Early in the week to be declaring a single the single of the week? Maybe, but this is no ordinary week, and this is no ordinary single. Tory austerity has hurt far too many of us, for far too long, and on Thursday we’ve got the chance to end austerity, and kick Boris Johnson the fuck out of Number 10. Here’s Nadia ‘The Tuts’ Javed’s debut solo single saying what we’re all thinking: I HATE BORIS. Nadia says:
The song is about how much I hate Boris Johnson (obviously), delving into some of the racist things he’s said such as calling Muslims “letterboxes” and “bankrobbers” but also how as a British asian I’m disgusted by brown tories such as Sajid Javid and Priti Patel and how they definitely do not represent me.
TICK TOCK, NEARLY BIKINI KILL BACK IN THE UK MOMENT… THE TFC LECTURE CONTINUES. DID YOU KNOW RIOT GRRRL IS THE ONLY MUSIC AND POLITICAL-SOCIAL MOVEMENT TO COME OUT OF ZINE CULTURE? THE STORY OF HOW FEMINISM REACHED THE FINAL BASTION, ROCK MUSIC, AND NORMALISED GIRLS IN BANDS.
YOU NEED TO KNOW
In the early spring of 1993, Kathleen Hanna, Tobi Vail, Billy Karren, and Kathi Wilcox – Bikini Kill – arrive in the UK and hang out with Niki Elliot, Jo Johnson, Karen Hill, Chris Rowley, and Jon Slade – HuggyBear – and everything changes.
From now on, women in bands do not fuck my head up with their feminist statements that are completely missed by their boy and some of their girl fans (L7, Lunachicks and Babes in Toyland). Boys who wanna be Kurt Cobain wear tee shirts saying: “this is what a feminist looks like”.
Did you know?
Kat Bjeland (Babesin Toyland), and Courtney Love (Hole) were introduced to music journalists in conversations that started by first establishing their relationships with cool feminist men – Stuart Gray, frontman for experimental noiseniks Lubricated Goat, and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain – then telling us the name of their bands. It’s all so subtle, and really nice people do it: these women are cool and interesting because their men are cool and interesting. I have no plans for a musician boyfriend.
Bikini Kill, on the other hand, speak for themselves, and it’s clear they’ve got a feminist agenda which includes encouraging a relationship between bands and fans, fans and fans, for celebration, information and the organising of solutions, starting with: Girls to the Front, not just a safe space for girls and performers, but a place to bombard girls with information that they need to know.
TAKE OVER THE MEANS OF PRODUCTION IN ORDER TO CREATE OUR OWN MEANINGS
Girls to the Front is all about the girls at the front, but the community, the ‘experiment’ proved brilliantly free for the performers; it’s aces not having to worry where that photographer is going to point his lens next – as if we didn’t know. Also see Kat Bjelland, Babes in Toyland. Everything changes – even my opinion.
It connected to current feminist film theory of the era, meaning that the performers and musicians on stage were less likely to be subjects of the male gaze, becoming the bearer of meaning, rather than the maker of meaning
Laura Mulvey, 1974
Feminist theatre theory went as far as describing it as a spectacle of hysteria for the clinical gaze of men, referring back to Freud’s study of hysteria. According to Sara Marcus’, (2010), Girls to the Front, Huggy Bear’s Nikki, purposefully would not keep still long enough to stay in the frame, when being filmed for music TV programme The Word, a disaster by all accounts, and HG’s last tango with the mainstream media. That’s applying theory to practise! So cool.
On another level, applying a women-only space altogether avoided too many mixed meanings or deflection of meanings.
Feminist theatre theory was already debating the validity of any outcome, if the understanding relied on individual audience members, who bring their own cultural assumptions (that they think are natural), and will include men. A lot of feminist theatres were already opting for women-only audiences.
“Within a patriarchal culture, this exclusion may provide the only way certain elements of women’s experiences can be signified within the collective consciousness of the audience.”
Sue-Ellen Case (1988) Feminism and Theatre.
The artistic, socio-political and musical conventions and events run under the banner LaDIYfest emerged from riot grrrl and is still a force today all over the world, a place for women to express, ask, share, laugh, mosh together in a women-only space. In the UK, Bristol, Sheffield and Leeds are very active.
START A GIRLS’ BAND OR BE A GIRL IN A BAND
Cuz it’s fun, it’s a good way to act out behaviours that are wrongly deemed ‘inappropriate’, this is a refutation of censorship and body fascism, this can deny taboos that keep us enslaved i.e. don’t talk about sex or rape or be sensitive or corny, to serve as a role model for other girls, to show boys others ways of doing things and that we have stuff to say; to discuss in both literal and artistic ways those issues that are really important to girls, naming these issues, specifically, validates their importance and other girls’ interest in them, reminds other girls that they aren’t alone; to make fun of thus disrupt the powers that be; it doesn’t have to be this intense dramatic self-righteous thing to affect change. It can be fun to talk about scary issues.
Kathleen Hanna (1991), Bikini Kill fanzine, A Colour and Activity Book, sourced Women Make Noise (2012)
UK’s Pussycat Trash, who formed in 1992 soon became significant players in the girl style revolution, as well as Sister George.
NO GENDER AGENDA
There was no gender agenda in riot grrrl. Multiplicity, in opposition to everything presented as binery, was the idea: don’t label people by their choice of sexuality, colour or class, well-meaning but naive (and giving critics fuel for the fire with regard to building a sometimes valid argument that riot grrrl was slipping into forms of white feminism. See Part 3, No hierarchy, no rules, everyone’s learning.) There was already a healthy lesbian punk scene, a community of experienced activists who knew the value of friendship, and their integration into the riot grrrl scene was very influential.
Jennifer (another RG who’s still an active musician in the current London underground music scene), and sister, Tammi Denitto, and Andy, of Linus, were great flag flyers of a girl-boy revolution, like HuggyBear.
“Linus the band has been a massive influence in many people’s lives yet they’re probably the most lo-fi, in terms of attitude, out of all the riot grrrl bands. Initially, it was the music that was the attraction, the first time I heard them being on the Linus 7” vinyl EP (Bone Records, 1993). But when I followed that up by seeing them live what I got was more than a great gig:
There are more girls than boys; girls running the show; girls at the door; girls doing the PR thing; girls on stage; girls giving fanzines. And they weren’t scary like the others – by which I mean I wasn’t intimated because they were ready and I was getting ready, which I often felt. Linus didn’t make me feel like that. I think they were the great levellers of that period.”
Ngaire Ruth (2015) GIVE ME 3, Charley Stone, Jennifer Denitto and Tegan Christmas.
Other bands included Heavenly, (Sarah Records) fronted by Amelia, BloodSausage (two of Huggy Bear) and numerous friends of RG, like RazorbladeSmile, Sleeper, Cornershop.
I want to find my own girl band!
TOXIC SHOCK SYNDROME, FRANTIC SPIDERS
The cassette box, which arrives in an unsuspecting envelope in my pigeon hole at the Maker, is magical and sweet, decorated in florescent bold colours, words and symbols – open the box, sparkles fall out – has nothing dark, and fearful about it. The band name, on the other hand, is in yer face and real, a thing girls don’t talk about: Toxic Shock Syndrome. Love them before I’ve heard a thing.
They’re perfectly untarnished and genuinely interested in all contemporary music, locals at the resident music bar, The Cavern, no famous boyfriends, or well-placed friends in music journalism. They want input much more than they want fame; I relate.
One night I join Toxic Shock Syndrome on stage, at the Bull & Gate, London, wearing the second-hand wedding dress vocalist and guitarist Ronnie has acquired for me, with instructions to kill the plastic baby doll on ‘the eye’. This was tremendously exciting, having friends, and I wasn’t really looking and cut my hand. I’m proud to say that Ronnie reports the dress still has my blood on it. It marks an important night, it’s like I made some kind of girls in rock who are radical feminists pact with these women.
