On the Record: Author Sara Marcus OC ’99

When Sara Marcus OC ’99 attended Oberlin, she thought she wanted to work in civil rights law or become an organizer for the AFL-CIO. During her senior year, however, she formed a band, and upon graduation, moved to Philadelphia to stay with them while taking writing gigs on the side. When that got tiring, Marcus packed up and moved to New York to become a writer. After completing an MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia, she supported herself as a copy editor while working on her first book. “There was always this idea of, ‘Maybe this will all peter out and I’ll go to law school,’” she said. “But as time went on, that looked less and less attractive.” Last fall, Marcus published Girls To The Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, which traces the history of the punk feminist movement of the early ’90s known as riot grrrl through the voices of the countless teenage girls who wrote zines, held meetings or formed bands. Although the movement itself only lasted a few years, the music of bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile continues to influence new generations of girls, and institutions like NYU, which recently added the Riot Grrrl Zine Collection to its archives, are further cementing riot grrrl’s place in cultural history.

Beatrice Rothbaum, Editor-In-Chief

Can you tell me a little about what inspired you to write Girls To The Front?

I was inspired to write it because riot grrrl had been this incredibly formative thing for me in my life, and I felt like the story was getting lost and only certain parts of it were surviving and other parts of it were totally falling by the wayside. At a certain point when I realized that riot grrrl was worth having a book about, I knew that I wanted to write it before some rock critic who was going to miss the [movement’s] grassroots aspect and miss the parts about what it is to be an adolescent female trying to make your way in the world and articulate your identity. I knew I wanted to get there first.

Why do you think it’s important for teens to express their identities through the music that they listen to?

You mean like why do 14-year-olds write their favorite bands on their sneakers?

Yeah, and like become emo kids or riot grrrls or whatever it is. Why do you think that relationship is so strong?

Oh, god [sighs]. What do you think?

Well, like you kind of showed in your book, teens are often very isolated and angsty and music provides such an immediate release.

Yeah, well, it taps into the passions quite directly. I think that it’s not only music that people [express themselves] through in adolescence — we also do it through our clothes, through what we wear; do we become a vegetarian, [or] do we become a vegan? If you have choices about where to hang out, then where to hang out becomes a big deal … In the suburbs it would really become, like, what was the late night diner? Who hangs out at the Denny’s in this town? You know, the preppies went to the Silver Diner and the punks went to the Tastee and the D&D kids went to Denny’s. I’ve never studied adolescent psychology, but to create an identity and to start to feel like you’re separating yourself from your parents and you’re separating yourself from whoever at school is giving you a hard time — the easiest way to start … doing that is to have a bunch of options and to pick one, and hopefully you move through that and create something that’s a lot more individuated while at the same time being able to create a community and to interact with other people.

So as you’ve said, some parts of riot grrrl survived and some parts fell by the wayside. Which parts survived?

The music had really survived and has weathered the years pretty well; people remembered Bikini Kill. And even because Sleater-Kinney was so great, people knew that Heavens To Betsy was around … This stuff was being perpetuated — aided, I believe, [by] the shift to digital in music. So even if there were only 500 or 1,000 copies of the first Heavens To Betsy 7-inch pressed, anybody could listen to the songs. And the songs were really good. They were in many ways ideal time capsules because a song is portable, it can get into your head, it’s much more difficult to “preserve” [zines] — they’re being preserved now in institutions but in a strange, often deracinated, decontextualized way of just like, “Here’s the zine collection.”

But do you still think it’s important that these zines are collected?

I don’t think it’s necessarily important to collect these zines. It’s important to me that a story be put out there [and] that somebody preserved the tale of what happened with an eye toward what is valuable and important in the experiences of young women, which was what I saw was getting consistently degraded or pushed to the sidelines of narratives about riot grrrl. I have pretty mixed feelings about the archivization of riot grrrl zines. I think that it can be done well and that the archive at NYU is doing a fabulous job, but I also think that there’s a fad-ish rush to preserve and stockpile.

What is it about punk rock that lends itself to feminist politics?

This was a really smart thing that Kathleen [Hanna, lead vocalist of Bikini Kill] and some other people figured out, which was that punk rock … was a super-permissive, super “you don’t have to have a lot of skills, just go out there and do something” [kind of thing]. It’s so easy for young women to second-guess and undermine their qualifications. So, part of the genius of riot grrrl was to recognize that if you could sort of portage this incredibly permissive DIY idea to young women in general, you might be able to run around the endlessly second-guessing, self-doubting shit that so often keeps girls on the sidelines of cultural production. So that was what it was about punk: the sense that you don’t have to be good, [that] you can start right away. There’s no room here for people who are passive consumers of culture: Everybody has to participate actively.