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Essays

People Had No Fucking Clue What to Do with Vivian Girls

Ten years after its release, the Brooklyn trio's debut album is still a feminist masterpiece—and a complicated exploration of what it means to be a cool girl in a male-dominated scene.

by Annie Fell
29 September 2018, 5:14am

I cut my own bangs for the first time in my junior year of high school. As I knelt in front of my bedroom mirror, scissors and plastic garbage can at the ready, I created the ragged, stringy mess that would end up being immortalized on my driver's license a few weeks later. I have thick, curly hair, but I straightened it every day for probably six months to accommodate this atrocity.

I made this terrible decision under the influence of my favorite band at the time: Vivian Girls. Perfectly tousled bangs were to the Vivian Girls what that cartoon tongue or aging terribly were to the Rolling Stones; it was essentially their logo, and a scrappy fringe was something of an homage for my 16-year-old self. I’d fallen in love with the band only a few years after the release of their self-titled debut album, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this weekend. Even though I thought they sounded and looked so devastatingly cool, something about them was so normal and relatable; they seemed like the kind of girls I could be friends with once I graduated from my shitty suburban high school and finally booked it to New York.

Drummer Frankie Rose and guitarist and lead vocalist Cassie Ramone started Vivian Girls in 2007 while they were living at The Orphanage, a punk house in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. According to Rose, whom I spoke with via email, they recruited Katy Goodman—then, Kickball Katy, a high school friend of Ramone’s from New Jersey—as their bassist about a month later. Ramone and Goodman had met at a Weezer concert, and the self-effacing humor of late 1990s, early 2000s indie rock would surface in the music they’d make together. Still, the band’s sound was a mix of its members’ disparate influences. Per Rose: “I loved Black Tambourine, Sarah Records, Flying Nun, and all the C86 stuff. At this point, [Ramone and Goodman] were more into straight-forward punk. We all liked stuff like the Wipers and Urinals, however.” Ramone’s influences ran the gamut from soft rock like Neil Young and the Carpenters to, obviously, the Ramones; Goodman grew up in New Brunswick’s hardcore scene, playing in a handful of punk bands.

Photo by Wendy Redfern/Redferns via Getty Images

The result was a sort of rumpled girl group—essentially, what the Shangri-Las might have been had they lived in a north Brooklyn DIY house in 2008. Few artists have summed up their personality as astutely as they did on the first second of the first track of their first album. With “All the Time,” Vivian Girls announced itself as a punk record from the jump, with Ramone talk-singing about a toxic crush in her hypnotizing warble over thrashing guitars, manic drums, and Goodman’s falsetto backing vocals. The album struck a beguiling equilibrium; the songs about falling in love were heavy, almost gothic (“Tell The World”), and the songs about having your heart broken veered toward sweet, light-hearted melodies (“Where Do You Run To,” “Damaged”). Ramone designed the album’s cover, as she would all of Vivian Girls’ albums. Her loopily scrawled handwriting and line drawings looked like a visual manifestation of the band’s music—scrappy, strangely pretty, and truly DIY.

Vivian Girls took their name from outsider artist Henry Darger’s magnum opus, In the Realms of the Unreal, a 15,000-plus page manuscript that tells the fictional story of a child slave rebellion led by the Vivian Girl princesses. Darger himself had been orphaned and subsequently institutionalized when he was young, resulting in a life condemned to the fringes. It was probably just a coincidence that Vivian Girls the band began in “the Orphanage,” but all things considered, it seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy that the band would leave a legacy as misunderstood underdogs. Like Darger’s protagonists, the Vivian Girls were, on the surface, almost angelic, with their three-part harmonies and pop sensibilities. But darkness and turmoil lurked just beneath their surface, and you can hear it in their tortured lyrics (“So what do I care if you ever leave?/'Cause I believe in nothing”) and angsty instrumentation.

Rose left the band shortly before the album’s release; over email, she cited creative differences and financial struggles that hindered her ability to tour. Her successor was Ali Koehler, Goodman’s former bandmate and classmate at Rutgers. Koehler toured the album, and would eventually become the drummer most closely associated with the group. Though she left Vivian Girls in 2010 and was replaced by Fiona Campbell for their final album, Share The Joy, the following year, she returned as drummer for their last run of shows in 2014.