I take Charley to her first riot grrrl event, Huggy Bear, and encourage her to make contact with riot grrl band Linus, it’s a brave new world. She goes back to Exeter and pastes riot grrrl flyers and her own power statements all over the place, and reads the fanzines she’s collected.
FranticSpiders are four ordinary girls, including two of TSS. This is a celebration of girls voices, loud guitars, and new friends. Riot grrrl is in the UK! I think guitarist Charley Stone will move to London and forever be part of the music scene, changing lives, putting it out there, an accomplished and adored lead guitarist. This happens. I write about Frantic Spiders for the Maker. I love that they talk about their instruments. Guitarist Charley Stone has two guitars and names them Charlotte and Emily. This is fresh and thrilling for me, and hard to imagine if you’re a girl guitar ACM student carrying your baby around with you all day and assuming every woman guitarist has been like that for all time. There were no contemporary music schools for girls yet – the riot grrrl rock schools were the first.
Frantic Spiders release one of the best singles of that era ‘You’re Dead’.
“Riot grrrl actually changed a lot of lives, it was a key galvanising moment which got loads more women playing the guitar, changed the way we thought about ourselves and made a new space for women to not just be the “queen bee”, the token woman-in-rock, the Suzi Quatro in a man’s world. The effects were far wider reaching than any reading of chart/music press success would indicate.”
Charley Stone (2019)
Artist, dancer and filmmaker Lucy Thane filmed the whole Bikini Kill UK tour and produced a documentary, which includes conversations with fans and contributions from Bikini Kill, Huggy Bear, Sister George and the Raincoats.
Are you in a band?” they ask Layla Gibbon (15), Flossy White and Esme Young (14).
“Yes!” they reply with enthusiasm, lying out of teenage embarrassment.
Then they went home and they were a band, calling themselves Skinned Teen. Everybody wished they were a SkinnedTeen, the first band in the UK to only exist in the world thanks to Riot Grrrl.
Listen to ‘Secrets’, off the vinyl double single ‘Some Hearts Paid to Lie, Automation and Communication’ featuring UK riot grrrl bands Linus, PussycatTrash, CometGain and Skinned Teen (Wiiija, 1993)
FACT FANS: Comet Gain included Huggy Bear Jon Slade.
“A huge part of it was communication. Pre-internet, zines, pen-pals, flyers, all connecting girls with each other as never before. Never before did such targeted, individual to individual, personal, emotional, political communication proliferate, city to city, village to town, country to country. It was awesome to see. It was wonderful. It was an awakening that never went away, and now we have Decolonise Fest and Bent Fest and First Timers and Loud Women and all the outlaws are hooking up and it is marvellous for an old lady to see, having seen it from 1993 with my own daughter’s awakening and band. Girls respecting and supporting each other instead of competing, bullying or disparaging. love riot grrrls and Riot Grrrl. It never went away.”
Pearl Pelfrey, a Skinned Teen mum (May 2019)
START AN ANGRY GRRRL ZINE
You’re about to enter a whole new world; an absolute treasure trove of information, ideas, symbolic images and sketches, a fandom that is not adoration, but engaged and articulate in its representation.
Fanzines are synonymous with music, but they’re also a whole subculture by themselves, and zine writers, the true archivists of contemporary culture. Originally the realm of science fiction fans, who started to fall in love with rock n roll, they’re fun, imaginative, and full of information beyond the mainstream sources about your politics, rights, interests, favourite band, scene or genre.
The infamous Oz magazine – taken to court for obscenity charges (in the magazine) – and Rolling Stone magazine, with Hunter S Thompson as its political editor, talking anti-Vietnam with John Lennon, both started out as the underground press, DIY projects with an agenda that sought to challenge the structure of things. Boys Own fanzine, launched in 1986, about clubbing, football, tales of cocks shaped like a carrot, and clothes, did not a revolution make – influencing the consumer magazines for men, such as Loaded, which boomed in the 90s, pre-digital.
The psychedelic fanzines may seem more flippant and indulgent compared to the famously political and poetic hardcore punk fanzines, such as Sniffin’ Glue, but there’s no doubt that zines like Gong’s championed a new way of life outside the system just the same. Gilli Smyth and Daevid Allen, of Gong fame, met during the Paris 1968 riots and had to flee the city (Huggy Bear’s beloved Situationism).
“She met Allen in Paris where she was teaching at the Sorbonne. The pair, united by political motivations, performed a guerilla gig during the 1968 student riots, which led to them having to flee the city. Together, they set up the Gong community: a collective of musicians, artists, poets and writers.”
Ngaire Ruth, (2016) Gilli Smith remembered, an obituary dedicated to an underrated lyrical luminary, The Girls Are
In my opinion, the difference with Riot Grrrl and its relationship with fanzines is this: the bands and many of those involved front of house and behind the curtain, were running and writing for zines before they were in bands. Music was a medium for the message, and the mediation process (where it can all go wrong due to other skilled contributors, and collaborators, with different viewpoints and assumed cultural attitudes), maintained a clear feminist agenda, from inception to outcome. Hurray!
This doesn’t happen in mainstream media: photographers, subs, editors, production teams all contribute to the final piece of writing on the page and can change the meaning, demean a point of view or the subject of the writing. Consequently, riot grrrl is not a fan of the British music press or the broadsheets on either side of the Atlantic.
In the early 90s, bands started to use fanzines as a promotional tool, a way of making people feel they belonged to a club with shared values and lifestyle, and the privilege of direct access to the latest news about their favourite artists. This resulted in watered-down fanzines, with little comment, original art, or effort in the writing.
The post-punk DIY underground press and the music scene had dissipated as all the indie bands sought to sign to majors – bringing us to the generic insipid form of indie recognised by the mainstream today. Melody Maker and NME were no longer gatekeepers of contemporary music culture, but music scouts for the majors.
LANGUAGE IS MAN-MADE, SO MAKE A NEW ONE
Bikini Kill came out of Jigsaw, and Bikini Kill, the zines, Bratmobile came out of the fanzine Girl Germs. Many of the women who helped shape riot grrrl were writers before they were musicians in cool grrrl bands. Layla Gibbon of Skinned Teen, the first original riot grrrl band in the UK and inspired by the experience of Bikini Kill in the UK live in 1993, at 15, went on to write for MaximumRockNRoll where she recruited many more women writers into the citadel of macho hardcore music.
Tobi Vail has been writing zines for over 20 years, starting out in 1988/89 with Jigsaw. The legacy retells how she would use the expression angry grrrl zines. Like many of the riot grrrls, Tobi has taken some pains to archive her material and comment in a blog – this link goes right back through the decades and up to 2013, at the time accessed [May 2019].
According to legend, riot grrrls “deliberately used grrrl instead of girl to remove the passive association with the word girl, as well as to display the anger behind the movement, reminiscent of a growl”. Rosenburg, (1998), RiotGrrrl-Revolutions-From-Within.
Jen Smith, musician, artist and zine writer, is credited with being the inspiration behind the term riot grrrl.
While living in Washington DC she wrote to Girl Germs about the riots happening in her city, predicting a girl riot for the upcoming summer. Bratmobile moved to Washington DC and Jen joined the band, proposing they do a zine called Girl Riot. Molly Neumann began the zine, with contributions by Jen, Allison, and members of Bikini Kill, who had also relocated to Washington D.C. (Jen Smith, ZineWiki)
Angry grrrl fanzines excelled. Every slogan, article, sound byte and image in these zines reflected a fresh and relatable political agenda; for RG, a feminist viewpoint, great zine names, and a sense that feminism is fun. Examples are Riot Grrrl, Jen Smith’s Red Rover, Nerd Girl, Impossible Schizoid Girl, GERLL Press. Trouble Girls, Red Stocking.
