Grrrls, Grrrls, Grrrls
Juliana Hatfield. Photograph by Christian Kock
From The New Inquiry:
In the fall of 1991, a 24-year-old Juliana Hatfield had just broken up her college band, Blake Babies, a mainstay of Boston’s fertile indie rock scene, and finished recording her solo debut, Hey Babe, now many years out of print. It came out on the independent label Mammoth in March 1992 amid the industry gold rush that followed the success of Nirvana’s Nevermind, and was among the most successful independent releases of the “year of the woman,” selling over 60,000 copies and earning widespread critical accolades. Critics praised Hatfield’s ear for power-pop hooks and delighted in her tortured introspection, frequently commenting on her “babyish” vocal timbre as though it were an affectation or a marketing ploy.
Hatfield was swiftly signed to a major label, and her time in the media limelight over the next few years — a spot on the Reality Bites soundtrack; a guest-starring role on My So-Called Life; several magazine covers; an ambiguous relationship with Lemonheads front man Evan Dando — made her a central figure in the early ’90s alternative zeitgeist. Yet even though Hey Babe helped catalyze the “women in rock” era, it has been all too easy to forget the album’s foundational role in this genealogy — indeed, to forget Juliana Hatfield’s name altogether. In part, this stems from her distance from the riot grrrl movement, whose epicenters were in D.C. and Olympia, Washington, far from Hatfield’s hometown of Boston. Canonical riot grrrl bands like Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy, Huggy Bear, and Bratmobile married the personal and the political in incendiary punk music that took on explicitly feminist themes: rape, incest, patriarchal oppression, gender and sexuality, female friendship and solidarity.
Riot grrrl bands crafted a collective mythology that pulled individual listeners into an imagined community larger than themselves. To be alone in your bedroom with Bikini Kill’s Pussy Whipped is already to have been drafted into a girl army. By contrast, Hatfield resisted being incorporated into any community larger than one. “There is no archetype of a female loner-by-choice, especially in the pop-rock music world,” she writes in her 2008 memoir, When I Grow Up.
Hatfield’s story, in many ways, ran counter to riot grrrl’s narrative.