Tag Archives: Riot Grrrl

Fucking Carrie Brownstein

 

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Source: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images North America)

Fucking Carrie Brownstein! She’s smart, cute, a riot grrl, in a super awesome band that everyone loves, even critics; she has a super funny, edgy TV show, and now she’s publishing a memoir. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (Riverhead Books) is due out October 27th, just two days before my forty-sixth birthday. My memoir, The Spitboy Rule: Tales of a Xicana in a Female Punk Band (PM Press) isn’t due out until Spring 2016. Just what, I ask, will Brownstein’s memoir be about? What has she done?

There should be some kind of law that you can’t write a memoir until you’re forty-five, until you’ve lived at least half your life like I have. I was already forty-five when I got word my memoir would be published.

When I got the news from PM Press, I didn’t run straight to my family to tell them the good news, hug them, or cry. No, I thought this instead: Okay, now, I just have to not die before it’s in print.

So imagine my shock last night, squinting at a Riverhead Books Instagram post on my phone announcing Brownstein’s book, my dismay at always having to be in the shadow of those sexpot riot grrls.

I should have known this would happen when I read her blurb on the back of Kim Gordon’s book A Girl in a Band, which credits her as —Carrie Brownstein, writer, actor, musician. I know she writes. However, to declare her a writer in that way, on that book is a bit like product placement.

Alice Bag, the most famous and legendary Chicana punk, Viv Albertine, of the Slits, and Kim Gordon, Sonic Youth, all did the decent thing and waited until they were in their fifties to publish their memoirs. The four of us will have to think very carefully about whether we’ll let the youthful, fancy pants Brownstein into our edgy female writer/musician’s club.

There is consolation in the fact that while Brownstein’s book will be published before mine, people will read my book too, because Alice Bag, Viv Albertine, Kim Gordon, and now, Carrie Brownstein have laid the groundwork, and because everyone wants to be a rock star, even if it’s only as long as it takes to read three hundred pages. It just isn’t fair always having to live in the shadow of those damn riot grrrls, who are and always have been younger and more pop-culture than I am.

In conclusion, I must ask the obvious question. Who are they going to let write a memoir next? It seems that there should be some sort of cap, some sort of quota. We can’t just let any literate woman who can play an instrument write a memoir. What would people think? What kind of message would that send? Americans might actually start to really believe at younger and younger ages that women can and should be heard, that women should have a voice, be musicians, writers, artists, great thinkers and creators worthy of solid place in history.

My Body is Mine

imgres                 tumblr_n5zioi00AB1tvqu8xo1_500When we released our Mi Cuerpo Es Mio 7”, a riot grrl from Olympia accused Spitboy of cultural appropriation. The riot grrl, I’ll call her Amy, had ties to the Bay Area, and she was white. Maybe she really believed the accusation. Maybe cultural appropriation was a new concept to her, one that she wanted to try out, and felt it applied to us, or maybe she was just pissed off at Spitboy because we had distanced ourselves from her movement. Amy objected to our use of Spanish for the title of our record. She objected to the words “mi cuerpo es mio” which translates to my body is mine – apparently my body was invisible.

Mi Cuerpo Es Mio, Spitboy’s third release, followed our self-titled 7” on Lookout Records, and our full-length LP that came out on Ebullition. Mi Cuerpo Es Mio was an Allied release, and we chose Allied because of our ties, mostly through Karin, with John Yates, and because we had decided that we would not be owned by any one particular record label, especially since like the punk scene itself the punk record labels were run by men. We were of course, grateful for these particular men, but we didn’t want any of them to feel any kind of ownership over us, our music, or our message. I remember Karin framing our approach that way, and it made sense to me after feeling a great deal of embarrassment from comments made during the release of the Kamala and the Karnivores 7” which came out when I was still dating founding partner of Lookout Records, David Hayes. Turns out that Girl Band was just a really good record after all and with a brilliant cover concept that I will take some credit for. In it, each member of Kamala and the Karnivores is depicted with Barbie dolls. We even found a brown skinned Barbie for my doll and an Asian Barbie for Lynda who played guitar.

