Sunday, December 31, 2017

In the #MeToo Era, Feminist Punk is Still a Powerful Weapon

Everything I know about feminism, I learned from punk rock.

Well, that’s not entirely true, a lot came from reading Simone de Beauvoir and Emma Goldman, and talking with strong women in my life who helped me understand the privileged position I hold as a male in my culture. But the importance of sexual equality, the need to dismantle patriarchy, these are values I hold, values I derived from punk rock.

The enduring #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment and assault (and the numerous revelations about so many well-known predatory men), has left me with a range of complex emotions. While listening to these conversations, I’ve struggled with feelings of helplessness. But I think the best thing I can do as a man is to listen to what women are trying to say, and maybe amplify a few voices.

With about 20 years of experience in various punk, hardcore and metal scenes throughout the United States, I realize I do have something to add, a lesson I’ve learned: Feminist messaging in extreme music has been, and continues to be, a prophylactic and necessary measure to combat sexual harassment and assault of women.

Shawna Potter of War on Women. Photo from Cody Ganzer.
The Baltimore punk band War on Women is one of today’s most outspoken feminist groups, and I’m a huge fan. The band comprises two men and two women, and they really rock the hell out of a live show (that’s what this is all about, after all). War on Women’s message is both empowering (as hardcore should be) and challenging (as punk rock and metal should be).

“We started very intentionally,” singer Shawna Potter said in a recent video interview with the music site Noisey. “We knew we wanted to make a feminist band, and we wanted to talk about things that matter… really explicitly and overtly.”

War on Women is an easy target — they are openly feminist social justice warriors who challenge patriarchy and sing with righteous indignation about rape culture, street harassment, and the infringements upon reproductive rights. Whenever strong and talented women enter a male-dominated space and stake a claim to it, there is a backlash from men, and it’s the same damn thing in the punk scene. The backlash against War on Women has been both disheartening and boringly predictable.

In an essay she wrote for Noisey, singer Shawna Potter tells the story of some of the vitriolic bullshit that happened while on the Vans Warped Tour this year. When a woman holding up a sign that said “Punk shouldn’t be predatory,” showed up at a set from the Boston band The Dickies, a member of the band (known for saying disgusting things about young women), went on an unhinged, threatening rant. Internet storms erupted, and unfortunately The Dickies found their fair share of men coming to their defense and lecturing War on Women and other feminist punk activists to, basically, shut up and leave the punk scene to the boys.

Photo from Cody Ganzer.
To these reactions, Potter has a simple message, which she told Noisey: “If you don’t like our band, that's fine. End sexism and I’ll literally have nothing to sing about.”

But sexism is, and has historically been, a serious issue in punk music. There are far too many stories of abusive men demeaning, harassing, assaulting, and raping women. I’ve seen men grope women at punk shows and take advantage of women who were drunk. One of the only times in my life I ever threw the first punch was at a man assaulting a woman at a punk show. Sexual harassment and assault in punk scenes happens too often, unfortunately, but it can be reduced.

The night before Trump’s inauguration, I attended a show by the British punk/folk songwriter Frank Turner. He said that the most beautiful thing about punk rock is that it allows people to create their own culture, to set their own values. Smashing sexism, stopping sexual violence, these are values, as long as the people within the culture claim them.

I grew up going to every Warped Tour to see bands like Bad Religion, Rancid, Dropkick Murphys, but haven’t been to one in years, and I was skeptical of War on Women’s decision to go on the tour, given its reputation for being a haven of drunken bros and teenage girls. But as I followed War on Women’s statements on social media, I realized the band saw the tour as an opportunity to reach people who might not otherwise be exposed to feminist ideas. Most punk, hardcore and metal shows are dominated by men, and the shows where women match the men in number are rare. War on Women made the most of this opportunity by organizing a campaign called “Safer Scenes.” The band described this campaign as a means of formulating proactive, preventative solutions to sexual harassment and assault that takes place in concerts and festival atmospheres.

