“Articulating the Feeling is Hard”: Women and the Emo Revival

By Marian Phillips

During the 1980s, the first wave of emo music was born. An offshoot from Washington, D.C. hardcore bands, the musical genre introduced the world to traditional punk stylistic elements mixed with emotional vulnerability and poetic lyrics. Most notably, emo’s roots can be traced to Rites of Spring, making them the fathers of emo. In the beginning of the 1990s, the Midwest became the nation’s powerhouse for all things emo with bands such as Sunny Day Real Estate, Mineral, The Get Up Kids, and American Football. As the new millennium began, so did the third wave of the genre. At the same time, the lines of what qualified as emo blurred and gave way to elements of pop-punk, punk, and hip-hop to intertwine with it. Thus, Brand New, Taking Back Sunday, and Jimmy Eat World became the figureheads of the third wave. Then Myspace appeared. 

The social media website opened the door for emo to go mainstream with bands like My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, Panic! At the Disco, and Paramore. As a result, “mall emo” [1] formed and gave the genre more negative attention than it had before. The term emo was never truly accepted by anyone in the scene or outside of it, no one truly knows what the definition of emo is, and whether or not it’s a fashion choice or a musical genre at all. Regardless of the complexities and confusion that comes with emo, 2008 witnessed the fourth wave, more commonly known as the “Emo Revival,” and it’s still going strong to this day. But this time there are critical differences. You may have noticed that almost every band listed above are fronted by men, that is not the case anymore. Today, we are seeing more women at the forefront of this revival than we have seen previously and the  amount of people welcoming the word emo into their lives is increasing. 

If you were to ask anyone about women in emo bands during the 2000s, more times than not, you’ll either hear Hayley Williams (Paramore) or an “I don’t know.” Today, the answers are entirely different. You might hear Zoë Allaire Reynold (Kississippi), Brianna Collins (Tigers Jaw), Alex Menne (Great Grandpa), Julia Steiner (Ratboys) or Rachel Lightner (Nervous Dater). Growing up during the third wave of emo in the early 2000s, I constantly sought bands that were led by women or even included a woman in their line-up. Pre-teen me would find Paramore, Hey Monday, and Eisley, but that was pretty much it. The third wave is marked as the most sexist years of the genre, so the lack of women and LGBTQIA+ individuals does not come as a surprise. 

For instance, lyrics of abusing women or adamently denying homosexuality swarmed the third wave. In 2005, Fall Out Boy wrote “Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner,” which included Patrick Stump singing “so wear me like a locket around your throat/I’ll weigh you down/I’ll watch you choke.” [2] The lyrics are caked in jealousy and anger towards an unknown woman that they are having an affair with. Furthermore, in 2017, Jesse Lacey – frontman for the popular third wave emo band Brand New – was accused of preying on underaged fans. Which comes as no surprise when you look at the lyrics Lacey wrote for the song “Me Vs. Maradona Vs. Elvis” from the 2003 album Deja Entendu: “I got desperate desires and unadmirable plans/My tongue will taste of gin and malicious intent/Bring you back to the bar/Get you out of the cold/My sober straight face gets you out of your clothes.” He sings “I almost feel sorry for what I’m gonna do,” [3] giving himself the image of predator and women as prey. [4]

As I reached the age of sixteen in 2012, bands like Pity Sex, Adventures, Bully, and Tigers Jaw entered my heavy rotation playlist. Today, we are witnessing such an impecable growth of women fronted punk, emo, pop-punk, and hardcore bands that make options almost endless. Considering that the image of emo historically looks very white, cisgender, heterosexual, and solely for men, we are also seeing more LGBTQIA+ individuals and women of color making space for themselves in the Emo Revival. For instance, the band She/Her/Hers calls out this image in their song “Kill the Boy Band,” “So you started a band?/Well, let me guess who’s in it/All-straight all-white able-bodied cis men/Say you don’t know many female musicians/Why the fuck would they want to be part of a scene with people like you in it?” [5] The women, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and women of color that participate in the Emo Revival reject the expected norm of what emo has historically looked like. 

Tigers Jaw (left to right: Brianna Collins, Ben Walsh, Teddy Roberts, and Logan Schwartz) at the Rex Theater in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania June 21, 2017. Photo courtesy of the author. 

The importance of emo bands have always been their ability to articulate to a group of people that they are not alone in what they are experiencing or feeling. The lack of women in the genre up until this point, in my experience, felt isolating. These women of the Emo Revival are making space for more diverse demographic to participate in the genre. For instance, while living in Lawrence, Kansas from 2014-2018, I had the opportunity to watch the DIT (Do it Together) community nurture the growth of women and LGBTQIA+ individuals in every genre of music. I watched eyes light up, and felt my own do the same, when someone I could identify with walked on stage and melted away the isolation I felt in my teenage years. We weren’t listening to a man whine about a girl not wanting him back or breaking his heart, we were hearing emotions such as frustration, anger, and resentment with an unjust system, patriarchy, and the mistreatment of women at large. 