During my days entrenched in the scene, I never tried to pass for white, but my nickname was Todd and people didn’t always go by there last names. Familial ties were less important than what band you were in, zine you wrote, or city you were from, and a lot of us were from broken or dysfunctional families anyway. If you were in a band, you went by your first name and your last name was the name your band: Todd Spitboy, Adrienne Spitboy, and so on. Before Spitboy, people called me Todd Bitchfight.

Although I looked quite different from the rest of the Spitboy, my ethnicity didn’t often come up in conversation, not in the Bay Area. In the 1990’s, people were still trying to be colorblind, to not see race, or to pretend not to see it, as the case may be. It wasn’t polite to talk about race, and so I didn’t really talk about it, but this one conversation sticks out in my mind:

“What’s your last name?”

We had just played a show and a friend of Karin’s had come to see us play.

“Gonzales,” I said. It was an unusual question.

“Your last name is Gonzales? Are you, um, Mexican?”

“Yeah, I am,” I said.

This was sort of nice – most people usually said, “What are you?”

“How come I didn’t know that before?”

“I don’t know.”

“That’s so weird. I’m sorry,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“It seems like I should have known that before. I’ve seen you play and Spitboy, you know, you’re a punk band. I never thought about you all being anything other than that.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said.

“I feel bad.” She reached out and touched my knee.

I didn’t know what to say.

“Identity is so important, and I didn’t even see it, see you. I just saw Spitboy.”

“I don’t think that’s uncommon,” I said, “It’s easier just to see the short hair and clothes I guess.”

“Well, I’m not going to do that again,” she said, “It’s not right.”

After so many years of race/class ridicule that I endured growing up in Tuolumne, fitting in was important to me, but fitting into the punk scene the way I did then created a whole other problem. In conforming to the non-conformist punk ways, adhering, mostly, to the punk uniform, I had lost something along the way, and I began to experience rumblings of discontent that I didn’t quite understand. I secretly listened to Linda Ronstadt’s Canciones de Mi Padre and sang along, holding long sad notes to words that, like Ronstadt, I only vaguely understood. I knew that my identity was the root of my confusion and discontent, so I began taking Spanish classes at a local community college when I could fit them in after work.

Learning to speak Spanish had been a life-long dream. As a child, someone had given me a red hardcover Spanish/English dictionary, and, naively, I thought if I read it everyday that I would become bilingual like the rest of my family in East LA. Later, living in the Bay Area and not being able to speak Spanish began messing with my head, made me feel inadequate, like a phony. I sometimes avoided going to the Mission District in San Francisco because while I was working super hard to fit into the punk scene, playing in bands, going to shows, and volunteering at Blacklist, and not always feeling totally accepted or understood, I felt really out of place in the Mission where it seemed like everyone spoke to me in Spanish and looked baffled when I couldn’t respond. Learning to speak my family’s language, even the little that I was able to speak after only a couple of semesters of college Spanish, provided some relief and helped me to come out as a person of color in the punk scene.

I didn’t say all of this out loud when I suggested Mi Cuerpo es Mio as the title for what would become Paula’s last release with the band because I still didn’t really have words to express all that was going on inside me at twenty-five. Later, when I did have the words, they often came out wrong, clumsy, angry, abrasive, and alienating, especially in those last days of Instant-Girl, but I suppose this was part of my process.

Everyone in the band liked the phrase mi cuerpo is mio because of it’s strength in sound and content and because it summed up all that we were about. The syntatical alignment of the masculine ending noun “cuerpo” and pronoun “mio” is what creates the strength in the line and is an aspect of the Spanish language that makes it particularly euphonious and easy to create rhyme. It was also a concept of the language that I understood particularly well, and I when I learned it, I was drawn to the way it created emphasis.

