A few weeks ago, Courtney Love placed an ad in the Village Voice for a new set of backing musicians. She not unreasonably specified that they had to be able to play their instruments. Not just that, but they had to be female. And not just female — but “goddesses.”
Love obviously feels her new band’s look is as important as its sound, if not more so — which isn’t as surprising as it may seem for the rock/movie star whose original band, Hole, emerged in the early ’90s when riot grrrls ran riot on the indie charts.
Back then, was lumped in with this punk-feminist movement, but Love wasn’t a card-carrying member. In fact, the term “riot grrrl” was coined by Seattle musician Tobi Vail, a one-time girlfriend of Love’s late husband, Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain. Worse, even, for Love, must be the claim by Cobain biographer Charles Cross that Vail was the sole inspiration for one of the most important rock albums of the decade, Nirvana’s 1991 “Nevermind.”
In any case, riot grrrl is now as passe as grunge.
Former Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hannah still flies the feminist banner, but Liz Phair, who made waves in 1993 with her infamous pottymouth, is now on a major label, singing duets with Sheryl Crow and being produced by the folks who made Avril Lavigne an idol for 14-year-old girls the world over.
Under such circumstances, now would seem to be the perfect time for the Bangles to make a comeback. Though the L.A. quartet started out in 1981 as a scruffy indie band specializing in ’60s guitar rock, by the time of “All Over the Place,” their first Columbia album in 1984, they’d been made over as a glamorous vocal pop group whose members happened to play their own instruments. As part of this makeover, the original bassist was replaced by Michael Steele, a former member of the Runaways, an all-girl rock band put together and groomed by schlockmeister Kim Fowley.
A similar kind of calculation was built into the Bangles’ career. Their first hit single, the Prince-penned “Manic Monday,” played up their feminine charms in ways that their own, original songs didn’t, and set the standard for the rest of their career. Columbia filled out their records with slick (male) session players, thus inviting unfair rumors that the all-girl band couldn’t play their instruments. Susanna Hoffs’ girlish lead vocals quickly became the Bangles’ sonic signifier, though it was the Peterson sisters, Debbi and Vicki, whose harmonies made the band special in their indie days. And Hoffs’ Estee Lauder good looks were custom made for MTV.
The Bangles’ success as an all-girl band was thus seen to be at least partly brought about by an industry that wanted to capitalize on the fact that they were an all-girl band. It was exactly this kind of thinking that the riot grrrls rebelled against. It wasn’t as if they were trying to deny the difference between males and females — the riot grrrls were all too happy to exploit that difference in their songs and at their concerts. What they were upset about was that all-boy rock bands were considered the norm while all-girl rock bands remained novelties.
Musical styles come and go, and if most of the original riot grrrls have retired or been absorbed into the mainstream, their legacy can be seen in a more natural attitude toward all-girl rock bands.
It’s an attitude that can cut both ways. The Bangles reunion album, “Doll Revolution,” has been out in Japan since late February, but apparently it isn’t covered by a distribution deal in the United States yet. The group is selling it on their Web site under their own label, Down Kiddie. Produced by indie-pop maven Brad Wood and including a cover of Elvis Costello’s “Tear Off Your Own Head,” the record is scruffier than their three Columbia albums, but musically it’s actually more mainstream than “Say You Will,” the reunion album released last month by Fleetwood Mac, a group whose California-identified sound is very similar to the Bangles’.
So if the Bangles are returning 14 years after their split with a self-released record that doesn’t sound a whole lot different from their platinum output, what does that say about current major-label prerogatives? The fact is, what was once the emblematic indie style — punk and garage rock — is now the favored flavor at the five big record conglomerates. Indie is now the domain for classic rock and pop. The Bangles don’t have to be “the hit all-girl band” any longer. They can simply be a band.
The real indicator of the riot grrrls’ influence is all-girl bands who have emerged since the movement faded. Sahara Hotnights play precise, ’80s-style hard rock that some critics have called “cock rock.” Their sound actually has more in common with Joan Jett than Motley Crue, but in any case it’s a style that was once anathema to indie purists.
Actually, the band is only indie in the States. In their native Sweden they’ve been a draw since the late ’90s, but if the less-than-capacity crowd at tiny Astro Hall in Harajuku on May 6 for the group’s Japan debut was any indication, they’re indie here, too. Taking the stage with the assurance of a group twice their age and holding it with the tenacity of a pit bull for a full hour, the band was all business. Except for one brief moment when guitarist Jennie Asplund had to change instruments because of a broken string, the group didn’t even pause between songs.
This unflinching purposefulness made the songs sound even bigger than they are on their latest album, “Jennie Bomb” (a takeoff on the Runaways’ late ’70s hit “Cherry Bomb?”). Singer Marie Andersson sounds sort of small on CD, but live she’s on top of every note with throat-rending fury. By the end of the second song, her shoulder-length brown hair was dripping sweat.
