Personal Best vol 1-4 – a zine of 30 contributors reflecting on Riot Grrrl
Commissioned as part of the programming that accompanied the Portland exhibition of Alien She, Personal Best vol 1-4 compiles the work of over thirty contributors’ reflections on Riot Grrrl.
In 2015 I was asked to contribute to a zine about Riot Grrrl. I probably responded by saying that I wasn’t a Riot Grrrl, but whatever happened after that must have been enough to get me to write this piece. Unfortunately I missed the part about a 1000 word limit! An edited version of this appears in the zine, but I wanted to post the entire thing here.
How I Became a Cultural Icon and a Successful Agent for Radical Social Change
by Jean Smith
of the punk group Mecca Normal
OK, so the title is grandiose, but maybe the world needs more “angry women who aren’t concerned about what others think” – I just Googled this phrase to find no clear definition. Actually, I care very much about what others think and feel. It is perhaps a fact of sorts that empathy can get mixed up with assuming we know what others experience because we tend to believe that they share the same feelings we ourselves have.
Just yesterday at work, I was talking to a co-worker about the idea of always doing my best and she said something about doing one’s best as an example for how you believe things should be. I think she almost stated the Golden Rule do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But that wasn’t what I was talking about.
I was very misguided when I started out my political punk rock band in the early 1980s. I thought the guys in the scene would be impressed by the amount of energy and anger I sang my political songs with! Just like when I was about 15 and I thought a somewhat older guy, a football player I met at a swimming pool in Oregon, would be impressed if I could hold my breath underwater longer than he could. I did it, but he was not impressed. He wandered away.
I became a singer in the rush of radicalization I experienced that swirled around feminism and anti-authoritarianism I was learning about. Neither word – radical or political – was negative back then. I mean, they were to people who went to discos to dance to the Bee Gees, but within the live music scene it wasn’t a condemnation to be a political band in Vancouver in the early 1980s. Unfortunately, for the most part, the punk bands had been quite conventional. Four guys on stage imitating British bands. Fortunately for us, the general disinterest in our voice-and-guitar duo was augmented by enthusiastic responses when we went to other cities including in LA, NYC and Montreal – and then on many tours where we met tons of people who were impacted by what we were doing. By impacted, I mean people either really liked us or they really hated us and that became an interesting part of what we experienced, and since we weren’t essentially attempted to be liked, we weren’t derailed by that reaction.
Perhaps women especially shouldn’t allow the idea of being disliked by the people who hear their music, read their words or look at their art. When I started making myself known as an angry feminist, I was fortunate to have a very strong creative partnership with David Lester, from whom I found out a lot about women-fronted bands in the UK. He bought me tons of records – Raincoats, Slits, Au Pairs, Nina Hagen, Crass – and he was extremely encouraging and inspiring. That same partnership is solid to this day, more than thirty years later.
When I was in my twenties, I remember a woman saying that another woman was seeking male validation. The way she said it, made it seem like the worst thing a woman could do, but I think I ended up in this same boat and I think I know how and why, but that’s another story that has to do with my formative years enduring parental self-absorption, let’s call it. I had an alcohol-fueled confidence that frequently manifested as bombastic, but I was pretty funny and I think our rocky start here in Vancouver gave me a bit of time to figure out how to cope with the negativity surrounding our band.
Back to the title of this piece. Lest I sound like my grandiosity borders on delusion, I’ll re-title it:
How to Become a Cultural Icon and a Successful Agent for Radical Social Change
Better? More polite? Less about me and my accomplishments?
In many ways, I’m glad I had a quirky upbringing. It’s what made me intolerant of injustice, full of vitriolic empathy.
My story is a little bit backwards. Actually, it’s a lot backwards. I inspired Riot Grrrl. A strong statement, I know – and believe me, I’m tempted to re-position the focus on my band Mecca Normal, which was the vehicle I employed for inspiring the co-founders of Riot Grrrl.
In 1984, I began writing songs that went on to inspire and resonate with the women who went on to form Riot Grrrl. “I Walk Alone” and “Strong White Male” were probably the most powerful Mecca Normal anthems from that era.
When Fader.com asked Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill singer and Riot Grrrl co-founder) who influenced her in the early days, she replied: “Lyrically, Jean Smith of Mecca Normal was really poetic and had feminist ideas at the core of a lot of her songs and she wasn’t ashamed of it. She wrote a song about street harassment and the male gaze. And when I saw her I was just like, that’s it. I’m done. I’m sold.”
I also wrote about capitalism, poverty and prison justice. In 1985, I turned my zine Smarten Up! into a record label to release Mecca Normal’s first LP and we started touring quite a lot. One of our first stops on a west coast tour in 1986 was Olympia, Washington where Calvin Johnson of K Records wanted to trade his Beat Happening LP for our LP. We ended up putting out a bunch of records on K, which meant we went to Olympia a lot to play shows and record. At that time – from the mid-1980s into the 1990s – I spoke a lot from the stage, telling young women to start bands with their female friends.
For myself, I’d never been into participating in groups. In the mid-80s, David and I organized a series of tours called the Black Wedge on which anti-authoritarian poets and minimalist musicians used D.O.A.’s old school bus to tour. By 1990, when Rot Grrrl was still a few years away, I was 30 and I’d been using Mecca Normal to agitate for five years. It wasn’t a fit to join a group of women that much younger and, besides, the Vancouver chapter was being organized by a journalist for Rolling Stone and they seemed fairly suspicious to me.