Still, the main reason that I suggested mi cuerpo es mio as the title of the 7” was to acknowledge an aspect of my membership in the band that I felt was missing, an aspect of myself that I felt unable to or insecure about expressing. Blame the scene; blame Tuolumme; blame America. It could have been any number of those things. Probably all of them together were to blame for my locura, for my schizophrenic, or closeted identity.

I hadn’t been at all sure that the Spitwomen would want to name our record “My Body is Mine” in Spanish, but they did, and that felt good, but being criticized by a riot grrrl was a huge blow. It really pissed me off.

Like a lot of people, my first reaction to anything upsetting back then was anger. Anger is a good mask for sadness, so I didn’t understand right away that I wasn’t really mad that that some riot grrl, keen on accusing people of cultural appropriation but who couldn’t recognize a person of color when she was staring one in the face, had attacked the band. I was hurt. I was hurt because people didn’t really see me, and I had let it happen. I had been invisibilized. People in the scene did not see my identity, the core of who I really was, the face and body through which I experienced the world. At shows, I did not register as a Chicana. I was just the drummer of Spitboy, and for some reason, I couldn’t be both.      

The Riot Grrrl Controversy

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“SPITBOY are the best girl band around. They piss all over every Riot Girl band I can think of. They’ve got more power in their dirty little fingernails than Courtney Love, Kathleen Hanna and Kat Bjelland put together… Tonight, these four women, sweaty and angry, but also (between songs) witty and endearing–have stolen my heart… Spitboy are uniquely inspiring, not only for their awesome bile, but also for their straightforwardness. They hate sexism, not men. They know exactly what they’re talking about and how to articulate their righteous aggression.”

—From Melody Maker April 10, 1993

   London, England

   “Live!” review by Lucy Sweet                           

We weren’t trying to piss on riot grrrl bands. But we did understand that the comparison, or being labeled a riot girl band, wasn’t going away and neither was what had now become rivalry between female punk bands who ultimately had the same mission: to speak out against sexism. It would have been easier to say we were a riot girrl band, but we had formed Spitboy in the Bay Area during the early days of their movement. And we stood for just about everything they did, only we didn’t want to be called girls.

It happened in Washington DC, an already strange city, which added to the days angst.  After getting lost on one way streets and roundabouts, we found our way to the venue we were scheduled to play that day, a sort of loft space storefront on a swanky tree lined street with Victorian architecture, a strange place to play after playing church basements and Elks Lodges in the mid-west.

I followed Adrienne out of the van, staying at the heels of her clunky boots, as I often did during times like these.  Adrienne was outgoing and became even more so when in doubt; whereas, I tended toward standoffishness. We weren’t playing with any riot girl bands that day, but members of Bikini Kill and the guys from Nation of Ulysses who they were all hanging around with were there for the show. Punk bands from the bay area, where every other band wanted to play, or played as often as they could, were a draw, and women came out when Spitboy played. Bikini Kill and their friends had come out to see us play, to see what we were all about.

Adrienne marched up to the door of the venue looking for the guy who had set up the show to find out where we should load in. I figured I could get past the intimidating moments of meeting new people, new scenesters, faster if I hung with Adrienne while she went around, smiling wide, her straight-toothed smile, her blue eyes sparkling, introducing herself to people, laughing easily, shaking people’s hands, and hugging those who wanted a hug. I stopped at shaking hands. I didn’t want people I didn’t know hugging me or touching me, men in particular, no matter how much they liked Spitboy, and not when I was already feeling tense about being on riot grrrl territory.

Like riot grrrl, hugs had become a sore subject too. Earlier in the tour, on our way out of some city, this guy, a friend of our tour contact had offered to give us all hugs. Apparently, I was the only one in the band who found this creepy.

“Everyone tells me that I give the best hugs. Do you want a hug?” the young man said, holding his arms out, waiting for one of us to step in. He was a pale-faced, chubby dude, not fat, just a little husky, the kind of punk guy who was probably vegetarian who rarely ate vegetables and who subsisted on mainly cheese and bread and beer or soda.

“Sure, I’ll have a hug.” Adrienne smiled wide and stepped forward.