“We want to help rid the Warped Tour of the ugliness it’s been plagued with over the years, and to do that we must shine a light on it,” Potter wrote. The idea was to train band members and concertgoers in bystander intervention, to help empower not only would-be victims of sexual harassment and assault but everyone else around to refuse to tolerate sexually abusive behavior.

I have to quickly highlight another example of punk as a weapon against sexual assault, and it comes from a Massachusetts band called Goolagoon. They are an insane amount of fun — after all it’s a Spongebob Squarepants-themed punk/grind band. I saw them play last year at a metal festival in Baltimore, and the fury of their live performance was incredible. The frontwoman, who goes only by Lily, is dynamic singer with an engaging stage presence, and she doesn’t mince her words when it comes to sexual violence.

Southern-California hardcore punk band Abjection. Credit: Cody Ganzer 
As she started off the band’s song “Life of Crime” (from their blistering record of the same name) Lily gripped the microphone and screamed at the top of her lungs: “To every man who’s ever sexually terrorized women: WE ARE NOT YOUR FUCKING PROPERTY! FUCK! RIGHT! OFF!” The band then goes into a brutal 50-second assault full of speedy riffs contrasted against slow, heavy noise. The crowd, myself included, was blown away and the band received loud applause from an audience composed almost entirely of men.

“PRO-FEMINIST” is written in block letters on the cover of Propagandhi’s album, Less Talk, More Rock. As an angry teenage boy (surrounded by a lot of other angry teenage boys), the loudly pro-feminist position of the band jumped out at me. I was 13 when that album came out and I bought it largely because the feminist message struck me as empowering and deserving of respect.

Propagandhi at DC's Rock & Roll Hotel - 2017
This band (one of my all-time favorites) has always been outspoken and in-your-face. I’ve supported the band for years, and saw them play a few weeks ago. They played flawlessly to an insane, excited, diverse crowd of fans, and their new album Victory Lap is a pristine and empowering if you’re feeling depressed in the Trump era.

In a recent interview on Canadian radio, Propagandhi frontman Chris Hannah talked about the “frat boy” punk scene culture that he was speaking out against when the band released Less Talk. “We made a conscious decision, the only conscious decision we ever made, to make sure people knew exactly what we were about, and we put out that record Less Talk, More Rock, which actually said ‘Gay-Positive, Pro-Feminist’ on the cover, and our record sales plummeted, and none of those jocks were at our shows anymore,” Hannah said.

He calls taking that stance “career suicide,” but the album (and the band) has stood the test of time. And the punk scene’s progressive shift has proven that, for every guy who got pissed and left when a band took a pro-feminist stance, more open-minded punks took their place. More women filled that space.

Of course, feminist punk is nothing new. As anyone who grew up in the 70s and 80s knows, plenty of momentous feminist punk bands have been sounding these alarms since before I was born. (The music magazine Pitchfork released a great discography of feminist punk classics, which you can check out here. I think it’s an awesome list.)

For me, Crass’ “Penis Envy” is a classic feminist punk record, and one of my favorite punk albums of all time. Musically astringent, raw and chaotic, with intense vocals from Eve Libertine and Joy De Vivre, and lyrics immersed in feminism and anarcho-politics. It’s as powerful today as it was in 1981. Bikini Kill, X-Ray Spex, Vice Squad, the Slits, even pre-punk rockers like Patti Smith — this movement goes way back. But feminist punk culture is still alive and well. And that’s a great thing, because it is necessary, effective, and a whole lot of fun, too. 

What drew me to punk and metal scenes was the welcoming atmosphere, as strange as that may sound considering how loud and abrasive the music can be. I found punk shows to be spaces where people from all backgrounds could find other misfits and forget their problems while listening to some kick-ass music. Punk hasn’t died and won’t anytime soon, young men are being attracted to punk scenes for the first time right now. My hope is that they, like me, will be introduced to powerful feminist messages at a young age. And I hope that fighting sexism, misogyny and sexual violence will continue to be a value that many punk rockers hold.

This post first appeared on the site Good Men Project.

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