“Punk rock is just another word for freedom.”
Figures like Patti Smith, Blondie, Siouxsie Sioux and the Slits—these late ’70s female punk rock icons paved the way for the riotous and loud punk we bang out on our headphones. Almost a decade ago, the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s joined the list with their debut album Fever to Tell. Lead singer Karen O’s punk persona and lyrical character were part and parcel to the success of the YYY’s. Her image draws upon the historically sparse female figures of punk while also altering the status quo on what defines a punk icon. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, of course, have not aligned with the traditional genre of ’70s punk, but to some extent popularizes the third-wave riot grrrl scene and subculture ruled by Courtney Love and Kim Gordon. While it does not deal with the weightier themes of, say, Bikini Kill, it tells the tale of a woman who constantly tries to manage the economic and social (in)equality between herself and her lover(s).
On “Rich”, for instance, O speaks of being metaphorically “rich, like a hot noise.” Being so rich, she shouts, “I’ll take you out, boy!” She draws upon the power derived from monetary dependency, but argues that the “richness” of her confidence ought to compel others to act as she wishes. Similarly, in “Y Control”, she wishes “I could buy back / the woman you stole.” In “Cold Light”, O recounts a sex scene: “Cold light, hot night / be my heater, be my lover / and let’s do it to each other.” The semantics of her description of sex, objectifying her lover as a ‘heater’, results in a more equitable view on how one conducts sex. O is not “penetrated” or “fucked”, but instead they reciprocally “do it” to one another. These encounters do not suggest, however, that she disrespects her lover, given other songs’ treatment of love and sexuality within the album. In “Maps”, O tells an unknown lover, “Wait, they don’t love you like I love you.” Bleak, though, is her vision of love; as she mutters on the final track, “there is no modern romance.” For the most part, the lyrical content of O’s words do little to redress issues of inequality and disparity on a larger scale, yet the potency of feminist punk has not always solely relied on narrative strategies for political action.
Indeed, the presence of women in punk, punk rock, and music generally allows for the integration of women into music that they are not always afforded. O sexualizes herself, like many female musicians, yet her sex scenes do not position her as a sexual subordinate or object of pleasure. Instead, her lyrics enable her to navigate sexuality on her own terms.
The punk icon for women thus far tends to depict them in terms of their position within a historically male-dominant series of genres, usually in an effort of self-empowerment. Mostly, vulnerability and supremacy intertwine themselves to a certain degree, rendering their power fragile and tenuous. Sex-positive variations of punk over the years similarly try to reclaim women’s bodies, pleasures and desires yet oftentimes display this element of frailty and tenderness, though this is certainly not always the case. Liz Phair’s ’93 Exile in Guyville exemplifies this fusion of confident eroticism with tender candor, stripping both her body and soul bare for her listeners. In her widely (in)famous song, “Fuck and Run”, she narrates the story of a girl who hooks up with a guy, only to then realize that she likely will never sleep with him again:
I woke up alarmed
I didn’t know where I was at first
Just that I woke up in your arms
And almost immediately I felt sorry
‘Cause I didn’t think this would happen again
No matter what I could do or say
Just that I didn’t think this would happen again
With or without my best intentions
And whatever happened to a boyfriend
The kind of guy who tries to win you over?
And whatever happened to a boyfriend
The kind of guy who makes love ’cause he’s in it?
And I can feel it in my bones
I’m gonna spend another year alone
It’s fuck and run, fuck and run
Even when I was seventeen
Fuck and run, fuck and run
Even when I was twelve
Part of Phair’s success arose from the candor of her lyrics in their erogenous exploration of female sexuality, including polyamory and orgasms. Karen O, similarly, became so emblematic of a contemporary reformulation of punk indie rock because of the explicitness of her sexual bravura. While the major figureheads of punk rock—The Ramones, Television, the Clash and Sex Pistols—all explored alienation with the current political or social atmosphere, female punk rockers and indie musicians utilized the genre to unpack the unique position of women and to redress the hegemonic conditions that undergird sexism and misogyny. With queercore and the riot grrrl movement, marginal politics were given political vehicles for the destabilization of norms within the genre and beyond it. These efforts to queer the genre of punk rock and its affiliate genres enabled the inclusion of marginalized people in this then-popular cultural movement.
For further reading on the riot grrrl movement, read Ginger Hintz’s “Rebel Yell.”