A lyrical history of Girl Power

The Spice Girls may have disowned the phrase Girl Power in 2018, but they have never been it’s sole custodians. The lyrical origins of the phrase can be traced back to 1993, and the Welsh city of Swansea

Photo by Kevin Grieve on Unsplash

“Girl power” croons the singer in a fey, almost whispering vocal against the backdrop of crude fuzz guitar, “Girl power”. The song ends in a ritzy tinkle of Casio keyboard “Yeah!”

It’s 1993 and the Welsh punk-pop band Helen Love are releasing their debut single ‘Formula One Racing Girls.’ It’s a tale of new found assertiveness in which the song’s heroine maintains (to an unknown partner) “Not going to dress up for you, not going to play your games” because “outside the sun is shining, I’m hanging out with my girlfriends”

All well and good in a year when Heavenly’s Amelia Fletcher was shouting “Fuck you, no way!” at a wheedling partner in ‘Atta Girl’ . Fletcher’s feelings were known but, in ‘Formula One Racing Girls’, it was the line “I’ve got my Huggy Bear t-shirt” that was the giveaway to the song’s wider context.

Riot Grrrl arrived in the UK in the summer of 1992, a year after it’s birth in Olympia and Washington DC in the US. Swansea wasn’t a hotbed of Riot Grrrl activity, but music fans in the know would have been aware of the movement thanks to the somewhat hysterical coverage it received in the music press, broadsheets and tabloid newspapers. Coverage that reached fever pitch after Huggy Bear’s appearance on Channel 4 youth TV show The Word, during which they called the presenters out for sexism and were unceremoniously evicted from the studio. Caroline Sullivan, writing for The Guardian in March 1993 about the aftermath of the incident, dubbed it their “Bill Grundy moment” in her piece ‘Angry Young Women.’.

The origins of Helen Love, and their eponymous front-woman, are shrouded in obscurity. They hardly ever played gigs or gave interviews and Helen herself seemed to hide behind her dark fringe and a pair of enormous black sunglasses. Their musical inspiration, and stylistic blueprint, came from The Ramones, but their actual sound was a sly mix of twee flavoured indie and punk-pop with a distinctly knowing edge. Perhaps because they didn’t often gig, and were sonically not typical of the riot grrrl bands, they survived where many did not.

Panoromic view of Swansea by Matty Ring. Courtesy of Flickr, used according to a creative commons licence

Another band who had emerged around the same time as Helen Love were the punk-pop duo Shampoo. Two friends from Plumstead in North London, Jacqui and Carrie had formed the band in 1993. Initially signed to Bob Stanley’s indie label, Icerink, they gigged with the likes of Mambo Taxi and the earliest, agit prop, incarnation of Cornershop. They inhabited the same live scene and clubs as many of the London riot grrrls, and, according to a friend of mine at the time, could be spotted sitting on the floor at club nights, giggling.

In 1994 they signed to EMI and released the pop classic, ‘Trouble’. Further pop success followed and in 1995 they released the single, and album, Girl Power. A much more musically slick affair than ‘Formula One Racing Girls’, it opened with the line “I don’t wanna be a boy, I wanna be a girl!” Other lyrics included “I wanna be evil, I wanna be bad, I wanna drive my next door neighbours mad!” More inspired by The Waitresses than X-Ray Spex, they were natural pop stars.

A year later, The Spice Girls were launched.

The death of Riot Grrrl was being forecast as early as 1994 by the UK music press. The launch of lad bible Loaded, coupled with the birth of Britpop, signalled a return to laddish mores and boorish behaviour. In the UK, most of the bands who had been directly involved with riot grrrl had split up by the middle of 1995. Bands such as Mambo Taxi, The Voodoo Queens, Huggy Bear, Pussycat Trash. In the US, Bikini Kill split up in 1996.

A second wave of Riot Grrrl activism began to emerge in the UK in 1998, but it foundered after about a year, only really picking up momentum with news of the first Ladyfest in Olympia in the US in 2000.

