Kathleen Hanna Ian MacKaye

It sounds silly now, of course. When someone starts up in ValSpeak, she sounds stupid. But let me explain how wrong and simplistic that is. (I’m going to argue that Riot Grrrl was born of Valley Girl. Just wait till you seen how I get there!)

It didn’t sound stupid if you were younger than, say, 15 in the early 80s, when the Valley Girl accent began circulating on shows like Square Pegs and the classic Moon Zappa song, and thence into schoolyards everywhere. That’s how Kathleen Hanna — revered feminist lead singer of riot grrrl bands like Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, and now The Julie Ruin — explains her adoption of the accent while a pre-teen in Maryland. “We wanted to be the kinds of girls who had credit cards,” she remembers in the terrific documentary The Punk Singer (2013), now streaming on Netflix. To her, it sounded posh, the voice of rich girls.

One of her friends adds that it just goes to show you that you be “just like some Valley Girl and you still can be smart and have feminist ideas and should be listened to.” (Another perk: watching this doc puts the song “Rebel Girl” in your head for days.)

I was never as dedicated to ValSpeak as Hanna — she still talks that way — but I can attest to its appeal back then:

It sounded smart. I know, right? But Valley Girls were fast talkers, quick-witted, opinionated; and they pronounced everything perfectly in those clipped accents. They had a lot to say. Let us not forget Cher (Alicia Silverstone) in Clueless (1995), a second-generation Valley Girl whose speeches regularly inspired applause from her classmates. If you were young, it was easy to hear this as smart — as girls figuring out what they had to say by holding forth.

It was funny. Moon Zappa’s song was a spoof on the dimwitted female mall shoppers out in the deeply suburban San Fernando Valley (much farther from LA than you might imagine if you’re not from there) — and I’m pretty sure we all understood that. But those who heard this only as mocking of the girls were missing something. To me it sounded self-mocking, with all those Ohmigod!s and I’m so sure!s. Girls talked this way in part because they knew they were being funny, and they got a charge from being part of the fun.

It was a dialect unique to girls. And therefore it became a part of girl culture — one of the many ways that girls created a world unto themselves. Sure, it had tinges of sameness and uniformity, but different girl groups innovated endlessly on its basic elements, always developing new ways to speak to each other and to cloak their girl-talk from outsiders.

(I never heard the Valley Guy version of this talk in the same way; it lacked the private club aspects of Valley Girl talk. But maybe that’s because I wasn’t a part of those clubs.)

It allowed you to do fun things with your voice. Valley girls ran the gamut of the vocal scales; just a single Ohmigod! required the speaker to cock one’s voice up a couple of octaves midway and then allow the voice to collapse back to earth of its own weight. The accent is partly so distinctive not for what girls say than for the kooky musical sound of their rambling sentences, like a bouncy New Wave pop song of that era. Doing that stuff with your voice required practice, just like learning to dance like Belinda Carlisle of the Go-Gos.

The documentary about Kathleen Hanna makes a point of discussing her Valley Girl accent because it seems incongruous — how is it that such a diehard feminist — a woman who scrawled INCEST on her chest, screamed into the microphone, sang about sexual abuse, and changed the masculine culture of those punk nightclubs — could speak in a way that undermines the seriousness of her words? After all, long ago I learned to stop talking that way in order to be taken seriously.

But that stereotype has been twisted by time and by the ongoing cultural sense that anything girls do must be stupid. Valspeak wasn’t just a marker of stupid girls saying stupid things. Nor was it a supreme moment of girl stupidity that had to be repudiated by the Riot Grrrls of the 90s.

Let me say something controversial: Riot Grrrl was a movement that stood on the shoulders of Valley Girl. With Valley Girl, we learned to talk — quickly, smartly, to each other. It was of a piece with the dribs and drabs of female rock music of the era (The Pretenders, Joan Jett, Pat Benatar, the Go-Gos, Blondie, Annie Lennox, Siouxie Sioux, etc.) that had a lot to say about being female.

Could Hanna’s overt feminism have been far behind?

Sigh. The only downside of watching The Punk Singer is realizing how far we’ve fallen since the glory days of Riot Grrrl. I ♥ Hanna. Rebel girl, you’re the queen of my world.

It is 1982 in Stockholm, these girls are 13 years old, and they refuse to believe that punk is dead. What a great idea for a film.

30weare-image-articleLargeI haven’t seen it yet, of course (foreign/independent films take approximately a month to make it to my city from movie centers in New York and LA), but today’s rave NYT review is through the roof, so I’m going to do my best to turn We are the Best! into a new cult movie about female rockers. (One of their songs is called “Hate the Sport.”)

So put it on your lists, friends.

A snippet of this duet was played this week in Cyndi Lauper’s terrific interview on NPR’s “On the Media” (worth listening to/ watching in its entirety), and its jaw-dropping pleasures — what Cyndi can do to keep up with a singer as breathtaking as Patti LaBelle — gave me such pleasure that I got all sentimental for the music, not to mention women’s clothing of the era. You can see here, with Cyndi’s hat and jacket, that beautiful moment in time that made possible Madonna’s great outfits from Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), which I’ve got to watch again if for no other reason than Aidan Quinn at his most beautiful.

So watch, listen, and tell me if it doesn’t bring tears to your eyes for all the right reasons.

My partner discovered this haunting young Swedish duo, First Aid Kit — I can’t get their harmonies out of my head today.

First Aid Kit: America

FIRST-AID-KITNot to mention the fact that they choose the very best songs to cover:

First Aid Kit: Play With Fire

Chrissie Hynde, Deborah Harry, Viv Albertine, Siouxsie Sioux, Poly Styrene, and Pauline Black, all together in a single photo. Holy crap. Go check out the amazing interviews with many female underground rockers, specifically the one with Black (lead singer of the infamous ska band The Selector) — in Women of the Underground: Music Cultural Innovators Speak for Themselves by Zora Von Burden.

Rock on.

“The story of Mia [Zapata] and the Gits: it’s not a story about a Seattle band, it’s not a story about a punk rock band, it’s not a story about a band with a woman singer. This is the story about a great American rock & roll band.”

Amen to that. It’s also not just a story about a woman singer who got murdered, but that fact renders the story of the Gits more tragic. Zapata’s death in 1993 crushed me — she was just riveting to see live. You can watch her too and learn more about the band and its music in this film, now available on YouTube in chapters, thanks to documentarian Kerri O’Kane:

I was going to suggest you wander over to the tumblr Hey Girl, It’s Rachel Maddow (actually, do that anyway), but then I stumbled onto this amazing rewrite of Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance that transforms the tune into a suffrage anthem/history. Favorite line: “I want to wear pants!”

This is so beautifully produced and serious that I started to think, crap, is Rick Santorum going to start campaigning against women’s right to vote now?

This awesome company that put this together: a textbook company! Which makes me take a hard look at their list for next fall’s classes.

And a serious question: how worried do I need to be about my right to the franchise?

Okay, I can’t resist: from the aforementioned tumblr:

Is there any song more difficult to sing than the Star Spangled Banner?

Is there any song so familiar to us that has lyrics so convoluted, so martial? As national anthem tunes go I’d say it weighs in on the “more memorable” side of the coin, but I’m not sure I’d commit to anything more enthusiastic.

But watching Whitney Houston’s rendition, done at at the opening ceremony for the 1991 Super Bowl, is something else. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard something so spectacular: she takes a hoary old tune — and a big, quaint old orchestra with lots of brass behind her — out of its usual skin and plants it straight into the black church for a lesson in gospel. What she does with her voice here, and what she does to that difficult song, is by all measures evidence that she possessed a gift for channeling joy and glory — all the more summoned by her perfect pitch, that beautiful, beatific face, and her long, long arms, reached out to the sky:

She starts out deceptively, singing it straight up with the usual message and tenor; if anything, you’re impressed by the strength and volume of her voice. (That woman had breath.) But by the end of the second line — “the twilight’s last gleaming” — she drops into something more intimate, makes you lean a little closer. Those middle lyrics are sung with a low quietness, with only glimpses of the spectacular melisma she could perform with her voice. When she gets to the stunning joyousness of “And the rocket’s red glare” — she seems to leap across octaves as if she’s summoning angels, closing her eyes and belting out those words with a defiant volume, chin lifted to the sky. Ignore the words: Whitney’s singing something else.

