What Were the 90s Like for Girls Not Cool Enough to Listen to Riot Grrrl?

Neal, Kara, Marisa, and Ada in our matching Miley Cyrus plaid.

Ada, last night I got a google alert alerting me to this awesome flickr photo set from EMP, including this picture of our panel, “In the Girls Room.”  I posted it on my tumblr and it was reblogged by someone who had seen us speak. He added, “I went to this. Afterwards, Theon and I agreed that it was good. ‘But,’ Theon said, ‘They were all cool girls.’ What were the ’90s like for girls who weren’t cool enough to be listening to riot grrrl, he wanted to know.”

I kind of love this, because it made me think about just what it meant to be a cool girl in the 90s. As I mentioned on the panel, and in the spirit of 90swoman self-exposure will happily mention again: in the 90s, I totally did not listen to riot grrrl. I did, however, once brag that I “knew about Sarah McLachlan before anyone else.” So, you know, cool? (But whatever! Love you, Sarah! Can’t wait for Lilith Fair!) My 90s music vibe was about Tori Amos, Liz Phair, 10,000 Maniacs, Ani DiFranco, the Indigo Girls, Hole. I have already outed myself on this blog as secretly liking Alanis Morissette. (Though, after the eye roll I got as a response to the Sarah McLachlan incident, I knew better than to say so.)

Anyway, we know that liking riot grrrl in the 90s makes you cool now, but I’m not entirely sure if it made you cool then. It probably depends on things like where you lived and what your friends were listening to, among other things. But a lot of my friends who got into riot grrrl did so partly because it was a bit of a haven for girls who didn’t feel cool as teenagers. Did you feel like a cool girl in the 90s?

PS. I owe you responses to a whole lot of your thoughtful blog posts. I haven’t forgotten!

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “What Were the 90s Like for Girls Not Cool Enough to Listen to Riot Grrrl?

  1. I think one of the reasons I really love this blog is that so much of what you talk about was present in my life in the 90’s but in a really tangential way. I feel totally “uncool” reading all these posts but they are highly educational for me.

    Like, I remember Sassy and I even remember buying it/being happily scandalized by it, but my friends and I would never page through it together the way we would with Seventeen. (I’m also awkwardly-aged to have led a fully-realized 90’s life; in 1994 I was turning 11.)

    I was totally only “in the know” of whatever was mainstream, but I do remember being really into the Lilith Fair-style music — Tracy Chapman, Sarah Maclachlan, Joan Osborne, Indigo Girls — and let’s not forget Jewel! I would get annoyed, though, because my mother would always pipe up that she liked the music. Not what I was going for.

    Side note, the other ladies I loved during that time were like, En Vogue and Salt n Pepa! And Mariah Carey, OBVIOUSLY.

  2. I don’t think it was a question of being “cool enough,” but that it wasn’t available to me. If you didn’t have access to zines or radio stations willing to look outside the trifecta of Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, and Stone Temple Pilots, it didn’t exist.

    You what I thought was empowering? Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y,” Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s “None of Your Business,” or the movie Girls Town (my cable system got it right).

  3. zan

    I spent the past hour or so thinking way too hard about this. I might be making it more complicated than it needs to be, but I think so much depends on what age you were, where you grew up, and what part of the 90s we’re talking about.

    If we’re talking early-to-mid-90s, I probably thought I was cooler than I actually was because I grew up in a town with an alternative radio station, a record store that stocked indie label 7″s, and because I was into My Bloody Valentine. But I was still way less cool than the girl with pink hair who moved to our town from the city and went to raves. Or the girls I met later in college who had grown up in cities, skateboarded, and were friends with a Beastie Boy. Or the girls who were actually in their own serious bands and played out in bars on weekends.

    The early-to-mid-90s was tricky like that: like Kathy says above, you had to have access, but a lot of the access outside of the cities was mainstream-ized, and if you were under a certain age, even with limited access to mail-order zines and Sassy subscriptions, you were only getting part of the very large “cool” picture.

    And let’s face it: who was actually “cool” in high school in the early 90s? Nobody. We were awkward and uncertain drama nerds who listened to Toad the Wet Sprocket and Gin Blossoms. I would complain about The Cure going mainstream in my journal, but then styled myself after Winona Ryder in Reality Bites. MTV was all we knew. I didn’t familiarize myself with any riot grrrl stuff beyond what was filtered through MTV/Sassy/Spin Magazine until I was abroad in Latvia as an exchange student, where I bought bootleg Kill Rock Stars sampler cassettes at a goth clothing store in a courtyard behind an independent theater. Which, right now, sounds pretty cool to me, until I remember that I was also listening to crappy Euro-dance music, and it was a cooler girl from Texas who first told me about Bikini Kill.

