By Kris Smith
The media regularly bemoan a lack of politics in music, compared to a mythical 60s/70s/80s ‘good old days’ – only to salute as an exception the occasional gobby indie-boy band trying to kickstart their career with some token rebellious rhetoric. Meanwhile, every year there are more fiercely-politicised, intelligent and committed activists getting busy on the DIY feminist punk scene, far from the plaudits and pitfalls of the spotlight. In the first part of a new series of interviews, LOUD WOMEN meets them and asks them some of the questions that the music industry won’t.
#1 Ren Aldridge (Petrol Girls)
What made you decide to use your songwriting to express political viewpoints?
I don’t think it was a deliberate decision when I started doing it, it just made sense because music is what politicised me. Going to punk shows as a teenager introduced me to antifascist and anticapitalist politics. Then when I started Petrol Girls it was motivated by feeling like a feminist politics wasn’t really present in the scene I was part of. Turns out there was shitloads of other DIY feminist punk happening in other scenes but I didn’t find most of it until we started gigging.
Now my reasons for continuing to express politics through music are more deliberate. I see ideas like the gender binary and nationalism as being continually produced and maintained by culture so culture makes sense to me as a battleground, as a point where these dominant ideologies might be destabilised. I think words are important – so many of the (shit) ideas our lives are organised around are just stories in the end and writing and ‘expressing’ words is something I can do.
Do you use songs as tools to put across prefigured messages – or is it more that you self-express in general through music, with politics just one aspect of that?
It’s probably a mixture. I pretty much see everything as political. Like, if you’re not challenging dominant power structures then you’re just reinforcing them. I don’t really see this neutral ground a lot of people––mostly white dudes––claim to stand on. It suggests a level playing field that frankly doesn’t exist.
Most of our songs come from a place of anger, and that tends to be political if you search for its roots. Some songs, like ‘Touch Me Again’, have literally grown from a demo chant so I guess that’s pretty prefigured! Others, and most of what we write now, grow pretty organically, and I find political aspects of a song as it takes shape, which then continue shaping it.
Is the function of politics in music to affirm views within a reciprocal social group, or convert – or at least converse with – a wider public?
I think this question is one of the reasons I’m back at uni this year. Punk can be very ‘preaching to the converted’. Political voices are necessary within it because it can be a self-congratulatory hypocritical pile of wank sometimes. There is always work to do within music. But I don’t think music is going to bring down the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy alone. It’s certainly not going to solve climate change.
‘Converting’ is an interesting word, and an idea I’m wary of. I went to a workshop at the Refugee and Migrant conference out in Hamburg a couple of winters ago on how to ‘support’ those kind of struggles as a European. One of the points that came across was how deeply a Christian missionary kind of attitude permeates a lot of charitable efforts. Maybe the idea of ‘converting’ fits in with that. We talked a lot about the difference between solidarity and charity. I think it’s more about seeing how other people’s struggles connect with our own and building bridges, than like, ‘showing someone the light’ (vomit).
There are various ways that a performer’s politics might not communicate to an audience, but you make a point of speaking between songs to reinforce the message. Did that come naturally, in terms of the confidence needed? Is it to break the ice, to break down barriers with a crowd, or to clarify – or all of those?
Young women with strong political convictions tend to be ignored, patronised, or dismissed as a bit mental, or at least that was my experience. Suddenly once you’re holding a mic, people take you seriously (which is one of the most laughable aspects of the political music community). I felt that difference in reception, and took every chance I got to speak about the things I think are important from a position where its much harder for men to shout me down. From the stage is a pretty weird place to speak about emancipatory politics, though. I guess it’s also about keeping a present tense connection with what the songs are about. Repetition can numb things sometimes. Songs can grow and change in relevance if you keep up an active relationship to them.
The success of someone like Billy Bragg – approachably media-friendly, active in campaigns (albeit mild, non-threatening ones) – might suggest that in terms of politics-in-music, the music can actually be of secondary importance. Is music just one aspect of what you do?
I don’t really like answering this kind of stuff because I don’t want Petrol Girls to benefit from other things that band members do politically, but then I also believe in using that platform, but not if the benefit to us outweighs the benefit to the cause – I’m not sure about it to be honest. I do think we all have the potential to use music networks in some very practical ways to support causes – using touring vans to shift donations and supplies to refugee camps, for example. In fairness, I’ve not been very active lately because of some other heavy shit I have going on at the moment, and pretty badly burn out.
Is there a pressure that comes with being known as a political musician? And is there a balance to strike between work on the one hand, and fun and self-care on the other?
OK, I have been writing myself around in circles trying to work out how honestly I want to answer this question. Firstly, I’m really lucky to have had incredible support from other women in political bands who, just, get it. And I think, because of conversations I’ve had with a few of them lately, and the pressure they’ve felt, I’d like to be pretty open about it. Most of them have even more heavy shit going on and you’d never even know. What people present on stage and the internet is never the full story. I’m becoming an increasingly private person and I don’t feel like sharing everything I go through with the internet (which is absolutely not to say that is an invalid way of dealing with stuff, it just isn’t my way). I also think I give off a very different impression of myself on stage to who I really am … but basically I’m not coping with the pressure at all, and I haven’t for a long time. I also don’t want pity – I hate feeling pitied and that’s a big reason why I’m hesitating.