I took a step back and looked toward our dented blue van.

“You do give the best hugs.’ Adrienne turned to Karin who was standing at her side. “Karin, you have to get one of his hugs.”

Karin stepped forward and let this guy hug her, hugging him back.

I could see the guy’s face as he hugged Karin, his head over her shoulder, his eyes scrunching with the squeeze of his arms, his goofy smile.

“Okay, I’ll have one too,” Paula said.

 I stepped to the side to avoid his line of vision once he opened his eyes.

“Thank you,” Paula said, once he released her. She smiled a real smile, her freckles dancing about.

I looked down at the ground, to where the asphalt met the dirt on the side of the road. I could feel all eyes on me.

“Do you want a hug too?” Huggy Bear Boy smiled and stepped in my direction.

“No, I don’t,” I said before he got too close. “Thank you,” I added.

Huggy Bear Boy stopped his forward lumber, and there was an awkward silence as he lowered his arms, like two long animal balloons out of air.

In the van, I felt like I had to explain myself, as if our ‘body is mine’ motto didn’t extend to fans.

“But he was nice,” Adrienne said.

Karin and Paula were in the front seat waving at Huggy Bear Boy and his friend as we drove away. I waved and forced a smile because I didn’t want to look like a total asshole.

“That was probably the most action that guy’s gotten in days, maybe ever,” I said once we had driven a block or so.

“Todd,” Karin said, shocked but she laughed anyway because she knew it was probably true.

Even though I didn’t want to be hugged by fans, unless I felt some kind of real connection, like after a conversation, I was oddly confident in other ways, and I didn’t usually get nervous before playing live, but I was nervous the night we played in front of members of Bikini Kill and Nation of Ulysses. In short, I was intimidated. Then a tall guy came up to me before we took to the stage ( which wasn’t a stage at all, just a piece of the floor in the back of the venue, opposite the glare from the front windows) to ask if we required the men in the crowd to stand in the back of the room, like they were told to do during a Bikini Kill set. I couldn’t believe my ears, but I now had someplace to direct my angst.

At my drumset, sitting on the stool, I pulled my backup vocal mic up to my mouth, “Before we play, we’d just like to say that we don’t expect men to stand in the back of the room. We’re not a riot girl band.”

All the air sucked right out of the room as soon as I said it. Mouths dropped open and silent. It was as if someone turned off the sound.

Being the hot headed one, I had nominated myself to say something first about what we realized had become an elephant in the room, but I had chosen my words poorly, spoke too soon, shat where I ate. But there it was out in the open, we were a female punk band in 1992, but we were not a riot grrl band. And it was probably best for the rest of the band that I had been the one to say it, the one who would became the most hated Spitwoman of just about every riot girl thereafter because I was the scrappy one, the only one who didn’t grow up middle-class, the non-white one; I had thicker skin.  But they backed me up; Spitboy was great this way. We did sometimes discuss possible approaches and reactions to familiar crowd responses, but we never shut anyone in the band down who felt passionate about about a something, and when one of us spoke first on a topic, there was always room for another of us to chime in and add her two cents. In this case, Adrienne stepped into recover some sense of decorum.

“Please don’t block a woman’s view; don’t stand in front of someone who is shorter than you are. Just use common sense.”

I appreciated Adrienne’s attempt to soften the blow of my comment, but my hands and knees, which started to shake the second the words, “We’re not a riot girl band,” came out of my mouth and I saw the stunned looks on people’ faces, wouldn’t stop. We knew that this one comment, saying this one thing that we had discussed with one another privately, in public, would forever alter our relationship with one of the most influential women’s movements in the punk rock scene nationwide. Still we had discussed it, and we, Spitboy (even before boys in the DC crowd came up to us and thanked us after the show) had made the deliberate decision not take a separatist stance. It was true, we hated sexism; we didn’t hate men, and neither did Bikini Kill, really.  Though if we could go back and do it over again we would have gone about it, I would have gone about it a bit differently, but not much, not much differently.