I hold “Deceptacon” by Le Tigre very close to my heart. When I was 15, it was exactly the kind of song I needed to hear: it was loud, brutally honest, and deeply intense. Perhaps more importantly, “Deceptacon” brought me to a whole world of music I so desperately needed: the riot grrrl era. Beginning in the early 1990s, the riot grrrl movement was essentially an amalgamation of third-wave feminism and punk music of the 1980s. But unlike a lot of earlier punk music, the women making the music were directly speaking out about sexism, sexual assault, and racism in their songs. Naturally, I was intrigued by the concept and fell down a rabbit hole of more music from Bikini Kill (Le Tigre frontwoman Kathleen Hanna’s other band), Sleater Kinney, Hole, and earlier punk artists like X-Ray Spex.
After a recent scroll through TikTok, I came across a video with a new song called “I’d Rather Die” by a group called TRAMP STAMPS. Upon first listen, they seemed to be attempting to emulate the rage and noise of riot grrrl groups like Bikini Kill and Babes In Toyland. I really disliked their music, and a lot of the internet seemed to as well. Most of the comments on TRAMP STAMPS’ TikTok of their song “I’d Rather Die” were pretty negative, with users calling out their issues with the content of the song. Lyrics like “I’d rather die than hook up with another straight white guy” or “and when you’re finally in the mood, it lasts like one or two seconds” make sense in theory and are real in a way, but the song still feels like a mimicry of Kathleen Hanna. Marketing an ingenuine, manufactured version of a sound defined by its raw honesty leaves me wondering how the movement and the music will continue to evolve, especially in a pretty digital world. In thinking about where riot grrrl stands today, I decided to take my questions to the people.
I spoke to Savannah, a UNC Chapel Hill student and the founder of Haloscope Mag, about riot grrrl culture in the age of TikTok, and she mentioned something I hadn’t even thought about: the aesthetic of it all. “I think there’s something to be said about how aesthetics have been given more cultural credence than literally anything else online, and it is far easier to explore subcultures and try on hats so to speak than to actually deeply engage with them.” She’s right—it can become harder to really engage with a look or sound once it reaches the mainstream. That’s not to say that mainstream is bad at all; after all, going mainstream helps make something known to a bigger audience. But it’s hard to ignore what commercializing something so personal can do, especially with something as honest as the riot grrrl movement. Adopting aesthetics of certain eras or sounds is something we all do. I certainly find myself paying homage to the aesthetics of wildly different eras, including the riot grrrl movement. Trends are built on what already exists, and we would be nothing without the past. But at what point is an era or movement just being popularized for profit? Andrea Kostka, a student based in Madison, Wisconsin, spoke to this as well, saying, “when the interest is genuine, popularization is a positive. But when it’s popularized for profit or an image like TRAMP STAMPS and it’s very clearly a disingenuous use of the movement, it defeats and betrays the whole core of it.” This hits the nail on the head: popularization is only amazing when it’s sincere.
Still, there are plenty of people trying to bring back riot grrrl beliefs and culture. The movement was largely built on zine culture. Initially starting as a way of organizing events within smaller communities, it eventually became a form of expression. Zines soon turned into feminist manifestos, scrapbooks, and women’s health sources. As someone who created a number of zines in high school and plans on making more, it’s easy to see that zine culture is absolutely thriving—and incredibly accessible in a digital world.
Even as pop culture continues to change, the riot grrrl movement will always be important and relevant. The music’s messages still ring true in 2021, and I honestly get excited upon seeing a song like “Deceptacon” blowing up again on TikTok. It’s hard to say whether the movement can come back in a natural way, but it has the possibility to evolve into something more timely and all-encompassing. I actually can’t help but want riot grrrl to stay in the past. During its peak, the movement actually wasn’t very inclusive; it was dominated by white women. So perhaps as riot grrrl reemerges or another similar subgenre comes to light, it will empower more people. I know that possibility excites me.
By Colette Bernheim