Last summer, when Caitlyn Jenner came out as transgender, headlines exploded as if the world had never seen a trans celebrity before. But meanwhile, Laura Jane Grace, the front-woman of popular punk-rock band Against Me!, had been out for three years and had long been making music about trans issues. Even before they came out, her struggles with gender identity found their way into her songs, she told a jam-packed room in Bushwick art and performance venue The Silent Barn Thursday night. “Every single Against Me! record has songs that are just me dealing with gender dysphoria.”
She was in Brooklyn for a benefit concert hosted by Gender Is Over, a group she has supported by sporting and raffling off a T-shirt with its logo to raise money for organizations that assist the trans community. The proceeds from Thursday’s show went to help undocumented immigrants gain representation, which is disproportionately difficult for LGBT people.
The whole night centered around social justice. Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and Worriers front-person Lauren Denitzio performed songs like “They/Them/Theirs” that critique the gender binary. Singer/songwriter David Dondero sang “New Berlin Wall,” which calls on the government to help immigrants with the resources it currently uses to keep them out.
The shaky tenor of Dondero’s voice would make you think Conor Oberst inspired his work, but it’s the other way around: Oberst has cited him as a major influence. Given his poetic storytelling, it’s easy to see why. His music’s candid autobiographical vignettes are well worth a listen.
But even during these performances, the audience yelled for Laura Jane Grace to come on stage. Gender Is Over didn’t list her among the evening’s performers — they only named a “special guest” by the pseudonym Clarice Starling — but most attendees had caught who the headliner was through word of mouth. When she finally got on stage, she misheard “I love you, Laura” as “Fuck you, Laura” but didn’t seem to mind. “I’m flexible,” she reassured everyone.
With her new act Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers, she played Against Me! favorites like “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” and “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong.” She sang her old lyrics the way she originally wrote them, before she revised them to hide her gender while living as a man. In “Pretty Girls,” she added the line, “You wouldn’t think something like gender identity would complicate something like asking for some company.” What seemed like a tribute to the nerves associated with asking someone out was in fact a confession about how Grace’s gender impeded her romantic relationships.
Grace also read passages in progress from her upcoming book, which documents everything from her childhood identification with Madonna, who she thought she was singing “Cheerio girl,” to the pressure she felt to stay silent when her colleagues made transphobic remarks, her spontaneous proposal to her ex-wife, and her decision to stop caring whether or not she passed. All these stories, in different ways, called for smashing the patriarchy and gender roles.
The mainstream media still present Caitlyn Jenner as the go-to authority on trans issues. But unlike the politically conservative Jenner, Grace has long been advocating progressive politics in her music, and she has never advised any trans woman not to “look like a man in a dress.” Based on the screaming crowd’s reactions to the powerful words she spoke and sang, she’s the role model the trans community is rallying around.
At the second night of a three-part Don Giovanni showcase last Friday, we caught up with three of the New Brunswick-based punk label’s brightest and best. We also decided to pioneer a new interviewing technique based on a popular children’s fortune telling game, using a folded paper “cootie-catcher” (or “saltcellar” or “chatterbox” or “whirlybird” or whatever you may have called it).
Lauren Denitzio, lead singer of Worriers, isn’t at all squeamish about dealing with weighty concepts when it comes to songwriting. Her band’s debut full-length, Cruel Optimist, draws from rich literal references, personal experiences, and the politics of being a feminist. Denitzio’s words sometimes come across as a challenge to examine privilege, and she’s spent plenty of time here delving into her own and opening up about the conclusions she’s come to, without any heavy-handedness. When taken together, the album’s overall feeling is one of exhilaration, energy, and inspiring call to action. And her band, comprised of former bandmates from The Measure [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][sa] Tim Burke and Mikey Erg, as well as best friend Rachel Rubino on bass, is more than willing to back that up.
LAUREN PICKS CAT, 8, 4, 5 and gets the question:What’s more important, the personal or the political?
