keep it underground, but everyone is super into sharing music, like, ‘Look at the fucking sweet band I found.’ It’s way cool to branch out like that, but otherwise it’s hard because anywhere we go, especially if just playing basement shows, we can’t get too far out there because we get shut down.”
That’s the catch. It’s all underground. Although “underground” is almost a snob term nowadays, the elitist scene for the poor kids in town who cannot pay to go into clubs, as I’ve found in Minneapolis and Chicago, houses are the few places where new, up-and-coming bands can play. It’s a mixture of musical talent, some bands eventually succeed, some die out, but bands can experiment more with their audiences, and audiences like the personal atmosphere. What keeps underground, underground, Larson explains is noise disturbance. Kitten Forever has played at several house shows that cops shut down. If shows gain too much publicity or the audience is particularly rowdy, all in the basement of a neighborhood house (or an abandoned flower shop), then cops arrive, sometimes with handcuffs, to move the bands and people out. A couple months ago the police completely shut down one new house venue in Minneapolis that had to cancel 32 consecutive shows of touring bands to comply with their orders. Successful shows are kept relatively quiet.
Unfortunately, I had to leave in the middle of a rainstorm before the Chicago show began. Three hours late and the other bands, along with any audience members, had yet to show. Ah, the underground.
On the way home, though, I felt content to have found an established network that includes bands like Kitten Forever and Unicorn Basement, where female musicians can find constructive help, support, and friendship. It’s a matter of whether or not they want to expand, if they want to make MTV airtime and radio billboards. ‘Yech. What proud musician would?’ I thought. Then again, I thought of Steege in high school and those young teens who experience bands through their male friends or boyfriends. I thought of me, as a young 20-something, who grew up on mainstream music, had never heard of riot grrl, and came the closest to feminist music with Shania Twain’s The Woman in Me. What if female musicians, especially all-women groups, remain a quiet minority in America’s underground?