I was ready to give up by the end of the summer, but then we went on tour with Dream Nails and I learnt so much, just in that one week, about ways that I might actually be able to make touring as a political band sustainable. Petrol Girls are on a semi-break whilst I’m back at uni for a year and I’m determined to use that time to sort my shit out. I am grumpily coming round to the point that self-care is necessary to sustain political activism and touring in a political band. And that it isn’t––to quote Dream Nails actually––all about bubble baths. So the two things I’m working on are boundaries and resilience.
I chat with people about sexual violence and mental health after pretty much every single show and I kind of feel a bit like a garbage facility trying to process all the scene and wider society’s disgusting violent shit.
So many people are going through, or have been through, such horrendous shit. And I want to help, I really really do, but I don’t think I can help in that way anymore. I end up in these states where just replying to a message feels like more than I can bare, and I’ve lost touch with a lot of friends from being on tour so much and not having the energy to just reply. I don’t think I can have those conversations anymore. But I also don’t want to leave a hole – make people feel stuff with our music then not follow that up with some kind of support; that would feel like just capitalising on these struggles. So I’m working out what can be done there before we start touring again, what we can signpost, etc. Then resilience I guess is what I prefer to think about instead of self-care. Janey Dream Nails taught me about the four principles (lol we sound like a cult, FEMINIST PUNK IS A CULT *mad cackling*): adaptability, confidence, purpose, community. I need to build resilience because I reached a point where I felt unable to deal with any kind of criticism; completely brittle. I need to get my bounce back to be able to be meaningfully reflective and accountable, not just shattered (in every sense) when someone points out I’m doing something wrong.
So that’s what I’m working on my end, but there is stuff I’d appreciate from other people as well. I thought it was just me being oversensitive and useless but I’ve spoken to others in a similar position, and now actually I do think the expectations placed on us are unfair. I want to research this more, but from the conversations I’ve had, I see a totally disproportionate amount of emotional labour expected of women/queer/‘feminine’ people compared with men in political bands. Men get applauded for managing to not be creeps, or for the one time they called out another creep, whereas this is just expected and often demanded of feminists in bands. It’s nobodies fault and I’m not saying that applause or those demands are wrong in and of themselves, I just think its worth pointing out, because its part of a society-wide labour imbalance in terms of emotional work. But then, as I said, I do think it’s important to be held accountable, especially when claiming terms like feminist. I was actually thinking about dropping ‘feminist’ as a label because I don’t think I can live up to everyone’s expectations of what a feminist band should be. I guess what I’m asking, is for feminists in bands to be treated with a little more empathy and understanding from our community, and as humans who will make mistakes, and who are trying, in the context of a patriarchal world and music scene thats hurting us as well. I can only speak for myself, but I make the music that I need to hear, because I’m not doing too great either!
I want touring to be fun again, and I’m not going to feel guilty about wanting that anymore. I want to get myself back in a head space where I can enjoy meeting people, staying up all night talking and having mad adventures. I miss that version of myself.
Can we make any distinction between big-P and small-P politics – e.g. perhaps state Austerity cf. intersectionality – or is it inseparable, on the principle that the personal is political?
I guess even if you just consider that example, state Austerity disproportionately affects the people who experience intersecting forms of oppression so, ultimately, no. But, something I am scared of, but trying to, write about is an idea of looking both ways. I think identity politics are hugely important. I don’t think they are everything, especially for someone like me who only really experiences oppression as a woman, and privilege in every other aspect of my life. I find the way the term intersectionality is used sometimes defensive and inward looking to the point of not seeing past ourselves as individuals. I think intersectionality is vital, as a way of positioning ourselves within wider struggles, and understanding other’s positions; appreciating why some people react with more emotion to a political conversation because they are actually living what to you might be more of an abstract concept. But yeah, to answer your question, no, everything is so interconnected.
What are the primary political issues we face, now, in the UK and globally?
The primary battle that a lot of us are facing is just surviving, and sometimes holding to account the (mostly) men that have assaulted and/or abused us and/or our friends. I am livid about the amount of energy and life this has taken from me personally over the past few years, and I wrote about that at the end of my chapter for Nasty Women, which is a brilliant collection of essay’s by women on their experiences of being a woman in the 21st century. Reading all the varied contributions in that book can give some insight into the immediate issues that women* have to navigate in their daily lives, which for many, intersect with other forms of oppression like racism.
Personally I would like to put more energy into migrant solidarity work and fighting this terrifying rise in fascism on both a street and governmental level. For example, the Austrian interior minister just openly spoke about wanting to ‘concentrate’ refugees in camps. I think this just makes plain what has been happening for a while. What scares me most is how little people seem to care, but as I just said, many people do, they just have so much of their own shit to cope with first.
And then beyond all of it, the fucking planet’s dying because of humans, specifically because of industrialised nations, particularly the west. Ultimately to me its clear that the entire way Western society is structured is not sustainable for the planet or for the majority of individual human lives, even those of us that mostly benefit from it, which I see as one of the reasons literally everyone I know has some kind of mental health issue. Capitalism is the root of so many of these problems, putting the creation of profit over the immeasurable value of living things. (Like, what the fuck is fracking?!) At the risk of sounding like a massive hippy/Jedi, I think we need to find balance again, and that isn’t a fixed position, that’s a way of being that responds meaningfully to the people, animals and environment around us. And no, of course I have no idea how to do that.
I think we need to move through pity to empathy, through charity to real solidarity and stay flexible and nuanced. I also think that, basically, whatever the fuck masculinity is under capitalism, is most of the problem.