from Girls to the Front
This band is on fire. The lead singer is dancing with abandon, whipping her high teased-out ponytail around, doing aerobics moves, occasionally flipping up the back of her dress to moon her bandmates. The guitar switches to wails of feedback and Kathleen Hanna sings Silence inside of me silence inside four times in a childlike voice, never budging from a single note. She stands stock-still, looking plaintively at the audience and holding her left hand to her crotch, a gesture that twists the Madonna-esque virility pose into an act of pained protection. Then the guitarist tears into his chords again and, fed by the renewed clamor, Kathleen is instantly back in motion, leaning over as if she might vomit and roaring, I’ll resist with every inch and every breath I’ll resist this psychic death. She screws her eyes tight, pushing the words from her body with visible effort. Tendons pop out on both sides of her neck.
After the song screeches to a halt, she shifts unsteadily from foot to foot and turns away from the audience, pulling her dress down in back, perhaps suddenly wondering whether she has revealed too much.
The crew of girls up front cheer and yell. These are the riot grrrls—some of the riot grrrls, anyway. Their movement, if one could call it that yet, began less than a year ago, as a noisy message of female self-empowerment voiced by several punk musicians and a few of their friends, and already it has evolved into a whole mess of things, ranging from the half-formed to the full-blown. In DC it’s primarily a group of girls who meet every weekend to have consciousness-raising discussions about their lives, create art and music, and plan political action. Erika Reinstein stands out: Her motions are more kinetic than anyone else’s, her face more expressive. All her features are slightly oversize, which gives her the permanent look of living at an elevated decibel level. She always has her full lips open a bit, her head thrust up and forward, as if she’s just thought of something new to say. Which she probably has. She’s known as a talker, a fearless girl who never shrinks from a spotlight. Recently graduated from high school in Virginia, she’s built Riot Grrrl’s numbers over the past few months by hopping onstage between bands at punk shows and inviting all the girls in the room to come to meetings. That’s how Mary Fondriest, also up front at the Sanctuary, got involved. She’s quieter than Erika, bad skin and bleached hair. She reads obsessively—before discovering feminism, her favorite book was The Fountainhead. She’s been coming to meetings only a few months but in that time Riot Grrrl has become practically her entire life.
“Hey, riot grrrl!” Mary yells to Kathleen between songs.
“What?” Kathleen replies.
Mary throws a chocolate rose onstage. “I love you,” she sings out.
Kathleen catches the rose in midair and grins broadly.
The girls are hawking wares tonight, silk-screened T-shirts and handmade zines—xeroxed pamphlets full of poems, photographs, and typewritten rants. One article begins by asking, “Why is ‘feminist’ a dirty word?” Near the end of a zine, there’s a page with the words I WANT TO SCREAM written in block letters across the top. An unsigned monologue glitters with rage:
- I’m so angry that I don’t know what to write, I just know that I want to write something, that I want to say something, that I want to scream something, something powerful and strong to make up for the helplessness that I feel now…I want to scream at the guy who told me that women should stop complaining because they already have all the rights that they need. I want to scream at my brothers who read the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and who watch the Miss America pageant…I want to scream because I am just as much of a human being as any man but I don’t always get treated like one, I want to scream because no matter how much I scream, no one will listen.
The zines are a dollar, but if the girls—Erika and Mary, May and Joanna, Ananda and Claudia—decide someone really needs a copy, they’ll let her have it for free.
The band onstage is Bikini Kill, a three-fourths-female group that recently relocated to DC from the small college town of Olympia, Washington. Bikini Kill has spent much of the past year on the road, building a fan base the way all independent bands cutting their teeth do in the early ’90s: piling into a van and crisscrossing the country every few months, counting on a cassette-only demo they sell, and on word of mouth, to feed enthusiasm.
