For the last couple of years I’ve been involved in a book project called Women Make Noise.
Knowing that with the editor’s academic and punk background there would need to be some stringent analysis going on, I decided to write on the international currents in women’s punk and hardcore music making and related activisms, but making a conscious choice not to employ riot-grrrl as the convenient ground zero or flashpoint for this. I chose to do that because truly, for me personally, it never was.
I was never a riot-grrrl.
That might seem obvious given that I was six years old in 1992, but the persistent reverberations and reincarnations of the thing have meant that its been a crucial identity for pockets of teen girls ever since, recycled over and over in suburban bedrooms long before tumblr.
Geographically I easily could have been, growing up in the city that spawned Helen Love, not far from where bands like the Manic Street Preachers had injected glitter and radical politics into a burgeoning welsh rock scene. Yet somehow I found my way to hardcore punk and metal gigs in pub back rooms instead, and as a young teen quickly self-designated a (determinedly gender-neutral or at least ‘not a girl’) hardcore kid, so I wanted nothing to do with hairclips or lipgloss or any of the hyperfemme tropes employed in the usual riot-grrrl aesthetic which did not speak to me at all.
I looked back on this whole process while writing the chapter, which took its mandate to ostensibly shed light on forgotten or at least ‘under theorised’ moments in punker history. To anyone with a knowledge or interest in girl punk referencing riot-grrrl in its context as a moment, a swelling, within punk history, would make total sense, and yet so many published books on the matter would paint that moment as the first time that women had seized power in punk, some kind of failed revolution without precedent, that imploded due to media glare and infighting. Noone would try to pretend RG wasn’t hugely significant, but the overreliance on it when historicising punk rock and women’s involvement in it is something that’s irked me for a long time.
So I tried instead to firstly, state these tensions up front, and quickly debunk the idea that punk was a ‘from the west to the rest’ phenomenon by waxing lyrical about Chute de Esperma, barely known girl punk from Tenerife in the early 80s, and to somehow draw a ragged line between Chalk Circle (dedicated hardcore women making music outside the lines) Tozibabe (a different sound thousands of miles away, bursting with the same defiance.) I wanted to loop in the subjectivities of women going to shows in the late 80s, as give them their due for battling on in a time that’s remembered as being so resolutely male. One of my major reasons for this was to use a quote I’d always remembered from a really short, small interview from an overall not very good book about straight edge and the Anthrax in Connecticut, published by Revelation.
In it, a woman named Glynis Hull Rochelle is asked about her time taking money on the door of the Anthrax, and she responds politely curtly throughout, mostly about dating Ray Cappo, until the very end where she finally states “had I ever said one hundredth about women’s rights or feminism as those boys said about straight edge, I would have been burnt at the stake as a castrating dyke witch bitch.” End interview. So intense! This, in a book that was in no way about women or women’s participation in hardcore burnt itself into my brain when I first read it and spoke to me so much, it seemed like a tiny peak behind all the bluster and bullshit. I second guessed myself a lot in this process, and began to realise that a jumped-up polemic about why I wore such baggy jeans was not going to pass muster, so I scrapped most of my notes and began to interview as many women as I could to get some proper context to make sure I wasn’t just extrapolating wildly or speaking only from my own experience. What follows are some outtakes that I couldn’t use in the book for reasons of space, but are conversations I feel really excited to have had and that I hope to publish in full properly at some point.
Jes Skolnik: “One of the most major problems that I’ve been experiencing regularly as long as I’ve been playing in bands/booking shows/involved in the punk scene as well as feminist activism (I’ve been doing both since my mid-teens in varying capacities – currently, in my early thirties, I’m in a couple of bands and feminist/labor organizing collectives and I organized a major protest that drew over 2000 people a couple of months ago) is that there are a lot of people who will say they’re committed to something but, when it comes time to actually do the work, will drop the ball. I find myself as an organizer and a person who books shows relentlessly pestering people and following up with them to make sure things actually get done and people actually show up when and where they’re supposed to; there are a few core people in each group who always do this. It’s very often female-identified folks who end up doing these things, perhaps because we’re socially charged with caretaking in a way that male-identified folks aren’t.”
