Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Marisa Meltzer Talks Girl Power

Written by Brittany Shoot
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Former riot grrrl Marisa Meltzer has been writing about feminism, pop culture, and the nineties for a while now so it only makes sense that her latest book, GirlPower: The Nineties Revolution in Music, would marry all three of these topics so seamlessly. She examines antagonistic pop stars like Avril Lavigne and Pink with the same lens she uses to reflect on Sleater-Kinney’s influence. She writes about the radical media blackout that riot grrrl groups engaged in, a particularly extreme example in an area of constant connectivity.

Former riot grrrl Marisa Meltzer has been writing about feminism, pop culture, and the nineties for a while now so it only makes sense that her latest book, Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music, would marry all three of these topics so seamlessly. She examines antagonistic pop stars like Avril Lavigne and Pink with the same lens she uses to reflect on Sleater-Kinney’s influence. She writes about the radical media blackout that riot grrrl groups engaged in, a particularly extreme example in an area of constant connectivity.  

Moving between bands like Bikini Kill and the Spice Girls in a rather unorthodox way, Meltzer nevertheless makes a compelling case for the way that women’s music of the nineties, from punk to pop, was inextricably linked with the rise of third wave feminism. She also makes the point that ’90s girl rock carved out a radically new space in which women could be sexy, powerful, outspoken—and sometimes a combination of all three.

Meltzer recently spoke with me about growing up in the third wave with a second wave mom, attending the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and Camp Trans, and the importance of remembering and honoring the '90s.

Brittany: Tell me how you got started with the book.

{mosimage width=500}Marisa: I had been steeping myself in '90s ephemera for a couple of years while researching my first book, How Sassy Changed My Life. Right around the time the book was finished, Sleater-Kinney broke up, and I wrote a story about it for Slate. When I was pitching the story, I had the angle, “I saw them on their first tour in a living room. I went to college in Olympia where they were.” My editors thought I should write it as part of my personal history along with the essay. That helped me realize that it was a story that could go far beyond a thousand words and I put together a book proposal and expanded it beyond the confines of indie music and riot grrrl, and it became the story as I knew it: women in music, feminism, and marketing in the '90s.

Brittany: I would have never put together the trajectory between riot grrrl and the Spice Girls. Did you make the connection because you lived through both eras, or was it something else?

Marisa: I don’t know that it’s a trajectory that everyone sees or agrees with. It was something that I worked out in my head. Riot grrrl was around briefly; it happened to coincide with my early teen years so it was something I was getting into around the same time I was also getting into music in general, at an age when music is really important to you. The dissolution of riot grrrl wasn’t as sad as the way it had been appropriated by the culture. By the time that riot grrrl itself broke up, I was older and there were other bands.

Seeing the phrase “girl power” and baby tees and the watering down of those messages was really frustrating to me. I think that happened to a lot of other people too. There’s a Sleater-Kinney song called "#1 Must Have"  about that same subject. The verse says, “And now I’m spending all my days at”

“Girl power” was also the name—or on the cover—of an early Bikini Kill zine. Who knows where or who the first person was to ever use the term “girl power." I don’t really know. It’s not even the term so much . . . It’s more that the idea of making young girls stronger and empowered—although “empowered” seems to have lost a lot of meaning at this point—is used to sell shaving products.

On some ostensible, lowest-common-denominator level, the Spice Girls and Bikini Kill and riot grrrl bands wanted the same thing. They wanted girls—especially young girls—to feel strong and liberated and to be confident. But riot grrrl had this whole takeaway of do-it-yourself and participating and being politically active and really changing the lives of girls and being self-declared feminists, whereas the Spice Girls really only had the takeaway of buying more and more Spice Girls-branded products. That isn’t anything new; obviously there have been products marketed towards girls about their favorite pop culture things forever. But there was something about the Spice Girls that felt very pernicious.

At the same time I was looking back at them with about ten years hindsight, and then looking at bands like the Pussycat Dolls who are extremely famous now, and they make the Spice Girls seem really politically important in comparison. So, the book was about me retracing that decade’s narrative. I started out with riot grrrl and ended around the present day, and I did devote a lengthy section to discussing the Spice Girls.
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{mosimage width=500}I’ve seen some people review the book and think that I have some crazy revisionist take, that I think the Spice Girls are feminists. I’m not one to comment on reviews, but that drives me kind of crazy. I want to be like, Send me that line! I never say that! I don’t think the Spice Girls are feminists—absolutely not. But I do think there were some kernels of good there. Girls were young enough to take away important messages about their own strength from the Spice Girls.

