Book Review by Ngaire Ruth
– Vivien Goldman (2019), Revenge of the She-Punks, A Feminist Music History from Poly Styrene to Pussy Riot, University of Texas Press, www.UTEXASPRESS.COM 800.252.3206
Any feminist punk will know instantly that Revenge of the She-Punks is for them. This isn’t just because author Vivien Goldman’s words are such great company. She refers to the male-dominated contemporary music industry as the “dense dickwood” and describes Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna as “having skills like the Goddess Kali has arms”. It’s because this is your herstory.
The changing role of women music journalists
Vivien Goldman was one of the first women writers and section editors in the mainstream music press, Sounds 1976, who “went into battle for the unconventional girls”. At the same time she was attending university, with feminist icon Germaine Greer a lecturer of her cohort; according to this yarn, she was disappointed that Vivien didn’t take her studies seriously enough. Wrong.
“And now here I was witnessing this strange apparition … a long-haired guitarist in jeans, who as I drew closer I realised was – a woman! Playing power chords! I had never seen a girl play on stage in a band before…”Vivien Goldman 1976
This was new and enormously thrilling, and was the mainstream feminists’ aim at the time: equality.
Only now is it normal for women in bands and women bands, never mind trans punk/queercore/add your own favourite here, currently making waves, and it’s thanks to the legacy of the avant-garde rock poets and artists, the She-Punks and Riot Grrrl, and the women pioneers who were driven to write about them.
“As power relations are so skewed and the predators so confident, it clearly makes sense for the unconventional female artist to be prepared to go it alone, create her own community, go the indie route, and take the side road to her destination. Although women in mainstream music have always held powerful positions in areas like marketing and public relations, as punk first yowled… virtually no female people had positions as tastemaking gatekeepers or producers, who might go to battle for the unconventional girls.”Revenge of the She-Punks, page 22
Rock n Roll and Punk is/was a boastful model of patriarchy and its machismo identified as part of a band’s typology, which was argued as being natural to the genre by some very influential music critics. Whole forests have been wasted on books about it. At last this book will take its place on the same library and bookshop shelves – and will stand out from the rest with its florescent yellow cover and red and purple wording.
(RANDOM FACT FANS: Red and purple is a power colour combination for witches – a witches armour, stirring the metaphorical cauldron, making ripples, in a good way. Allegedly.)
As Vivien Goldman notes:
“Revenge is not the sort of gotcha! kind. In the case of punky females revenge means getting the same access as your male peers to make your own music look and sound how you want and be able to draw enough people to ensure the continuation of the process.”
She-Punks are feminist punks
Just like the umbrella description feminism, there are many strands to feminist punk, essentially defined by Revenge of the She-Punks as women musicians, artists, and bands that break down boundaries, so Grace Jones and Neneh Cherry are included. Whoop!
Each chapter follows a theme, starting with a gripping introduction to the whole affair called WOMANIFESTO: GIRLY, IDENTITY, MONEY, LOVE/UNLOVE, the same topic echoes in the list of songs by different artists and bands, which she references at each chapter’s start. This is categorising by artist expression, not a scene, and is a refreshing change from blocking information into time periods in chronological fashion. It shows how widely girls and women in contemporary music have always influenced alternative thinking, and that even when they are mainstream successful as pop artists the fact that they don’t mould themselves to the standard expectations of women as bearer of meaning, rather than maker of meaning (e.g. Grace Jones), means that they are seen as punks.
Vivien Goldman notes that there is a continuous theme for She-Punks, “…the cry for Space! which translates as agency”. Later the conversation leads to the need for space on the dance floor, and further references the Riot Grrrl campaign at live shows Girls to the Front.
Revenge of the She-punks is by no means Goldman’s debut, she is an academic and author of repute, but it’s her first reflection of her role and experiences as a music journalist and features editor, outside her lectures and workshops ( assume). There is no feminist theory to get your head around; you can come up with your own after reading. You feel the feminist act in the writing. If you’re a feminist punk it’s a need to know thing.
- Need to know how far we’ve come as feminist punks.
- Need to know the names of the forgotten bands our foremothers – like Alice Bag (1990) or Germany electronica combo Malaria! (1983) or Kashmir band Pragaash (2014), blamed from everything from an increase in rape to child brides.
- Need to read the re-interpretations in the right context of the ones we do know – Poly Styrene (X-Ray Spex), Debbie Harry (Blondie), Delta 5, Raincoats, The Slits, Pauline Black (Selector), 7-Year Bitch.
- Need to know what Kathleen Hanna did next, and that at the age of 64 you naturally want to get out there and meet the new feminist punks: Skinny Girl Diet, Big Joannie, Pussy Riot, all featured here.
- You don’t need to tell us that you feel like you’re starting from scratch, but know that it’s part of the process, and don’t give up. Revenge of the She-Punks is an important archive for every untypical girl in the business of contemporary music. Know what’s gone before and start from there.
“All these artists had to trash out new ways of living, in a break from their foremothers,” explains Vivien Goldman in relation to the rock-poets and She-punks (2019).
But there is more: Revenge of the She-Punks shows hope and continuity to us elder feminist punks, some of us isolated, as writers in our rooms of our own, or as lecturers up the front, mentors on the side.
Many of the bands and artists Goldman talked to, as well as Goldman herself, raise a finger or two at the ageist assumption that women move on or “retire to the hearth” since so many female pioneers are still recording or returning to music or writing. It led her to conclude –
“The expansion of independent music has helped to shatter one of the laddist recording industry’s cruel needless edicts – that a female artist’s shelf life is shorter than the next crop of young girls miniskirts. “Revenge of the She-Punks, page 191
If this book is focused on any question it is the one presented to Vivienne by the Raincoats a long time ago: What would women’s music sound like if it were different from the blokes? And the answer is this, it sounds like protest even when it’s not punk because of what it’s saying, or doing, or trying out. Hooray for us.