Subjects included poetry and short stories, grrrl manifestos, news of girl band gigs, workshops, new RG chapters or other fanzines, alongside slogans, images and articles about body image and consciousness, women’s health, rock music and punk music, violence against women, sexual identity, homosexuality, and bisexuality.
Sara Marcus, in Girls to the Front (2010), includes a list of fanzines related to riot grrrl in the 90s but there are countless other fanzines out there, written by girls (and boys) that just did it, for a month, a year or so, stored in shoeboxes, or dusty folders, in picture frames, and record shop walls, all over America, UK, Europe, Canada and Australia. Anyone could/can be a riot girl or boy.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Write about what you love, what’s important to you and lace everything with a distinct personal point of view that your future tribe can identify with. It’s all about sharing the love, communicating and celebrating action/reaction through words, art, music.
It’s something you can do on your own without any money, all you have to do is write it, photocopy it, staple it together, and give it out for free, or sell it super cheaply, at the next gig you’re at. They work better in the company of friends who can also write, draw, sketch, organise and administrate.
Serious fanzines had PO boxes or even home addresses for people to send a self-addressed stamped envelope inside another, with a cheque for everything from one Pound to three. It worked – less instant than new media and there was something in the waiting, the one copy, the commitment it takes to organise SAE’s.
EVERYTHING CHANGES – NEW WRITING
SUPPORT EACH OTHER, COLLABORATE, AND COMMUNICATE, DON’T COMPETE, USE THE POWER OF FEMALE FRIENDSHIP, AND “MAKE YOUR VOICES HEARD TOGETHER”.
Girl love in the UK went the same way as it did in the States, triggering a sudden influx of women singer-songwriters, musicians, artists and designers, new writing in fanzines and magazines, books, documentaries, academic theory and writing, managers, independent press agents, sound engineers, and producers.
Where there had once been a dearth of women represented in a usual band environment – live shows, rehearsals, studio time – and therefore open to more everyday sexism from the fans, colleagues, promoters, and other bands, now there was majority women, on the stage, behind the scenes and in the audience.
Here’s a flyer from a Leicester chapter
The girls and boys who joined the Leeds, UK Riot Grrrl chapter, founded by Karen Ablaze, creator of the fanzine Ablaze! put on shows, “made more fanzines, and formed bands”. (Cherie Turner, 2001) Karren went on to form CopingSaw and WhackCat.
“This is how I felt girl love turn into girl action,” explained Karen Ablaze to Cherie Turner (2001) The Riot Grrrl Movement, The Feminism of a New Generation
Karren now owns her own publishing company and reviews of her book, The City is Ablaze! The story of a post-punk pop-zine, a collection of ten issues of Ablaze! crammed together in a big book you can keep proudly on a shelf, got rave reviews with titles like Karren Ablaze made the best pop-zine ever!
There had always been a boys club in the underground, at last girls united in common goals. We could make a commitment to a long-term, alternative lifestyle, outside the system, because riot grrrl created the options of a global, national, and local community to which we belonged. Whoop!
THIS IS HAPPENING WITHOUT YOUR PERMISSION (IN THE UK)
No one waited to be told/asked. I’ve heard stories of girls going into major newsagents and slipping riot grrrl feminist manifestoes and flyers between the pages of the girly mainstream magazines. New chapters hosted their own riot grrrl events in their local towns and cities. Bands and billings began to support new charities (to rock’n’roll), such as women who’ve suffered domestic abuse, campaigns to fight the anti-abortionists, the bully promoter, the indifferent sound engineer.
Jennifer and sister Tammi from Linus set up a post box for girls who wanted to launch their own zine. Their own fanzine was called It’s Unofficial. Jen’s philosophy was if you wanted to be a riot grrrl you were one.
“You didn’t need to sign up to anything. You just got out of bed and you said, ‘I am.’ I had the idea that if you told two friends, your two friends told two friends, you could really change the world.”
Jennifer Denitto, interview with Sara Marcus, (2010) Girls to the Front.
DIY TRADITION (MAKE A NEW SYSTEM)
CREATE NON-HIERARCHICAL WAYS OF BEING AND MAKING MUSIC FRIENDS: COMMUNICATION + UNDERSTANDING INSTEAD OF COMPETITION + GOOD/BAD CATEGORISATIONS
Riot Grrrl feminism is anti-capitalist, does not judge women by how much power they’ve achieved in the system, or by financial success. Huggy Bear was also concerned that the whole ethic of punk was getting lost, as indie bands raced to become mainstream indie pop stars and get a major deal, and a house in the country.
“If we don’t challenge the unhealthy forms of competitiveness that capitalism breeds, or the way it teaches us to objectify ourselves to each other, then we’re just selling ourselves out … We need to at least create new structures and new ways of dealing with things.” Kathleen Hanna (1998), interview extract, Punk Planet magazine, sourced Cherie Turner, The Riot Girl Movement.
PUNK LEGACY A
The boys found riot grrrl’s feminism easy to relate to because it adopted everything good about punk, loud, rebellious, and most of all, the do it yourself ethic, a place to belong outside the system in a community using anger as an energy.
Ian McKay, (Fugazi, MinorThreat), produced the first Bikini Kill EP, Revolution Girl Style Now! (1991, demo format, re-issued by Bikini Kill records, with unreleased material, 2015). Nation of Ulysses were massive supporters of the girl bands, as were Nirvana and Mudhoney.
Even though both riot grrrl and punk had the drive to make new structures at its root, the traditional typology of a rock and roll band – in it together, a gang, shared viewpoints and lifestyle choices – still fit in with riot grrrl philosophy as it did with the punk movement. Except people didn’t always have shared backgrounds. This made some elements of riot grrrl utopia difficult on a day to day basis, as it did in the days of punk.
PUNK LEGACY B
Punk had shown mainstream a new kind of representation of women singer-songwriters, and musicians, as individual performers with anger, outrage, and an alternative style and fashion.
Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, showed us how to delight in the fury. Frontwomen such as Pauline Murray, of Penetration, Debbie Harry, of Blondie and Siouxie Sioux, of Siouxie and the Banshees, Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, were all super sexy women in full control (this is not aspirational for a teen girl, in general). They were one woman in a band of men, and that’s how they seemed to like it. Even my own icons did not escape this comparison, Patti Smith, and my alter-ego heroine Gilly Smyth (from Gong) referred to as the Mother of the men. Moe, drummer of Velvet Underground, and older than the pack, was a welcome exception.
The confident girls were inspired to pick up instruments and formed punk bands and girl guitar bands though – such as the still current, Raincoats, out about a feminist agenda from the start, and author and philosopher Lucy O’Brien’s band The Catholic Girls. Lucy went on to join the NME team. My copy of Lucy’s She Bop, The definitive history of women in rock, pop and soul (1995), is much loved and used, currently has 11 bright green post-it notes marking pages full of need to know things. (FACT FANS: more recently, Lucy hosted two in-conversation shows with Celeste Bell, Poly Styrene’s daughter, The Poly Styrene Story.) There was all girl gang supporting The Clash called The Slits, who really showed us something entirely new. Both these punk bands were for dancing, The Slits using a dub backbone to their punk, and signed to Chris Blackwell’s Jamaican Island label, at the time one of the largest independent labels, and starting to make a move on the UK music scene. The band Mudhoney used the idea from The Slits debut album image Cut (Island 1979), ten years later for the single, You Got It (Keep It Outta My Face) b/w Burn It Clean (SubPop 1989).
Even nearer to the riot grrrl era, and influential, were the women bassists because that was one of the few ways in, Tiny Weymouth, Talking Heads, Kim Gordan of SonicYouth, Josephine Wiggs of That Perfect Disaster (later of Breeders fame), Gina Birch (Raincoats).