So far, the strategy is working. Between the band’s ecstatic feminist anthems, riveting live shows, varied publications (annotated lyric sheets, xeroxed broadsides, zines dense with typescript), and its charismatic lead singer’s affiliation with this nascent feminist force calling itself Riot Grrrl, Bikini Kill is quickly becoming one of the most talked-about bands punk rock has seen in years.
The lead singer, jumping around in a white minidress and oversize T-shirt with an off-center Riot Grrrl logo, is Kathleen Hanna. She’s twenty-three years old, passionate and poetic. She logged time as a photographer, a writer, a domestic violence counselor, and a spoken-word artist before she started writing punk songs. Now she’s on a mission to make feminism cool for teenage girls. She introduces the next song by saying, “This is for Riot Grrrl,” and the girls up front scream their pride and approval. Kathleen is one of theirs, and they are hers.
This concert isn’t just another punk rock show; it isn’t even just another benefit, though the proceeds are going to Rock for Choice and several women’s organizations in DC. It’s also a pep rally of sorts, coming on the eve of a major pro-choice march on the National Mall. The riot grrrls will be there tomorrow, as will the musicians and nearly everyone else that’s crowded into this repurposed church, three miles due north of the march’s kick-off point.
Before Bikini Kill’s final song, Tobi Vail, the band’s drummer and sometime singer, stands at the front of the stage in a red dress, fishnets, and sunglasses, and speaks into the mic. “I just wanted to say something about abortion becoming illegal,” she begins. “To me, it says that not—not only do we live in a totally fucked-up patriarchal society run by white men who don’t represent our interests at all, but we live in a—in a—country”—she’s panting, trying to catch her breath or maybe not to cry—“where those people don’t care whether we live or die. And that’s pretty scary.”
She turns around to face her bandmates: Kathi, the bassist, and Billy, the guitarist, tuning to each other; Kathleen, settling herself behind the drums. Tobi turns back to the audience but looks at her feet. “So we’re gonna play a new song for you, and we don’t know how it goes—”
“All right!” somebody shouts.
“—but it might work.”
Excitement in the front row. Erika and Mary know what’s coming.
The laid-back bassist begins a three-note riff, over which a friend of the band, Molly, reads from a recent newspaper article attacking Bikini Kill: “What comes across onstage is man hate! A maniac rebellion against the world and themselves.” Kathleen flails at the cymbals with exaggerated awkwardness, waving her arms like a three-year-old trying to break something. Billy taps his foot to keep track of the beat. Erika’s moment is almost here. Tobi is singing about wanting rock heroes’ approval: If Sonic Youth thinks that you’re cool, does that mean everything to you? Then she raises her voice for the chorus, naming that band’s iconic guitarist: Thurston hearts the Who! Do you heart the Who too? As if in reply, Billy swings his guitar toward his amp to make caterwauling wolf whistles of feedback and jagged bursts of Thurston Moore-style noise.
The chaos mounts. Billy throws his guitar up high, letting it flip over itself in the air, and then catches it. Kathleen walks to the edge of the stage and leans down to the girls in the front row so Erika can hurl bloodcurdling screams into the mic. The two of them share the mic for a second, Kathleen’s whoa-oh-oh and Erika’s virtuosic EEEEEEE!, and then Erika takes the microphone and climbs onstage: she belongs there, and she knows it. At the song’s end, Erika is screaming nonstop at the top of her lungs; Molly is still reading that stupid article, almost screaming herself, rushing to get through the whole thing; and Kathleen faces the back of the stage and dances wildly, starting with a little-girl sashay and changing it into a stripper’s move, presenting her ass in a slow pan across the audience. The girls go crazy as Bikini Kill leaves the stage.
Later that night, when Erika and Mary and the other riot grrrls are back home in bed, and the Sanctuary Theater is silent, locked tight against the city, and most of the traffic lights have switched from solid signals to blinking reds and yellows perforated by darkness, the clocks in DC lurch forward an hour. They do this in unison, as if suddenly realizing, collectively, how far back they have fallen, how dreadfully behind the times they have become.