The Jewcy Interview: Marisa Meltzer
When I was fourteen, my best friend and I wrote a zine called Spit on Boys and made the mistake of bringing copies to our high school. In a matter of hours, we had accidentally handed our precious alternative world … Read More
When I was fourteen, my best friend and I wrote a zine called Spit on Boys and made the mistake of bringing copies to our high school. In a matter of hours, we had accidentally handed our precious alternative world over to the mainstream for them to do what they would with it. And it wasn’t pretty.
They didn’t understand. They took key phrases and concepts and ran with them, twisting meanings, cutting edges, mincing the deepest of thoughts. We had a secret gift, we were in on the inside scoop, until everyone else got a hold of it and turned it into something less authentic, a dumbed-down version of everything we loved.
But what if worlds shouldn’t always be so precious and insular? Marisa Meltzer writes in the preface of her new book, Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution In Music (Faber & Faber), "Riot grrrl didn’t stay within the confines of one scene, which allowed the concept of girl power to grow into something much larger and, I think, more interesting." She surprises me even further when, on the next page, she writes about getting tickets for the Spice Girls reunion show.
My first thought was "hmmm", but Meltzer had earned her old school riot grrrl cred, no doubt. She also writes about cutting her hair short and listening to Heavens to Betsy when she was in high school: both rights of passage for teen riot grrrls. She talks in her book about how the term "girl power" is anathema to many feminists who believe these words have been co-opted by the mainstream media and as a result, lost its meaning, but she argues that, to her, the words "reflect both a feminist message and a changing feminism."
This book is essentially an investigation of what to make of these conflicting meanings, and what’s next to come in the world of music and feminism.
I met you at your Sassy book party and spoke to you briefly. You told me that you were working on, or about to work on Girl Power. When did you have the idea to write the book, and how soon after did you start writing?
I worked on [the two books] more or less back-to-back. In the summer of 2006, Sleater-Kinney broke up and the Pussycat Dolls were topping the charts and it felt like so much that I had held dear-and that had shaped me in my teen years-was fading away. I got the Girl Power book deal about a month before the Sassy book [How Sassy Changed My Life, Faber & Faber, 2007] was released, so as I was doing publicity and a book tour for [the Sassy book], I was also researching this one.
When did riot grrrl first enter your life? What was your first experience with it?
I saw pictures of riot grrrls in places like Sassy or Spin before I had ever even heard the music. I was probably about fifteen and had a really visceral reaction. I didn’t know that was what I had been looking for, but I immediately knew that was something I wanted in my life.
What were you listening to/into culturally before you heard about riot grrrl?
I was definitely into, you know, indie music. Whatever we were calling it in the ’90s. I got really into the Smiths in junior high. When I first discovered riot grrrl I was probably listening to a lot of Pavement, Sonic Youth, and Superchunk. I definitely went to the first three Lollapaloozas.
So [in your book], you are commenting on topics very sensitive to all parties involved I would think. What have people’s reactions been like so far? People involved in the book and readers.
I honestly haven’t heard much from people I interviewed. I did read Tobi Vail’s review of the book and was flattered that she took the time. I think it’s probably always really odd to read about yourself.
The reactions from readers have been simply amazing. I have heard from a lot of girls who were too young to really even remember the ’90s who seem to be feeling so inspired and excited by the riot grrrl/’90s woman ethos. I have been invited to join at least one girl gang. I love it.
In the book, you talk about how feminist archivist Lizzie Ehrenhalt was young during the riot grrrl movement but then she discovered it and felt really inspired by it, only by the time she got to it, she kind of felt like she had missed out. What is out there right now for newcomers to riot grrrl? What would you recommend ladies read, get into, where they can go, etc.?
Lizzie is brilliant. I met her at a conference when she did a paper on matriarchy in Jem and the Holograms. I think one of the best parts about riot grrrl was that it left a massive paper trail: zines, recordings, letters. Kathleen Hanna’s donation to NYU will be great for people who are looking for more. I would say to go or volunteer at a rock camp, start a band, start a feminist fashion blog, put on a festival, buy a Vivian Girls album, read Kathleen Hanna’s blog. There’s so much. The core message of riot grrrl was to ultimately Do It Yourself and there are so many ways to interpret that.
I was going to ask you about the Kathleen Hanna archive at NYU. Hopefully that inspires [more] things like [it] to pop up all over the place. Something that really stuck out to me in your book was reading about Avril Lavigne’s aversion to feminism. That was pretty horrifying!
I love that part, too.