LD: Woah. That is a good question. Maybe I’ll say the personal because of the saying “the personal is political”. Over the years, the way I’ve written songs comes from a very personal place, trying to find a way to use personal things that I write about to talk about other, political things. That’s what I try to have fun with, is writing about personal things that are cathartic for me to write about and sing about but they’re also talking about larger issues. And being able to bring that into the band without it being like “We are a POLITICAL BAND, and we’re going to sing about these things that are important to us but don’t necessarily relate directly to our personal lives.” So yeah, I’d say the personal. Because I think it can be more dynamic.
LAUREN PICKS GHOST, 6, 2, 7 and gets the question:What’s your favorite song from “Cruel Optimist”?
LD: I’ll say “Best Case Scenario” is my favorite one. I think a lot of the songs maybe have more to them than face value, but I think “Best Case” is really fun to play, really fun to sing, and it’s also just a straight-up love song about my sweetheart, so I always really enjoy that one.
LAUREN PICKS GUITAR, 3, 9, 2 and gets the question:“Passion” is a reference to Jeanette Winterson, and there are lots of literary references on the record. What’s a book you think everyone should read and if it happens to relate to your songs, how so?
LD: Well I feel like the obvious answer to this would be Cruel Optimism by Lauren Berlant. It’s kind of where the title for the record came from and I think that it’s a more theoretical, maybe a bit more academic book than say, Passion by Jeanette Winterson. But I think it’s an accessible read. She talks about a lot of things that make a lot of sense to me in terms of how we define success and how people can be very attached to this mainstream, neo-liberal, everyone for themselves, very capitalist mentality of the quote-unquote good life – whatever that means to you. And how detaching from that can bring about new possibilities. Regardless of the examples that she uses in the book, it has been really useful for me in both my artwork and music in thinking about how we construct our own worlds and our own lives based on goals that don’t have to do with what we’ve been told growing up or what the news wants to tell you is successful or the right life path. She also talks about how those things can be where living takes place, like in the pursuit of the good life. But I think it’s a really interesting book. I really love it, and love her writing and it’s a book I would hand to anyone. AF:Do you think she knows that you named a record after her book? LD: In fact I do know that, because her publisher, Duke University Press, found a link to the record online and links to it underneath her book on their website. It says, listen to the Worriers’ punk song “Cruel Optimist”. And I’ve written to her and told her it was an inspiration and she approves. She likes the music, she thinks it’s rad. It gave me a reason to talk to someone I admire. The record is Lauren Berlant approved.
LAUREN PICKS BEER, 2, 6, 3, and gets the question:How did you get involved with the folks at Don Giovanni?
LD: Well, the first band I was ever in, The Measure [sa], was based in New Brunswick, where Joe and the label are also based. Most of the original Don Giovanni bands were from New Brunswick, so just through knowing people from New Brunswick, through my friendship with Joe. He’s just always been very supportive, and I think the focus of the label is really on the creative output of his friends, even though that’s kind of widening location-wise. AF:So it’s sort of like a family? LD: Definitely.
LAUREN PICKS GHOST, 3, 8, 4 and gets the question:Are you worried right now? If so, what about?
LD: I’m worried about when we have to go on! [laughs] But I’m not worried all the time. I mean I think it definitely reflects a certain sensibility that I have sometimes. And that we as a band had when it started. It’s a mix of just trying to humorous and actually being apprehensive.
LAUREN PICKS CAT, 7, 5, 6 and gets the question:How have the bands you’ve been in in the past shaped the current band you’re in?
LD: Well, I think it has definitely influenced the way I interact with other people I’m playing music with, especially because I’m really the only songwriter in this band. It’s influenced how I respond to not having someone else consistently writing songs. If I want there to be a range and don’t want everything to sound the same it’s kind of up to me to do that. But I also have all these freedoms, and I feel like I paid my dues in other bands and really worked hard and put out a lot of records and really went for it. Knowing that you can really play as many shows as you want and do it all the time, even as I am getting older or whatever, it’s a reminder that there’s really nothing stopping me from just making it happen.
