There are memes of clueless models awkwardly posed with guitars they have no idea how to hold, let alone play. Very unlike singer-songwriter-guitarist Kat Bjelland of Babes in Toyland, Crunt, and Katastrophy Wife, who turns fifty this week. She has often looked like a model and really does know how to play her Rickenbacker 425.
Kat is also remembered for her early ‘90s “kinderwhore” look, of which she, Courtney Love, and The Divinyls’ Chrissy Amphlett were co-creatrixes. I’m not prolonging the War of the Schmatte over who invented the look first. It was easy to pull together if you had access to a good but cheap vintage clothing store and wore a single-digit U.S. clothing size. Fabrics like velvet and that one weird thick ‘70s polyester blend were almost indestructible, and if you actively sought out twee infantilizing styles, you could buy a wardrobe of dresses for under $50. Add some maryjanes, MAC Red lipstick, and voila.
The irony-filled look was cute on some girls but made the rest of us look insane. Like a clone of Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, which a fair number of women did not find to be a drawback. I was old enough to realize that those outfits, outside the bedroom anyway, would have made me resemble a strung-out escaped mental patient with a cosplay fetish the morning after the worst Halloween party ever
Kat said earlier this year:
I was just wearing my clothes—I mean I’m dressing up of course, but I’ve always just bought thrift store vintage clothes, because they used to be less expensive, and pretty. And believe it or not, dresses are really good to wear on stage, they allow you to move your legs and kick and they’re really easy to wear.
Kat actually looked fantastic in kitten heels, tiny plastic barrettes, and Peter Pan collars. More important, however, was how very angry the blonde, fragile-looking china doll with the guitar sounded when she sang, screamed, and snarled. Kat formed Babes in Toyland in Minneapolis in 1987 with drummer Lori Barbero and bassist Michelle Leon (replaced by Maureen Herman), and the band, who had been inspired by Frightwig, in turn inspired girl bands like Bikini Kill and Jack-off Jill, though they never identified themselves as riot grrrls. The band’s energetic performances on the ‘90 Sonic Youth European tour and the ‘93 Lollapalooza tour (with Dinosaur, Jr., Primus, Arrested Development, Rage Against the Machine, Alice in Chains, et al) were remarkable. Kat’s delivery was intense and atonal, with her lyrics referencing fairytales (“Handsome and Gretel”), pain, rage, beauty, betrayal, and abusive parents, not sung with sweet, breathy, unsure vocals, but with a gut-wrenching maenad’s growl. But then there would be a joyful cover like “We Are Family.” You got the feeling she had a dog-eared copy of Anne Sexton’s complete works in her vintage handbag. NME called them “the true heirs of The Stooges’ unvarnished tumult.”
Kat described to journalist Andrea Swensson the influence her band had on other female musicians:
...bands would come up and say, like Jack-off Jill, “You inspired us to play.” And it’s really nice. It makes me kind of shy when they say that, but I mean I saw a lot of girl bands, because they would inevitably stick us with all the girl bands in every town, good or bad.
Sometimes they were pretty bad, but I don’t care. It was good to have women play. Now there’s tons of women bands! It’s amazing. I mean—I just want to make this point—I didn’t really think about purposefully making it all girls in a band. I wanted musicians who didn’t know how to play very well so then you could create a sound together, you know, all together at once. I played in bands with guys and stuff in Portland, and never really thought about it, but boy, other people sure make you aware of it.
Babes in Toyland were championed by John Peel and Neal Karlen, the author of Babes in Toyland: The Making and Selling of a Rock and Roll Band, but they barely lasted the entire ‘90s. Their break-up was long and drawn-out, with closure finally arriving in 2002 following legal wrangling over the use of the band’s name. Kat’s band Katastrophy Wife released two albums before Kat decided to take a break from music, concentrating on raising her son, recovering from mental health problems, and taking herbology classes. She says she is ready to get back into music, with at least an EP’s worth of material ready. There have been rumors of reunions in the past, but according to bassist Maureen Herman’s recent Facebook posts, Babes in Toyland will finally reunite in 2014.
Babes in Toyland, “Bruise Violet”: