Off The Beat with Kenneth Miller: I Joined a Riot Grrrl Band and Here’s What Happened

By Kenneth Miller

Music journalist Sara Marcus’ 2010 chronicle “Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution” is the sole mandatory text for the Media, Society & the Arts’ class titled “Riot Grrrls and Radical Women.” Considered “the epic, definitive history of the Riot Grrrl movement,” Marcus’ account on the emergence of 90’s feminist punk into the public eye tells the story of teenage girls who were fed up with the gendered and racial oppression within the rock ‘n’ roll scene, eventually making bands to express their anger and combat the injustices of society.

One particularly decisive skill was missing, however: these adolescent revolutionaries hadn’t known how to play instruments. Still, they carried on with their efforts because they preferred aggressive noises to therapeutic rhythms. With this assault-to-ears mentality, riot grrrl bands like Bratmobile, Bikini Kill, and Heavens to Betsy formed, rattling the minds of suburban families to the brink of chaos.

Taking inspiration from this juvenile approach to radical mobilization and activism, this semester’s “Riot Grrrls and Radical Women” class decided—well, maybe we can be literal tone-deaf riot grrrls too.

A majority of the students (myself included) have never played any instrument before. Some of us confessed to having only dabbled in musical expression while in the comfy interior of our bedrooms; never contemplating bringing the performance to an audience. Our trivializing terror and performance anxiety was brought to the surface as we began forming bands, making 2-minute long troublesome tunes, and rehearsing with one another outside of class.

Dr. Mary Kosut, instructor of the fem-core course, won’t be grading the band projects on their individual lyrics or sound choice; no, instead she is leaving the grading up to the other participating bands to assign. Scholars may call it an indignant stance against the rhetoric of institutionalized academia. Still, the students have a grading rubric wherein we will be looking at the energy of each groups’ set, the lyrical message of the song, and the amount of inspiration taken away as a result of its performance.

Sounds relieving, but the pressure is still wholly present. After all, this is an opportunity many of us air-guitar licking punks have always dreamed of employing. Seriously, who hasn’t wanted to embody the revelry spirit of Kathleen Hannah and scream out lyrics like, “That girl thinks she’s the queen of the neighborhood / I got news for you, she is!” and continue to prance around stage flashing people? I got nothing.

Clitormiss and The Clitormister is the pun fantastic name my 4-member band decided on. Our mission: to dismantle what gender theorist bell hooks describes as, “the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” with one stunted song stuffed with chanting, tampon drumming, and inimitable choreography.

None of us are professionally trained musicians, and I am the lone member who has ever toyed with a guitar before. (After two years of guitar lessons as a middle schooler, I can only remember the chords and melody to Green Day’s “Good Riddance,” if that means anything.) Otherwise, we are approaching our song, “CIYF (Come In Your Face),” with zero expertise. And we aren’t all that concerned. This is band is supposed to be fun and a soothing release of our anger held towards our oppressive forces.

Sporting looks featuring leotards, crop tops, harnesses and more, Clitormiss and The Clitormister is attempting to normalize outfits that tend to irk passersby on the daily and, as an outcome, are marred as deviant expressions. A significant part of the riot grrrl movement was to desensitize the public to queer lifestyles that were kept out of focus to preserve a singular societal outlook.

Challenging systematic wrongdoings and blanketed judgments is something you can do on your own—this doesn’t require a classroom or even a band. Like all activism, action must be present for change to be made. Without the riot grrrl movement, punk may very well still be exclusively limited to the white male today. And can you truly imagine the early 2000s without pioneering iron vocalists like Amy Lee or Hayley Williams? Now you’re messing with the sanity of emo kids everywhere. Stop.

If it takes a gathering of radical misfits to convey political deviant messages to the masses by way of the mobilization of a DIY band, so be it. Who cares if it doesn’t sound good; as long as the message and vibe are clear, history will make itself.

The “Riot Grrrls and Radical Women” band performances will begin at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 9 in Whitson’s at the Stood.