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POP+ Pride: A Brief History of The 'Do-It-Yourself' & 'Don't-Ask-Permission' Pacific Northwest Punk Movements

image of 'Riot Grrrl' tattooed onto the knuckles of a person's a clenched fist

It’s 1991. The punk "Do-It-Yourself" tenet has become a wave. 

For those less familiar, DIY is the idea that punks won’t get heard by the mainstream, so punks should do it themselves: start bands first and learn their instruments as they go, break out their Xerox’s and create their own posters, perform anywhere from garages to goth clubs, and create their own labels and distributors. It would be scrappy, but it would be self-sustaining, and it would be theirs.

Up in Seattle, the Sub Pop record label is in its fourth year. Mudhoney and Soundgarden are big on the scene, and another band named Nirvana has just brought on its fifth drummer and started work on a new album, Nevermind...

While Seattle’s story is well documented, Olympia’s punk underground has more of a cult status.

Olympia had a vibrant all-ages music scene thanks in part to the local college, Evergreen State. Evergreen had a long tradition of radical academic opinion, a trailblazing indie radio station, and, of course, a steady supply of young people. Krist Novoselic described it to MoPOP as the "land of eco-terrorists and homosexuals"—the perfect incubator for young punk energy.

Enter: The feminist fanzine.

Tobi Vail wanted to play the drums in school band when she was younger, but was told there already was a girl drummer. She was offered a wind instrument instead.

When Vail got to Evergreen State, she befriended a few girls—Kathleen Hanna, Billy Karen, and Kathy Wilcox. They started a band together and an accompanying fanzine—Bikini Kill.

Down in Oregon, Olympia native Allison Wolfe introduced Molly Neuman to some music from her hometown. Neuman had always been interested in music, but it wasn’t until she took a women’s studies course and met Wolfe that it hit her: maybe the barriers didn’t have to be as high as she thought.

The two started a fanzine (Girl Germs) and made regular trips to Olympia to be a part of the scene there. Neuman had barely played guitar before, but they started a band anyway—Bratmobile.

Bikini Kill and Bratmobile weren’t alone. There was also Heavens to BetsyHuggy Bear, and later, Sleater-Kinney.

The Riot Grrrl movement began with the very simple idea that more girls should make music. 

As Neuman put it, "It was... so fundamentally stupid, that there aren’t as many [girls] making music. Let’s just do it."

Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and others collaborated on the Riot Grrrl Manifesto, and Hanna published it in the Bikini Kill fanzine.  

The Manifesto’s first pillar:  

BECAUSE us girls crave records and books and fanzines that speak to US that WE feel included in and can understand in our own ways. 

Its last pillar:  

BECAUSE I believe with my wholeheartmindbody that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will change the world for real. 

And that was that. The punk 'Do-It-Yourself' tenet had been transformed into a feminist one: 'Don‘t-Ask-Permission.'

Meanwhile, Slim Moona young person also living in Olympia, had just decided in true DIY spirit to begin his own labelIn an interview with MoPOP, Slim said, "I wanted to start a record label only if I could think of something to contribute, and to add to the world."

That label was called Kill Rock Stars (KRS), and its core values would include feminism and queer representation. 

He was looking for artists to include on the label’s first compilation record and met with Bikini Kill. Seeing that their feminist verve aligned with hishe included their tracks on the albumAlso featured on the album were the Melvins, Kicking Giant, Courtney Love, and Bratmobile.

The Kill Rock Stars album launched the labelMoreover, the label’s Riot Grrrl signees (most notably, Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Huggy Bear, Excuse 17, and Sleater-Kinney) went to work launching third-wave feminism.

Yes. They literally launched third-wave feminism.

Third-wave feminism has a lot of ideas within it and a lot of it is highly academic mumbo-jumbo. For our purposes, third-wave feminism is defined by the reclamation of symbols of womanhood, use of irony to prove points, and by a refusal to assimilate into the system.  

Look at any Riot Grrrl zine and you’ll see things like lipstick, pin-up-type illustrations, Riot Grrrls self-describing as "girls" in a way that second-wave "women" might find pejorative or scandalous. Riot Grrrl lyrics are laced with irony and sarcasm. Watch a live Riot Grrrl performance and notice that they wore whatever they wantedultra feminine clothes, masculine clothes, short hair, long hairanything went. The shows were sweaty and loud, and what was most controversial was their rallying cry: "girls to the front!"

When she fronted Bikini Kill, Kathleen Hanna was heckled, even physically assaulted, by men in the audience. In classic cheeky Riot Grrrl form, she’d flash them a smile and keep up the performance. 

The impact of feminist punks is undeniable. Riot Grrrl has continued since the early '90s in multiple waves and iterations and forms. Riot Grrrl bands continue to exist; Beyoncé has even been described as Riot Grrrl. Most importantly, more young girls are taking up drum kits and electric guitars than ever before.

Tobi Vail said it best: "I think Bikini Kill started something, but it isn’t finished yet."


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About the author

Nabilah Ahmed is a Museum Educator at MoPOP.