Review by Caitlin Lydon
Legendary independent record label Kill Rock Stars have launched a podcast miniseries celebrating the 25th anniversary of Potty Mouth – the seminal album of Bratmobile. Separated into five bite-sized parts, Girl Germs charts the musical journey of Allison Wolfe, Erin Smith and Molly Neuman, who came together during the early days of Riot Grrrl – the underground feminist punk movement that defined much of the DIY music scene of the 90s.
For anyone already interested in the feminist punk scene of the 90s, mentions of the landscape where Bratmobile formed will already sound familiar, as references to Evergreen State College, the town of Olympia and the scene that surrounded Oregon at that time crop up continually to define the environment Bratmobile was born out of. From the first episode it becomes clear that there were no bystanders in the thriving punk scene of Olympia during this time, and to fit in you needed to be actively contributing and creating – whether it was setting up feminist art gallery like Reko Muse, creating zines to spread awareness of social issues and underground activists, or organising spoken word open mic nights. For Bratmobile, this meant starting a band and, as Molly Neuman explains, their band was pretty much as DIY as you could get – they learnt to play as they went along, decided to play their first gig with Bikini Kill as a dare, and recorded their debut album in 24 hours – which explains the unrestrained often primitive sounds that encapsulates much of Bratmobile’s music.
The story of Bratmobile in Girl Germs is punctuated by reflections not only from the band, but their peers and a generation of bands they inspired. Contemporaries such as Tae Won Yu of Kicking Giant reflects on the DIY elements of the band being a catalyst for a new way of making music, believing Bratmobile ‘changed what people thought was worth doing in punk rock’ by refusing to copy other bands to figure out the next steps to take, instead creating and honing a sound that seemed entirely unique to the current music scene.
Girl Germs tracks not only Bratmobile’s rise to fame, but the rise of Riot Grrrl in general – Corin Tucker of Heavens to Betsy speaks to this as she reminisces on her place in the scene, and the sometimes negative pressures that affected many women in the movement. Tucker explains that many Riot Grrrl bands were making music before bands like Nirvana broke, so the underground scene was something the media wasn’t often interested in – or worse still, something they trivialised entirely. Tucker reflects on her own efforts to distance herself from the Riot Grrrl scene, which often became a trap for women in punk music, to constantly only be asked what it’s like to be a woman in punk, not someone in a band making great music. And though the Riot Grrrl era is long gone, the idea of being a woman in a band as a novelty is still something that is perpetuated in much of the music industry today.
It’s important to remember the flaws and criticisms of the Riot Grrrl movement – by no means perfect, the scene was often rightly accused of not being diverse and inclusive enough, and fights within the scene itself about policing the right way to be a ‘Riot Grrrl’ is discussed in the podcast as being a major reason for Bratmobile’s initial break up on stage in 1994. This is worth noting, because the nostalgia that often surrounds these movements and scenes often does not reflect what the music scene actually needed, and still needs today – for all women to be part of the movement, for it to be any kind of movement at all.
From Riot Grrrl icons Bikini Kill announcing their first tour in over 20 years, to NME fronting an entire series of women in music nights using the ‘Girls To The Front’ tag line, the spirit of Riot Grrrl ethos captured so neatly in the Girl Germs podcast is clearly something that still has a huge relevancy in music industry today. Towards the end of the podcast, there is hope that the continuing legacy of Bratmobile will inspire more women and girls to pick up an instrument, claim their space, and whether they think they are ready or not, do it anyway.