Girls to the Front

by Sara Marcus (HarperPerennial)

Like Legs McNeil did in Please Kill Me, an “oral history” of punk rock that he cobbled together by talking to its early practitioners, Sara Marcus’ Girls to the Front tells the story of riot grrrl, one person at a time. We get to know these musicians, zinesters, and activists intimately — and not just them and their projects, but their families, their majors in college, their grubby apartments and part-time jobs. It’s an appropriate nod to the ethos of the ’90s, when the personal was political.

But unlike Please Kill Me and rock histories like it, the figures Marcus cares about about aren’t all celebrities. Of course there’s Kathleen Hanna, the de facto leader of the movement who said she never wanted to be thought of that way. But many of the other doers we meet in these pages were young women immersed (or stuck) in their own lives when word of the new feminism came to them via photocopied flyer or Sassy magazine. They were just ordinary kids, coming into a burgeoning sense of what it meant to them to be female. In her prologue Marcus sets the stage for RG’s creation, fitting it into its context in the larger culture and mainstream feminism. She goes on at length, but her argument is simple: Riot grrrl was the moment when feminism wasn’t just for women anymore, but for GIRLS, too.

You might find yourself wishing for more of the presence, the SPIRIT, of those big personalities, though. Where are the outrageous claims, the flamboyant performances, the punk-scene anecdotes? They’re here, don’t worry — we meet Corin Tucker and the fabulous Nomy Lamm — but gossip and celebrity worship isn’t Marcus’ bag. This is real journalism, and her research is impressively thorough and precise. At times, though, the who knew whom and how and when feels meticulous, repetitive.

Then again, many of these details are simply wonderful. Who knew, for instance, that the name riot grrrl started out as kind of a joke? The spelling of the word girl was Tobi Vail’s tongue-in-cheek comment on pained feminist re-spellings of words like wimmin, womon, womyn. Also delightful to think that identifying as a riot grrrl was, at first, not very cool. In fact it was a happy home for nerds, anti-cool, in a way: “Christina [Woolner] was excited to transform her uncoolness into an asset through the alchemical power of some jerry-rigged feminist theory.”

Most of the book’s action bounces back and forth between Olympia and Washington, D.C., where the two main cells of RG existed. Marcus takes us all over the place, though, to the Twin Cities and small towns in Nebraska and even the UK. She tells some of the smallest stories, about high school girls who learned about the funny, foul-mouthed brand of feminism and started organizing their own meetings, writing their own zines. It’s an inspired approach, since that’s really what this movement was: Girls who knew each other from around the way, talking and listening and making art together.

As a writer Marcus really shines when she’s doing that rock journalist thing of celebrating her subject in eloquent, jazzed-up prose that, when read aloud, sounds a bit like music. She can dissect a song’s meaning with real verve, and not just Bikini Kill or Bratmobile ones; she takes apart Jesus Jones’ 1992 hit “Right Here Right Now” for two pages, finding in it evidence of the kind of lazy anti-rebellion that characterized the age, the smug inertia our grrrls were pushing up against.

Despite its fastidiousness this is a moving read, not what you’d call uplifting, but stirring. The bulk of it takes place during and after major magazines and newspapers took an (overwhelming) interest in riot grrrl, misunderstanding and diminishing its purpose and insulting the girls in the tired old ways they were used to being insulted. Here too Marcus uses beautiful language to describe the pain they felt. “It reminded them that to be a girl in public is always to be watched.”