LAUREN PICKS GUITAR, 3, 4, 9 and gets the question:If you were asked to take part in the Winter Olympics, which sport would you choose?
LD: Oh my god [laughing]. Well first off I wouldn’t participate in the Winter Olympics. The olympics are a very nationalist, problematic thing that I wouldn’t want to actually participate in. But, in terms of athletic prowess, you know, if you were asking me to participate in an athletic competition of such caliber – AF:The Don Giovanni Winter Games. LD: Yes! If I had all the athletic ability in the world, maybe snowboarding. Only because as a kid there was this Tony Hawk video game I would play, I think. I feel like that would be like the “punk” sport. Or ski jumping maybe. I could never do either of these things. I would just be too scared. But in this universe where I am playing winter games, I am also not scared, so there we go.
And lastly:What’s the scariest thing about declaring yourself a feminist? LD: Well I think in general, it is a scary concept to put your foot down about your own politics, especially if you’re using the word “feminist” around people who don’t identify that way or aren’t as familiar with it. They may be a little scared of it or have preconceived notions about it. So I think it’s scary to try to hold your own when people want to attack you for that or don’t agree with you. It’s that way about any political belief, kind of. For me personally, I am not scared any more. I’ve had confrontations between friends, and on the internet, and wherever, where I’ve had to defend feminism or the things that I think because I consider myself a feminist. The scariest thing is just having to put out the emotional effort to have difficult discussions with people who you otherwise get along with, or to think that people are gonna judge you for that or any other thing that you do or say politically. Any time you make a big statement that you can fully put your weight behind, you wonder if someone is gonna give you a hard time, or push back on it. I just don’t care any more, and on the flip side it’s great to be able to be be like “Whatever man, this is how I feel” and I’m not gonna change because somebody doesn’t think it’s a popular thing.
That fearlessness comes across in the content of her music as well as her performance of it. On stage, Denitzio’s lighthearted interactions with her bandmates belie the most serious subject matter. The band rounded out selections from Cruel Optimism by revisiting work from 2011’s Past Lives EP and playing two songs from a 7″ single recently released on Berlin’s Yo-Yo Records titled Sinead O’Rebellion. Denitzio’s unadorned vocal delivery is matter-of-fact, assured and refreshing, while Erg, Burke, and Rubino play with a classically indefatigable punk spirit, giving the sense that no one on stage is worried in the least.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]
It is a goddamn golden age for girl-fronted punk. It’s not that there haven’t been important works by women in the ensuing years, but 2013 saw a Riot Grrrl Renaissance unlike anything since its early ’90s inception. Back then, Kathleen Hanna had to make safe spaces at Bikini Kill shows for female attendees by calling out aggressive dudes. The ladies at the forefront of the movement had to blacklist the mainstream media that painted them alternately as fashion plates, dykes, or whores (sometimes all three, and always with negative connotations; it shouldn’t be implied that to be any of these things is bad or wrong in the first place). By all accounts, they “couldn’t play” anyway, so the medium and its messages were barely worth discussing as anything more than a passing trend. Meanwhile, riot grrrls preached their radical politics one Xerox at a time.
If the wisdom of these women seemed to skip the generation that adored Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time” without criticism, it has finally come full circle in a way that feels vital and urgent now. Not only are we as a culture stepping up to finally examine sexism and exploitation and appropriation within the industry, there are more acts than ever completely unafraid to do their own thing – be it overtly political (see: Priests) or revolutionary in its emotional candidness (looking at you, Waxahatchee). Maybe it has to do with direct influences of stalwart ensembles like Sleater-Kinney and Bratmobile, and maybe it’s a thing that’s happened gradually as those first voices carved out room for other female performers (for instance, in establishing Rock Camps for young female musicians throughout the country, a project that initially came about through discussions and direct action in riot grrrl communities). There’s no way to make an inclusive list of all the phenomenal bands (punk or otherwise) now blazing their own trails through their various scenes but taking a tally of at least a few of these acts felt like a necessity for me as someone whose entire life was informed by music like this, and girls like them. And because fifteen years after I discovered it for myself, 2013 feels like one giant, celebratory dance party/victory lap.