Brittany: I think the Pussycat Dolls are absolutely terrifying, but I don’t think I’d ever conceived of them being the Spice Girls 2.0. It makes me that much more afraid of what will happen in the next five years, who will come next.

Marisa: That’s the thing. There always seems to be a new way to top previous generations of music. For example, when I was really young and in grade school, Cyndi Lauper and Madonna came out and they were really controversial. Now Cyndi Lauper is an AIDS activist and a gay rights activist and an incredible, fun role model. Madonna is a crazy genius in her own way. But once upon a time, they were controversial and recognized for their sexiness and their certain type of carelessness.

There’s a long history of hand-wringing over media that teenagers—especially teen girls—consume. I think a lot of it is done in haste and people are way too concerned over it. Most people—even those of us who grew up to be feminist media critics—grow up consuming a lot of that, and it’s fine. You can’t live in a vacuum. I think the best way to become a feminist media critic is to watch a whole lot of infuriating pop culture and steep yourself in it.

Brittany: You very briefly mentioned that even though you were involved in riot grrrl, it didn’t save you from a protracted eating disorder. Can you say more about what you mean by that—what it means that those things happen regardless?

Marisa: One of my points in saying that was to explain that I didn’t live in a punk rock, utopian, feminist bubble, even though I had this really amazing music in my life. I still had a lot of problems that are really common to teenage girls. Just because you’re a feminist—even if you’re a teenage feminist—it doesn’t necessarily make your struggles any easier.

But at the same time, my other point was that riot grrrl maybe wasn’t big enough to make widespread changes. I’m not sure anything at this point is big enough to make such paradigm-shifting, world policy-changing initiatives that will help eradicate eating disorders or make boys treat girls any better or anything like that. Riot grrrl certainly had some lofty goals, and I think it’s a shame that it wasn’t around longer to maybe realize that they could have worked more with the mainstream media to get those ideas out.

Brittany: Do you think that problem—the stifled message—is partly because riot grrrls engaged in a media blackout?

Marisa: I do. I have to say it all with the caveat that a media blackout is pretty admirable and a really powerful move, especially when they were so young and so relatively naive. It’s almost unimaginable in this era, just twenty years later. I think our expectations of privacy in our own lives were just completely different then. I certainly can’t imagine what it was like to see pictures of yourself and your friends in reporting that was sensational. I do think it was a little bit elitist and maybe clique-ish to do that, but mostly, it just prevented the message of riot grrrl—which I think could have inspired a lot of girls—from reaching the nooks and crannies. I lived in a college town, and there were riot grrrl chapters in big cities, and you could read about it in places like Newsweek or Sassy or Rolling Stone, but it was around so briefly that I don’t think it had time to penetrate the culture or teenage subculture as much as it might have been able to.

Brittany: When you’re writing about something that’s so personal, that was so much a part of your formative years, how do you avoid insularity?

Marisa: It’s kind of my tendency as a writer; you learn to take a step back and look at something from all angles. I think I just have a tendency to be kind of critical, so it wasn’t hard for me to want to remove myself a little bit and try to evaluate the experience. Plus, when I started working on it, I was around twenty-nine, so I was just feeling kind of reflective and really wanting to assess that era of the early 90s that I held so dear. I wondered if it  had been good for me, good for other people.

I had to remove myself from feelings of wanting to seek approval. It was cathartic, in a way, because I imagined that some of these people in bands who I had really looked up to—and still do—would read it and wouldn’t necessarily agree with something. I felt really adult or something, like, No, I am a writer, this is my job. This is a book I’m contracted to write, and this is the story that I’m going to tell. There was something really liberating about that, just knowing that I wasn’t beholden to anyone.

It wasn’t like I was writing a memoir, but even if you’re trying to write an oral history or the be-all-end-all history of something, there’s always gonna be biases in it. I think I just tried to speak my truth, to sound very second wave feminist about it. I wanted to be very honest in my writing, also knowing that there was no way everyone was going to agree with everything I said.

{mosimage width=300}Brittany: Was it intimidating to interview some of those people for whom you have so much respect—maybe in particular people you didn’t know personally before interviewing them for the book?

Marisa: I was actually much more anxious about contacting people I had known personally—especially people who hadn’t seen me or I hadn’t spoken to in a long time. I thought they were just going to think of me as this eighteen- or nineteen-year-old kid. I had to give myself these pep talks: No, you’re a writer now. You live in New York. You’ve written a book before. You work for all these magazines. This is your job. You’re not an eighteen-year-old kid who’s just starting college and idolizing these people and insecure.