Stephie Cristol, Hysterics, on the phrase “I just don’t like female voices” as it pertains to punk and hardcore: “I’ve never heard anyone who actually knows anything about music ever say that, so I don’t take it seriously, but if any of those people actually care enough to ask themselves why they “don’t like female voices,” I’d be interested to hear the results. I just don’t buy it that it’s as simple as “just not liking them.” For several years as a teenager I “didn’t like female voices” either, and I only figured out later that that reaction was totally a by-product of my own internalized sexism, or resentment toward being born into a gender that didn’t match that of my musical heroes at the time. I will say that a lot of boys are protective of their boys-club hardcore scene and the voice of ‘the other’ could sound threatening to the sacred dude-circle.”
Adrienne Droogas, Spitboy, on confronting sexism at shows: “There was one show were were playing with Jawbreaker and while we were playing, this guy kept running to the front and lifting up his shirt and screaming “show me your tits”. There was an insane amount of people at the show and so I don’t know if the other Spitwomen were seeing what was going on, but I saw him do it once, I saw him do it twice, and on the third time I threw down the microphone, literally jumped off the stage (which was a few feet high) and landed right next to him. He saw me coming and was turning to run away and I grabbed his arm, swung him around, and started talking to him. The Spitwomen stopped playing and I have never heard a crowd of hundreds of people get so totally, utterly, and completely silent. I held his arm and was right in his face and explained to him why his actions were awful. What he was perpetuating by treating women this way. How he had just made me feel. In the silence of the room, a few people walked over and asked me if I wanted them to beat him up and I said no, but I asked that he be taken outside and not allowed back into the club. He was escorted out and I climbed back up on the stage and we continued our set. Honestly, I have never heard hundreds of people get that quite that quickly. It was kind of eerie.”
Suzy Quaalude, The Braphsmears, on musicianship and expectations in early Portland punk: “People said stuff like, “You’re the best girl bass player I know!” Which is a compliment…I guess! Of course there were a couple of very good bassists around that I wasn’t as good as, like Glenn Estes (Poison Idea). So I had no illusions that I was “the” best, but that whole “…for a girl” addition held an implication that I wouldn’t ever be as good as somebody like Glenn. That might have been true for whatever reason–Glenn was really freaking good–but not because of my gender. It was frustrating for me as a musician because I felt like I’d always be sitting at the kids’ table no matter how good I got. Dave Corboy (Sado-Nation) was extremely annoying about that stuff. Of course his problem wasn’t my gender; with him it was more that I was too young have really been a part of ’60s music, so he kept saying I didn’t understand music. I’d been studying music since I was seven, so I actually did understand it pretty well! I could tell we were going off in new directions musically, not following the twelve-bar blueprint, but it was intentional.“
Adrienne again, on punk rock and ‘the spectacle’: We never saw ourselves as being viewed as a spectacle. Maybe we were being naive, but we only felt like punk women playing punk music. Discussions about rape and abuse would come up whenever someone in the band felt like sharing their thoughts or perspectives on it. When we were writing out the set list together, someone in the band would say something like “I have something I’d like to say before Ultimate Violations” but we wouldn’t share it beforehand. We’d share it on stage. At one show, I went through the audience and I counted out every third woman in the audience and asked that third woman to raise her hand. I made my way through the whole audience and ended up counting through the members of Spitboy and raising my own hand. Once I’d finished and I had a room full of every third woman with her hand raised, I spoke about the rape statistics that one in every third woman gets raped. That we were looking at those statistics right in front of us. I made it clear that I was not saying that any of these women had been attacked and that I hope nobody would ever get attacked, but that these are the kind of fears that women have to face every day. It was a powerful way to show how overwhelming the issue of rape is in our society.”