An alternative rock band, Ut, compared to The Fall by John Peel, were my first review in the mainstream music press the Melody Maker, November 1989. I realised my perception of the women-powered band was completely different to the boy journalists when I read the album review of the band by a colleague. That night I wrote my own manifesto, just in time for the arrival of the US girl bands, Lunachicks, L7 and Babes in Toyland and the boy grunge bands, Tad, Mudhoney, Nirvana.
THE EARLY GIRL BANDS FROM THE STATES – LUNACHICKS & BABES IN TOYLAND
Kat Bjelland, drummer Lori Barbero and bassist Michelle Leon, (replaced by Maureen Herman in 1992), Babes in Toyland, were filling out the Brixton Academy in 1990, played Reading 1991. Through the album cover, Fontanelle (Reprise, 1992) and the EP Painless (Reprise, 1993) I learnt about artist Cindy Sherman because the artwork pays homage.
Babes in Toyland rebellion comes in the form of delightful confusion: an accomplished hardcore sound from a pre-riot grrrl band who are majority women, women powered too, an unrelenting force as musicians, performing live in the kind of pretty flowery dresses made for skipping through sun-kissed cornfields. Vocalist and guitarist, Kat with her Snow White hair and bright red lipstick is a force. This is new and preparation for what’s to come. It ties in with the current academic trend to deconstruct fairy tales, as a patriarchal conspiracy, e.g. they don’t want us to go off the path – what happens is Kat Bjelland. Some tales of the riot grrrl legacy claim that Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna admired and was influenced by Babes in Toyland. Kat joined Crunt in 1993, with husband, Stuart Gray, another crazy and wonderful Jon Spencer (BluesExplosion) project.
EVERYTHING CHANGES – EVEN MY OPINION
Gina Volpe, Theo Kogan, Sydney Silver and Sindi Benezra, New York’s Lunachicks, are also the bomb, musically and as performers, tongue in cheek rather than angry. With regard to the modelling of cool girls rocking out, and the success of debut album Babysitters On Acid (1990, Blast), Lunachicks changed lives for many women who love loud guitars. Blast records were the baby of Mute records, which came out of punk and ended up being acquired by E.M.I. records (2002), then returned to an independent label again (2010), with EMI keeping the archive catalogue. Ouch.
Apparently, Kat Bjelland and Courtney Love are mates. Or not mates. Which means there’s some element of truth to a real relationship.
There are references to Babes in Toyland’s ‘Bruise Violet’ being about Courtney. And Courtney’s ‘Violet’ being about Kat. At least we know that the entire conversation didn’t revolve around their cool boyfriends. (A current film feminist theory is the Bechdel Technique: are there two women on the screen taking up space, and not talking about men?)
Nina Simone and Anita O’Day, a lesser known jazz singer and drug addict, used to score together; friends in a crazy world of shit consequences for both that was none of their doing. The all-girl band Lunachicks were first introduced to Mute by Kim Gordan’s Sonic Youth, (also with Blast). Crissi Hynde met Joan Jett when one was beginning their career, and the other thought her life in music was over because she had given up on herself. Girl love changes everything.
IT WOULD BE NICE TO KNOW
THE EARLY GIRLS IN BANDS IN THE UK
I have feminist friends! Awesome vocalist Lesley, re Silverfish, an art student dancing hard in her DM’s, and ramshackle Th’ Faith Healers, fronted by Roxanne, a hippy girl in a punk band with razor-blade guitars, an excellent combo. Now at least when a girl’s in a band of men, the men can be feminists too.
I go on tour with Silverfish in a silver bus. We are slowly being poisoned by fumes getting back into the bus, but we look cool going all the way to Scotland from north London. We roll down green hills together and eat good home cooking at Lesley’s mum’s Scottish B & B.
The Faith Healer’s Roxanne makes me a badge with her own craft set with the words GIRL POWER on it. Life on the underground live circuit is good. (FACT FANS: Silverfish member Fuzz is the resident sound engineer at a well known Camden venue these days.)
We talk about P. J. Harvey and the women bands in the States.
Julianna Hatfield has also come out saying she’s not a feminist, an American artist on a cool label (Mammoth). I share my copy of the Melody Maker, August 8th, specifically the Julianna Hatfield album review of Hey Babe, and the photo comment, which is bigger than the capped artist name, the brilliant photographer or, the writer’s name, David Bennum. SCHWWWING! There is no big band musical influence or bell features in the album. I wonder why she thinks she doesn’t need feminism?
NEW INDIE LABELS
A lot of the current UK bands are with the new independent labels, Wiiija and Too Pure, the latter is also the promoter of the Sausage Machine @ The White Horse, Hampstead, referenced in Part 1. Wiiija’s riot grrrl bands are handled by Olympia’s Kill Rock Stars label, and viz-a-viz.
A band called Tsunami and an American label, Simple Machines, founded by singer and guitarist Jenny Toomey and run with bandmate Kristin Thomson, is a lovely thing to discover. I’m also a little bit in love with anything that comes out of the New York Shimmy Disc label, owned by musician Kramer. One of his artists, Lida Husik, stays at my north London flat during a short UK visit to vaguely promote her album, and leaves me the most fabulous thank you present: Angry Women, (1991) The inscription reads:
Next, Part 3
Media: Ngaire Ruth’s playlist
Text: What happened next
No hierarchy, no rules, everyone’s learning – white feminism 😦
Bikini Kill released an EP Revolution Girl Style Now! (1991, Kill Rock Stars), and two albums Pussy Whipped (1993, Kill Rock Stars), which includes ‘Rebel’ , no 27 in Rolling Stone’s list of Most Excellent Songs of Every Year since 1967. Later, Reject All American (1996)
For Charlotte Horton, Lucy Jordan, KitKat, Maedb and all the women I know, and am yet to meet.
BEFORE THE DAYS OF FULL TIME CONTEMPORARY MUSIC SCHOOLS THERE WERE ONLY SUMMER ROCK CAMPS. FINALLY, IN THE PRE-DIGITAL 90S, ROCK SCHOOLS FOR GIRLS ARRIVED, THANKS TO RIOT GRRRL.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Riot Grrrl is the name for a pre-digital 90s feminist movement, which has been a major influence on alternative music, arts and academia across the world for boys and girls.
Riot Grrrl feminism was action/reaction in a world where feminist news or opinion was otherwise described as post feminist, assumed to be a movement which belonged to a whole different generation.
The term is, arguably, incorrectly used as a genre, associated with a style of punk and grunge.
In began in the 90s, Olympia, Washington, US, where there was an emerging scene of fresh independent bands, notably Nirvana and Bikini Kill, and labels K Records and Kill Rock Stars, later home to Beth Ditto’s Gossip and the fabulous Sleater-Kinney. It wasn’t long before the Olympia crowd melded with the DC scene, home of DischordRecords, where it continued to grow into a worldwide phenomena, including in the UK. Watch out for rare vinyl releases under the mixed moniker DisKord.
Riot Grrrl had at its heart, girl love: support each other in friendship, celebrate differences and organise, create, collaborate on creative projects, protests, ideas and events. Out of this came action groups and organisations that survive to this day, such as LaDIYevents (UK and the US), new writing, new music, a slow steady normalising of girls in rock and indie bands. (See part 2)
Riot Grrrl feminism was about creating whatever form of beauty was comfortable for you, and not having to declare your sexuality or gender (my perspective). The essential part was don’t wear make-up and girly clothes because you think that’s what makes you attractive to other girls and boys. Be a girl. Don’t be a girl, if you want to be a boy. Fall in love with a girl or a boy, today, tomorrow. The era was reflected in the mainstream (Blur‘s hit track ‘Girls/Boys’).