Because the style of music SH plays is invariably associated with men with big hair and tight pants, the novelty angle may be tough to avoid, if only because of the visual paradox of four petite women playing very macho music. But it’s an aspect that the band is aware of and which it disavows by owning the style rather than merely borrowing it. Their lyrics are confrontational in a male sort of way, but they’re also so generalized that you get the feeling Andersson, despite the sneer and the taut neck muscles, is hoping they won’t offend anyone.
This lack of specificity may be due to the fact that the band is Swedish, and, like other current Scandinavian hard-rock bands (the Hives, the Soundtrack of Our Lives) throwing the best of old rock back at the Yanks and Brits who foolishly drove it underground in the early ’80s, much of their rock conceptualization, not to mention their verbal skills, is second-hand. There are virtually no love or sex songs in their repertoire; meaning, nothing of an overtly personal nature. They’re all about rebelliousness. “I’ll never be part of the deal,” Andersson sang with as much conviction as you can possibly muster for such a tired bromide, “Won’t fall into line again.”
Sahara Hotnights’ rebelliousness comes off as generically adolescent rather than specifically male or female, but they convey their convictions with assurance. And just so we wouldn’t misunderstand where they’re coming from, bassist Johanna Asplund wore an antiwar T-shirt with a picture of a horned George W. Bush.
The Donnas, another all-girl hard-rock quartet, hold different convictions, and two days later at the same venue, the California-based group played the first of two nights, thus indicating that they’re a little less indie than Sahara Hotnights, but not by much. As a matter of fact, the Donnas’ new album, “Spend the Night,” is their first for a major label after four well-received records on Lookout, which happens to be run by Molly Neuman, the former drummer of the seminal riot grrrl band Bratmobile, whose most famous song was called “F**k and Ride.”
Even Neuman hasn’t completely shaken the image thing about all-girl bands. In an interview with concert-industry magazine Pollstar last month, she said that Lookout didn’t have the resources or the connections to take the Donnas any further. “They’re very charming and charismatic,” she said, as if describing the Bangles in 1982, “We knew we had to find a way to reach a bigger audience.”
Given that the Donnas’ main influences are Kiss and Cinderella, they probably belong on a major, but much of that charm and charisma, which is in full evidence on their Lookout albums, has been flattened on “Spend the Night.” Part of the problem may have to do with the fact that the group has grown up. They formed 10 years ago in junior high school, and the Datsuns, donuts and dorky boys that provided the thematic fuel for their music was connected to their everyday experience.
The tame salaciousness on the new album sounds as calculated as the Sahara Hotnights’ forced rebelliousness. Songs like “Take Me to the Backseat,” “Take it Off,” and “You Wanna Get Me High” could be perceived as an attempt to bring their image up to date, but it can also be perceived as a rut.
Such lyrical intent also points to another difference between the two groups: if SH is all business the Donnas are anything but. Their attack is hard and precise, but they lurch about the stage, have trouble maintaining tempos, and chat up the patrons between songs. Unlike when I saw them at the same venue in 2000, this time the audience was mostly male, a development that Donna A. (Brett Anderson), the big-boned lead singer, deemed an improvement. “This one is for all you guys,” she said indicating the mini mosh pit that had formed in front of the stage. Occasionally, a love-lorn shout of “Donna” would erupt from the crowd, inviting quizzical looks from the musicians: Which one?
On balance, I preferred the Sahara Hotnights show, if only because it provided more of a rush. But the Donnas received a more enthusiastic reception. They acknowledged their audience, whether it was goofy bassist Donna F. (Maya Ford) telling a Michael Jackson joke or Donna A. winking provocatively while telling a prospective backseater to “stop staring at my D-cup.” During the appropriately titled “Hyperactive,” somebody bumped into me and I turned to see two guys dancing with each other, all by themselves. Doesn’t that count as progress?
The Donnas were not there to prove something. They were there to enjoy themselves, a prerogative that makes the gender thing moot. The Bangles had to start over in indieville to become a real band again, while Sahara Hotnights plays a boys’ game to prove that they’re nobody’s toys. The Donnas are happy to sing about how happy they are to be girls, but they rose from indie obscurity to major-label success because their music is considered cool, not because they’re an all-girl band. In fact, they’ve resisted attempts to play up that part of their image. In the same Pollstar article, Donna A. described a photo shoot for Rolling Stone. “It was horrible,” she said. “Every day somebody’s trying to get us to wear something we’d never wear. Sometimes it’s stupid, and other times it’s slutty and embarrassing. You say, ‘Like, that’s the most retarded shirt I’ve ever seen. There’s no way I could possibly get into that, even to appease you.’ “
A riot grrrl couldn’t have said it any better.
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