Vivian Girls debuted at the exact moment when terms like “blogosphere” and “buzz band” were still being used mostly in earnest. In retrospect, it was inevitable that a critically successful debut would earn them seemingly instant fame within indie circles, while also attracting attention of a negative sort. In 2011, Hipster Runoff published an article about them titled “The Vivian Girls show off their banging bikini bodies (2 prove they hotter than Best Coast),” effectively perpetuating the schlocky tabloid sexism it was supposedly parodying. BrooklynVegan’s once-anonymous comment section, infamous for its rampant bullying and abuse, meant that any article mentioning the Vivian Girls would inevitably be inundated with violent, sexual comments. Even Kathleen Hanna noticed. “I was reading an article online about Vivian Girls, and I happened to look at the comments, and it was horrifying,” she claimed in a 2013 interview with Rookie. “Horrifying! It was every single thing people had said about us in the ’90s—but even worse.”

In 2012, Ramone offered a theory about these experiences in an interview with Impose: “When it comes to women in music, it’s kind of a Madonna/whore complex,” she said. “As a male spectator you either want some sort of goddess or some sort of revolutionary, riot grrrl style… powerful, feminist. And I don't think I really fit into either of those, so maybe that's where some of the hatred comes from?”

Vivian Girls both embraced and warped the tenets of traditional femininity. Their raggedy harmonies on songs like “Where Do You Run To” and “Everything Goes Wrong” evoked a crude sketch of a 60s girl group. Their brand of femininity was wonky, with their thrifted dresses and accidentally matching haircuts, but it never seemed ingenuine. They seemed to represent the kind of woman who can, to an extent, appreciate (and, perhaps in spite of herself, even want to attain) certain traditional feminine standards, even if she doesn’t fit in with them. It was complex perspective that resisted the extremes artists often find it necessary to incarnate—and generally, I don’t think audiences wanted to take the time to understand it. People just had no fucking clue what to do with Vivian Girls.

The group’s subsequent albums— Everything Goes Wrong (2009) and Share The Joy—were met with a similar combination of glowing praise and intense derision. Critics never seemed to get over their alleged “amateurism,” which, considering that none of them were actual amateurs, smacked of boring, run-of-the-mill sexism. Vivian Girls was always seen as more of a symbol—maybe of Brooklyn DIY, or the “Ridgewood scene,” or women in punk bands—than an actual band. Per a review of Everything Goes Wrong by Alex Young from Consequence of Sound: “As I read through the song titles, I start smiling to myself. I don’t know if it’s because I come up with a thousand ways to do clever and mean wordplay on the titles while writing this review, or if it’s the sheer childish joy of hearing three mildly exuberant Brooklyn indie Cindies once again have at it, lo-fi punkrock style on record. Believe me, during the time running up to the inclusion in my iPod and listening to the album, I’ve nearly penned the review.”

By the time they disbanded in 2014, they had never quite escaped the peat bog that is being a middling “buzz band.” Ramone had co-founded The Babies with Kevin Morby and eventually moved onto a solo career more heavily informed by her soft-rock influences; Goodman started a solo project called La Sera, which she now plays in with her husband Todd Wisenbaker; Koehler played drums in Best Coast for a short stint after leaving Vivian Girls, and she now helms the band Upset with former Hole drummer Patty Schemel.

Vivian Girls were hard to frame within the context of their scene. Their contemporaries in Brooklyn’s DIY scene—Crystal Stilts, Woods, Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Real Estate—tended to be mostly (if not all) male and didn’t share their ethos of Ramones-esque instrumental simplicity and unabashed poppiness. In a way, their lack of self-seriousness and heart-on-sleeve scrappiness feels more in line with Brooklyn’s current music scene, paving the way for bands like Human People and Tall Juan. A decade out, I think it’s becoming clearer that music’s misunderstanding and general underappreciation of Vivian Girls was one of the grossest injustices of their era. I know that Vivian Girls the band and Vivian Girls the album have remained especially close to my soul, giving me an example of accessible coolness and attainable femininity at a time when I needed it most. No matter their critical reception, Vivian Girls will live on forever in my heart—and on my first driver’s license.

Annie Fell is a writer based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Noisey US.