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.
1 April 2010
“The Runaways” leaves no cliché untouched. It’s as if the writers went to TVtropes.org and selected the biggest chestnuts.
- girls with daddy issues
- girls turn to music because they don’t fit in
- success quickly leads to substance abuse problems
- dreamy drug-fueled sequence in soft light with lesbian sex
- conflict within the band over big ego of lead singer
Right up to the end: the band’s big blowout fight takes place — in the recording studio. The one thing I can say is that at least the film moves as efficiently as possible from one trope to the next, and manages that efficiency by focusing solely on Jett and Currie at the expense of all other band members. It’s such a disappointment. So Floria Sigismondi, the film’s director, isn’t going to be the next female winner of a Best Director Oscar; and I’m starting to think that Kristen Stewart has only one trick in her acting bag (avoids eye contact, hunches shoulders, mumbles).
And it’s too bad, because the film could have answered a lot of questions about women in rock. The film has a lot of obligatory scenes of screaming male and (especially) female fans — but what are they screaming for?
There’s a great moment in Todd Haynes’ “Velvet Goldmine” in which Christian Bale, as the maybe-gay teenager fan of a David Bowie-type gender-bending rock star, takes his newly-bought record into his bedroom in the crap suburban house where he lives with his family. He gently takes the sleeve out of the cover, letting us see the beautifully erotic nature of fandom. It’s a great moment — evoking the possibility he might experience by listening to it, not just for its music but for the personal liberation and transformation it promises. “The Runaways” tells us that Bowie was also a huge influence on Cherie Currie (which is so interesting on its own).
The same possibilities were there for “The Runaways” other than to plow through all our received wisdom about how rock bands get together and break up. The band’s officious manager, who teaches them how to growl and purr for their audiences, sees their appeal solely in sexual terms. Rock is a man’s world, he insists; they’ve got to meet it on those terms. “This isn’t about women’s lib, this is about women’s libido,” he says. But during concert scenes, you start to feel intuitively there’s more to it, before you’re yanked away to another cliché (Cherie is worried about her sick dad!).
Another wasted opportunity to think about women onscreen. But let’s also pause to remember that Joan Jett, now 51, is still rocking, promoting new talent, and looking hot and mean.
31 March 2010
Before there was the Bitch Magazine I know and love for its rants about gender in the media, there was the Bitch: The Women’s Rock Mag With Bite, the late 1980s zine that appeared on newsprint every month, clearly produced on its creator’s Apple computer and cut-and-pasted into shape. Lori Twersky denoted the page numbers by hand, and the logo was (what else?) a hand-drawn dog, often portrayed with a bone or scratching its head with a back foot.
Considering that we listened to The Bangles in the 80s, Bitch was kind of a revelation. Whether it was an article about Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth or Lydia Lunch, Bitch was full of snarky interviews, fiesty feminist rants, and a genuine appreciation for the music they made. These rockers weren’t girlie-girls — they kicked ass (and, as one issue told us, Joan Jett inspired a cult/commune in San Francisco to hold her up as a near-deity).
So as I get ready to see “The Runaways” despite its mixed reviews, I’m thinking about my teenaged relationship to women rockers — the revelatory experience of watching Chrissie Hynde, Courtney Love (no one who saw Hole’s “Live Through This” concert could doubt her ability to kick rock’s ass), Blondie, Lydia Lunch, the Breeders, and oh, Liz Phair’s “Exile in Guyville,” women who seemed to be making big feminist statements just by being so fierce in their lyrics and onstage. Is it simply my age that makes the thought of Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning in the roles of Joan Jett and Cherie Currie a bit distasteful? Trying to suppress my doubts in an age of Lady Gaga, Twilight, and “post-feminism.”