I was really shocked to read it, like jaw-droppingly, how is this possible shocked. She didn’t even know what the word meant, and then decided based on her little knowledge of it, it didn’t sound good. Yet she was marketed as a rebel. Do you think girls can take feminist and positive messages away from someone like that even if she isn’t feminist herself?
Sadly there are probably more Avrils in this world than Christina Aguileras….By which I mean, Avril was packaged as this rebel and doesn’t know or care about feminism-rejects it-and Aguilera is this secret feminist even though she’s packaged as this classic pop diva. I mean, Aguilera is working with Le Tigre on a song for her new album. That is so exciting .But sure, girls can find kernels of feminism in all kinds of places. Maybe Avril will strike a nerve, snd her songs are certainly catchy! But, you know, I have a lot of issues with her.
In your book, you point out that the term riot grrrl has two different meanings. There is the original meaning which promotes girl strength, and then the meaning bands like Good Charlotte used, which is more like angry woman/rebel without a cause. How do you think one turns into the other? Like how do things like that even get so lost in translation? And is it inevitable for that to happen with any kind of indie concept once it goes mainstream?
It’s sort of similar to how you can buy riot grrrl plastic Halloween costumes. It’s very easy for underground movements to get twisted and chewed up and spit out (I think I’m mixing metaphors!) by the mainstream. Google them. You will laugh really hard. I think it’s probably inevitable that indie concepts like that will be reappropriated. I don’t think it’s always terrible. A mass audience can be a good thing.
It can be a great thing [for sure], but I find the message often gets lost along the way, which is the unfortunate part.
For example, there have been plenty of people in the organic food movement for decades, and now Michael Pollan has interpreted it and been in the Times, on Oprah. I’m sure there are some hardcore types who have issues with his message not being strong enough, but, to me, the overall good is way more important. With riot grrrl, the mainstream just got it all wrong, and part of that, I think, was their unwillingness to work with the mainstream. Of course, I can see the resistance.
I think so too, for sure. You can’t leave things like that in the hands of the mainstream.
The way they were portrayed was really awful and it was a time when we were all less media savvy and had much different expectations of privacy.
In the book, you make the point that sexual ownership championed by riot grrrls morphed into consumerism. Once this kind of sexual ownership, that started out as liberating, becomes mainstream, how does it change? What do you think it means/does for the ladies that first come to know about it in the mainstream?
Riot grrrl was combining its more provocative elements with information on things like rape, self-defense, and sexual abuse. There was context, in other words. But when the mainstream got its hands on it, that context was taken away and you just had sexy babydoll dresses or body glitter left. That said, it’s always hard to negotiate youth burgeoning adolescent sexuality, whether you hang out at punk shows or the mall.
I thought it was really interesting that (you wrote about how) Sharon Cheslow learned about punk from the obvious Creem, but also from Seventeen Magazine. These sources have something in common in the way that they are both bringing awareness to punk music, even if it’s coming from different angles/the motive is different. Do you think they are both equally important in their own way? Why or why not? Do you think the Seventeens of the world help the Creems (of the world) exist, or more so hurt their message?
I’m not sure that magazines that are a little more mass help support the ones that are more niche. The way punk or riot grrrl or Mormon emo bands or any underground movement gets covered in mainstream media can be a bit broad and humorous and weird for those involved. I am a firm believer in teen magazines, though; I read about Bikini Kill in Sassy just like Sharon Cheslow read about the Sex Pistols in Seventeen.
On another note, sites like Feministing and bands like the Spice Girls are both essentially promoting "girl power". Do you think mainstream culture/readers interpret these things in the same way? Like, do you think people who don’t know about the undergroundness of riot grrrl take these avenues to mean the same thing? How can you briefly/tangibly explain the difference between the two?
On some very base level, riot grrrl and the Spice Girls both want the same thing when they say girl power: they want girls to revel in their girlhood and feel joyous and confident in the world. Riot grrrl did this by trying to change the boy-dominated punk paradigm, encouraging girls to band together and to speak openly. The Spice Girls didn’t give their young fans much to take home besides Spice merchandise.
Just out of curiosity, did you ever apply or think about applying to write a 33 1/3 book about Sleater-Kinney or any other riot grrrl band? Did you ever play in a band yourself?
No, I haven’t. I wrote a piece for Slate on Sleater-Kinney’s breakup, though. I was in a band in college called The Skirts. We were very short-lived but we did once play with Bikini Kill.
Jesse Sposato is a founding editor of Sadie Magazine.