The Voice of the Pacific Northwest: A Musical Retrospective

A woman passionately singing into a microphone; this captures the style of iconic Portland punk bands. Illustration by Sophie Locker.

In the past several decades, Portland, Oregon has made its name as an indie Mecca. Grungy, gloomy, and staunchly DIY, the city’s vibrant underground and independent music scene has continually proven itself a breeding ground for talent, oftentimes enough to break into mainstream success. The city—in creative trifecta with Seattle and Olympia, Washington—was instrumental in the development of the now ubiquitous indie-rock sound. A whole host of iconic musicians have found their start here: from Elliott Smith, to Pink Martini, to Aminé, Portland’s musical history is storied, unique, and deeply influential. 

Though Portland was not without its musical innovation in the early to mid twentieth century—particularly in the vein of jazz clubs and psychedelic rock—what we may think of as Portland’s musical identity first began to emerge in the late seventies and early eighties with a number of hardcore groups. Notably, the band the Wipers was cited by Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain as a major early influence on his work. (Though the story has been warped by time and retelling, local legend also states that Cobain met his future wife and Hole frontwoman, Courtney Love, on the floor of Portland’s famous Satyricon nightclub).

Just as Kurt Cobain, pioneer of grunge, was influenced by the Portland rock scene, by the late eighties to early nineties the local grunge scene was thriving and evolving. Alongside Nirvana regularly opening for The Dharma Bums in town, Everclear formed in 1991, releasing its debut album World of Noise in 1993.

With the nineties also came the birth of one of the Pacific Northwest’s most significant musical movements: Riot Grrrl. The female fronted, profoundly feminist and proudly queer punk genre found its start in Olympia, Washington with the likes of Bratmobile, Bikini Kill, and Huggy Bear, but quickly found creative footing in Portland as well. “The early days of Riot Grrrl, […] that was definitely a political movement,” says Portia Sabin, former head of Kill Rock Stars, an independent Pacific Northwest record label that was on the ground floor of the movement, housing foundational female punk artists including Bratmobile, Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, and Huggy Bear. The label also signed artists such as Elliott Smith, The Decemberists, Xiu Xiu, and many other household names. “Girls were not treated equally in shows,” Sabin explains, “and a lot of the women in the Riot Grrrl movement and on our label were really passionate about being a woman in a band and making it clear that women could play music as well as guys.” 

While Riot Grrrl was no doubt a product of the treatment of women within the rock world, it also tended to speak more broadly to a sense of female vindication and rage. The genre is guttural and angry in its vocals, distinctly grunge in its production, and places utmost emphasis on womanhood, girlhood, sexuality, life under the patriarchy, and all that falls between. Riot Grrrl was more than a sound. Kathleen Hanna, the Bikini Kill frontwoman that would become a figurehead for the movement as a whole, would regularly call women to the stage during shows, passing around a microphone so that they may share their experiences. Riot Grrrls notoriously proliferated their thought through an iconic zine culture, pushing for the social and political liberation of women through its distinctive DIY visuals. At its core, the movement was an expression of the forces facing the feminism of that day.

Of course, the Portland music scene stretched beyond the realm of Riot Grrrl. In 1994, a year after the release of Bikini Kill’s Pussy Whipped, Heatmiser’s Elliott Smith debuted with the release of Roman Candle, a nine-song album that would mark the start of his career as a solo artist. Within the following year, he would sign with Kill Rock Stars, releasing his self-titled album in 1995. His music was whispery, soft, and sensitive, standing out against the dirty grunge style so prevalent at the time, a quality that Smith expressed nervousness about but eventually became an essential part of his distinctive style. Though Smith tragically took his own life in 2003 following a long battle with addiction and mental illness, the impression left by his renowned six studio album discography as well as his legacy as a local darling persists.

As long standing as the city’s music history is, Sabin does express concerns about the future of music in Portland. “Gentrification has made it really difficult for people to afford to live here,” she says. “I mean, I remember when I first moved to Portland in 2007 most of the bands I knew lived in houses that were rented, and they could go on tour for a few months and sublet their room to some other musician, and come home and work in a coffee shop when they weren’t on the road and actually live. I don’t know that that’s very much of an option these days.” With the skyrocketing cost of living and the seemingly unstoppable creep of gentrification, there is a real question of the Portland music world’s ability to stick to its working class roots. Additionally, true to Oregon history, the scene has been continually exclusionary toward artists of color. Riot Grrrl, as the Pacific Northwest’s premiere punk genre, has been frequently criticized for centering its activism around the gripes of middle class, college-educated white women. In response to this lack of intersectionality, a subculture dubbed “Sista Grrrl Riot” emerged in the mid-90s, intending to create space for the black women sidelined by the often suburban Riot Grrrl movement. At the forefront of this action were veteran artists like Tamar-Kali Brown and Honeychild Coleman. Still, Sista Grrrl Riot was never able to receive the same level of acceptance and notoriety as its mainstream white-dominated cousin. 

More modernly, Portland and its police department have repeatedly engaged in measures that appear designed to drive out the city’s hip-hop subculture: police raids regarding suspected “gang activity” at shows, forced closure of hip-hop clubs, and disproportionately strict regulation has suppressed the black-led genre’s ability to get a strong foothold in the city. Portland has prided itself in its intertwining of alternative politics and alternative music, which begs the question of whose voices are being heard in the medium. As Sabin puts it, “What does it mean for the future of our art in this country if it’s only going to be made by rich kids?

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