Women have always been central to punk rock, even though they had to fight very hard to get and stay there. As veteran punk journalist and musician Vivien Goldman writes at Pitchfork, “Resistance to our existence was an acknowledged fact of life.” And yet, “punk freed female musicians,” she argues. She knows of what she speaks, having observed firsthand the “laddist boystown” of rock before punk broke barriers for women, and having been a part of that barrier-breaking herself. Goldstein’s essay introduces us to a playlist (stream it above) compiled by the Pitchfork staff called “The Story of Feminist Punk in 33 Songs,” which in a way acts as a critical complement to a recent publishing trend.
In the past few years, we’ve learned a lot about what central moments in punk looked like in memoirs from big names like Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, the Slits’ Viv Albertine, and Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein. In Girl in a Band: A Memoir, Gordon describes scraping by in the “postapocalyptic hell” of New York circa 1979; Albertine’s book shows us the “astonishing level of violence” the Slits faced on the streets of London around the same time; and Brownstein’s autobiography immerses us in the mid-90s Pacific Northwest scene and her band’s attempt to “expand the notion of what it means to be female.”
That’s not even to mention Patti Smith’s National Book Award-winning memoir or Kathleen Hanna’s public remembrances. The wave of press does risk obscuring something crucial, however; punk has always had its stars, but its primary appeal has been that anyone, no matter who, can do it, and all of the women above began in that spirit. Even if many of the women who left their stamp on early and later punk did not become famous, their fans remember them, as do the many thousands of people who heard them and then went out to start their own bands.
But the angle in Pitchfork’s compilation is not simply “women in punk.” Their 33-song playlist follows the specific thread of what they call “feminist punk,” meaning “songs that make their feminist messages clear—not just songs by punks who are feminists.” The rubric means that in addition to all of the artists mentioned above, and obscure bands like The Bags and The Brat, the all-male Fugazi get a mention for their song “Suggestion,” in which Ian MacKaye sings from a woman’s perspective about “the aggressive objectification of women’s bodies.” The song is a “tentpole for male feminism in punk,” and we can think of it as a kind of benign tokenism and an important moment for other male punk bands who followed suit in denouncing the patriarchy.
The playlist spans four decades, beginning with Patti Smith in 1975 and ending with Downtown Boys in 2015. The best-known artists happen to arrive in the late 70s and the mid-90s (Hanna makes the list thrice with three different bands). Not coincidentally, these are the moments—in England and the U.S.—when feminist punks made the most noise, and Goldman points out just how much the women in these eras had in common:
Because women’s contributions are so often hidden from herstory, when the riot grrrl movement began in America, those women were virtually unaware that their UK sisters had been fighting parallel battles two decades earlier. But the Americans were way better funded and organized than we had been, lurching through no-woman’s-land to make ourselves heard. It took awhile before Kurt Cobain championed the Raincoats and Sonic Youth bonded with the Slits.
Punk may be dead, or it may remain what Goldstein calls the “global music of rebellion.” Either way, Pitchfork’s playlist—with its critical commentary on each selection—offers young female artists making music in their bedrooms a sense of continuity with a long line of mostly DIY feminist punks who made “fissures and cracks, some crumbling walls” in the edifice of rock’s boy’s club. Goldman warns her target readers—who so clearly are those young bedroom guitarists, singers, producers, etc.—against complacency, but also leaves them with some clear, concise advice: “Where possible, please create a community with complementary skills. Nowadays, it often starts online. Still, try and find a way to actually, physically be with your new creative cohorts. Because nothing beats jamming with your sisters.”
See Pitchfork for the full, annotated playlist with Goldman’s introduction and hear the full playlist in order at the top of the post.