Riot Grrrl pioneers Bikini Kill launched the first Girls To Front (in the mosh pit/at the gig) campaign as an experiment on the UK tour with HuggyBear.
It’s met with confusion, aggression, disdain, cynicism and outright rudeness by boys in the audience and in bands. Today, women’s safety at gigs is STILL A PROBLEM, as pointed out in the recent article in The Guardian, even though there are many organisations and bands out there championing women’s safety at concerts, for example the excellent music site and promoter, Get in Her Ears, The Loud Women collective and Safe Gigs for Women. (Post your links and recommendations of similar organisations and groups that support women’s safety at gigs in comments. Go!)
In 1992 EverettTrue wrote a controversial article in the Melody Maker, Why Women Can’t Rock (Reading festival issue). He didn’t blame the women, he blamed the traditions of rock n roll, and the music press. Nirvana, who had been sixth below headliner IggyPop on the Friday the year before, were now top of the bill on Sunday, soon to become one of the most legendary Reading performances of all time. Kurt wore dresses, and talked about women punk bands both as his contemporaries, and having been inspirational to his art (e.g. TheRaincoats).
In the previous month, Jo Johnson, of UK underground Riot Grrrl band Huggy Bear, is photographed with RIOT GRRL written on her knuckles in the Melody Maker. I really engaged with the Riot Grrrl slogan: this is happening without your permission. Nice.
On the day of the festival, to add to the MM festival spread, I walk around the site with my walkman asking people about the women artists (on the billing), a low representation (no change there). “Can women rock?” I ask. It’s hopeless. Even the girls define the artists from the male viewpoint –
“Shonen Knife are crap. They only get away with it because they’re playing up to being girly. It makes boys feel secure.”
“I thought P J Harvey was a bloke, she’s so fucking ugly.”
“Lunachicks don’t have to get their tits out on stage to grab our attention. they deserve their success.”
Tears. We’re hardwired to take these things too seriously, that’s the nature of the job.
Heart already broken. In an interview with P J Harvey (Siren, 1992), pre her major signing that spring, and my new favourite artist, she’d said to me:
“I hate the word feminist. It can do so much more damage than good. All I want to do is write honestly, and I’m a woman, so I guess you can’t avoid it.”
P J Harvey, 1992
I write in my diary:
I’ve seen Huggy Bear five times in a month. Where are they when we need them? Where’s the revolution? Is anyone else out there a fucking feminist? It’s too bloody weird growing up in the old-skool, male-dominated world of music, not least because women are described according to a typology, and I’m expected to like anything created by a woman because I’m one. So many women rock bands are just shitter versions of the men’s crap bands! I want a new sound and a new language that challenges my creative writing and critical thinking skills. I want to avoid generic muso words, like ‘seminal’ and ‘undulating’. I want more feminist men like Mudhoney and Nirvana! I want more songs like Kat Bjelland’s Bruise Violet and more bands like Babes in Toyland so that I can shout Liar Liar Liiiiiiiiiii errrrrrrrrrr again in a pack of women, at a big gig.
On the 14th March 1993 US band, Bikini Kill play at the ULU, London with Huggy Bear and Witchy Poo.
I loved Bikini Kill’s KathleenHanna most of all, because she did not say excuse me.
She did not make me feel I needed to be clever or get educated to be able to join in, and she didn’t care if I bought the records or not (but the debut album Pussy Whipped sold an estimated 75 000 copies late 1993) . She wanted revolution, and somehow it sounded possible coming from her. I related to her hard hitting lyrics, more so than Babes in Toyland, and more than the UK Riot Grrrl bands already here who had stolen my heart: Huggy Bear and Linus. But there were more coming. More fanzines, organisations, events and changes to the structure of underground music culture. (See part 2)
OUR LANGUAGE, OUR PROBLEMS, OUR DECLARATION OF NOT TODAY, TOMORROW, OR EVER AGAIN
Out of all the early active US bands – Bratmobile, (Allison and Molly, originally the women behind the fanzine Girl Germs, and later Erin), Heavens To Betsy (Corin Tucker and Tracy Sawyer) Kathleen Hanna and her band Bikini Kill, are credited as pioneers of the revolution, for good reason.
They produced a Bikini Kill fanzine, and flyers and leaflets which they gave out to the girls at every show, in case the message was lost through the joy and noise. Tobi Vail, drummer, ran a fanzine called Jigsaw. (2010, Sara Marcus). As a singer songwriter and performer Kathleen was one of the first to Just Do It, and always was the most powerful communicator in interviews and panels, and on the stage; a primal scream that grew to fill the room as the audience joined in. What a fucking relief, pure shared joy, a mutual fury, a declaration and warning that we/I/her/him/they will not
KEEP QUIET BE POLITE LISTEN NICELY BE TOO EMBARRASSED TO CALL YOU OUT
All wrapped up in alternative rock swagger and sass.
CHALLENGE (AND TOTALLY IGNORE), THE TRADITIONAL STANDARDS OF BEAUTY IN MAINSTREAM CULTURE
The new thing about Riot Grrrl feminism was the freedom to be who you wanted. Just don’t wear make up and girly clothes because you think that’s what makes you attractive to other girls and boys.
Another declaration of Riot Grrrl and Bikini Kill, which tallied with academia of mainstream third wave feminism, and could be applied to both creative and commercial products and images, was the question: is the woman a maker of meaning or the bearer of meaning?
Riot Grrrl did not get away without the media and bands like the Spice Girls, “co opting their style and language”, (Cherie Turner, 2001). The term Grrrl Power was the title of an issue of a Bikini Kill fanzine.
After an extensive UK tour, the deal is sealed at a tiny venue, the Sausage Machine, my local in Hampstead, (where I first reviewed the unsigned P J Harvey), Bikini Kill with BloodSausage and Linus as support (3rd April). See feature picture.
La Neve is the drag/queer performance dance music project of Joey DeFrancesco, guitarist and co-lead songwriter in one of LOUD WOMEN’s favourite ever bands in the world ever, Downtown Boys. Smoking hot new single ‘Maximum Wage’ is out now and sonically it’s a very different beast to the crashing punk maelstrom of the ‘Boys – a driving digital disco beat with retro synth flourishes that have you reaching for the joystick. The pure punk delivery and themes of socialist insurrection are lovingly familiar though. Hell yeah, wage ceiling now!
The track is the first from La Neve’s debut album, which is coming out this summer. La Neve was good enough to chat to our Cassie Fox about it …
How did La Neve come about?
La Neve started a few years ago when I started doing drag shows with original music at Spark City, the old venue we used to run in Providence. I had done more conventional drag performance when I was younger, but getting back into it I wanted to do something different and sort of use it as one component in a larger dance music project. It’s an important identity for me to be able to express. I write and produce all the music myself, but sometimes live our saxophone player Joe DeGeorge will join me, and on some upcoming shows I’ll have live drumming from Karna of TheKominas. The goal is to make it more of a full band live, because that’s more fun than just playing with a computer.
What in particular sparked this song?
I’m not sure who coined the phrase, but you sometimes hear the statement, “Every billionaire is a policy failure.” In Downtown Boys, we’ve written a few songs in the past that are just straight up policies, such as “100% Tax,” and I like the idea of a song that can be good aesthetically but also directly propagandize a specific agenda. Extreme wealth inequality – the concentration of such unbelievable amounts of capital in the top percent – has already so thoroughly destroyed our societies and our environment. We need serious, radical new systems to redistribute that wealth. These billionaires are not romantic renegades to be idolized; they are the super villains, true scum who aim to rule over everyone, and we need to take the threat seriously. “Maximum Wage” means cutting off anyone from having that much wealth and power.
What kind of reaction have you had so far to the track?
Definitely lots of support from friends on getting new stuff out there, but otherwise hard to tell. This is still a relatively new project, and the music’s maybe hard to classify, so I’m trying to find who’s into it. I’ll be playing some shows over the next couple months, bringing what I think is a fun live show on the road, so I hope to convince more people what it’s all about.
