The mid to late nineties budded a shrill and fiery progression in Feminism. The soil was fertilized mostly in the areas surrounding Olympia and D.C. -- areas that have always been on the forefront of change, both musically and socially. It was a movement distinguished by the shouts of “girls to the front” through a shitty speaker. The voice is sharp yet booming through the the ten dollar microphone. All of the words pierce into your skull like a strong mixture of thunder and lightning. “Don't you talk out of line. Don't go speaking out of your turn,” the voice might say.
A quick inhale follows the striking line, punctuating the passion as the words still bounce around the venue’s dirty walls and floors. The half-broken snare drum smacks and smacks with the sound of crackling change, similar to the sound of firewood, set a long time ago, still shifting under the weight and heat of its fire. “Gotta listen to what the Man says. Time to make his stomach burn. Burn, burn, burn, burn.”
This was Bikini Kill’s “Dare Ya,” and this was Riot Grrrl. Growing mainly from the origins of Siouxsie, The Slits and some other proto-punk acts of the seventies and eighties (who mostly hailed from our friends on the other side of the channel), the well-needed-march-on-the-Patriarchy was helmed by modern punk groups like the aforementioned Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy. Most of these bands (and their audiences) were made up of younger white women with ears for harder hitting music and hearts full of the disdain for inequality.
Riot Grrrl really kick started the third-wave of feminism, characterized by unsubtle body hair and homemade zines. I say grew, but what I really mean is that it canon-blasted its message directly into the ears of any listener. These messages include the reclamation of derogatories, the battle against sexual violence and sexual discrimination, and the rights of a woman’s reproductive system -- all taken on by blistering vocals and guitars in overdrive.
1989; Girl Germs series by Molly Neuman and Allison Wolfe (via Flavorwire)
One wave is not better or worse than another, and so far, they’ve all been detrimental to the growth and progression of feminism as a whole. But, of course, that doesn’t mean that they’re no differences between them. The second wave, while strong in its own right, was admittedly more passive than the third, And while the second wave looked for progression of women in its own right, the third wave, to oversimplify, wanted complete equality on all fronts (meaning their focus was expressing themselves in the same or similar ways to men without scrutiny).
Bands like Perfect Pussy, Downtown Boys and Bully have carried the feel of Riot Grrrl into the modern era, but they aren’t who I want to talk about today. Within the cracks of mid-size, inner-cities grows a sleepier movement; one that also might mature alongside a new wave.
Take for instance Birmingham's own Waxahatchee, lead by Katie Crutchfield. While Riot Grrrl had pulsing drums and shrieking guitars matched with throat-destroying vocals, Waxahatchee and its contemporaries are a little bit different. Crutchfield’s melancholy synths are matched with wispy guitar plucks, and the production from Wichita Recordings is clear and crisp instead of fumbling and messy.
The movement has different shades than just “somber” and “melancholy” though. Another example of this new class is Girlpool. Cleo Tucker and Harmony Trividad’s songs consist only of two guitars and doubled vocals from the two L.A. natives. “I just miss how it felt standing next to you/Wearing matching dress before the world was big/I just miss how it felt standing next to you/Wearing matching dresses before the world was big,” the two sing over their respective instrument with their voices cracking as the chorus rises. “Before the World Was Big,” Girlpool’s breakout album, is one drenched in the nostalgia of a girlhood long gone.
This new dimension of feminism and its messenger (the budding indie rock singers and songwriters aforementioned) are only beginning to grow. If I was to state exactly what I believed the fourth-wave of feminism to be about, I would most likely be wrong. There hasn’t been enough time or enough messengers of the movement to really solidify exact sentiments. The acceptance of comfortable femininity? The proclamation of sexual-and-gender fluidity? A more relaxed and heady fight for equality paralleling the second wave? None of the above? Who knows?
Girlpool might be a celebration of young girlhood, and Waxahatchee might bring a calmer side to indie-rock romances from the feminine point of view, but these two bands are not the only examples of the growing genre. Adult Mom’s first LP “Momentary Lapse of Happily” from early 2015 speaks extensively of regret and longing through Stephanie Knipe's whispy vocals. Frankie Cosmos speaks in the present tense while being jolted into adulthood as a young woman through lo-fi, almost bedroom-quality recordings.
Because this brand of fourth-wave is so new and budding, there is most definitely an extended class branching out to other styles of sounds as well, not just indie-rock. Gabrielle Smith's Eskimeaux matches together her crystal clear vocals and dancey, pop synths. Speedy Ortiz blisters with dark, brazen guitar leads and atonal bass riffs, drifting out into the fringes between indie-rock, med-90's grunge, and post-punk.
The development of a movement can be incredibly flexible and hard to pin down.This is where a problem might pop up: it's false (and almost demeaning) to say that any band with a female vocalist has to belong to either the Riot Grrrl or Fourth Wave veins mentioned above, as if being a female-headed-band separates you fundamentally from all others.
There are plenty of bands (such as Strawberry Switchblade, Liz Phair, and, more recently, Makthaverskan and Grimes) that haven't necessarily been filed under the same vein as Bikini Kill or Waxahatchee even though they were/are still around while the wave of their time began/begins to grow.
As you can see, these groups' messages and sounds are far too spread out to really solidify the overarching sentiments. In the case of Riot Grrrl, there were a few bands at the top of the hierarchy with very similar styles and attitudes (Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Bratmobile), but now with the Fourth Wavers, while the attitudes and moods may be similar in some cases, the sounds are growing more and more differentiated.
Because of this, I want to leave the possibility wide open: perhaps this isn’t a new movement. Perhaps it’s just a small shade of indie rock that won’t ever really grow into its own concrete arguments, messages, or style. Maybe it’ll fizzle out and die like many other (social and musical) movements do before it really gets its wheels off the ground.Of course, this also could have happened to Riot Grrrl, but it sure as hell didn’t.
(Here are some more recommendations by me of the previously mentioned bands):