Also, in general, that’s my least favorite part of the writing and reporting process—rounding people up, hammering them down, all of that. The excuse I gave myself was that this was my take so any interviews I got were going to be icing on the cake. It wasn’t like the Sassy book, where we [co-author Kara Jesella and I] were really concerned about getting everything on record for it to be the once and future Sassy book. This was much more defined by my own interest so it was kind of a relief because it wasn’t like, Oh my god,  if Kathleen Hanna does not talk to me, this book is done. I wasn’t beholden to any specific person.

Brittany: Did you feel pressure to live up to the success of the Sassy book?

Marisa: No, not really. I felt really happy about all of the press that it got. There were a lot of girls I met through the Sassy book when it was touring that I knew had been involved in music. That opened up my world in terms of new people to interview. The Sassy book was such a pleasure to write that if anything, I was just excited to write another book.

Brittany: You mentioned that your mom was a second wave feminist. For those of us that have grown up in the third wave, why do you think we have such a need to separate from the older generations?

Marisa: Some of it came naturally for me because I had a feminist mom. I can’t remember ever not thinking of myself as a feminist. But you still go through adolescence and come of age and want to claim your own territory. For me, that happen to coincide with the birth of third wave feminism. I don’t know if I’m just a product of that era or if third wave feminism was just so well suited to my personality, but it spoke to me.

My mom is the kind of person who wears practical shoes and wore her hair in a long red braid forever—still does. And I have always been pretty girly. I take after my dad a bit more. I like clothes and fancy things and boys and malls and pop music and that raw anger of punk. So of all of those things, the girliness of third wave feminism really spoke to me when I was a teenager.

My high school radio station happened to be the biggest high school radio station in America, and I had a show on it called “The Secret Teenage Radio Riot.” I was just really into being a teenager and the joyousness of youth.

So it just clicked with my aesthetic, more than even on a political level. Revolution From Within by Gloria Steinem came out when I was in late elementary school or junior high. My mom took me to see her speak, and I remember that very clearly and being very excited by it. It wasn’t so much a rejection of the second wave as it was really embracing the third wave. I just wanted something of my own.

When I went to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which I write about in the book—that’s a real bastion of second wave culture, aesthetics, and politics—and for that, I went with the book’s editor, who is maybe five or seven years older than I am. We’re very much of the same kind of generation, and it was really interesting for us to be around women of that age group and confront some things that were kind of horrifying to us. There was this wicker man-like wooden sculpture with a twine-pubic hair part, and we walked by it all the time. It was centrally located and totally unavoidable. Every time we walked by it, we’d think, Oh. My. God. It represented everything that kind of freaked us about those second wave aesthetics: the moons and the wolves and the cats.

But by the very end of the trip, my editor said something really interesting: "You know, I think I’m understanding just how oppressive the 1950s were.” We both thought about that a lot. Going to that festival and being surrounded by so much of that aesthetic, you know, the fifties must have really been stifling, and that requisite femininity must have been that oppressive to make people want to make wooden sculptures with twine pubic hair. That must have been very liberating for them, so good for them! It made me confront some of those inner prejudices but also understand maybe where they were coming from.

Brittany: You wrote about Camp Trans, and it sounded so open and inclusive in a way that I’d like to believe third wave feminism has been.

Marisa: It was a great experience. It was much more raw and a lot more punk than the festival down the road, but that was an approach that I could intuitively understand. I was concerned that I would seem like a tourist—that I wouldn’t be welcomed because I was just gawking. I didn’t want to come across that way. I wasn’t coming as a writer; we were just coming as people who had been at the other festival. People were so welcoming, nice, and fun. It’s a dirty camp; I don’t know if I’d want to spend a whole week there. It’s not as big and leafy and beautiful as MichFest is, but it was a lot of fun. You also see how vital it is for the people there. I think both Camp Trans and the Michigan Festival are very important and are very worth going to for all feminists . . .

Brittany: What are you working on next?

Marisa: Well, after literally writing two books back to back—I got the book deal for Girl Power before the Sassy book even came out . . . I definitely want to write a book again, but I’m probably going to wait until I have a really good idea. When I finished this one, I said that I wouldn’t write about the '90s again, that I was done with it and would write something set in the nineteenth century or something. But now that it’s out, who am I kidding? I could write several more books about the '90s; I would be happy to.

Note: Since Girl Power, Marisa has recently put out a zine called First Kiss with her friend Elizabeth Spiridakis. You can read Sadie's blog entry about it here.

Photos courtesy of Marisa Meltzer

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