It was at this point, during the 2010s, that another wave of Riot Grrrl punk bands emerged and began to merge with emo. In fact, most of the bands I have listed that are women led are, more often than not, considered punk bands. The two genres tend to meld together when a mixture of emotional vulnerability, a fast tempo, and sharp vocals with contrasting melodies are performed. Lyrically, they can sound the same, depending on the band and musician (for example, the Canadian band PUP is considered both emo and punk). Yet, emo often uses more abstract language to articulate a point, while punk may just get to the point in a forthright manner. Regardless of the differing stylistic elements between the genres, the Emo Revival includes bands that we would probably consider more punk than emo, but are also listed under that moniker. 

Cherry Glazerr’s Clementine Crevy at the Bowery Ballroom in Brooklyn, New York February 16, 2019. Photo courtesy of the author. 

I wrote this piece when I thought of all of the women fronted emo, punk, pop-punk, alternative, and indie bands that have gone under the radar in favor of the played out figurehead of a man who’s whining about a girl. These bands are just as deserving of the scene’s attention. Their presence in DIT bars and venues, clubs, concert halls, and basement shows impact communities in a larger way than we usually consider. Girls Rock Camps are popping up in almost every city, and women musicians are actively nurturing the growth of women and young girls in music, no matter the genre. In short, this piece isn’t simply about where emo was or what it is now, this is about where the future of music is going, and the increasing presence of women, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and women of color in every genre of music and their capability of fostering a supportive and welcoming community. 

2020 will see Paramore’s Hayley Williams do a solo project, Halsey’s Maniac on January 17th, Poppy’s I Disagree on January 10th, a new album from Soccer Mommy, and rumors of Tigers Jaw’s upcoming album coming in 2020 have recently surfaced. 


Notes

[1] Tom Connick, “The Beginner’s Guide to the Evolution of Emo: NME,” NME Music News, Reviews, Videos, Galleries, Tickets and Blogs | NME.COM, April 30, 2018, www.nme.com/blogs/nme-blogs/emo-wave-guide-evolution-2302802.

[2]  Fall Out Boy, Patrick Stump, “Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner,” From Under the Cork Tree, Island Records, 2005, track 5. Retrieved from https://open.spotify.com/album/5nkUSlIhtoJZMOUlB0sNCp?highlight=spotify:track:6HJzCcSMggn7Ultxs48dAe

[3]  Brand New, Jesse Lacey, “Me Vs. Maradona Vs. Elvis,” Deja Entendu, Triple Crown Records, 2003, track 8. Retrieved from https://open.spotify.com/album/6vDiMhyfSnTn18OY99BSQX

[4] Jenn Pelly, “Unraveling the Sexism of Emo’s Third Wave,” Pitchfork, Pitchfork, 17 Nov. 2017, pitchfork.com/thepitch/unraveling-the-sexism-of-emos-third-wave/.

[5] She/Her/Hers, Emma Grrrl, “Kill the Boy Band,” Grrrl Angst, 2018. Retrieved from https://open.spotify.com/album/1joEVEBQ4YuxikhoClLGBP


Marian Phillips is a second year Master’s Candidate at Sarah Lawrence College studying Women’s and Gender History. Her research interests include LGBTQIA+ history, the history of punk movements/music, social movements, 1950s Cold War America, and Horror film studies. She will present “‘Activists, Punks, Freaks, and Rebels’: Queercore’s Grassroots Activism from 1980 to the Present” at Sarah Lawrence College’s 22nd Annual Women’s History Conference on March 27-28, 2020.

An Uprising of the Uterus: Pussy Riot, Politics, and Performance

By Rachael Nuckles

Performance art or protest collective? Punk rockers or political activists? However you label them, Pussy Riot has become a well known name outside of their home city of Moscow in Russia. Based on their wide range of performances and media appearances, it’s hard to define this group under one neat label. Right now, I like international punk scholar Kevin Dunn’s choice to use the translation “an uprising in my uterus.” Pussy Riot’s English-language name is not fully translatable into Russian, so this phrase represents an admirable attempt. First gaining international notoriety with their “Punk Prayer” protest in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Pussy Riot has remained a global phenomenon due to their guerrilla-style performance activism and brightly-colored-balaclava brand. Their displays have resulted in many arrests, including the 2011 charges of “hooliganism” for their Punk Prayer performance. On-site demonstrations are central to Pussy Riot’s activist brand; from the Sochi Olympics in 2014 to the World Cup Final in 2018, they rely on media coverage and social media-savvy citizens to spread their imagery and messages. They utilize music to reach a broad audience in a renewal of Riot Grrrl era punk ideology about the gendered body and political space. Most recently, they released “Hangerz,” released December 6, 2019 tackles abortion rights and women’s bodily autonomy.