We knew Billy Karren and Tobi Vail (Bikini Kill) from a cross-country tour we did together in the late 80s when they were both in Go Team with Calvin Johnson. In the early 1990s we were invited over for dinner in Eugene, Oregon by Molly Neuman and Allison Wolfe who went on to form Bratmobile. I think they were doing their zine Girl Germs at that point. I think Kathleen (Bikini Kill) interviewed me for her zine, but as Riot Grrrl started to come up as a rallying point, I watched from the sidelines. All of these people seemed extremely young to us. We knew they liked Mecca Normal, but we were out of a more political scene in Vancouver where there was a fairly long history of punk bands, but it almost all guys.
I think we were in LA when someone let us know that Riot Grrrls had stopped talking to the media. I wasn’t a Riot Grrrl and I wasn’t speaking for any Riot Grrrls and, as a band, we went out of our way to do interviews to talk about grassroots organizing, misogyny and whatever else was on our minds. Sometimes we barely even touched on whatever album we were supposed to be promoting; we got into great discussions about the music industry or radical politics in whichever city we were in. When Riot Grrrls stopped talking, my name came up as someone associated with them who would talk, so I got a lot of interview requests that I wouldn’t normally have gotten. Mainstream journalists from magazines like Seventeen were less informed about feminism and women in music. To a degree, we’d been preaching to the choir because we typically sought out likeminded journalists. On one occasion, I was flown to Boston to be on a TV show about women in rock where the producers encouraged an antagonism between the women on the panel. You can find that edition of the Jane Whitney show on my YouTube channel. I turned down Esquire Magazine and another TV talk show, the host of which went on to do a seedy baby-daddy-DNA TV program. Seedy! Pardon the pun!
During the whole grunge thing, we were opening for much bigger bands including Fugazi and Sonic Youth when, I believe they wanted to introduce their adoring fans to something meaningful from a women’s perspective. They wanted to use their clout to expose their fans to the likes of Mecca Normal and this didn’t really go over very well, but that was never really the point. I’ve always regarded Mecca Normal as cultural activists more than entertainers.
It is strange to read about the nostalgia associated with Riot Grrrl, because my work in Mecca Normal continued on, functioning very similarly to how we originated. We book our own shows, do our own promo, and release albums on indie labels. Our most recent album came out in 2014, but we have yet to record one of an even-more-recent song called Anguish which is about misogyny and a sense of failure and regret I have about not being able to stop it. It can feel a bit lonely out there now. It seems like the media stars of the Riot Grrrl era are clustered in a sort of celebrity limelight that doesn’t represent the how and why of the politics behind the movement. This is probably an unavoidable necessity for the women focused on while it was happening. If they want to continue their own artistic work – and the work of feminism – they are going to have to grapple with the media. For myself, I’m way of the radar. In Spin Magazine in 2013, Kathleen Hanna went so far as to lament the erasure of my band’s work. While talking about feminism being a vital feminist act, Kathleen said, “We get erased. It’s not like people are talking about Babes in Toyland everyday, and yet they were hugely important to my band, and to a lot of girls who came of age in the ’90s. When are they ever mentioned as influences? To think of a band like that, or Mecca Normal, that was so big and important to so many people, it’s so easy to get erased if you’re a female artist. I’m really lucky that I’ve read a lot of feminist texts. There’s one about the way women get talked about as writers, all about erasure, and not having female heroes because they’re erased.”
Now, at 56, I work part time in customer service in a grocery store. Hardly a glamorous lifestyle, but I am still creating work that angrily examines and rails against elements of the patriarchy.
It must seem strange to young women who weren’t around at the time, when everything seemed very disjointed and evidently uncomfortable for the women involved in Riot Grrrl. I was the singer in a band that passed through various cities. In some ways, I wonder what would have happened to my band if we hadn’t been lumped into association with Riot Grrrl. Is my role in Kathleen’s evolution enough for me as an artist? It’s weird to hear that Carrie Brownstein’s first show after seeing Madonna was a Mecca Normal, Beat Happening show in Seattle where she, for the first time, got to see musicians playing up close. On of those guitar players was David Lester of Mecca Normal and I think, somewhere, Carrie says she got her windmill from David! That’s kind of exciting, but that isn’t quite why I started Mecca Normal. Yes, we certainly did want other people to use art and music to change the world, but, more importantly, we wanted to change the world and, on one level, we did, but has it actually gotten any better for women?
There was another strange part of this story. Somewhere along the way, people confused me with Jen Smith, who is said to be the person who uttered the words girl and riot together. Unfortunately, this error was printed somewhere and then copied elsewhere, stating that Jean Smith had come up with this. It was already uncomfortable to be inaccurately quoted, but then it seemed like some women thought I had somehow created this falsehood and I was dissed as some sort of taker-of-credit when really I was just some singer in a shitty band. That was unpleasant.
It was also quite strange to feel like we were on a course of our own making and then we were being associated with people didn’t have that much to do with, as if our entire purpose was to be a reference to how something much larger than us came to be. Being labeled, as women well know, can then reduce one’s potential to be all sorts of other things. So, Mecca Normal became connected to Riot Grrrl, which, in most ways meant we were brought to the attention of people we otherwise wouldn’t have heard of us, but yet… it’s a strange thing when one’s own history is defined by an association. Having said that, I take almost every opportunity to strengthen that connection, because inspiring women to start bands with their friends is part of what I set out to do and I succeeded!
In about 2002, David and I co-wrote a lecture called “How Art & Music Can Change the World” that we began presenting it in classrooms and small art galleries to explain how we changed the world. David delves into the long history of using art to communicate political ideas and I talk about how Riot Grrrl started. We perform songs and use projected images to inspire people to use art to address various social, political and cultural issues. I mean, when you set out to change the world and you’re told you inspired a prominent social movement, you sort of want to tell people it’s possible!