CARRYING THE TORCH
If 2013 is the year female-fronted punk broke, it has to be said that not all 90’s era veterans burned out or faded politely away. In fact, two of the grunge scene’s most influential women put out intensely personal releases this year.
Body/Head, Kim Gordon’s noise project with Bill Nace, created a moving exploration of feminine and masculine tropes in the form of a noise record. I wouldn’t want to reduce Coming Apart to a document of her split from long-time partner Thurston Moore, but the whole thing feels every bit as raw and awkward as a life change that catastrophic must have been. It’s Gordon’s most powerful, wild moments in Sonic Youth distilled down and then blown up. Her vocals can sound desperate and strained at times, but this is ironically the most forceful aspect of the recordings – the anger and the vulnerability existing together in all its anti-harmony.
Likewise, Hanna’s record is not a chronicle of her late-stage Lyme Disease, the chronic illness that forced her to quit touring with socially-conscious electro outfit Le Tigre (for that, check out Sini Anderson’s brilliant Hanna doc The Punk Singer) but a testament to the triumph that creating it had over her sickness. Reviving her moniker from ’97’s bedroom-recording project Julie Ruin by adding a “The” to the front and four incredible musicians and co-conspirators at her back, the band released Run Fast in September. It manages to meld every one of Hanna’s prior sonic sensibilities, burnishing the the dance-punk of Feminist Sweepstakes with the sass and cacophony of The Singles and adopting the confessional tone of that first solo record.
This is riot grrrl all grown up; though neither project should necessarily bear that particular label, it feels like a continuation of the story that in turn validates its importance. And the influence of Gordon and Hanna and others of their ilk can certainly be heard in a whole host of bands with break-out records that landed this year. Again, it’s not that anyone in these bands are running around calling themselves riot grrrls, just that they’d be right at home on a playlist with bands who did (and bands of that era, from Red Aunts to Discount to that dog., that demanded my affection as equally).
Katie and Allison Crutchfield have been making music since they were teenagers, most notably in P.S. Elliot before splitting up to pursue creative projects as separate entities. Katie released American Weekend in 2012 and Cerulean Salt in March, Allison released a self-titled record with her band Swearin’ last year and followed it up with Surfing Strange a few months ago. The girls are mirror twins, meaning they’re identical but that their features are reversed in some instances, and that’s a good approximation of how their musical projects merge and divide. Cerulean Salt is stripped down sonically and hyper-focused on thematic subject matter, dealing directly with her family history and its personal stories. Swearin’ takes a music-making approach more classic to pop punk, its subject matter just as earnest but with a broader focus. The two have reunited for one-off projects (like an incredible cover of Grimes’ Oblivion for Rookie Mag) and live together in Philly with their boyfriends (both of whom play in Swearin’). In interviews and in their song lyrics they espouse feminist ideas unabashedly and have talked openly about finding inspiration in the riot grrrl movement.
Speaking of Alison’s boyfriend, Kyle Gilbride produced girl-punk supergroup Upset’s debut album, She’s Gone, out this year on Don Giovanni. Uniting Vivian Girls contemporaries Ali Koehler and Jenn Prince with Patty Schemel of Hole, She’s Gone is a quirky collection of catchy, rapid-fire jams that at first listen might come off as slightly superficial. But at the crux of the record is the idea of examining female experience, in particular the formative teenage years, in which break-ups and female rivalry loom large. Taking what might be written off as juvenile and giving it its due importance in song is what makes the album both accessible and relevant. If it seems precocious to compare one’s dreams to a dinosaur, at least it validates them by re-calibrating the scale.