    I think that early on, if we were young enough, we were too busy trying to figure out who we were to be cool.

    And because oh my god I need to stop typing now, I’ll just add: this blog is making my day lately in a serious way. Thanks for your thoughts, ladies.

  4. Dawn.

    I think whether or not you were aware of riot grrrl had a lot more to do with where you lived and what your peers were listening to. If you lived in a large metropolitan area, or in the Pacific Northwest, you had a chance to get into riot grrrl. Midwest? Southern small town? Not so much.

    And, considering how riot grrrl was hated on something fierce and then totally commercialized and de-politicized, I’m not so sure it made you “cool.” Sure, the fashion and the irreverent punk-style behavior probably made you “cool.” But the politics, the activism, the feminist fury? Not so “cool.”

    Full disclosure: I was born in 1987 so I completely missed riot grrrl, and almost everything else bad-ass. These are just my assumptions, based on my belated love of riot grrrl. In the early-mid ’90s I was unfortunately oblivious in elementary school, worshiping Madonna and the Spice Girls something fierce. (Yes, I dressed like Madonna at the time and I cried because my mom wouldn’t buy me her “SEX” book.)

  5. @Dawn

    I grew up in the Midwest, listening to any kind of punk music definitely didn’t make you cool. We had — and still have — a really good community radio station, but at the time it still leaned heavily toward blues, soul, and bluegrass. The big, breakout band from my town was Uncle Tupelo, and then Son Volt and especially Wilco (though we really can’t claim them anymore). I’m definitely old enough to have experienced riot grrrl firsthand (maybe a little too old), but by the time I’d heard it, it was already a punch line.

  6. Meghan

    I got into riot grrrl towards the end circa 1994-95 thanks to the local indie record shop and its zine collection, along with local NJ suburban VFW shows. Definitely very pre-internet so I would consume all I could afford to buy and reuse as many stamps as I could with glue to trade for more zines! I wasn’t really connected with the actual scene though in a face to face way for the most part. I like how Zan describes the relativity of it all (which kind of always applies to figuring out what is/isn’t “cool.”) I thought my friends and I were cooler than most of the other kids at my high school, but we knew we were weirdos and nerds, but cool I guess because we saw (to use the term of the decade) an alternative to whatever was just assumed to be the way to be or the thing to be into at the time. I personally thought the punk stuff we were into was cool, but it sure didn’t make me cool at school. In retrospect I don’t think I was perceived as quite as weird as I felt and because punk was on the rise and becoming increasingly more mainstream the edginess of my ripped up jeans and purple hair, intended, however un/intentionally, to externally articulate just how messed up and weird and crazy I felt, weren’t entirely out of place. I guess though I kind of felt like I was 100% committed to being an outcast and punk as opposed to the “popular” girls at school who might wear a pair of converse or do a streak of blue in their hair. But yeah, there were girls way cooler than me in many different ways. Girls going to more shows in the city and knowing more people in bands. Girls actually having a social life outside of sitting in their friends bedrooms spinning records on a Saturday night. I did go to a riot grrrl convention in Philly in the summer of 1996, which was awkward and awesome and involved a lot of workshop type discussion which was WAY over my 16 year old head in terms of like planning out how society should be and coordinating shows and going to bars, and SEX!, but inspiring nonetheless. Some older girls took me and a friend and again, they were cooler because they were 2 years older, in college, and owned cars granting them access to a lot of shows and events and general wordiness that I would maybe be able to persuade my parents to drive me to if I was lucky!

    Unity is a good example of the 90s feminism movement reaching a broad audience. I have a clear memory of waiting backstage before an 8th grade girls choir concert and we were all singing Unity together, however awkwardly. I still play None of your Business regularly in my car and I was pretty obsessed with Jewel towards the end of high school when I got a little more jaded and a little less riotous. I know it’s a skewed idealistic perspective because it’s MY generation and of course it seems SO much better than the current ones, but it really did feel like feminism was a thing that was here to stay and once Kurt wore some dresses and Thurston declared himself a feminist the times they were a changing.

  7. Pingback: Boys vs. Girls on 90s Nostalgia « 90sWoman.com

  8. I totally was too young for the Riot Grrls & grunge, so, thus, I spent my teen yrs in the 2000’s discovering all this great music & vibes & its made me who I am today despite I am affectionatley teased for liking ‘oldies’ music. I brag Natalie Merchant & I share the same birthday, Kurt & Courtney are my Power Couple, I got a bob cut in 2010 when Hole toured again & Tori Amos is my reason for living on many days.
    & I am a proud attendee of that disasterous Lilith Fair reunion afew yrs back;-)

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