Looking forward to hearing the album – what can we expect?
The next record is a lot more dance oriented than my previous EP, and has higher quality songs and recordings, so I’m excited to present a truer vision of what this project is supposed to be about. I like to dance, and I like dance music and culture, and I like political art, and I like punk, and I hope in the end the record’s a successful blend of all those elements.
La Neve is clearly different kind of sound to Downtown Boys, as you say with lyrical themes in the same direction. Has electronic music always been a passion for you, more so than punk/guitar music would you say? Or do you love both equally?
I first came to music via guitar music, but for many years I’ve gotten more and more into electronic and dance music. I think you can hear that on the last Downtown Boys record as well, as the music I was writing started incorporating more synthesizers and dance grooves. Some people want to imagine punk as the only politicized music, but from the beginning techno, house, etc., all had strong political underpinnings, and came out of vibrant underground DIY cultures, largely amongst black musicians. I love all these musics and I hope I can integrate them in an effective way.
I must also ask as a huge DBs fangirl … we featured the fab Gauche last week, and seeing the awesome La Neve sproinging into action this week – what does this mean for the DBs?? Say it ain’t the end …
The Gauche record is so great. It’s a funny coincidence we’re putting these out so close together. And our saxophone player Joe DeGeorge also just announced a new record from his band, Harry and the Potters. But then Downtown Boys is also leaving for tour in about a week. There’s a lot going on! The band has been slowing down a bit lately after going really hard for several years. We’re still playing, but in different geographies right now, so I really don’t know what’s next, but we never knew what was next at any point.
What’s next for La Neve – album tour maybe? Outside the US? (London is so ready for La Neve btw, come play!)
Yes once the album’s out I’ll be going everywhere! La Neve is really the more highly realized version of myself, and it’s incredibly exciting to get to do the performance and exist as that person in new spaces. I want to keep building out the live show and I hope to be in London as soon as I possibly can.
Effy Mitchell has just launched ‘Double Dare Ya’ on the world – the results of a documentary project interviewing bands and organisations that make up the UK’s current feminist punk/riot grrrl scene in 2019. It’s a brilliant piece of herstory capturing our scene right now.
LOUD WOMEN’s Cassie Fox was included (with a very sore throat at the time so she’s by far the most quiet woman in this!)
Interviewed bands / organisations : Peach Club Cheerbleederz Fresh Punks Dream Nails Penance stare Witching waves Cult Dreams Lunar Sounds Fig by four ZALU Babe Punch Farting suffragettes Suffrajitsu Noise and the naive Loud Women (Cassie Fox) Sounds for the cause ( Rynn ) Bomb the twist records ( Sarah ) Girls rock Edinburgh ( Caro and Fiona )
Featured bands + organisations + other contributors: Maid of ace Against me! Pussy liquor GLOSS FISTY MUFFS I, Doris Guttfull Petrol Girls Wet Brain Hooligans
Girl gang Leeds
Women in music Nottingham
Cramond island of punk
In this series of interviews, LOUD WOMEN has interviewed a small cross-section of the many fiercely-politicised, committed activists on the DIY music scene, with an emphasis on lead singer-songwriters. We didn't get to speak to everyone that we wanted to, but we always intended to end the series with a bang by talking to new band on the feminist punk rock block, The Menstrual Cramps.
LOUD WOMEN were first to book the 'Menstruals for a live show and first to review their debut album, so it seems fitting for us to be the first to publish a full interview with the group; and appropriate to their libertarian-socialist leanings, we've addressed the questions to all three band members equally. [At the time of interview they were still looking for a fourth member for drummer.]
What made you decide to use your songwriting to express political viewpoints?
Emilia: Growing up I wrote poetry as a way to express my political viewpoint and attended rallies and protests, so I think songwriting was just a natural progression from this. When we wrote our first song, ‘My Bush Ain’t Ur Business’, I lived with Cooper at the time, who was a full-time musician, and I was just ranting about the world and she just threw her lyric notepad at me and said write a song about it, so I wrote the lyrics while she wrote the music, then we recorded it on the spot and a couple of hours later The Menstrual Cramps was born and then I channelled my political writing into more songs than poetry.
Cooper: Well I’ve been playing and writing music since I was a kid and as I got older it was annoying to realise how meaningless the majority of popular music was in terms of message. When I met Emilia we just combined my love for writing catchy hooks and her love for shouting angrily about political stuff to create something meaningful!
Robyn: My mum used to write a lot of really great poetry and she influenced me a lot as a kid but I mostly used to write a lot of songs about love when I was younger, I didn’t really start getting political until I met Emilia and Coop, they definitely opened my eyes to more important issues in the world.
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?
Emilia: I think we’re just generally political people, we get angry about unjust things happening in the world and discuss and debate them. For us music is just a self-expression of how we’re feeling at that time, which most of the time is political and not happy with the status quo. And to be honest just living our lives as openly queer, outspoken, feminist women makes our daily existence political.
Cooper: I definitely self-express in general through music, I’m in a couple of bands and everything I do revolves around music. I write all kinds of stuff, but my interest in politics is a very large part of me so I find in one way another it comes out in the majority of songs I write.
Robyn: I’d say I’ve always expressed myself through music, it’s only after being in the band that I’ve started expressing myself politically. 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?
Emilia: I think it’s both. We love playing gigs with similar bands to us, and enjoy being part of such a supportive and inclusive scene. It helps with our self-care as activists, as women, as queer people, as feminists, which is super important. But I think our music also helps open up a conversation with people who may not be otherwise be subjected to our views or political standpoint. It’s important to challenge people through music and it’s also important to have a community where you know you are supported.
Cooper: Totes both!! What she said.
Robyn: Definitely both!
Explicit or ideological politics is a rarity in music, even most punk/DIY scenes: is that something you’re conscious of, and does it matter?
Emilia: Yes, I’m very conscious of it. A lot of people lead a privileged life wherein they have no need to talk about politics or get involved in activism or standing up for what is right or wrong in the world. Also, some artists and musicians may feel like they can’t voice their opinions due to their management, or record company, or fan base etc. I think it is extremely important that more artists and musicians stand up and speak up through their music. I think it’s especially disheartening when punk bands don’t explicitly discuss politics or current affairs or injustice in their work. Punk is about going against the grain, standing up against the hierarchy and trying to change things; anarchy should run through our punk veins, and it is a huge shame and discredit to the rest of the punk and DIY scene who are fighting and shouting every day.
Cooper: Aye I’m conscious of it, and like Mila said a lot of people in the big time aren’t actually technically allowed to be political, so I really respect the artists who voice their political stance to the public. Mila said it all really, woo anarchy!
Robyn: Yeah I’m conscious of it, I think it’s important for more musicians to voice their views on politics. Do you see yourself as part of, and drawing influence from, a tradition of politicised music/art?
Emilia: I think in our band’s case we are literally just singing and shouting about what fucks us off, what we think needs to change and what we want to comment and open a conversation about. Of course we draw influence from the original punk and riot grrrl music/art scenes, and we are proud to do so, however we aren’t interested in looking so much back into the past but rather how the new punk and DIY scene can push forward and change things for the better.
Cooper: I think Mila was definitely more into some sorta scene than I ever was. I listened to punk music quite a bit when I was younger, but if it was political it went right over my head. She was the person that introduced me to Pussy Riot and other bands that have made political impact and as I got older and started to get involved with politics that’s when punk music really lit a fire in my tum. I dunno why I never thought of writing music to fit alongside my political views but I just never did, until suddenly we were doing it, and now I can’t write love.
Robyn: Emilia and Coop are a lot more political than I am, I’ve always felt strongly about politics but I guess I just never thought about writing music about those kind of things.
