I was twelve in July of 1993, the summer of Gits frontwoman Mia Zapata’s murder- though I wouldn’t know of her for another six years . I was in my bedroom in Davis, California listening to Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, I spent the summer singing along to naughty explicit “Flower”, rehearsing a world-wearied pose for my imagined future conquests, aloof flannel-clad frontmen. Phair was also playing at something, though it’s hard to say what was the pose and what wasn’t; I could relate to that. Before the album came out she had changed a line in “Flower” from “I’ll fuck you and your girlfriend too” to “I’ll fuck you and your minions too.” When I sang along, I always mumbled “minions”, a word I’d never heard before. I would learn that minions was another word for the clumps of followers who barnacled to the popular kids. In high school, I found Sleater Kinney via a girl who accidentally double ordered their album and gave me her extra copy. Just like that, someone could change your life.
The first comment on a Youtube video of the Gits’ 1993 live performance of the song “Second Skin” is “forensic files brought me here.” Scrolling down, a later comment reads, “Mia taught the females that were fans a lot. I still pull my hood strings out of sweatshirts before I even consider wearing them.” How do you write about the rape and murder of Mia Zapata without exploiting her memory, or has exploitation become the point?
Her murder has been covered in a 2005 episode of the true crime tv series The Investigators titled “Death of a Rising Star” and a 2007 episode of Forensic Files titled “The Day the Music Died.” Most recently, in August of 2017 the podcast series “True Crime Garage” dedicated an episode to her story. The episode opens with the sound of a beer can cracking as two guys named Nic and The Captain open up the story of her murder by interrupting each other to explain to the listener that they were in bands in high school and college, too, and that it’s really not that hard to get a certain amount of local fame if you’re a talented musician with drive. But how are Nic & The Captain different from shows like “My Favorite Murder” where the female hosts sip wine and chat casually about murder? I would argue that embodiment is a different kind of buy-in.
A 2010 study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personal Science looking to find the answer as to why more women than men read true crime came to the answer that women use these stories as preparation for escape- but that doesn’t make sense of the fascination with women who didn’t survive- Manson murder victims, Black Dahlia victims. The title of the study is “Captured by True Crime: Why Are Women Drawn to Tales of Rap, Murder, and Serial Killers?” Even in the title, women are not responsible for their own interest, instead they are taken over by bloodlust. I suspect that female interest in true crime (I am using the term “female” as inclusively as possible here, although the study left readers to assume that the participants were cis) isn’t so much about escape but about validating the suspicion that living inside the female image is a lifelong high stakes negotiation with power in which the odds are not on your side. Female true crime fans understand that the only escape from the game of what you deserve based on who you are is in death.
“Second Skin” was released in 2000 on the live album Seafish Louisville, seven years after lead singer Mia Zapata was beaten and murdered on her way home from Comet Tavern, a bar in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Zapata was sexually assaulted, beaten, and choked to death with the cord from her hooded sweatshirt. Her murder has become a Pacific Northwest grunge urban legend, in part because the band was rumored to be in talks with Atlantic Records and on the verge of signing a deal. As a band, they remain forever frozen in their potential to be the next Nirvana. Mia is vaunted as a cult member of the 27 club, the posse forever united in that holy trifecta: young dead musicians. This year, when I read the articles and interviews celebrating the 25th anniversary of Exile in Guyville my mind turned to Mia Zapata and to the anniversary of a record that was never made.
I wouldn’t learn about The Gits until college, where I became my own version of the aloof boy who in middle school I couldn’t wait to date- a distant acerbic unapproachable poet who complained of boredom at every party but could not imagine leaving. This was before the internet was readily accessible; long vines of blue Ethernet wires sprouted out of the makeshift computer lab that a couple of kids ran out of an empty dorm room. The ceiling was tiled with the shiny side of free AOL disks and ashtrays accompanied sticky keyboards. Obscurity was still currency and I cashed in the trove of musical trivia and archly arcane taste that I’d hoarded away alone in my bedroom on a small group of young men who relished the intimacy of shared taste in part because it was one of the few intimacies that they allowed themselves. I learned from them that the only way to remain bound by it was to never acknowledge it as intimacy at all. This is how we became friends.
I coasted on this pose, the understanding that everything that was meaningful would be lost if we acknowledged it as meaningful. This as I understood it was the curse of young male affinities, which I mimicked to avoid confronting my own plentiful vulnerabilities. One of them was from Seattle and he introduced me to the Gits. They were punk but there was a bluesy rasp in Mia Zapata’s deep belting. The circumstances surrounding her death were a pointed reminder that no matter how much I stuffed my brain with record label trivia, my body would still be here and it would never be mine in the same way that the bodies of my male friends were theirs.
Liz Phair and Mia Zapata taught me very different lessons about my body, its power and the consequences. Mia became the bogeyman story for why you don’t leave a show alone, it was very real and very scary and in the adrenaline rush trample of girls to the front her legacy got lost underfoot. In Phair’s world, the consequences were emotional. She was aware of the cards she held as a small pretty white girl, which doesn’t mean that things always went her way. Exile in Guyville was a response to the Rolling Stone’s Exile on Main Street, it arrived at a time when female desire was another kind of obscure knowledge.
Zapata’s story is the flipside of Phair’s sultry sexuality, it’s the consequence female fans were warned of for leaving a club at night alone. You could see foreshadow to where we are today, a looming silhouette- that darkens the doorway of 2018. The shadows that we told ourselves were tricks of the light, the actions that we were taught to explain away to ourselves, have fed and grown in the cover time provided. Women speak openly now about how the man who’s walking you home from the club may be just as much of a threat as the lurkers in alleyways that his presence aims to shield you from.
In 1992, the year prior to Zapata’s murder and the release of Exile, Kim Gordon growled, “ I believe Anita Hill” on Sonic Youth’s “Youth Against Fascism.” Gordon was referring to the Senate hearings on the confirmation of Clarence Thomas as Supreme Court Justice, which were reopened when Hill’s private interview with the FBI, in which she accused Thomas of sexual harassment in the workplace, was leaked to the press. The Los Angeles Times reported that a second accuser, Angela Wright, was kept from testifying in a private deal reached between Senate Republicans and then Senate Judiciary Chair, Joe Biden. Rebecca Walker’s Jan 1992 essay in Ms. Magazine, Becoming Third Wave, “Let Thomas’ confirmation serve to remind you, as it did me, that the fight is far from over. Let this dismissal of a woman’s experience move you to anger.”
Time, the same element that made the long fruitless search for Zapata’s murder so painful, is what ultimately allowed for the arrest and trial of her killer. With time, technology advanced to the point where it was possible to find a DNA match for her assailant. In 2003 Jesus Mezquia, a fisherman in Florida, was arrested and charged with her murder. Time also advanced other narratives; Biden would go on to become the Vice President to the first African American President. The anniversary of Zapata’s murder is also about a twenty five year legacy of race and women’s bodies in performance- in testimony or on stage or choosing what to wear to work in the morning- the clock that we will continue to race long after 2018’s public reckoning determines that time is up.
Someone born in 1993 would be twenty-five now; the Riot Girl era is silmaultaneously being rediscovered and shelved, catalogued and enshrined in university collections while being unearthed by a younger generation and yet it’s difficult to claim that it’s aged well- its legacy naïvely ignored a good swath of the people it was intended to spotlight. When I’m standing at the front of a show I block the view of those who aren’t privileged enough to shove their way out of the periphery, and we all lose sight of who’s coming at us from behind.