By this time it feels like another song altogether, one you don’t know so well. Physically, her body moves not like that of a pop goddess or a diva but the soloist of a gospel choir in the midst of ecstatic communion, with her head moving freely, her arms and shoulders engaged. There’s nothing to make fun of here — nothing overwrought or over-exposed, the way we got tired of hearing “I Will Always Love You” from that awful film The Bodyguard (1992). No, this is something else, something commanding.

By the time she gets to that last impossible line and that high note, “O’er the land of the free,” it’s just otherworldly — just when you find yourself thinking, “how does she hit that note so right on?” she goes up an octave and seems to use her full body to extract every ounce of vocal energy. This is about coming through slaughter, about resilience, about breaking the chains. This is about exile and return, and this is about community and grace.

Finally she takes the last lyric home, on what I’ve always thought was a weirdly ambivalent final note in the song with “and the home of the brave.” Rather than do what most singers do — pretend the ambivalence isn’t there and make that note resolve — Whitney draws out the ambivalence as long as she can, preferring to nail the resolution with sheer stamina in the way she holds the final note for what feels like minutes. She brings us home — shows us the promised land, gathers us together in love with her long, long last note, the power of her breath.

Que en paz descanse, Whitney.

I’m pretty certain it was Feminist Music Geek who turned me on to Thao & Mirah‘s album from last spring — and hallelujah for that. Since the end of May I’ve been rubbing new kinds of moisture into the cracked skin/soul I developed in Texas and one of the most important of these is a bunch of new music.

For the first time in years I’ve given myself real time to listen to new stuff, and my skin/soul is slowly losing that angry redness. It’s less prone to bruising, less painful when touched. Hallelujah for the music wallahs. (And strained metaphors.)

Ever since hearing that the 1971 documentary Growing Up Female (dir. Jim Klein and Julia Reichert) was selected for the National Film Registry, I’ve been trying to find a copy. (The closest I’ve come is this fabulous 5-min. clip, which you should watch too and beware of too easily thinking, “We’ve come a long way, baby!”).

Here’s my pitch to documentarians: we need an updated version. You know who else wants an updated version? Riley, our future president:

Riley’s right to start in toy stores, just the way the 1971 film starts in a day care. Here are some other hot spots I hope the documentarians will visit:

  • “breast-araunts” like Twin Peaks and Hooters
  • girls’ sports: the good (confidence, strength, great role models) and the bad (the pressure to appear straight straight straight; the dismal sports opportunities for women beyond college)
  • abortion politics: talk to a young woman who’s going to give birth to her rapist’s baby because of the law or access issues (or, frankly, because of brainwashing)
  • girls who come out as gay or trans (or, alternately, choose not to come out)
  • religious and church messages to girls about gender roles and sex
  • girls’ clothing choices and body pressures to be both whisper-thin AND have a hot badunkadonk
  • children’s TV programming (talk to Geena Davis about this)
  • the pressure to get into college
  • messages about gender and sex in pop music
  • the assholes at Lego who claim that “months of anthropological testing” tell them that girls want pastel-colored Legos despite years of girls wanting regular Legos
  • college sororities and college feminist organizations (and college anti-racist or ethnic organizations, which can have retrograde gender or sexual dynamics)
  • mother-daughter relationships; domestic chores meted out to daughters and sons
  • the effect on girls of presidential candidates who want to outlaw The Pill in their eagerness to “protect life” (that is, everyone running for the GOP nomination) and Pres. Obama, whose commitment to women’s reproductive health seems, well, changeable
  • teenagers growing up in quiverfull or fundamentalist Mormon environments

PLEASE. Not just because it could be an amazing document for the future. For all of us feminists who need to see what’s going on now. For everyone who forgets their own little protected bubble of a world is not a reflection of the whole.