The following photo essay attempts to document and reveal the ways in which the Women Who Rock (un)Conference of 2014 has provided a space to reconstruct and reclaim the popular narrative of authenticity and inclusion in Punk Rock. The conference achieves this by including the excluded narratives of the multifaceted women of punk who have been marginalized and by bringing it back to where punk had it’s start: the community. My hope is that the documentation of this type of community building can assist in the reconstruction of a more authentic and holistic punk narrative; one which recognizes these women as “agents of musical history and cultural change”.
History of Punk Rock & Criticism of the Colorblind Narrative
When tracing the popular historical narrative associated with punk rock, there is an emphasis on the idea that punk was the inclusive art form welcoming whoever wanted to be a part of it. It was a response to the political tensions of the time. This is the story we hear in the documentary entitled “Women in Punk”. In the 60’s and 70’s, mainstream music was certainly entertaining, but it seemed to lack awareness and was becoming more and more disconnected from the realities of the time. People were beginning to lose faith in the government and the world was changing rapidly. Punk was the revolution. It often served as a commentary on U.S foreign policy and was used to organize protests against various social and political dilemmas in western society. It was authentic and received much of its influence from the underground and the community. What made it so appealing to people was that it strayed away from the status quo and in fact seemed to challenge it by dismissing the aesthetically pleasing and the “put together”. According to this narrative, punk rock attempted to give those who were marginalized, especially women, a platform to make music their own way by their own rules. It was sexually liberating for women because punk focused on their music not their sexuality. In the world of punk, women were no longer seen as sex objects but rather, as figures of power. Women could be bandleaders in groups full of men. Female artists such as Patti Smith became the first to inform punk and they challenged the objectification of the female body by carrying a “tomboyish” attitude. Their style was androgynous and attitudes powerful which was unusual for girls at the time. Punk was not focused on being glamorous, punk was empowerment. And in this way, it is said, the punk movement welcomed whoever wanted to be a part of it.
But here is where we find the paradox behind this popular punk narrative. As Mimi Nyugen points out in her essay titled “ It’s not a White World: looking for Race in Punk”, even in this self-claiming inclusive art form, White hegemony is present. Or as Nyugen herself would say “Whitestraightboy hegemony organizes punk”. Whiteness is still accepted as being neutral and any real discussion of race/gender/sexuality is seen as divisive and goes against the “progressive” nature of punk. The popular narrative adopts a colorblind stance. On the one hand, punk exists on a platform, which welcomes the marginalized, yet it goes on to say “ but only if you provide a certain, acceptable type of individuality”. Acceptable to whom? As Nguyen points out in her article, the misguided stance of colorblindness ignores the fact that “ individuals operate within a context of uneven social relations.” If punk is supposed to be in touch with the times, it cannot dismiss the consequences of these uneven social relations. In order for punk to be truly progressive, it is important to take a critical look at this popular narrative which is still underlined by white privilege even in it’s “neutral” stance (for whiteness is neutral in this case). To be truly empowering, punk must recognize all forms of marginalization and allow for the critical discussion of these forms of marginalization in our society. Their must be a recognition of the attachment of privilege to punk, white privilege that is. There must be a reconstruction of this ambitious yet ironically dismissive popular narrative of punk.
This is where the Women Who Rock (un)Conference of 2014 comes in and reclaims a more holistic narrative of punk authenticity.
WWR & The Reconstruction of the Punk Narrative
Although the sun was as vibrant as it could ever be that Saturday morning, and the birds cheerfully sang songs to remind me spring had at last arrived in the Northwest, I found myself too busy cursing the bewildering boulevards of Seattle to take any notice. It was the morning of April 26th and the final event of the Women Who Rock conference was taking place at the Bush School community room. After 45 minutes of navigating dead ends and multiple detours, I finally ran into the “ Spiking the Honey” event sign in front of the building. Now to be quite honest, when I first saw the schedule, I had no real interest in sitting in on a talk about the “ Power of the female in the punk rock world.” Although the content itself seemed intellectually stimulating, I was more so interested in the Jam session and the Film Festival that would take place at the Washington Hall that Friday. I wanted the lights and the glamour and I figured this way, I could get a few action shots and some exciting content for my project. But my schedule was limiting, and so there I was rushing to make it to the closing talk of the WWR (un)Conference. Never did I expect I would end up witnessing so much healing, empowerment, and community building in one small room.
I walked in on a discussion of marginalization in society and how that was the very reason punk was formed and the very thing that brought the community of punk rockers together. The panel in the front consisted of Alice Bag, Jessica Mills, & NighTrain. These were women from diverse backgrounds, of different ages, and some were even mothers in bands touring the country. The event was intimate as the audience sat close to the panel and had plenty of opportunity to directly interact with the guest speakers. When I entered the room, it was the story NighTrain, a female punk rock band made up of four black women of different ages and backgrounds, which caught my attention. Here they were challenging the dismissive nature of the popular narrative of punk just with their presence, and more so with their stories. The members of the band were revealing the challenges they faced touring the U.S as women of color in a punk band. They discussed the racial tensions they faced and how much of a sacrifice it was to be away from their children for months at a time. This new narrative recognized the multifaceted lives of these women in punk. It was not just about the music and the foreign policies; it was about the very real struggles of these diverse women here in our immediate communities.
But the WWR conference provided more than an opportunity for the musicians and guest speakers to share their stories. It also provided a space for those sitting in the audience (the community) to participate and share their untold stories. It reclaimed the original narrative of punk being born out of the underground/the community and integrated punk with the people. As one of the members of Nightrain revealed dealing with the lack of acceptance they faced in southern church towns, and the racial tensions they had endured on tour in these conservative towns (as black women endorsing punk music), one audience member immediately spoke up. In tears, she revealed her own experience as a white woman born in these conservative small towns and how much she struggled with being told that she could not be around people of color. This was all she had known yet even so, she still could not accept the segregation being promoted by her own. She was the misfit, the one that went against the norm and she found acceptance in punk where it was all right to be the “outcast” and to celebrate diversity. I looked around the room to see hands and sleeves wiping faces only to realize that I too was emotionally moved by this woman’s display of courage. It was the vulnerability she allowed us to see, this same vulnerability we have all felt at different times in our lives yet were too afraid to express.
Our racial history is uncomfortable; no doubt about it. But here was a display of how it was possible to create a safe space that would allow all sides to share their stories without the fear of being attacked. The WWR (un)Conference was challenging the popular notion that punk rock should “transcend” race/sexuality/gender and reconstructing this narrative to include the untold stories of those who have been marginalized in these ways. It was challenging the misguided notion of a colorblind punk and was instead reclaiming the popular narrative of punk being the inclusive art form and living up to it. True healing and transcendence requires bringing stagnant and painful energies to the forefront and honestly addressing these tensions.
Ultimately, with this thought in mind, I finally understand the importance of my role in documenting this form of community building. If we, the community members, do not document and archive our untold stories, they will remain unheard. I too have a responsibility in accurately depicting and sharing the reclaimed and reconstructed punk narrative.