Rock and Roll Book Club: Vivien Goldman's 'Revenge of the She-Punks'

Vivien Goldman's 'Revenge of the She-Punks.'
Vivien Goldman's 'Revenge of the She-Punks.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

At the beginning of her new book Revenge of the She-Punks, Vivien Goldman quotes a 1976 issue of Sounds magazine.

Suddenly there seem to be an awful lot of women musicians, or women bands, in the Sounds gig guide. It seems that a women's underground is suddenly emerging overground...When women perform a professional, hard-rocking set, with no concession to female stereotypes, they're an automatic threat. They're a threat to men because they challenge male supremacy in a citadel that has never been attacked before; they threaten women who perhaps never dared acknowledge that THEY want to be onstage doing the energizing instead of watching their boyfriends do it, in passive admiration.

The writer was Goldman herself. She's uniquely qualified to write this book, subtitled A Feminist Music History from Poly Styrene to Pussy Riot. A longtime music journalist, she's also been a record label staffer (at Island, she worked with Bob Marley), she's been a singer-songwriter (best known for the 1981 single "Laundrette") who bunked with Chrissie Hynde in London, and she's an academic who embraces the moniker "punk professor."

The author of five previous books including the definitive history of Marley's album Exodus, Goldman takes a generous though concise sweep through four decades of alternative music history in four long essays organized by theme: "Girly Identity," "Money," "Love/Unlove," and "Protest." Each chapter begins with a playlist, and even the most knowledgeable music fan is certain to discover some new anthems through Goldman's diverse selection.

By "punk," Goldman means more an attitude than a specific sound: for example, she refers to Sasha Fierce as Beyoncé’s "punk persona." Still, the movement conventionally defined as punk is the book's lodestar. Goldman argues that the late '70s punk movement opened new doors for women musicians.

Punk's disdain for technical prowess meant that women couldn't be excluded on the grounds that they didn't solo like Clapton. Its D.I.Y. aesthetic allowed women to make end runs around record labels and conventional gatekeepers. Its political inclusiveness meant that any truly principled punk had to embrace anyone who stepped up to join the movement.

"All the guys around me were forming bands," Viv Albertine of the Slits told Goldman in 1976, "and they had heroes to look up to. But I didn't have anyone. I didn't want to look like or be Joni Mitchell." Then, Albertine said, "it occurred to me that I didn't have to have a hero; I could pick up a guitar and just play. It's not so much why I started playing, as why I didn't play before."

Obviously it's not like there wasn't sexism within punk, but unlike in past musical movements, women felt empowered to say something about it — in song. What's more, they found common cause with people who were marginalized for other reasons. Women of color, still under-recognized in histories of punk and everything that came after, are gratifyingly well-represented on Goldman's playlists.

That includes women like the members of Shonen Knife, who show up in the "Money" chapter with their song "New Find" (1997) about the joys of turning clothes inside-out instead of doing the wash. It may sound frivolous, but it's perfectly punk — all the more so coming from Japan, where even in the '80s "the thought of young women wielding guitars and writing their own songs was practically unheard of."

That also includes Grace Jones, who mainstream listeners know as an iconic musician-model who embodied the near-robotic sheen of polished disco pop — but who Goldman traces back to her Jamaican roots. The "Love/Unlove" chapter includes a discussion of "My Jamaican Guy" (1983), inspired by the sight of Wailers keyboardist Tyrone Downie emerging from a swim and shaking the water out of his dreads. The lyrics express Jones's lust, but also insist that her guy needs to stay "laid back." There's no question who's in command of the encounter.

And, it includes Neneh Cherry, "the ceaselessly inventive Afro-Euro-U.S. artist." In just a few pages, Goldman sketches the complex circumstances behind the creation of Cherry's biggest hit, 1988's "Buffalo Stance." While recording the album Raw Like Sushi, Cherry learned she was pregnant with her second child and became a newly-divorced single mother: she told her label and carried right on with her career. Promoting the single, she became the first artist ever to perform visibly pregnant on Top of the Pops.

The song, which draws its title from the "Buffalo" posse, centered on stylist Ray Petri, of which Cherry was a particularly charismatic member — and from a song it samples, Malcolm McLaren's "Buffalo Gals." A mind-bogglingly diverse musical mix, "Buffalo Stance" embodies punk in its willingness to bend the rules in favor of making a powerful personal statement.

"The beauty of the connection between punk, reggae, and hip-hop was that you could be a part of it," said Cherry. "But the most important ingredient was finding yourself and having your own voice. You had to write your own rhymes. 'Buffalo Stance' is very much about non-conformism."

Needless to say, Goldman also has plenty to say about ladies with loud guitars. In "Girly Identity" she writes about Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, who not only spearheaded the Riot Grrrl movement, she inspired the title of Nivana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (she scrawled the phrase on Kurt Cobain's wall) and, according to Goldman, was the force behind the cultural movement the Spice Girls distilled as "girl power." Though Goldman calls the U.K. pop quintet "a manipulated and manipulative construct," she cites their slogan as evidence of how widely the spirit of songs like Bikini Kill's "Rebel Girl" (1993) had spread through the broader culture.

Pussy Riot (as promised by the subtitle) show up in the "Money" chapter. Their 2012 song "Kropotkin Vodka" critiques the oligarchical excess of Russia's Putin era. Goldman cites the band's Nastya Mineralova on her form of feminism, which doesn't exclude men as members of the band despite its name. It just doesn't require them. "Woman is free," says Mineralova, "when she doesn't need a man as a reason and center of her existence."

Poly Styrene kicks everything off, in Goldman's discussion of the X-Ray Spex song "Identity" (1976). Styrene, whose father was Somali and whose mother was Scottish-Irish, wrote the song to explore the constant quest for true individuality — in a world where even countercultures (from the Mods and the Rockers to the punks) tended to dress and think alike.

"Sifting through over four decades of punk made by women," writes Goldman, "one thing is clear. Unmoored from what had been, from the 1970s to the early twenty-first century, a remarkable number of them were drawn to address the same primal, existential question: Who am I?"

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