No, no, John Lydon. Reflecting on the era he once seemed to embody as Johnny Rotten, Lydon told an interviewer for Newsweek in 2017, “The major aspect of punk was that girls learned to stand up and be the equivalent of boys. And that changed the world. All them girl bands stood on the stage and took it just like the blokes.”
The capacity for successful men to mistake patronizing diminishment for congratulatory benevolence is a marvel of maddening persistence. We knew the world of those girl bands—one of us, as a young woman, was the singer in a mixed-gender punk band, the Catatonics, and the other hung out at CBGB with the musicians of Lydon’s day, male and female. For punk artists who were women, the “it” they had to take was something much different than the gift box of perks—the easy access, the presumption of authority and prowess, the taken-for-granted recognition of their artistry and seriousness—handed over casually to men. For the women, nothing was just like it was for the “blokes”; and if they changed the musical world, they did so not by demonstrating their mere equivalence to the boys, but by proving their uniqueness and, in many cases, their superiority.
Vivien Goldman, the entrepreneurial pop-culture chameleon who has been a journalist, publicist, singer, adjunct professor at New York University, and author of an eclectic assortment of books, offers a spirited counter-argument to the male-centric narrative of punk rock in Revenge of the She-Punks: A Feminist Music History From Poly Styrene to Pussy Riot. Drawing from decades of firsthand experience in and around the global punk scene, she captures the artists and their music with sharply focused eyes and ears and a capacious mind. The book, like the music it deals with, is gutsy, bracing, blunt, and sometimes fun. It has the close-to-the-ground veracity of Sara Marcus’s definitive study of the Riot Grrrl movement, Girls to the Front, and much of the intellectual ambition, if not all the rigor, of more scholarly texts such as The Lost Women of Rock Music: Female Musicians of the Punk Era, by Helen Reddington, and Pretty in Punk: Girl’s Gender Resistance in a Boy’s Subculture, by Lauraine Leblanc.
In something of a thesis proposition fairly early in her book, Goldman praises the Raincoats, a British group of the late 1970s, for being “good at answering that primal question, what might women’s music sound like, if it were different from the blokes’?” Most of the rest of the book shows how women in bands formed in England, America, and a few other places around the world have sought to assert distinctive identities since the rise of punk in the mid-’70s. As Goldman points out, female punks (and their sisters, cousins, and daughters in New Wave, post-punk, and the hybrid forms that followed) have dealt with a set of lyrical themes and attitudes virtually unthinkable in male punk, from gendered economic inequity to sexual abuse and rape. Goldman cites, as an example, the chorus of the track “Shut Your Face” by the Pacific Northwest Riot Grrrl act Bratmobile: “As if it’s a girl thing/Yeah ’cos girls are dying.”
Teasing out the defining traits in the music itself is trickier, of course, since the core elements of musical composition and performance—melodies, chord structures, instrumental and vocal tonalities—work in abstract terms and are as fluid as gender. Goldman doesn’t push things that can’t bear much pushing. Still, her expert descriptions of the music of bands such as the Slits, the Raincoats, Malaria!, and others are compelling arguments for the groups’ individuality. “Anticipating techno,” Goldman writes, the women of the early ’80s Berlin group Malaria! “stab elastic synthesizer phrases that wobble like amoebae. Brutally battered one-rhythm drums support [Bettina] Koster’s neurotic but proud vocals.”
The most persuasive writing on music in Revenge of the She-Punks has a mimetic vividness, a rhetorical punk quality. Goldman conjures the song “Rosa Vertove” by the late French singer and visual artist Lizzy Mercier Descloux, as “Dada in its absurdity”:
The track hits you like one of those drugs that speed-washes your mind; it blasts you to transcendence for seconds, then dumps you back in “reality,” bewildered but elated. Like a shaman seized by strange passions, Mercier Descloux babbles incomprehensible incantations peppered with paranoid allusions to crime, journalism, cops…as if by a pulsing strobe, she dodges the rhythmic assault course for one and a half minutes. It is the going nuclear sound of an artist dropping a bomb on her musical identity.
Like nearly all other subcultures in the arts, the punk and post-post scenes have been always inclined to provincialism and aesthetic narrow-mindedness. Punks, on the whole, have tended to reject ideas that aren’t in sync with their treasured principles of nihilism, anarchy, rage, crudity, rudeness, and brutality. That most of these values were historically associated with masculinity served to shut out women in the early punk era and made female punks, by the sheer fact of their participation in the music, more radical than any of the men. For female punks to venture further and entertain aesthetic values beyond those sanctioned as acceptably “punk,” as some woman dared to do, made them suspect to punk fundamentalists but all the more daring.
Goldman offers, as a case in point, the Olympia, Washington, post-punk band Bikini Kill. In the group’s signature song, “Rebel Girl,” she saw how it “flailed and attacked, as punk does, yet it also had a cheeky, almost bubblegum feel…exultant and cheering.” As a result, “it soon became definitive, an anthem of ferocious fun for gay and straight girls alike to dance to and feel happy because of its celebration of all forms of positive girl connection.” (One of us writing this was in a second band after the Catatonics: Porcelain Forehead, a New Wave–ish trio with a snarky sense of humor not far removed from the attitude of Bikini Kill.)
To be in the band—to be in any punk band—is to think of yourself as a rebel. John Lydon was an idol for some. But to be a girl doing it is to do something John Lydon could never understand.