Photo by Arièle Bonte on Unsplash

As for Helen Love, they saw themselves go from indie obscurities to cult band in 1996 when, fired by the success of Glasgow twee punk-pop band Bis, they suddenly found themselves in favour. Ash covered their song ‘Punk Boy’ and appeared on BBC TV’s weekly Top 40 show Top Of The Pops in Helen Love t-shirts. The single ‘We Love You’ was playlisted on Radio One, and another single, ‘So Hot’, was used to soundtrack a trailer for Children’s BBC.

Rather than implode in the face of Britpop, the changing UK music scene served only to drive Helen Love towards satire. They were also becoming interested in Alec Empire’s label Digital Hardcore and Berlin techno punk such as Empire’s Atari Teenage Riot, which began to influence their sound. Helen Love first began taking swipes at the contemporary music scene with ‘Does Your Heart Go Boom?’ in 1996, a song that opened with an approving chant of the the band name Atari Teenage Riot and went on to take swipes at Kula Shaker and Bush. Their follow up single, ‘Long Live The UK Music Scene’ was far more explicit in it’s targets, and didn’t mince it’s words.

The band disappeared after this two fingered salute, but they didn’t stop making music. In recent years their output has included a touching salute to X Ray Spex front-woman Poly Styrene (‘Thank you Poly Styrene’).

In 2018, the Spice Girls announced their reunion. While the announcement saw a resurgence of the kind of giddy reporting on the band not seen since 1996, it was soon tempered when the band revealed that they were disowning their famous ‘Girl Power’ slogan. Perhaps weary of being tied to it, perhaps sensitive to debates around gender in 2018, the band chose to brand themselves as being for People Power, for equality and inclusivity.

It felt a distinctly odd moment to do so. In 2018, #MeToo has not impacted upon the music industry in the way it has film or politics, but the year has seen a flurry of explicitly feminist musical content, often from quite unexpected quarters. If previously unpolitical artists are finding their voices, it’s odd to say the least that a pop band who previously claimed girl power should now be disowning it.

Girl Power by Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr. Used according to a creative commons licence.

Not long after the Spice Girls had distanced themselves from Girl Power, Little Mix came under fire from (of all people) Piers Morgan on the breakfast TV show Good Morning Britain. The band were promoting their new single ‘Strip’ and images from the promo video showed the band naked and daubed in negative phrases connected to body image. Whether they intended it as a nod to the radical feminist activist group Femen, and other feminist groups who have used nudity and/or writing on the body as a form of protest, is unclear.

Much as it was possible to buy t-shirts daubed with the slogan Girl Power in 1993, and then to see commercially produced t-shirts bearing the same slogan coupled with the Spice Girls logo in 1996, Kathleen Hanna’s daubing of the word ‘Slut’ across her stomach in eyeliner at Bikini Kill shows was now being echoed in pop video in 2018. Probably by accident.

Morgan may have harrumphed as only a former tabloid editor can, but support for Little Mix came quickly from Ariana Grande and a full Twitter spat developed. Clearly 2018 is not 1996, as the Spice Girls had just found out.

Against all odds, Riot Grrrl is having something of a resurgence in the UK at the time of writing. Bands such as Dream Nails are fighting against sexual harassment at gigs by invoking the old riot grrrl battle cry of girls to the front. This chimes well with the work of organisations such as Girls Against who are campaigning to make gigs safer places for women. Bands such as Big Joanie, The Tuts, Baby Seals, Menstrual Cramps and countless others have also heeded the riot grrrl call. This being 2018, they are interrogative in their approach to the movement rather than reverent, which feels both very millennial and very sensible.

I recently had a brief conversation with Helen Love via Twitter. I’d woken up one morning in a bouncy mood, with the strong urge to revisit such mid 1990s classics as ‘Bubblegum’ and ‘Diet Coke Girl’. After excitedly posting several of their videos in my Twitter feed, I tweeted that I really needed to find someone willing to pay me to write about them. “Please do” came Helen’s response.