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?
Emilia: We didn’t plan to be in a band or plan to gig, so whatever happens on stage is really not rehearsed at all, and we like to keep it that way, we like being honest and raw. Honestly whatever comes in my brain on the night will just fall out my mouth! A lot of songs are about particular topics that we debate and discuss between ourselves and our peers anyway so we have a lot to say about them. I see talking as just as important as the songs we play at a gig, they both are a different way of telling the story or narrative or opinion we have. And to be honest I love ranting about things that I’m passionate about, I could happily fill a 30min set with just me ranting, but I’m sure the people who come to see us for the music wouldn’t be very impressed LOL! I feel completely myself on stage, I don’t get nervous at all, I love performing to people and opening up discussions and getting people angry about what we’re angry about! Also I think that being part of this incredible, inclusive and supportive DIY scene is amazing, I love talking to all the other bands and organisers and audience members, on or off stage!
Cooper: We rehearse for 3 hours before a gig then just get up and hope that people enjoy us! One song we wrote called ‘Lying Cheating Fucking Scumbag’ we knew we were gonna say something before just because it was written about a specific person, but the rest of it I suppose Mila just runs her mouth, it’s amazing. I guess it depends on the crowd too, it’s easier to interact with an interactive loud crowd.
Robyn: I think Emilia just goes with how she’s feeling on the night, she’s pretty good with crowds, it definitely breaks the ice to have a laugh with our audience, we don’t like to take things too seriously when it comes to performing. 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?
Emilia: Yeah for sure, I’m not a good singer, I basically shout all my lines and make noises, Cooper and Robyn are the ones who are actually musically talented in the band! But punk and riot grrrl, for us, is all about just giving it a go, being angry, having a voice and being part of a collective and a movement. The music side of what we do is important, we want people to enjoy our songs and listen to them, come see us play, but it’s also important they listen to the lyrics and what we say in our songs, on our social media, at gigs etc., get involved in campaigns and rallies and protests, get angry about things that are wrong in our world, get involved in politics, try to change the world, and also feel as if they have somewhere to go where they are valid and loved, no matter what.
Cooper: Playing with/writing for/mixing The Menstrual Cramps is the best musical thing I do. I love the fact that the music is not the main thing, I love that the mixes don’t have to be perfect, that I can write a messy track send it out and the girls are like ‘yes we love it’. It’s so refreshing when everything else I is do is the opposite. Music to me was always of first importance, and with every other thing I do it still is. When I’m playing with the girls or writing for the girls I am in a stress free, pressure free, expressive heaven and I can just really think about what the message we’re sending is and what I wanna try out on the next track, rather than how well the harmonies fit. Don’t get me wrong, a catchy chorus for me is still a must, while Emilia focuses on the lyrics and message, I always focus on writing a catchy hook – I guess we’re a good team!
Robyn: Emilia and Coop usually write most of the songs, I think I’ve only helped write Tinder Girl, which I think is our only non-political song, it’s also kind of a love song, which sums me up pretty well. Is there a pressure that comes with being known as political musicians? And is there a balance to strike between work on the one hand, and fun and self-care on the other?
Emilia: I think sometimes I feel a pressure that I always get asked my opinion on everything, some topics I may not be the best person to discuss, some topics I may not have enough knowledge in etc. We’re all learning and becoming more educated every day when surrounding yourselves in politics, so I’m always open to discussion and admitting when I’m wrong or unsure about a particular issue, we’re all here to grow as individuals and as a collective, strong movement that supports each other. Sometimes I struggle with work/life/fun balance, I think anyone involved in politics or activism will do. It’s extremely important to take time out for yourself. I’m still at university so when it’s exam season I have to take time off band stuff and political stuff, especially cus my course is pretty political as well, so sometimes it can all become too much and I need to do some self-care and take some time to recuperate. We have lots of fun being in the band together, we’re three best mates just hanging out, ranting about things we talk about anyway, making music videos and songs which are fun and we get to have a laugh with our best mates whilst being productive! We have a strong network of friends around us who support us everyday, pick us up when we’re down, help us out when we need them, look after our mental health and make sure we’re not overdoing it. So we’re incredibly grateful to have them in our life and that makes the balance of work/life/self-care/fun a little easier!
Cooper: I definitely feel pressure when it comes to my other music stuff. Not everyone is politically outspoken or wants their views out in the open, which I’ve gotta respect and so other than The Menstrual Cramps I am ‘politically neutral’ in all my other projects. I don’t feel like I’m cheating myself though because The Menstrual Cramps are outspoken and I’m obviously a part of that so if people wanted to know my political views it’s still easy to find them!! I also still write all my other music about politics, it’s just very subtle so shhh don’t tell them! In terms of fun and self-care, I have a small friends group and these two gals make up a little under half of it! So I’m always surrounded by the most fun, like-minded people. I do go through trying times with my mental health, and in those times I do have to take a step back from everyday world politics, but I’ve always got time for these girls and the band.
Robyn: There is a lot of pressure that comes with having such strong views but at the end of the day you gotta stand for what you believe in! I do get nervous sometimes because of where I work and what I do when I’m not with the band, which is probably why I’m the more reserved quiet one out of all of us, but I’ll always be there supporting my girls, I got their backs.
As with most traditions, what we think of as political or “protest” music has previously been white/male dominated. Have things changed?
Emilia: I think in the mainstream media not much has changed, they continue to only have the rhetoric of white/male bands and musicians speaking up (often quite mildly as well). However, we’ve found being involved in the DIY and punk scene that a lot more women, queer people, and people of colour are at the forefront of the underground movement. I think these political or protest music voices need to be heard on a more mainstream level, and also given a fair hearing in the press/media. I feel when I watch interviews with political musicians, who aren’t white males, the presenter often attacks them or questions them or puts them into a corner and presents their music and views as ‘out there’, ‘radical’, ‘extreme’ etc.
Cooper: It may have changed the tiniest bit, but hardly. Mila’s right about non-white, non-males being attacked with dumb questions, it’s ridiculous. ‘Wait you’re ALL girls and you’re ALL queer’…. apparently that’s an extreme concept! But the point is there is loaaaaddds of POC/ female/queer bands but like Mila said they’re not in the mainstream so when people come across them it’s like a crazy concept.
Robyn: I think we always think things have changed more than they have, I think it’s getting there slowly though.
One interesting aspect of your politics is that they encompass an attack on the Tories and on Austerity-as-class-war. In contrast it can appear that class and ideology are missing from the worldview of contemporary musicians. Are people wary of speaking overtly on the subject, or are we going through a period of reaction to Left politics being all about class to the detriment of anything else?
Emilia: I think a lot of musicians don’t want to speak overtly about class war, austerity and left-leaning political ideology. It can stop you gaining radio play, interviews, can stop your music from getting out there in the public sphere. For example the BBC would never play our songs because we swear so much in them and because they’re all inherently and explicitly political, the BBC have to be unbiased and I’m pretty sure they would receive a few complaints if they ever aired us on radio or interviewed us on TV for example.
Cooper: We’ve actually tried to keep swear words out of a couple of our tracks on our new album because of what Mila just said, it was hard. The ‘lefties’ are getting branded with a bad brush by the mainstream media for sure. I think that people with left politics, views and morals are 100% more wary about speaking up about their views now, especially online, because they don’t want to be painted with this brush. I’ve seen it with the term feminist a lot recently, people say things like ‘I’m not a feminist now, or at least I am but the ‘old term’ of feminism’. They’ll say they like Jeremy Corbyn and vote for Labour/Green but they won’t say they support all left wing politics fully. I think people are just scared of the online backlash and trolls, they’re scared of being branded as a millennial (which has become a term that means lazy, entitled, selfish), or a ‘snowflake’ and I still have no idea what that means but we’ve been called it a lot, it’s really sad to see.
