Just like all other facets of popular culture, music is cyclical. In the pre-Nirvana early 90’s, before “alternative” became the hot buzzword used to describe music and fashion tastes of the youth culture, there was an identity crisis of sorts in the music industry. Hair metal was dying off (or killed by grunge, if you want to play into the revisionist history that MTV and Rolling Stone would like you to believe). College radio bands were beginning to breakthrough into the mainstream. Punk was ready for it’s moment but with it came a lot of negative baggage. Violence, homophobia, and sexism were now associated with what was once the place for the people that didn’t fit in with everyone else. The freethinkers were being replaced by the mongrels they sought to escape from in the first place.
In 2014, we are now going through another of these identity crises. Record labels are no longer necessary for a band to be considered successful. As a result we now live in an era where we lump everything into the catch-all category of “indie” regardless of the fact that some bands labeled with this tag are not even independent. What do CHVRCHES, Fucked Up, and Arcade Fire have in common? Absolutely nothing except if you listen to them you are probably referred to as a “hipster”, a word which has been so diluted by this point I will never again be using it again in any column I write for this site.
The only reliable seller is nostalgia, reunion tours and albums. These three things are so common in today’s marketplace you are likely to see the latest Pixies album in the front of every record store in the country this week. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily, artists that were passed over twenty years ago are now finally getting their due. This brings us back to the original point all this, what happened in the past is bound to come back and as a record collector I now have the chance to get things I missed without having to pay a premium for out of print titles.
As I grew older and became more aware of the social and political issues in this world I developed an interest in the Riot Grrrl scene. I grew up in a household filled with women so it wasn’t entirely unbecoming of me to become enticed the latest wave of American feminism. Smart women that played punk was what I wanted in my life and that’s what I got. Bikini Kill’s Pussy Whipped, Bratmobile’s The Real Janelle EP, and the entire Sleater-Kinney discography are the gold standard of not only the Riot Grrrl scene but of 90’s punk in general. Women that were called vicious names and pummeled in the mosh pits were now making music that put most of the men to shame. Was it a sign of the times? I suppose so. Fugazi and several other all-male punk bands were concerned about what was going on in the world but it was mostly about having a slick sound and juvenile lyrics when it came to what was being released. Bands like NoFX and The Offspring were leading the way for what eventually became the pop-punk that dominated the end of Bill Clinton’s carefree 90’s.
One band in particular that I am glad to see re-releasing all of their old albums is Bikini Kill. Growing up in the 90’s I knew them solely based on their reputation of confrontational feminists that didn’t back down from anyone. Where I grew up, Kathleen Hanna was more well-known for getting punched by Courtney Love at Lollapalooza than for her music. By the time I went to college, Hanna had moved on to the dance punk group Le Tigre, staying one step ahead of every one else. Before we were dancing in our bedrooms to The Rapture and LCD Soundsystem, she was creating some of the most original music of its time.
Today Hanna is leading The Julie Ruin, one of the most interesting bands to come around in a long time. Reminiscent of both of her prior bands but still focusing on the future, The Julie Ruin have a sound that stands out from all the nostalgia loving younger bands. Hanna was also the subject of a recent documentary titled “The Punk Singer”, named for one of the tracks from her 1997 solo album Julie Ruin. It is now streaming on Netflix and I can’t recommend it enough, even if you have just a small interest her career.
Now that a younger audience is able to find these albums easily it is only a matter of time before the cycle comes back around. Teenage girls will discover Riot Grrrl and may bring it back full circle just like every other trend. Bands that were influenced by Pavement and Liz Phair seem to be getting their moment now with Parquet Courts and Speedy Ortiz getting tons of buzz but like the artwork for The Clash’s 1982 single “Know Your Rights” says: the future is unwritten. Maybe I’m wrong and we’ll have a new generation of musician influenced by Ratt and Poison leading into a brand new hair metal era.
Chris will be writing a weekly series called 21st Century Analog Boy. Follow Chris on Twitter: @RushHrRenegade
Next week: Punk’s past is leading the way for its future with bands like OFF! but is it being dragged down by cash-in reunions like Black Flag?