The Grrrls Are Back in Town

“Babes In Toyland Paris 1991” by Neate, Greg - Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Babes_In_Toyland_Paris_1991.jpg#/media/File:Babes_In_Toyland_Paris_1991.jpg

 

“Get out of my way or I’m going to shove!” Donita Sparks once threatened, demanding opportunities for which many women in the music industry are still impatiently waiting, a quarter-century later. And since the music industry stubbornly refuses to evolve, there’s no better time than now for Sparks’s 90s band, L7, to come together for a reunion tour that includes a headlining gig at Brooklyn’s Warsaw this week; Babes in Toyland, their contemporaries in minor grunge glory, play at Irving Plaza next week. While it’s true that when old man rock bands reunite now, there’s an assumed indulgence; whether beloved in their time or unfairly obscure, there’s the sense that they are coasting on the fumes of past glory. Maybe you could throw that same “washed-up” claim back at Babes and L7, too, but it wouldn’t ring quite as true, because in some ways, their time is now.

Both bands have had uncannily paralleled careers, right up to their recent revivals. L7 formed in 1985 and Babes in Toyland in 1987, each with all-female lineups that were rare for the era. Both recorded critically acclaimed punk records early in their careers, but only got a real commercial push in a post-Nirvana world, when record labels chased anything nearing “grunge.” Both bands played on early lineups of Lollapalooza: Babes in 1993, L7 in 1994, each playing the main stage, though neither were near the top of the bill. L7 self-identified with the wider Riot Grrl movement more often than Babes in Toyland did, but both fit in well enough in terms of rough sound and righteously pissed-off lyrics, and were a key influence on subsequent waves of female rock musicians. Two decades on, you can hear bands—like the ferocious, metal-adjacent White Lung or the politically potent DC band, Priests, to name just two—still picking up on certain strains of their power and pain.

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There’s something more to these bands’ continued relevance that goes beyond mere hero worship. Unlike first wave punk bands whose specific gripes died when Thatcher did, the bullshit which grunge gals railed against is still frustratingly present. L7, who founded the Rock for Choice concert series in 1991 to promote abortion rights, find themselves revived in a summer marked by an ongoing right-wing smear campaign against Planned Parenthood. Fundamentally, this anger was born from bristling against a lack of basic respect. “Some guy just pinched my ass / drunken bums ain’t got no class.” With that depressing fight still raging, these old gunslingers are needed more than ever to rage right back.

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