Robyn: People are very wary when it comes to these things, which is understandable.
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?
Emilia: The personal is definitely political. I don’t think we can really separate political issues as they intertwine so much, for example when talking about austerity you have to talk about feminism, because women are at the brunt of the majority of cuts, austerity disproportionately affects women, and even further disproportionately affects women of colour. We can talk in general about how sexual misconduct is a huge issue parliament needs to address right now, but that conversation will also fall into power at play, how society views men and women, the proportion of women CEOs compared to men named John, etc. Every political issue is multi-dimensional and needs to be discussed on a basic level and then further on a specific level. The whole system we live in needs to change, not just individual policies that are wrong or unjust.
Cooper: I agree that its inseparable, it’s a cause and effect thing, I also believe strongly that fixing the ‘smaller’ problems will begin to fix the larger ones.
Robyn: Like Emilia said we can’t really separate the two, and like Coop said by fixing small issues the larger ones will fall into place with them. How do you view the contemporary music industry as a whole?
Emilia: To be honest I’m not really interested in the industry side of contemporary music, all I know is that I’m part of a great DIY scene, where we all help each other out, share our skills and knowledge, and just have fun and put on great nights. I don’t think it’s the same vibe in the contemporary music INDUSTRY, so wouldn’t really be something we would be interested in finding out haha!
Cooper: Well nowadays, like everything else, it’s all controlled by a few big companies and its alot harder for anyone to get anywhere in it. Bands used to be able to get picked up by A&R’s at gigs and indie labels would have a bit of money behind them, whereas now everything’s being bought out by the few big daddy labels who now control almost all the mainstream charts. More bands are going independent now because of this, and to do that it’s all about having a social following and letting the fans pay for your projects. It’s sad but all the contemporary music scene is nowadays is just about profit and any of the people I’ve met or spoke to in the industry don’t seem to have too much of a passion for music at all, or have told me their passion has died because it’s not enough to just believe in an artist’s work anymore it’s about how many sales they can make. For us, it’s important to stay independent, we don’t want to be a part of that scene, and we don’t want to ever be in a place where we are guided or directed or even told how our stuff should be written or presented. I think it’s also in our political interests to never feed into a corrupt system like that.
Robyn: I think it’s fake and probably controlled by the Illuminati or something…
What are the primary political issues we face, now, in the UK and globally?
Emilia: So many! We need a complete rehaul of the systems we live in to be honest! Capitalism is not the answer to a successful world, we need to fight for a new, more socialist, way of living and thinking, that would improve some things. A huge issue at the moment is of course the issue of sexual harassment, misconduct, abuse etc. I’m glad the western media are listening to the victims/survivors of this and are finally reporting on this huge issue we have always had, but I feel as if they may use certain figureheads as bad examples for a few months and then everything will be swept under the rug and the status quo will return. We need proper policies in place to deal with sexual harassment, we need politicians who don’t sexually harass their staff or other members of the public (I mean seriously is that too much to ask for?!), and people need to be held accountable for their actions. We need more education surrounding sexual health and consent, and basically for society to change its perceptions on women, and how we should be treated. There’s so many huge political issues we face at the moment, in the UK and globally. I think ousting world leaders such as Donald Trump, Theresa May, Vladimir Putin etc. would be a great (if slightly impossible) start…
Cooper: Well Mila covered a lot, but hey there’s a million so I’ll add a few! For me personally, I’ve tried to educate myself over the past couple years on black issues and I feel globally it’s a massive problem. White people need to so do much better in recognising their privilege and understanding the realities of today, which is still very much that black people are marginalised and oppressed. Gender has obviously been a huge talking point recently and I feel strongly that we all need to be fighting for equal rights in regards to this. Transgender issues as well – to think that just last year there was that whole thing with Trump trying to ban trans people from the military ….. it just shows how although the topic is more talked about there is still a huge threat. The housing crisis, employment crisis, the stigma and lack of help for people with mental health issues, the nhs crisis, the list goes on! But like I said in the answer a couple questions ago I think fighting for what most people would say were ‘smaller political problems’ will be the answer to solving the larger global crisis we’re in. Don’t wanna sound like a millennial leftie snowflake, but if we started listening to each other’s experiences & respecting each other then there’s more than enough of us to take down them cunts at the top!
Robyn: Just trying to think of something the guys haven’t covered! One that really springs to mind for me is gay rights, because we’re all queer in the band and have all been affected by this ongoing equality issue.
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Maddy Carty is a multifaceted singer-songwriter. Depending on your introduction to her music you might initially think of her as a folk singer, a ska, reggae or pop artist, or an R&B vocalist. Truth is, she's all of the above, while also being a committed political artist who regularly plays protest songs like her classic "Condemn Age" (from debut album 'Come and Get It') at benefits, political events and picket lines. The latter might surprise some who know her primarily for the reggae-inflected pop songs that predominate on her aforementioned album, but there's no right or wrong way to mix politics and art. In fact, you can make a good case (with many historical examples) for the superior subversive potential of political messages in a mainstream pop context, compared to, say, the archetypal punk gig where everyone is already broadly in agreement.
Maddy was recently declared joint winner of the CWU-sponsored Bread & Roses Songwriting and Spoken Word Award for her song "Crying at the News" about the Grenfell Tower fire.
What made you decide to use (some of) your songwriting to express political viewpoints? Maddy: I don’t remember it ever being a conscious decision, I’ve just always written about things I care about and what’s going on around me.
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?
Maddy: If it makes me feel, I’ll write about it. I guess in that sense I can’t help that my politics comes out in my song writing, because it’s something I’m passionate about. Sometimes I’ll just start a song with no real idea of where it will take me, other times, I’ll have a subject in my head that I want to address. For example, during the time of the junior doctor strike where we were also in the midst of the refugee crisis (which we still are) it made me so angry that I knew I would write about it, and that’s where my song ‘What Kind of Life’ came from.
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? Maddy: I would hope that if you can put across an idea in a song, that it could create conversation, or open people’s eyes to things they perhaps hadn’t thought about or didn’t want to. I think that’s something that music does in general, not just political music. But it has to be said that when I play more political gigs I do realise I’m preaching to the converted because of the left wing people who book me!
Explicit or ideological politics is a rarity in music, even most punk/DIY scenes: is that something you’re conscious of, and does it matter? Maddy: I think because of the circles I’m in I wouldn’t see politics as rare in music or the arts, considering I gig with the likes of Grace Petrie, Nia Wyn, Steve White and the Protest Family and many others. I’m also a big fan of people who sing songs involving social commentary and politics, like Will Varley, Gaz Brookfields and Thee Faction, so it’s probably less a case of the content being rare but the ability to get the content to wider audiences, which is a shame. Also, most of those people are doing really well, so perhaps there’s the matter of the media and industry trying to ignore this type of music!
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? Maddy: I do think there’s pressure when people refer to me as political artist, especially when I don’t see myself as just that. I’m a singer-songwriter so a lot of my stuff isn’t necessarily political and might just be love songs, or me having a go at my fella! Sometimes it feels like I have to change my set according to the type of gig I’m doing and to fit the audience, but I always like to get a couple of my ‘political’ songs into every set. There’s the worry about other political artists not thinking you’re political enough too! When it comes down to it, I do music because I love it, so having a few different avenues to go down creatively is never a bad thing.
What are the primary political issues we face, in the UK and globally? Maddy: My two biggest worries are for education and our NHS. I work in a lot of schools and have seen first hand the damage that the cuts have done to education, especially within Special Education Needs, and the idea of all schools becoming academies genuinely terrifies me. And of course the NHS is in crisis and the treatment of the staff is appalling. I think more people are becoming aware of these issues now and taking a step up to try to fight for them. The sooner we get the Tories out the better.