A-choir-ed taste: A few lessons from Riot Grrrl

“Yale doesn’t want you to be rock stars.” When asked about the lameness of the student music scene at Yale, this was journalist Sara Marcus’ explanation.

Marcus read from her new book “Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Movement” in the Saybrook Underbrook Tuesday. Bookending her reading and question-and-answer session were performances by a female singer-songwriter toting an acoustic guitar, and two Yale bands composed entirely of women.

I’m not entirely sure whether to call this event a rarity or not. On some level, there’s a dearth of student musical cooperation at Yale, yet on another level, there is no shortage of talented student musicians. That I’m sure of.

Even Artichokes Have Hearts was the first group to perform. These two juniors, Sarah DeLappe and Chloe Sarbib, play sweet, reductive pop with a ukulele, tambourine and piccolo accordion. Their songs are lighthearted but a little sarcastic — they played one song with lyrics drawn from famous movies and a cover of Rebecca Black’s viral hit “Friday.” They’re subversive despite their simplicity and ostensible naiveté.

Lauren Pippin ’11 played a brokenhearted lament about encounters with aliens, with the sincerity, technique and appeal of legions of songstresses. All-female folk-rock quartet BOY played a few torch songs at the end. Led by the three-part harmonies of Laurelin Kruse ’12, Rachel Kauder Nalebuff ’13 and Tessa Smith ’13 and carried by the adeptness of Katharine Seggerman ’13 on the drums, they recall sixties girl groups, seventies lady growlers and mid-2000s indie folk with humor and effortlessness. The talent of these seven Yale women is undeniable, and I’m sure there are so many more female musicians on campus.

So why did this event feel exceptional?

Maybe Marcus’ observation has something to offer us. Rock and pop music at Yale has a lot going for it — extraordinary talent, recording studios and performance spaces, a radio station willing to fund musical endeavors — yet there’s something missing, something that makes our scene feel fractured.

Maybe it’s the Yale culture that is holding us back. Student are success-oriented, even outside of the classroom. It takes so much innate skill to join an a cappella group or to win a part in a play that there’s very little room for experimentation by beginners in those realms. But rock music isn’t like singing or acting — you don’t necessarily have to know how to play your instrument to make fun music, and every band, no matter how talented the players are, will suck before it starts to be listenable. It seems our aptitude, seriousness of purpose and unwillingness to fail has hindered our ability to just play around and thus, express ourselves in an important way.

It’s clear to me that what we need is a little bit of Riot Grrrl. Riot Grrrl was a feminist punk movement in the early 1990s that advocated rock girl liberation, collectiveness and a do-it-yourself ethic. Girls formed punk rock bands (the most famous ones were Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy) to express their views of female equality, while organizing politically to the same end. Marcus’ book describes Riot Grrrl as a sound, style and historical moment, but she also wants girls to know that the philosophy of Riot Grrrls is just important to young women in 2010 as it was to Kathleen Hanna and her friends in Olympia, Washington in 1991. And Riot Grrrl doesn’t have to be explicitly feminist or punk either; it’s about acknowledging that when a girl picks up an instrument and sings her heart out, it’s an inherently political and subversive act.

I do think that every Yalie should read Marcus’ book. Not because I want every female member of the student body to go out and start a punk band, but because everyone should feel empowered to take on the world no matter the venue. It’s easy: find a few friends, pick up a guitar, learn three chords, write songs like you mean them and you’re already a rock star.

Comments