Emma Goldman (1869 – 1940) was one of the original proponents of Riot Grrrl, even though she died way before the feminist punk movement and cultural phenomenon started in the early 1990s.
“If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution,” Goldman insisted. She was a teacher, activist, feminist, radical, anarchist and all-round shit-stirrer. Described as a major figure in the history of American radicalism and feminism, Goldman was an early advocate of free speech, birth control, women’s equality and union organisation.
While those serious issues were worth fighting for then, Goldman was also someone who loved to dance. After being reprimanded by some earnest boy that it didn’t “behove an agitator to dance”, and that her “frivolity would only hurt the cause”, Goldman grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. “I told him to mind his own business, I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face,” she wrote in her autobiography in 1931.
About 60 years later, Riot Grrrl was established around girl bands forming and touring, taking on feminist and queer aesthetics, and with their roots in the punk and hardcore scenes. Originating in the greater Pacific Northwest in the United States, riot grrrl was a response to male domination and masculinist values in punk. Still, it was intertwined with and connected to the DIY, anti-corporate, anti-capitalist values of those underground scenes. One of the foremost Riot Grrrl bands was Kathleen Hanna’s Bikini Kill.
Feminist pop music
In 1998, after the Riot Grrrl wave had somewhat subsided, Hanna started the electro-punk trio, Le Tigre, with the same ethos but in a different time. “We wanted to make a new kind of feminist pop music, something for our community to dance to,” she explained on Le Tigre’s website.
“In our scene, the notion of ‘community’ had been so problematised by postmodern theory and identity politics gone haywire, that it was easier retreat to irony or purely oppositional self-definitions. Instead, we wanted to be sincere and take risks.”
The trio, comprising Hanna, Johanna Fateman and JD Samson, recorded three full albums and two EPs, which were all overtly political: “We don’t think that art or music can replace political activism, but we think it can be an important part of a culture of resistance so that social change feels possible. We want to make great music that radical people can recognise their values in, because that is what we ourselves crave.”
But their songs all came with a pop sensibility and, as the god-granddaughters of Goldman behove, with a sense of humour and a joie de vivre that makes your feet want to move.
My one favourite Le Tigre track, titled Hot Topic, off their self-titled debut album is a perfect example. It is a “celebration of the people who give us strength as feminists and artists”, according to the band.
And what a celebration it is! It’s bubbly, ebullient and boisterous – one of those list songs where they shout out the names of 57 – mainly female – artists, musicians, writers, thinkers and performers, from Yoko Ono, Gretchen Phillips, Angela Davis, Billie Jean King and Nina Simone to James Baldwin, Yayoi Kusama, Tammy Hart, Vaginal Davis and Aretha Franklin.
For a non-specialist like me, it is “Google while you dance”. Seriously, though, it is 3 minutes and 45 seconds of inclusive feminist joy. It’s universal and, even though it was released back in 1999, it’s still very much relevant.
As the lyrics go:
So many roads and so much opinion
So much bullshit to give in to
So many rules and so much opinion
So much bullshit but we won't give in.
That sounds very 2018, doesn’t it?