Why The Music Industry Should Follow Punk's Erasure Of Gender
I spent a significant portion of my late teens and early twenties frequenting DIY music venues and swaying to the abstract sounds of punk bands with purposefully diluted vocals. These shows attracted the type of male-dominated crowd that actively enjoyed throwing fists into each other’s abdomens and shoving the neighboring strangers beside them (a.k.a. you) into the frightening hellscape of a mosh pit. No one was safe, and if you didn’t know that prior to your entry, you were at fault: this was punk.
Back in the ‘90s, radical female musicians like Kathleen Hanna and Molly Neuman boldly fronted the Riot Grrrl movement to end experiences like the one just described. Bands like Bratmobile and Bikini Kill pioneered the movement, garnering the attention of individuals worldwide by whipping off their tops, exposing their breasts on stage, and screaming of the systematic gendered oppression intrinsic to the music industry—an oppression, they felt, plagued punk. They wanted to see an equal representation on stage, and for women to feel safe at these potentially rowdy shows. These anger-fueled bands spurred chaos with the creation of socio-political zines, and they instilled safer space policies that would make music venues more inclusive and considerate of other’s personal safety.
One of Riot Grrrls’ main directives was “Girls To The Front,” which subsequently became the title of Sara Marcus’ 2010 acclaimed chronicle of the movement. It’s been over 20 years since the initial feminist breakthrough into punk; and from the looks of it, the genre seems to have finally listened to the Riot Grrrl message, even taking the notion a step further by affording its female and non-binary rockers the opportunity to be the genre’s vanguards.
Punk has never looked like this. By the end of 2015, the genre finally executed its original purpose: provide a powerful outlet and voice for groups that are oftentimes silenced. There had been dozens of examples pointing to the progress of punk’s efforts at gender-equality—the catalog of revered albums released by gender-queer or female-fronted bands topping the punk charts was immeasurable.
Bands like the latinx Downtown Boys, who prize themselves with government subverting lyrics on topics spanning surveillance, white privilege, and historical inequality, and gender-queer punks PWR BTTM, who contextualize the difficulties people of deviant bodies face, have gained critical acclaim outside of their genre, even managing to break into mainstream radio frequencies like NPR and KEXP.
These bands aren’t alone in the efforts to separate themselves from binary expectations in the industry—the most effective punk acts have been categorized as opposition art. And when you happen to fall outside of the norm of indie music (bearded, cisgender, white men in flannel), your existence on stage alone is a noncompliance to tradition. When coupled with horrifyingly complex issues and infectious riffs, these bands are the aestheticized embodiment of the philosophy of punk.
But, an issue arises when we go out of our way to categorize these considered deviant performers as others. When critics label a band as a “Girl Band” or a “Queer” band, they’re essentializing them and underserving their efforts in making music; these labels further separate them and deny them the opportunity to express other aspects of their identity. When we build labels around these bands, we face the risk of creating stereotypes, which are, of course, oftentimes more destructive than helpful when advocating for change.
On their 2016 tour, Speedy Ortiz’s drum set sported the slogan “Gender Is Over,” signalizing their desire to no longer be viewed as a female-fronted band, but instead as one that simply makes ridiculously fun music (same goes for Milk faves Surfbort). Sadie Dupuis, the front-woman of the punk pop group, has repeatedly expressed her disdain for labeling, and begs show attendees to leave their expectations at the venue’s door. At the end of the day, Dupuis’ gender is not the deciding factor in her band’s success.
Likewise, rising Brooklyn punk band T-Rextasy has taken their fair share of questions on the importance of their womanhood in a genre that has been deemed male-dominated since its birth in the ’70s. But, the college undergraduates vow that gender oppression is one that no longer has a strong wield over punk—rather, the entire industry needs to take note of what punk is doing to equalize the playing field.
“It’s not just the punk scene, but most music scenes that have disregarded women and treated them like shit,” Ebun Nazon-Power of T-Rextasy told MTV. “I think with bands like Aye Nako and Vagabon—who are not predominantly white, cis, and hetero—taking the stage in Brooklyn, we’re beginning to change the dialogue on what it means to be a ‘DIY New York band.’”
Without a doubt, gender shouldn’t change how we appreciate or make music. However, since we don’t live in a gender-blind world (yet), it’s imperative, as a society, that we recognize how we gender sound and dictate its appropriate creator. Once we’re fully able to acknowledge the evolution of punk and its impact on the overarching industry, will we see a change in how we listen, observe, and partake in music.
Images via. AV Club, Bandcamp, and CMF
Stay tuned to Milk for more on the music industry’s gender problem.