god save the queen: female punks on the rise
Punk may be dead, but women are resurrecting its raw sound and energy for a new generation.
2014 was a big year for punk. And much of the most promising work came from bands comprised of or led by women. Perfect Pussy, lead by Meredith Graves, released their chaotic and brutally honest debut full-length album, Say Yes to Love. Delightfully old-school pop-punk duo Slutever got everyone excited with their song White Flag. White Lung released their snarling, emotionally charged Deep Fantasy. And supergroup Childbirth embraced punk's brash sense of humour with I Only Fucked You as a Joke. Comebacks happened, too: The Muffs released Whoop Dee Doo and Sleater-Kinney made a very welcome return with No Cities to Love. "Mark down 2014 as the year that women tore down the punk-boy clubhouse and erected a big middle finger in its place," wrote Anika Pyle, lead singer of the punk outfit Chumped.
Punk hasn't existed in the mainstream in decades, how could it? The music industry has become too slick to allow elements of true punk to thrive. Grunge was the closest we got, but the take-it-or-leave-it honesty of punk, but for decades punk has been an underground concern, kept alive and evolving away from the charts, in small venues on the toilet circuit and with only the odd band achieving much success.
So why is punk coming back into fashion now, and why are so many of the most exciting bands leading that charge fronted by or comprised entirely of women? "A punk scene where women are present in all areas and at all levels challenges a patriarchal society to its core — so does the presence of underrepresented groups like LGBTQ and people of colour. To rock the status quo you have to amplify the voices of those who have been silenced, shake that sexist, homophobic, racist foundation that has a death grip on American society," says Alice Bag, lead singer of one of L.A. punk's early breakout bands, The Bags.
Punk is indeed about more than the music. It's an uprising, and a venue for people with something to say. The rallying cry of punk today comes most strongly from people who are striking out against injustice. And in 2015, there's a sense of frustrated disbelief that the male-dominated punk scene still doesn't seem to see female musicians as equals. Perfect Pussy's Meredith Graves doesn't see this as a place for women to prove themselves, but a problem that men should be stepping up to fix: "I've busted my ass for more than a decade in an attempt to be viewed as an equal. I'm not doing that work anymore. I could work until my fingers fall off and it still wouldn't convince 90 percent of the male-dominated punk scene that I deserve to be treated like something other than a curiosity. The impetus to change can no longer be placed on women."
Women have been seen as more of a rarity in punk since the get-go. Of the early days, Bag says "I felt liberated. I felt like it was a time when punk was open to interpretation, anything that wasn't mainstream and was creative and innovative could be described as punk. I felt sexy, powerful and genderless onstage."
Vivienne Westwood also stood out, helping shape the look and attitude of the genre with Sex, the London boutique she owned with Malcom McLaren owned, and through her connection to the Sex Pistols. Other women have popped up every now and then among the masses of male musicians. Along with iconic musicians like Chrissie Hynde, Siouxsie Sioux, Debbie Harry, Poly Styrene, Lydia Lunch, The Slits and Kathleen Hanna, there were party-throwers like Pleasant Gehman and Hellin Killer who went on to become important artists, writers, managers and promoters. These women made incredibly vital contributions to punk and their work has been recognised, but it is almost always compared to other women in punk. Their work can and should be held up against the work of men.
That epiphany still hasn't hit this male-dominated scene, 30 years later. Bands with female members are still lumped together for that reason, and the industry thinks that's progress. When Megan Seling talked to the U.S.'s Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman about the lack of female punk bands on the bill, he pointed to the Shiragirl stage, the festival's stage for "girl bands." Asked for her thoughts on the girl-band branding that many female musicians have spoken out against, Graves said, "It's nuanced. It's only obnoxious when these qualifiers are appropriated and used by men. Conversations about language come up in every marginalised community and it comes down to the idea that dominant, privileged groups simply can't have everything. You don't get to decide how we're defined as artists, and you don't get to decide what we're called."
It is completely senseless that female musicians are seen separately, especially today. So many of the genre's most promising bands have women in them, but that's not their secret to success — the strength of their music is. Many of these bands aren't setting out to fight a feminist war with their music but, in the spirit of punk, they're playing in circumstances that need to improve. "I don't purposefully make a statement about my gender, and my music definitely isn't about proving anything to men who want to box me into a corner," Graves explains.
While plenty of critics will still blindly compare a band like Perfect Pussy to a band like The Slits simply because uh, they're both girl bands? more writers are starting to talk about these bands simply as talented contributors to the punk scene. Proof? Pitchfork's "11 Very Best Punk Songs of 2014" and Billboard's "Top 10 New Pop-Punk Bands" dart back and forth from guy and girl-led punk bands without any emphasis on gender. Each song earns its place on the list through its musical value, not its novelty "a girl sings this!" factor. Listen to White Lung, listen to Slutever, listen to all of these bands and you can get a feel for how thrilling it was when punk first exploded: they're raw, fresh, and good. And they have something to say.
Text Courtney Iseman
Photography Paul Hudson