In the late 1980’s, an American punk rock band was formed in Minnesota by Kat Bjelland, Lori Barbero and Michelle Leon who would call themselves Babes in Toyland.
The band has developed a cult following over the years but it’s a wonder their legacy hasn’t earned them a more notable spot in the 90s rock oeuvre. Music journalism has done this band a disservice by lazily grouping them with riot grrrl band, Bikini Kill as well as ignorantly prolonging the catfight narrative referencing lead singer Bjelland’s relationship with Courtney Love. Love was the band’s bassist for a minute in the early days before she formed Hole.
But Babes in Toyland stand for so much more than the media’s obsession with a supposed ‘catfight’.
The fierce riffs that are marched to by Bjelland’s growling, husky and animalistic wails make for great punk rock music. BiT should be remembered alongside these names in their own right and not be left out of the history books.
Lead singer, Bjelland brings to life her deepest, darkest thoughts through a pendulum of voices. These voices take turns swinging between sweet and demure to raucous and possessed. Her voice is so unique that at moments, you might think ‘yeesh, that’s off pitch’, then she’ll slide right back into perfect pitch all the way from some demented banshee wail
A great example is the song Bluebell where she exorcises these lyrics from her gut:
You know who you are
You’re dead meat, motherfucker
You don’t try to rape a goddess
BiT, especially Bjelland is said to have created the ’90s ‘kinderwhore’ aesthetic which is essentially lingerie mixed with youthful attire like collared dresses paired with Mary Janes. The look is meant to confront ideas of youth and preconceived notions of femininity which are instilled in young girls from a very early age through dolls. Images of girlhood are symbolically represented in BiT music videos such as He’s my Thing, 1990. I love this song for it’s ironic table turning sentiment, ‘He’s my thing, stay away from my thing, why don’t you get your ow, ow, ow, own’. Here is a very pretty woman in a white dress with blonde hair adorned with little bow describing some dude in her life as a ‘thing’ while a load of dolls and puppets do crazy crap. Bjelland is shining a light on the archaic notion of women as play things for men to fool around with.
I think the doll aesthetic is really supposed to challenge the the ideals we place on children through giving them these things as toys to play with. It’s sets a weird tone for us when little girls grow up. There is a pressure to stay sweet and naïve because anything else is subversive. Dolls are not unlike puppets to children, we make them do what we want them to; attend pretend tea parties, kiss the Ken doll…
It’s no surprise that dollification themes appear in BiT imagery and artwork. If punk rock represents freedom, then BiT were the most free. Free from conforming to how these little girls were ‘supposed to turn out’ and instead using that imagery to ironically mock any former expectations of them. Using the symbolism for what their not, as the first thing people see to then shock and disappoint the patriarchy when the noise begins. The innocence of girlhood is crushed before your very eyes in BiT music videos, just as it is when puberty hits and the patriarchy asserts its expectations.
It’s great symbolism as it’s timeless and applicable to a lot of issues within professional industries. Puppetry and archaic ideals of femininity in the workplace reside in our current social climate with gender, race and sexual orientation. The patriarchy itself is a narrowminded entity treating minorities as subordinate beings. Through this the dominating power assumes it can control or predict action by implementing expectations through mass media. This media then sociologically infiltrates our ideas of ‘woman’, ‘man’, ‘black’, white’, ‘asian’ etc..
If someone acts outside the lines drawn for them, a threat is posed. A threat to understanding; to belief systems, to patriarchy.
By 1997, BiT were inactive, later reuniting in 2014 when the second but most prominent bassist; Maureen Herman was replaced due to personal differences.
A few weeks ago I posted on The Runaways:
‘Their story is the classic LA rock come up; young, ambitious, talented, fearless with a yearning for escape from their mundane lives.
This persona mixed with a powerful, hungry force like Kim Fowley equals a huge rise to fame with a ticking cherry bomb’.
Runaways bassist, Jackie Fox revealed after years silenced by fear and trauma that Runaways manager Kim Fowley drugged and rape her at 16 years of age. She reveals in Jason Cherkis’s article, Lost Girls that bandmates Cherie Curie and Joan Jet were present and witness to the crime.
Babes in Toyland bassist Maureen Herman wrote an article on this subject that was published on Boing Boing in 2015, a zine created in 1998 that later became a group blog. The article is called, ‘The Jackie Fox rape disclosure shows we still have a lot to learn’. It caused a big stir and at the outset of the band’s much anticipated reunion, Herman has said that the article she wrote about Fox’s rape was instrumental in her departure from the band, causing a divide between her and the other members. Herman’s critique of Runaway’s member Joan Jett’s silence and lack of public support for fellow bandmate is said to have potentially intefered with the business partnership of BiT drummer Lori Barbero and Joan Jett.
I wanted to write about this incident as I really agree with Herman when she says we all still have a lot to learn. Music journalism needs to be more than just surface level commentary on feuds and drama. It should be loyal to the subjects who make this brilliant music and their truth. When it comes to smashing the patriarchy, make no mistake that we are still referring to a current day battle. In this case, What happened to Jackie Fox not only demonstrates how much the patriarchy thrived in the ’70s music industry, but how it’s insidious tendencies creep into the most liberal of spheres, that of supposed united female musicianship. Music journalists have a responsibility to not only praise the artists we adore, but to hold them accountable as equal citizens of the world.
Although the Babes in Toyland members were not all on the same page regarding the public status of Jett’s support over the Fowley-Fox rape, their music has inspired current feminist punk bands to keep writing about these issues and to normalize the the demonization and criminalization of rape.
A great example is the feminst punk witches from London: Dream Nails: Joke Choke
Babes in Toyland is truly a special band, whose unique contribution to ’90s grunge, metal inspired punk rock deserves way, way more recognition.