Reviews

Revenge of the She-Punks: A Feminist Music History from Poly Styrene to Pussy Riot Vivien Goldman

If any MRR readers out there are still questioning the need for a book of feminist punk history in 2020, allow me offer the following example: consider a certain popular book on the history of Spanish punk that includes a section listing important countercultural figures and musicians in Spain during the 1980s. Out of a total of 57 figures listed, 4 are women. I fear young people will pick up a book like that and assume that women weren’t a part of early punk scenes, and, by extension, that they aren’t a part of punk today. The forcible erasure of women from punk’s history is a well-documented problem, part of what Vivien Goldman hopes to fix with her new book, Revenge of the She-Punks.

Goldman, often referred to as “The Punk Professor,” is an ideal person to take us on a tour of feminist punk history. She’s interviewed many of the punk’s most famous women and was a musician herself, both solo and with post-punk outfits Chantage and The Flying Lizards. Her song “Launderette” is a perfect slice of dub-tinged punk that encapsulates London bohemian life in the early 1980s. In Revenge of the She-Punks, she sets out to tell the backstories that inspired Launderette and songs like it, travelling around the world to prove that women have always been an integral part of punk scenes.

Goldman wisely defines “punk” more as an ethos and a DIY, rebellious attitude rather than an aesthetic perspective or specific sound. She includes artists that fall under genres such as electronica, ska, and hip-hop, allowing us to see the ways that punk and feminism are (re)interpreted in different cultural contexts. Likewise, she defines “women,” broadly, including non-binary people and allowing for nuanced discussions of bands like Tribe 8, a pioneering queercore group that counts several trans men amongst its members, while still firmly identifying as a feminist band. Revenge does not try to be a definitive history of women in punk (though, if that is your thing, many of your favorites—Alice Bag, Poly Styrene, Vi Subversa, Bush Tetras— will likely be in here). Rather, Goldman sets out to explore universal threads between bands over time. Looking at punk through a historical lens also allows us to understand generational links between bands, and see the ways women mentor each other over the years.

Unsurprisingly, we quickly find that many of the issues women were upset about in the 1970s (rape, economic inequality, racism), are still frustratingly relevant. Although women around the world deal with different levels of political repression, they all experience violence and pushback from men and the music industry. The danger of a global feminist history is that it can tend towards essentialism (the belief that all women are the same) or setting up a problematic West = good/East= bad dichotomy. Goldman for the most part avoids this, taking pains to show us surprising viewpoints, such as Gia Wang: outspoken feminist, singer of Chinese pop-punk group Hang on the Box, and also a huge Trump supporter. Clearly, gender, and even involvement in a women’s music group, does not guarantee a specific political outlook.

Goldman also uses her journalist’s eye to highlight many interesting, lesser-known facts throughout the book (The Mo-dettes were asked to be on Eurovision! Bush Tetras loaned ESG their first amps!). One of the most interesting sections is when Goldman recounts an interview with icon Grace Jones in 1982. When Goldman asked what it was like having Jean-Paul Goude, her (white, French) boyfriend at the time, also serving as her photographer, Jones broke down in an elevator and started sobbing, “He always wants me to be an animal!” Goude is responsible for producing many of the most famous images of Jones, and her implication that he dehumanized her provides an important critique of a man who published a book entitled Jungle Fever, featuring a naked Jones in a cage as the cover. We need more stories like these, that get at the complicated intersections of image, art, race, and gender.

Easy to read, engaging, and fast-paced, Revenge of the She-Punks would make a great gift for your niece headed off to Girls Rock camp, or your nephew who listens exclusively to Green Day. Personal stories, rare interviews, and quotes, what more do you want— a curated mix? OK, Goldman also includes a playlist in each chapter to go along with the theme.

Revenge is a timely and necessary text, an important celebration of everything punk women have been able to achieve under adverse conditions. As Goldman reminds us,  “Making things happen wherever you are, cleverly circumventing obstacles based on your class, gender, race… that is… punk’s heartbeat.”