Don Giovanni put out another astounding release in The Worriers’ Cruel Optimist. Fronted by Lauren Denitzio of Measure, the project seeks to combine her interests in literature, art, and queer activism in a way her past musical projects have not. Over hooky guitars and crashing drums, Denitzio talks about privilege in feminism and the need to re-evaluate personal politics with growing older on “Never Were”, references Jeanette Winterson as a way to talk about androgyny and gender identity on “Passion”, and ruminates on the toll that conservative politics took on a personal relationship in “Killjoy”. The album closes with “Why We Try”, a triumphant reminder of the reasons these discussions still need to happen in music and elsewhere. “If we expect something better / things won’t just move forward / Remember why we try“.
In talking about New Brunswick’s esteemed DIY circuit, we’d be remiss to not include Marissa Paternoster, active for several years now in the punk scene there, releasing work under solo moniker Noun as well as with her band Screaming Females. It’s the latter’s most recent release, Chalk Tape, that sees the band going in some very interesting melodic directions with their particularly searing brand of guitar rock, recording most of the songs without revisions based around concepts scrawled on a chalkboard. Paternoster’s commanding vocals, gliding easily between out-and-out aggressive and tender, looped sophistication, paired with her exceptional guitar work, make Chalk Tape a tour de force. Here’s hoping a few misguided Miley fans accidentally stumbled on the wrong “Wrecking Ball”.
Nestled in another well-respected DIY scene, Northampton-based Speedy Ortiz represent a collective of 90’s-era rock enthusiasts with a poet at the helm. Sadie Dupuis feels more comfortable behind a guitar than on open-mike night, but the lyrics she penned for Major Arcana and delivers with brass are practically worthy of a Pulitzer. Razor sharp wit, slyly self-deprecating quips, and vitriol marked by vulnerability characterize the general tone of the record, its particular lyrical references so nuanced and clever it begs about a million listens.
Potty Mouth sprang out of the same scene when Ally Einbinder, frustrated with the difficulties of booking shows and playing in bands with men who rarely asked her input when it came to songwriting, decided to form and all-female punk band. Einbinder and her cohorts are frequent participants in Ladyfest, which has sought to showcase feminist artists across different mediums for thirteen years running. Bursting with energy and attitude, Potty Mouth’s debut Hell Bent calls bullshit on punk scene bravado, questions obsessive tendencies, encourages punk girls in small towns “it-gets-better” style, and delivers acute, sharp-tongued kiss-offs to any doubters.
Though the pun alludes to classically trained harpist and witchy-voiced weird-folk patron saint Joanna Newsom, Alanna McArdle and her compatriots in Joanna Gruesome stray pretty far from that reference point. Instead, the UK band cherry-picks from shoegaze, twee, and thunderous punk with Adderal-fueled ferocity. McArdle is a study in contradictions, one moment singing in a sweet-voiced whisper and the next shouting psychotically, often about crushing skulls or some other, equally violent way of expressing her twisted affections. The group met in anger management, and every second on Weird Sister sees them working out some deeply seated issues, the end result proving what a gift anger can be.
This particular calendar year, it seems, is only the beginning. With a record crate’s worth of amazing releases from 2013, there’s a bevvy of bands with bandcamp profiles, demos, EPs, cassettes and singles that hold a lot of promise for future releases. Across the board, when asked how their bands formed or when they started playing, the response is “I wanted to do it so I got a guitar and I just started playing.” The DIY ethos and “fuck it” attitude are what make these projects so vital and exciting.
The DC group are explosive live, in particular thanks to Katie Greer’s spastic growl and Daniele Withonel’s revelatory drumming. The band’s been known to spout off about anti-consumerism between songs, out of breath from the high-energy set, but there’s plenty of radical content in their self-released tapes, too. Those searching for manifestos need look no further than “USA (Incantations)”, a spoken-word bruiser that skewers the non-inclusive founding of America and ends with “this country was not made for you and it was built on lies and murder”; it kind of makes me want to vote for Priests for president. Elsewhere on Tape 2, Withonel steps from behind her drum kit to flip the script on the male gaze, with perfect Kathleen Hanna pitch. Whether they’re singing about Lana del Ray or Lillian Hellman, these self-described Marxists provide an electrifying listen.
