(Credits: Far Out / Bikini Kill Records)
The riot grrrl movement arose in the early 1990s, which combined feminist thinking with punk. Using the abrasive, explosive sounds of the genre to convey specifically feminine issues, riot grrrl bands brought together like-minded women, creating a sense of unity through shared understanding and rebellion.
The sub-genre gained popularity through DIY gigs in underground venues and the circulation of zines, encouraging other women to get involved no matter their musical or artistic proficiency. The best-known riot grrrl band remains Bikini Kill, whose song ‘Rebel Girl’ is the genre’s definitive track. Drummer Tobi Vail was one of the band’s founding members, alongside Kathleen Hanna, Kathi Wilcox and Billy Karren.
Vail is responsible for coining the distinctive spelling of ‘grrrl’, which she used in her zine Jigsaw. An avid zine maker and musician, Vail’s DIY ethos has always been intrinsic to everything she has made. With Bikini Kill, Vail urged women to get involved in punk, hoping to make the genre less male-dominated. Moreover, the band tackled feminist issues through their lyrics with a no-nonsense attitude. For example, on ‘White Boy’, Hanna shouts, “I’m so sorry if I alienated some of you/ Your fucking culture alienates me.”
Vail has also been a member of bands such as The Frumpies and Spider and the Webs and established Ladyfest with other musicians such as Cat Power and Sleater-Kinney. While Vail is still an active musician and writer, she remains best known for her ‘90s output.
Talking to Pitchfork, Vail picked out two of her favourite albums from the decade, “I tried to pick one, but I couldn’t do it,” she said. The musician selected The Breeder’s debut album, Pod, released in 1990, and 1997’s The Magic City by Helium. She explained: “They are both magic. It’s music that is beyond description — like a waterfall, when you stand next to it, it makes you feel closer to God. Or, like a UFO sighting you swore happened but aren’t sure if it’s a dream or real and this is the residue that is left behind.”
Pod marked Kim Deal’s first release outside of Pixies, establishing her as an incredible talent in her own right. Created with the help of Steve Albini, Pod is a phenomenal alt-rock classic featuring tracks such as ‘Doe’ and a cover of The Beatles’ ‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun’.
Vail’s other pick, The Magic City, is less celebrated, yet its blend of heavy, prog-rock-inspired guitars and indie psychedelic pop rhythms deserves to be appreciated more. It was the band’s second album, released shortly before they broke up, which is perhaps why they faded into relative obscurity.
Referring to both albums, Vail said: “Sometimes I feel jealous when I listen to them, like I wish I could step outside of ideology and culture and into this river of life and capture its sound using my voice and my hands on strings, on sticks, on knobs and a recording machine.”
Likening the records to works of witchcraft, Vail added: “I believe they were conjured more than written. I’m not saying that to diminish the artistry of Kim Deal or Mary Timony as authors of these works. They are both truly sublime.”