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.

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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.

Ladies. Kick. Ass.

23 October 2010

Sometimes all I need is a few videos of women kicking the shit outta music to make me happy.