Perfect Pussy plays notoriously brief shows – if you blink during their set, you’ll miss ’em – but all have played the Syracuse scene for years now. The quartet got a lot of attention this over I Have Lost All Desire For Feeling, a four song EP with walls of guitar fuzz and synths and some forceful vocals from Meredith Graves buried low in the mix. Trained in opera but trying out punk, she’s said that because she’s insecure about her singing they’ll likely stay that way when the band records a full length. But it’s not because she’s trying to hide her words – you can read them by clicking through each song on Perfect Pussy’s bandcamp. They are well worth extracting from the sludge, coming across like a Jenny Holzer send-up of rape culture, mixed in with some personal meditations on growing past a female betrayal and catharsis through relationships thrown in for good measure.
Ellen Kempner writes off-kilter lyrics that perfectly distill the wonder and worry that comes with being a teenager, but with a wise, almost nostalgic tone that does not belie the fact that she is, actually, a freshman in college, living these experiences for the first time. Her musician father taught her how to play guitar, and in high school she was in a band called Cheerleader before releasing some solo recordings that morphed into Palehound. Their excellent Bent Nail EP came together this year, featuring the quintessential “Pet Carrot”, which seesaws from sing-songy folk to scuzzy 90’s grunge more reminiscent of Liz Phair than of Lorde.
The Philly trio are a perfect picture of female solidarity, repping other girl bands from Philly in interviews and inking their bodies with matching arrow tattoos, as well as getting involved with Philly’s Ladyfest. They sing about friendships and loss and the city around them with a raspy roar, holding back just enough on their three-song demo to hint at the spaces they’ll grow into.
Coming out of Columbus, Ohio’s great lo-fi scene (which bands like Times New Viking and Psychedelic Horseshit helped build, and contemporaries Sex Tide and Connections will only continue), All Dogs take that same energy and clean up the grime just a bit to let Maryn Bartley’s hopelessly catchy vocal melodies shine. There’s a youthful exuberance and earnestness that propels the material on their split cassette with Slouch and their self-titled 7″ released on Salinas Records. The Crutchfield sisters have been big early supporters; Katie booked them as openers on an upcoming Waxahatchee tour after saying they “made her cry”.
About an hour south in Cincinatti, Bridget Battle takes an endearing 60’s girl group intonation and spits it snottily into a microphone while her bandmates in TWEENS play messy, immediate punk rock. Their CMJ performances earned them rave reviews and helped them release a bit of the energy they’d pent up during the recording of their first full-length in DUMBO, set to see release sometime this spring. Until then, they’ll be touring with fellow Ohioans the Deal sisters for The Breeders’ extended reunion shows.
“I don’t care what you think as long as I can’t hear it / I’ll be a fly some other place. / I don’t care what you do / As long as you stay away from me / I can’t stand the way you do the things you do.” So begins “All the Girls” from Heavy Bangs’ bandcamp demos. It’s a departure from the quirky indie pop Cynthia Schemmer played as guitarist for Radiator Hospital, but it takes cues from the same attention to clever melody. The best indication of what might come from her solo project are the artful and contemplative postcards she posts to her tumblr (http://cynthiaschemmer.tumblr.com/) before sending them to to friends, apologetically explaining why Philly drew her back after time in New York, or recounting conversations she had with a therapist over the loss of illusions. Like the two tracks she’s shared, these can feel sad but are intently self-aware, the attention to detail speaking volumes between the lines.
Are those alive in a golden age ever able to really realize it? Or can it only be understood by looking back? With the passage of time we grow older and wiser and we’re better able to put things into context, but there are some moments that are simply meant to be lived. If you’re not screaming at the top of your lungs to these records or dancing in the front row at one of these shows, you’re doing it wrong.