When did the riot grrrl moment end? Was it when the term first appeared in Sassy? When Courtney Love started using lipliner? When Mr. Lady Kathleen Hanna started dating Mr. Boy Adam Horowitz even though all he really wanted was grrrls to do the dishes and grrrls to do the laundry? The answer is: D: none of the above. The grrrls never really went away—they just matured from being feral cats to an older, yet still-wily variety. In the early ’90s, they were cheerleaders out of control. They had a desire to be the loudest, brashest thing in the room, and a strange ambition to chant in perfect unison. They were exclusionary and catty, and proud of it. In the past year, Ladyfest, a female-run music festival that originated in Olympia, Washington, and that hosts its first New York installment this weekend, has become kind of a hippie-mom version of the riot grrrl aesthetic, fashioning that “fuck you, I hate you, la la la” feeling into a self-reliant community, complete with radical-feminist workshops, spoken-word slams, and good old-fashioned boy bashing.
It all started with an idea from Bratmobile singer Allison Wolfe, at a party a year and a half ago, at a falling-apart Olympia hangout called the House of Doom. The word spread, and women all over town started having meetings: in coffee bars, their homes, bookstores, and especially at a combination record store-performance area called Arrowspace, where Donna Dresch from the band Team Dresch runs a record label. The city is also home to the larger indie labels K Records and Kill Rock Stars, whose rosters are full of female bands, but neither is female owned. “We argued a hell of a lot about what our common purpose of the festival was,” says Molly Zuckerman, a local artist and one of the major organizers. “One thing that stood really clear for a lot of people was that women have always been really powerful in this town, and yet men own the record labels. The sense is that they make the money—not that they make any money—but we wanted to prove that we could do it. Down to things like who’s going to do the tech stuff.”
The festival, held in August 2000, drew a larger crowd than anyone had expected. Thousands of women from all across the country made the pilgrimage to Olympia, to check out the birthplace of riot grrrl. Unsurprisingly, not everyone got along. People fought during workshops. Even the music was in conflict. There was hard stuff and acoustic stuff, bands whose very names—the Butchies and the Softies—sounded like opposing girl gangs. “This girl Freddie Fagula did a drag performance late one night,” Zuckerman remembers. “She was basically critiquing body standards, and the idea that if you’re a woman dressing up as a man you have to be skinny and have, like, no tits. She gave this controversial performance, and that was a massive revelation—that in a space like this, you could discuss the way women fuck with each other.”
Word of mouth tagged the Olympia Ladyfest the “Anti-Lilith”: a concept that appealed to female musicians existing anonymously in every city, playing occasionally, working day jobs, and trying to get along. Suddenly there was a Ladyfest being planned in Chicago, and one in Scotland, too. Ladyfest East was originally supposed to be in Northampton, that pastoral hub of ladies’ colleges—or, as it’s better known to lesbians all over the world, the home of the Smith rugby team. But then the organizers, a small group of girl-rock fans and band members, decided that the New York presence dominated, and the festival was moved to the city. New York has an active scene; bands like the Hissyfits and Lunachicks regularly fill venues like Brownies, the Elbow Room, and Meow Mix. Yet compared with the original Olympia lineup, the New York one is low-profile. The bands are less ghosts of grrrl groups past than hardworking local and East Coast musicians you may not have heard of—Belly-esque WFMU and WBAI favorites the Trouble Dolls, say, or Boston’s Gina G. Young, whose song “College” does middle-class chick rebellion even better than Liz Phair: “Who’s to tell if education is right?/I learned a lot from Rainbow Brite.”
In July, a dozen such bands held a benefit at the Knitting Factory to raise money for the upcoming festival. The place was packed with girls in their teens and early twenties, wearing studded leather belts, cords, and Converse. In an overheated basement room, the lead singer of Galvanized gyrated on stage in tiny hot pants, purring lyrics like “nicotine—oh yeah, nicotine,” in a husky starlet’s voice, while girls hanging out in packs listened, some enthralled, some visibly uncomfortable with the sex-kitten act. The moment cried out for some kind of debate—or at least a workshop or something. Many of Ladyfest East’s bands—the Hissyfits, Paper Doll, Kitty Kill, Catfight—cloak themselves in ultra-feminine (or at least ultra-feline) symbols, and the immediate assumption is that their names are subversions of girlhood, sugar and spice and everything nice turned inside out. But every once and a while the grrrl mask slips: After Galvanized’s set, someone threw a dozen roses onstage, and the singer gave a thousand-watt smile, turned on her silver heel, and strutted offstage like she was on Divas Live.
After Galvanized did their thing, One and 20—a bluesy band consisting of three schlumpy boys and Carol Thomas, a black female lead singer with a stage presence somewhere between Aretha Franklin and Billy Crystal—took control. Thomas has a low, pretty voice, and her backup band works hard to turn out the kind of jam-funk this crowd would usually hate. The room loves her. She turns out to be one of the chief organizers of Ladyfest East, thrust into the position at the last minute.
The festival is extremely grassroots. A recent meeting took place in the concrete backyard of NYU student Erin Siodmak. Siodmak, Thomas, and three other women sat at a wooden table, eating pretzels and languidly sharing a six-pack of Tecate, planning the event by the skin of their teeth. “Do you want to call Le Tigre again, or should I?” one of them asks wearily. “I did it last time,” someone else complains, a little pissed off. The meeting doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
A lot of the real planning takes place online. Like an old-fashioned ladies’ society, people on the Ladyfest mailing list pledge individual services to the cause. One woman offers to make kitty-ear hats and underwear with “killer cute themes.” Someone else volunteers to teach a self-defense workshop. A “gay boy who loves rock and roll” wants to make flyers. It’s a real group effort, like a small town coming together for the annual talent show, straight out of Waiting for Guffman. All this is very un-New York. “People are e-mailing me, like, ‘Where can I camp?’ ” Carol Thomas says at the meeting. “I’m like, ‘This is New York—you could do Central Park, but I wouldn’t recommend it!’ ”
A New York festival isn’t going to be like Olympia, where people camped out in backyards and crashed on any available couch. And while Olympia bands are supported by small record companies, only a handful of Ladyfest East bands has been signed by a label with more than four other acts on its roster. Not one of them gets the gigs that way less clever local boy bands get. Ironically, this marginalization unites the bands, providing a segue between reggae-punk Ari Up from the Slits and Bionic Finger, a quirky pop quartet who sing sweet harmonies and who named their album Inner Bimbo. In this way, the New York festival has the potential to be even more effective than the Olympia one—it could mean the creation of a community where there was none. That old riot grrrl call to arms—”Overthrow cock rock and idolize your girlfriend”—could finally be more than a threat.