Riot Grrrls Return

Dum Dum Girls and the new wave of feminist punk.

The Dum Dum Girls sound like the Ronettes — that is, if the classic '60s girl group time-traveled to the '90s to make music with scuzzy beach-punks. The L.A. band's latest album, I Will Be, brandishes fuzzy bass, surf-garage riffs, and reverb-heavy vocals that recall, paradoxically, the Shangri-Las and bands on the renowned Kill Rock Stars label like the Bangs.

But while the Dum Dum Girls' sound may come from disparate decades of music, its boldness is owed to the legacy of the '90s riot grrrl scene. “Those types of bands are what pushed me to finally do my own thing, and I wanted to continue in the all-girl tradition,” explains Dee Dee (aka Kristin Gundred), the Dum Dum Girls' lead singer and sole songwriter.

The riot grrrl scene originated in Olympia, Wash., with feminist punks who had their own bands and made hand-stapled zines. The goal was to start a revolution — a girl riot, if you will. Now, 20 years on, riot grrrl seems to be back in the public consciousness. Earlier this year, Kathleen Hanna, singer of seminal band Bikini Kill, donated her zine collection and correspondence to New York University's Fales Library. Author Marisa Meltzer recently published a retrospective, Girl Power. And the Bay Area's KFJC 89.7 FM aired back-to-back riot grrrl specials in May.

The first half of the radio special included era-specific songs from bands like Huggy Bear and Bratmobile, while the second half explored the legacy of the genre. Certainly artists such as Sleater-Kinney, Le Tigre, and the Gossip are direct descendants of the movement, but there are also more indirect offspring. There's the new crop of '90s-esque, all-girl bands like Vivian Girls, Grass Widow, and, yes, the Dum Dum Girls. They may not be directly political like their forebears, but they are part of a legion of women who are influenced by the ideals of the riot grrrl movement and who started bands that recall its sound.

“I had friends who were riot grrrls in high school, but I didn't discover that scene until I was 18 and away at college,” Dee Dee says. “Which is unfortunate, as my younger teenage self would've really benefited.”

San Francisco–based DJ Jennifer Waits (stage name: DJ Cynthia Lombard), who hosted the KFJC riot grrrl special, offers a number of theories as to why people are revisiting the scene. One is that some women who grew up listening to the feminist anthems are now experiencing motherhood and hoping to pass on the message to their children. This is the case for Waits, who now has a 4-year-old daughter.  

Or it may simply be popular culture mathematics — music is cyclical, the '90s are back, and with them comes everything that Gen. Xers once held dear. “I've been hearing a lot of bands lately that bring to mind that early-'90s sound,” Waits says. “I don't know if there's a related philosophy, but I've been pleasantly surprised by that sound creeping back in. [Dum Dum Girls] fit in that same category; their music reminds me of that scene.”

Bikini Kill's Tobi Vail (who added the extra Rs in “grrrl”), recently posted the video for the Dum Dum Girls' “Bhang Bhang, I'm a Burnout” on her blog. She wrote, “The song reminds me of being 16 in 1986 … listening to underground pop records … and imagining that there must be girls to start a band with somewhere in this world. This is that sound.” 

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