Girls to the Front is the epic, definitive history of Riot Grrrl—the radical feminist uprising that exploded into the public eye in the 1990s and included incendiary punk bands Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy, and Huggy Bear. A dynamic chronicle not just a movement but an era, this is the story of a group of pissed—off girls with no patience for sexism and no intention of keeping quiet.
When I was a teenager, which at this point is over 10 years ago, I somehow stumbled across zines. Possibly I found them through this fun site which was a message board/eBay combo where you could sell stuff to other people and then maybe they’d pay you for it.1 Anyway, I found zines, and then I bought a lot of them, and then I made some of my own, and THEN I found out about riot grrrl and Bikini Kill.
Riot grrrl, for those not in the know, is punk music + third-wave feminism + 1990s DIY philosophy + zines. (It also has a Wikipedia page.) I was hardcore into that– still am, actually!
I don’t remember my first Bikini Kill song, but the one that had the most impact on me and changed my life was Rebel Girl. Here, click this thing and listen to it while you read the rest of this post:
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There is something so viciously pleasing about Rebel Girl. The lyrics, the music, Kathleen Hanna’s singing. I was about ten years too late to actually join the riot grrrl movement, but I rode high on the waves it caused, personally and musically (and zine-ly).
What I’m saying is that I’m predisposed to like this book just based on my own love of the subject. BUT it is a very good book even despite my prejudice. It helps that I’m not the only one who loves riot grrrl.
So does Sara Marcus, the author of the book. It’s very handy when the author loves the thing they’re writing about as they almost always try to do a really good job. And she did! (She says impartially.)
Sara Marcus discovered riot grrrl right as it was on the edge of dissolving; she found zines and tapes full of music and looked for friends who were interested in the same. So in a sense, Girls to the Front is her love letter to a movement that gave her (and a lot of other girls) hope for the future.
It reads like a love letter, too! But a smart one, with analysis and a dedication to chronicling an important point in time for a lot of people. Sam mentioned that she dug through lots of personal collections of zines, diaries, and random stuff they’d kept over the years. She also talked to lots of people who’d actually started the whole thing, though it ended up being kind of a zeitgeist more than a deliberate conception.
There are lots of interesting people profiled in this book! Including (one of) the mother(s) of riot grrrl, Kathleen Hanna. Side note: a great companion to Girls to the Front is the documentary about Hanna and her career, The Punk Singer. It’s on Netflix, fyi.
I so appreciated how SM wrote about zines like objects of art, going in for deep looks at their content and style. And she did the same with lyrics! I never cared about music history before this book, and now I’m super into it. At least, I’m into it when it’s combined with culture history.
With people Sm was more gentle, spending more time chronicling than critiquing. Even the terrible people got off lightly; I could only tell who they were by the absence of words like “gentle” or “friendly.” But that fits with the overall tone of the book, which is joyous. There’s drama, but it’s enfolded into the larger scope of the impact riot grrrl had on society and the people who lived through and after it.
I’ll leave you with this quote, which sums up the book and basically my entire high school life:
They just knew that “Fuck you too, cool schmool” was exactly what they wanted to scream in the cafeteria every day, and that when they heard Kathleen bellow, “Dare you to be who you are! Dare you to do what you will!” they felt an electric charge through their whole body, like they really could do anything. (71%)
Read: January 10-11, 2015