On August 20, 1991, nearly 20 all-girl rock groups, female-led bands, and female solo artists perform during an evening of punk and alternative rock music at Olympia’s Capitol Theater. It is an event by, for, and about women. The concert is officially billed as Love Rock Revolution Girl-Style Now, shortened to Girl Night, and it kicks off the six-day International Pop Underground Convention, organized by Calvin Johnson, founder of K Records, an Olympia-based independent record-label. The lineup features some of the most influential Riot Grrrl groups and furthers the careers of Olympia-based bands such as Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Heavens to Betsy.
A Concert For and By Women
Girl Night, the kick-off concert at the International Pop Underground (IPU) Convention, was an evening of music for and by women. Nearly 20 all-female groups, female-fronted bands, and female singers participated. Billed as Love Rock Revolution Girl-Style Now, the event title was lifted from Bikini Kill’s 1991 demo cassette called "Revolution Girl Style Now." Shortened to Girl Night, it was the opener for the six-day IPU Convention held in Olympia from August 20-25, 1991, the brainchild of record label owner Calvin Johnson.
Riot Grrrl began as a music revolution in 1991 and then spread to become "one of the most visible branches of what was dubbed third wave feminism" (McDonnell). The term was said to come from a group of women in Olympia who were tired of being marginalized and overlooked as musicians, artists, and performers. At one point, they discussed starting a girl riot and from there, the term evolved.
Without a space at the predominantly male table, women began to create their own underground scene, using do-it-yourself magazines, known as fanzines or zines, and music. Topics explored in both fanzine articles and song lyrics centered on issues such as sexuality, gender, rape, and domestic violence. The sounds could be harsh and abrasive, or fun-loving and coy, and there was plenty of attitude. Bikini Kill’s song, "Double Dare Ya," offered women this challenge: "Dare you to do what you want/Dare you to be who you will/Dare you to cry right out loud" (Smith). "Riot Grrrl was never a stylistically codified genre, but if any shared sensibility could be said to unite the movement musically, it was a self-conscious rejection of polish in favor of immediacy and spontaneity – a revolution you could dance to ... They sang frankly and bluntly, often wrestling with difficult subjects at the intersection of the personal and the political: desire, self-acceptance and their uncontainable frustration at a society in which women’s lives and futures still seemed so narrowly delimited by their gender" (Smith).
From Olympia, the movement caught on in Washington, D.C., before spreading to both coasts and then throughout the country. Internationally, the United Kingdom had its own Riot Grrrl movement, with the band Huggy Bear leading the way. As it spread globally, its influence increased as well. "There was a decentralized but effective network of activist chapters that organized protests and performances, made art and zines, and also just sat around and talked – raising consciousness one girl at a time" (McDonnell).
Calvin Johnson and K Records
Girl Night was organized by Calvin Johnson, a musician, songwriter, disc jockey and owner of K Records, an indie record label. Johnson, born in Olympia on November 1, 1962, attended The Evergreen State College, where he had a band called Cool Rays. In the early 1980s, he worked at the indie label Sub Pop Records, a company that achieved fame a decade later for its role in popularizing the grunge movement and signing such legendary groups as Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney.
But when Johnson worked there, Sub Pop was "a fanzine at the time, not a record label, and I was one of the people working on the fanzine. We had done issues of the fanzine as cassettes, because at the time we were frustrated that we were writing about music, pretty obscure music, that people didn’t have any opportunity to hear ... That got me thinking about cassettes as a format, so I started [a] label doing cassette-only releases for the first few years because it was a very accessible format" (Evers).
Johnson started his company K Records in 1982 as a way to better showcase talented underground artists who were not getting enough exposure. The label’s distinctive logo depicted a bright yellow shield with a big black letter K in the center. (The design later inspired one of Kurt Cobain’s [1967-1994] tattoos.)
In the mid-1980s, Johnson began issuing a series of music cassettes called The International Pop Underground, and in 1991, he and co-owner Candice Pedersen decided to organize a music festival to further promote their artists. The International Pop Underground Convention showcased about 50 bands in total, along with poetry readings, dance parties, and a Planet of the Apes movie marathon. Most of the performances occurred at the Capitol Theater in Olympia, although several other venues around town were pressed into use, including impromptu performances at record stores and house parties. The idea was to give the festival a casual and decidedly non-corporate vibe.
Riot Grrrls Live On
Girl Night was a galvanizing moment in the Riot Grrrl movement, providing publicity for nascent Riot Grrrl groups such as Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Kicking Giant, Mecca Normal, and 7 Year Bitch. It marked the first concert for the Olympia group Heavens to Betsy, which had formed earlier that spring. Years later, Bratmobile's Erin Smith recalled that "the International Pop Underground Convention in August of 1991, that was a huge deal because of the Girl Day ... I had never seen anything like that happen. And I just had the chills the whole day" (Riot Grrrl).
The Riot Grrrl movement disappeared almost as quickly as it appeared, lasting less than a decade. But it gave rise to a host of other all-girl groups or single female recording artists, including Sleater-Kinney, which formed in Olympia in 1994 with Heaven to Betsy’s Corin Tucker. Pop groups such as the Spice Girls have also acknowledged being influenced by early Riot Grrrl musicians and bands. In recent years, several original Riot Grrrl bands have gotten back together and gone on tour, including Bikini Kill. "Perhaps it’s a well-timed burst of accidental nostalgia, or perhaps their message still needs to be heard: either way, numerous original riot grrrl bands ... have reformed over the last few years, playing riotous live shows to a new generation of fans hungry to listen" (Hunt).