We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

The ad is a blur of seaside frolics and sub-Prada acid pastels. A bored, insolent female voice drones menacingly about “V” and the bitchenness of “V,” whatever that (those?) is, but on the screen, young teenage girls cavort in a summery fashion, wearing bright, solid-color tops. Only the most decorous hint of grunge—a paint-peeling background wall, perhaps, a rosy bisque pout—indicates that we are in the land of the aesthetically risqué.

It took a couple of viewings to figure out what patently fake “riot grrrl” music is selling so aggressively on prime-time TV. It’s Target’s spring line of girls’, missy, and junior shirts; the “V” intoned so despairingly would be the shape of the neckline.

Target is one of the pioneers of the nobody-pays-retail-anymore era; its hip quotient is approximately -3. For this advertisement, a bouquet of spring yellows, greens, and blues, any background music would have done—personally, I await the “Hellhound on My Trail” line of skorts and midis for fall—without skewing the visuals. And this bunk punk doesn’t. Smiling blonde in a lime T-shirt, sour, affectless vocals: At a glance, the whole package seems to make sense.

The only weird thing about the ad is that whoever designed it decided to go with his own faux foxcore tune, made to order so that the fashion emphasis would get full play. It’s jarring to realize, as you listen, that this disaffected, sophisticated vocal is waxing all weary and rebellious about V-necks. Surely a genuine Fluffy or Bikini Kill or Seven-Year Bitch composition about, well, weariness or rebellion would close the cognizance gap? But that would mean, to believers in grunge authenticity, a worse fate—righteous Olympia, Wash., babes shilling for Target.

This should be a sad commentary on the devaluation of the riot grrrl scene, but it’s not. The so-called movement was always a commercial proposition, tricked up as genuine by the complicity of frustrated girl bands, ‘zine writers, and scenesters with a head full of post-feminist complaint and no one to listen. In a wrongheaded attempt to “own” stereotyped femininity, the riot grrrl logo was a pink-crayon scrawl, the kinderwhore look, Kim Gordon’s damaged teddy bears (by way of Mike Kelley), “RAPE” and “SLUT” announced via Magic Marker on the bare bellies of clubgoers.

Not only were the movement’s trappings logically fuzzy—what is writing “RAPE” on your stomach supposed to prove to potential perpetrators?—but, because they never broke free from the culture that imposed them (since these young white girls were inextricably products of the power culture; American feminists have always been), the movement itself never gained subculture legitimacy. Homosexuals may have bought “queer” back at a bargain rate and are still pulling in lucrative returns, but a slut is still a slut in high schools across the nation. Inadvertently, the young women who thought they had a revolution on their hands were actually surrendering to the dictators; both sides had drawn up the same terms.

When the larger world sees a subculture, it’s actually looking at money—how much the movement has made (enough to get into the public eye and piss off its founders), and how much there is yet to be made by the mainstream. No one ever made a dime off riot grrrls, least of all the grrrls themselves, until Alanis Morissette made female empowerment sound indecisive, hard-rock, and Canadian. She’s the perfect vehicle for a capitulative message; she made only the weakest pretense of being on her sex’s side. It’s telling that Alanis’ first hit posed ostentatiously as a pro-girl rant while quietly promising their boyfriends a back-row blowjob. And no one was going to put Courtney Love’s name on Versace’s fit list without her cleaning up. Literally: She could be shooting Black Cat into her eyeball every half-hour, and the editors of Vogue wouldn’t care as long as her roots blended and her lipstick wasn’t smeary.

So it’s been proved that in order for the riot grrrl movement to have an impact in the mainstream, it must be something else. Target understands that perfectly; to the company, it’s a way to get teenage girls’ attention when you want to sell them shirts.

The process of commodification is the same no matter what’s being commodified—Tiger Woods is undergoing the same regimen of diffusion and concentration as any subculture of the last half-century; he has become a logo. For true believers in the cause/person/style posing as the Next Big Thing, this most painful aspect of this process is personal: The Thing is trivialized. One’s unique connection to the Thing is revealed as a sham; therefore one’s uniqueness is a sham.

It’s comforting, then, to construct important, political reasons for this process, reasons unsullied by financial concerns. The still-prevalent myth about punk rock was that it was jeered at and despised by mainstream culture because it was too radical and frightening. Anyone who still cherishes this powerful memory of his or her past self (and almost every aging punker does, including the scene’s memoirists) must have blocked out how happy Madison Ave. was to exploit punk as a cash cow almost as useful as disco. It was only spring or maybe early summer of 1977 when Macy’s ran a full-page ad in the New York Times featuring a male model broodingly dangling an electric guitar (white Stratocaster?) and wearing a sleeveless black T-shirt, a 3-inch lozenge of which had been neatly torn and probably just as neatly hemmed—you wouldn’t want to get a rip in your brand-new Macy’s shirt—with the hole held together with a single safety pin. Over one nipple, in white stencil-look lettering, the shirt helpfully read, “punk.”

Punk wasn’t rejected, it was dropped, for the only reason it could have been: It wasn’t recouping. By the time the Sex Pistols made their strange back-road visit to America, they were in their second incarnation—bored, tired, acting up, and starring the highly visible liability Sid Vicious. Aside from the stupid T-shirt, all America knew about the movement was that the people involved vomited a lot. Americans weren’t unwilling to put the Pistols on the market, no more unwilling than Malcolm McLaren himself had been; we just had a harder time of it.

Remember, too, that whatever New York’s good intentions or Los Angeles’ inspiriting surge, punk rock as it was fabricated in London started in retail, specifically with fashion. McLaren’s phony and mercenary posturing tied in organically, accidentally, with the frustration of the young English working class. In his autobiography, Boy George gripes about how he and his grotty friends couldn’t afford 60-pound mohair sweaters from Sex, home of authentic punk rock; they’d have to run up their own knockoffs from cheap or stolen swatches. In their Westwood wannabes, these kids would later become famous for playing shiny new wave. Culture Club, Haysi Fantayzee, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Billy Idol—exactly the type of feel-good radio-ready pop charged with debasing “real” punk. The irony is gorgeous—and inevitable. English teeny-bop-mag journalist David Rimmer wrote an excellent little book about Culture Club whose title whispers in my dreams: Like Punk Never Happened.

Growing up is hard, and growing up female is particularly hard. But that is all riot grrrlism was ever about, which was why its distinctive marks were all but indistinguishable from the ones imposed by the system in power—infantilism, exaggerated sexuality, a collectivism of intent, behavior, and aesthetics; no movement was ever so efficiently designed to marginalize its adherents while claiming revolution. All it takes to notice that this thing is merely a ghettoized sideline to another, much more successful commodity—grunge—is a couple of years of growth. And if Target hasn’t sold you a T-shirt by that time, you can’t blame them for trying.—Arion Berger