Monday, March 15, 2010

A scorching, strategic case of cooties, OR: Doing Women's History (and present) with Cover Shows

Hey kids, remember when I got sick a few weeks ago, and I had to put off writing a 'big deal' post? Well, live in suspense no longer! Here it is, finally.


It all started on the Valentine's Day before the last. February 14, 2009.

When I heard that someone was doing an Anti-Valentine's Day Riot Grrrl Cover Band Show, I couldn't quite believe it. It was such a good idea that I couldn't believe someone was actually doing it. I went partly because I knew I wouldn't believe it unless I saw it for myself.

But I also went because the show's organizers were releasing a cd that night called Gimme Cooties, a compilation of live recordings by local girl bands that I absolutely had to hear. That morning, my platonic date for the show almost canceled on me, I didn't feel like getting dressed, and I worried that it would be weird or awkward if I showed up at this event where I wouldn't really know anyone. I ultimately decided that I didn't care, because I needed that cd.

Flyer for the first anti-V Day show

Fortunately things worked out. My friend Alma came with me, and yes, we were both a little awkward. We spent time between sets at the Dominican bodega across the street. During the sets we were stuck sort of in the back of the room, and we couldn't see what was going on, but we still managed to push up front for Bikini Kill's set. Afterwards I went to the For the Birds table, which was stacked high with zines, albums, and vegan cupcakes and got some cooties of my own. And then we went home.

It was nearly 2 am when I got in, and the first thing I did was look at the album's liner notes. A small collage of simple drawings and typed text on graph paper, the liner notes bare incredible resemblance to a zine.

The text is a message from Kathi Ko (Each Other's Mothers, Zombie Dogs), who put the cd together. "This is GIMME COOTIES," she says, "a comp featuring live tracks of all girl/girl fronted bands in Brooklyn and the surrounding east coast area." The notes explain that purpose of the album is to "document a new wave of badass girls playing music."

The text after this sent little waves of excitement/nausea running through my hands and up and down my spine:

GIMME COOTIES is a declaration of grrrlspace. It's proof of something that's happening right scheming challenging creating gettingshitdone supportive cootie-swapping grrrl love. I want to see truckloads of girl hands storm in and reinvent boring boy scenes in ways we've been dreaming of. seeing and hearing other girl bands...I swear, it's a catalyst to start yr own. don't get yr cootie shots. listen to this comp. now go start a band with yr girlfriends. xo, kathi

Gimme Cooties cd

I couldn't sleep that night. I was lying awake in bed, thinking about the liner notes, not just what they said, but how they said it...I recognized the style of writing, I recognized the layout: it was the rhetoric of the original '90s Riot Grrrl movement. I had this funny feeling that I couldn't entirely articulate, and I kept thinking to myself, "Something that's happening right now..."

I spent the next month listening to nothing but Gimme Cooties. I wanted to blog about it, and I even contacted For the Birds, and then Kathi about reprinting the liner notes. But I just couldn't seem to get a post written on it, I didn't know why. I couldn't capture how the liner notes or the show made me feel.


When I heard that there was going to be another Anti-Valentine's Day Riot Grrrl Cover Band Show this year, I still couldn't believe it. It was like looking out your window and seeing not one, but two unicorns, idly chewing on sidewalk grass.

Of course, I went. This time I went for the sheer spectacle, and because I wanted to hear songs by The Breeders, Stevie Nicks, Sleater-Kinney, and Bikini Kill live. But here's the thing: as soon as 'Bikini Kill' started, it became clear that they were doing more than playing Bikini Kill songs.

The long slate of 'opening' bands that night was comprised of many recognizable young women who play with a number of local New York bands. They were one night only combos of some of my favorite hometown punk feminist heroes (a.k.a. some of my favorite girls in the world.) They were all playing someone else's songs -- but these girls were all still themselves, playing someone else's songs.

Flyer for the 2010 Riot Grrrl and Women-fronted Band Cover Show

'Bikini Kill,' on the other hand, was clearly impersonating Bikini Kill. Before they began, 'Kathleen' had a volunteer from the audience help her write 'SLUT' on her stomach in lipstick. She mimicked Kathleen Hanna's voice perfectly, and began their set by announcing "We're Bikini Kill..." When the entire audience answered, "...and we want revolution, grrrl style now!" it almost knocked the wind out of me. Yes, last year's 'Bikini Kill' started their set the same way. But the feeling that you're not alone, that you're not the only one who still sings these songs never gets old.


In the days after the show, I tried to figure out what 'Bikini Kill' was doing. I had this feeling that they'd done something very specific and deliberate, but was having trouble describing it. I kept thinking that it felt more like a Civil War battle reenactment than a show, but I couldn't explain it any better than that.

A few days later, Tobi Vail helped me put it all together. A quote from her review of Marisa Meltzer's new book helped it to make sense. Vail writes, "The book made me think a lot about documenting history from a strategic perspective. How could this story be told to incite participation in girls?"

Why do people do Civil War reenactments, why do places like Colonial Williamsburg exist? They're strategic uses of history, meant to entertain, to educate, to commemorate events that are supposed to be significant to U.S. national history. Battle reenactments are rituals that enshrine the act of war, the spilling of blood, as a process central to the making of the United States as a nation.

I don't know about you, readers, but the act of war and the spilling of blood could not be less enshrined for me. However: Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Excuse 17, The Gossip, and Riot Grrrl and its descendants in general, are a different story.

These Anti-Valentine's Day shows, and Gimme Cooties, are rescuing the history of Riot Grrrl and bringing it to the center. Organizer Kathi Ko, with support from For the Birds (a feminist collective and distro), and help from surely many others, is taking this history, and everything it stands for, and making it apart of a current narrative. But this is about more than 'enshrining' or 'commemorating' a romanticized view of Riot Grrrl. This is about using history strategically, with the intention of opening up and continuing this history. This is about using shows, comp cds, and music from current bands to incite participation.

And the organizers of the show are doing so in a way that is fantastically subversive. These shows masquerade as just shows, as events with live music and liquor and general merriment. Both years, I went expecting nothing but music and general merriment, and I left feeling completely changed. I left those shows feeling inspired, feeling like I belonged to something, feeling like Riot Grrrl/punk/feminism, despite a lot of recent naysayery, are not dead, and neither am I. In other other words, I came out of that show with a scorching case of cooties. And I couldn't be happier about it.

Get your own case of cooties! Order a copy of Gimme Cooties from For the Birds!

No comments: