Arts & Culture

Reviewed: “Girls to the Front” by Sara Marcus

Many punks in the 90s incorporated politics as much as they did guitar and drums. But of all those punks, none had an impact quite like the ones Sara Marcus covers in Girls to the Front. Read More

By / October 12, 2010

It’s interesting now to look back at the various movements that came into being, or saw their influence grow, as part of the 90s punk underground.  Those of us who experienced it firsthand may have our own mental histories and recollections, but it seems the time is ripe for re-visitation.   I’d argue that the 1990s weren’t the years that punk broke; instead, they were the years that punk took the money and then ran off, never to be seen again. Bands like Nirvana and Green Day were selling records faster than they could make new ones.  In their wake, they left dozens of imitators who wanted the same fame and fortune, fakers that felt no qualms about bastardizing their own histories to reach ridiculous financial goals.  Meanwhile, the ‘true’ punk underground grew–militant vegan Straight Edge kids emerged, as did the rallying cries of “no records with bar codes”– into what we know to be American hardcore.  Many punks in the 90s incorporated politics as much as they did guitar and drums.  But of all those punks, none had an impact quite like the ones Sara Marcus covers in Girls to the Front.  Riot Grrrls. Punk, even at its inception, was always thought to be half democracy and half anarchy.  The adage that “anybody can do it” meant that for the first time, women were being openly accepted into the fold.  In the 70s, bands like The Raincoats, The Slits, Au Pairs, and a handful more flourished.  But if you take a closer look at the numbers, women in punk were always a minority, their voices taking a backseat to the guys they hung around.  Riot Grrrl challenged that system, making way for not just women, but more acceptance of LGBT musicians and fans.  What sets Marcus’ book apart from those that have attempted to chronicle scenes (Please Kill Me, We’ve got the Neutron Bomb, Dance of Days) is Marcus’ reluctance to rely on power quotes from scene luminaries that create a mystique around the movement’s history.  Instead, we’re given a lovingly detailed, and heavily researched account of Riot Grrrl.  There aren’t favorites, or attempts to make legends (my biggest complaint with Legs McNeil’s handling of the New York punk scene in Please Kill Me) and Marcus doesn’t depend on anecdotes to fill pages.  Nor does she take part in iconoclasm.  Instead, Marcus plays the part of writer and historian; smartly juxtaposing this scene–that could be called small in number, but not in impact–with the events that shaped the decade that Riot Grrrl lived and died in.

Girls to the Front is without a doubt, the definitive history of Riot Grrrl.  The book avoids pitfalls that normally plague other chronicles of music scenes, doesn’t come off sounding like a dry, academic paper, and stays interesting throughout the entire book. While most contemporary musicians have shed their political consciousness for higher ratings on Pitchfork, this should function as a parable for generations to come.

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