The Punk Prayer can be read in a variety of ways, but the role domesticity in this performance have not been acknowledged at length. At its core, this protest dismantled Russian gender tradition in a physical, visual way. To understand how radical this protest actually was, it must be contextualized in terms of cultural domesticity. There are a couple of ways we can accomplish this. First, the role of Putin-era (beginning in 2000-present day) politics on gendered ideology and expectations must be considered. Second, the Russian Orthodox Christian church’s views on “morality” have also helped to construct the landscape in which Pussy Riot is operating. 

Part of the reason Pussy Riot is such a threatening force in Russia is due to the ways they challenge traditional gender expectations. Brian Rourke and Andrew Wiget note that in the post-communist state of Russia, “gendered citizenship…was entirely determined by the state.” Women’s roles in the Stalin-era (approximately 1922-1953) were guided by motherhood and work only if it helped to stabilize the patriarchal social structure. Therefore, this work was mostly domestic and located in the private sphere. This mode of understanding gender privileges cisgendered and heterosexual experience. Queer identities are outliers according to this ideology, and therefore have significantly less visibility in Russian culture. Also of note is the role of the Orthodox Church in constructing widely-held beliefs about gender roles and morality. A conservative organization, the Orthodox Church in Russia privileges the traditional heterosexual family unit alongside the Russian Family Code which holds the family accountable for a child’s “moral upbringing.” Currently, the Orthodox Church is concerned with designating acceptable standards of appearance for “true” Christians. The Cathedral now has dress requirements, with “security officers…ready to check the appropriateness of the attire of those entering.” 

Political Science scholar Janet Elise Johnson and Psychology researcher Aino Saarinen suggest that Vladmir Putin brought “a more restrictive regime” which limited both women’s freedoms and ability to participate in feminist activism. In post-communist Russia, some feminist scholars conclude that Putin’s rule ushered in a “neotraditional gender ideology in which women were reassigned to the private sphere and men to the newly empowered public.” Motherhood and domesticity have become central to women’s social role under Putin’s reforms. This neotraditional gender ideology makes sexist policies and institutions possible. Sexist language is normalized by Putin, who brings private male “locker room talk” into the public sphere and, to some, make it a legitimate expression of Russian masculine identity. Derogatory language about women, paired with masculine empowerment, forces Russian women further into the domestic, private sphere which limits their ability to be public activists.

Though public activism isn’t always achievable, women activists working within countries ruled by authoritarian governments tend to use domestic traditions in their protesting. Using cultural norms and appearances helps women to “avoid being seen as political and threatening.” Thus, utilizing the traditions associated with motherly domesticity, such as appearance, can be a significant tool for remaining invisible while organizing. In the case of Pussy Riot, utilizing the acceptable clothing of the Orthodox Church helped them to gain access to the Cathedral for their Punk Prayer performance:

Appropriate attire allowed them to smuggle in both their brightly colored costumes and a guitar unnoticed. Because they achieved this invisibility, their performance was arguably even more shocking to churchgoers. In this way, Pussy Riot “made visible the Church’s nested frames of exclusion by violating them.” Performing such bold dancing in attire deemed too revealing for the church was doubly problematic for “tradition.” While not all members of Pussy Riot are cisgendered and heterosexual, (membership is often fluid and anonymous) the women involved in the Punk Prayer were. So, these participants were working from their privilege to call attention to flaws within Russia’s strict systems of understanding. Their protest challenges the cultural belief that women’s place is at home, in the domestic sphere only as mothers, and the Church’s belief about feminine modesty and self-discipline which directly opposed feminist thought.

Interestingly, two of the members of Pussy Riot arrested for the Cathedral performance are also mothers. This further complicates their critique of roles and spaces available to women in Russia. Being a mother and feminist activist simply does not align within the close-knit social structures of Putin’s rule and Orthodox Christianity. A woman’s “function” is to be a mother in Russian society, and her motherhood should be inspired by the Virgin Mary herself. How could one be a “good” mother under the patriarchal system if she does not submit to the domestic sphere as expected? How could women so brash and outspoken also be mothers? Why would a mother choose such bright, attention-seeking clothing? How could these women be connected in any way to the ideals embodied by the Virgin Mary?

Because Pussy Riot challenges deeply-held beliefs regarding women’s social position, they are no longer able to be read as non-threatening domestic beings. Ultimately, this disconnect between gender, motherhood, and the public sphere seems to be the major motivation for arresting the group on charges of “hooliganism.” By infiltrating an infamous location to critique both the church and state, Pussy Riot dismantled two of the most prominent institutions enforcing traditional domesticity in Russian culture. In the west, we might laugh at such a charge as “hooliganism.” Though, when considering it through the lens of domesticity, it makes a bit more sense. To control gender expression, imprisoning outliers might help to keep them silent. In the case of Pussy Riot, it seems to have only sparked international attention and discussion regarding topics such as gender inequality, separation of church and state, and corruption in government institutions. As the collective has proven, even imprisonment cannot silence the oppressed. 


Bibliography

Dunn, Kevin C. “Pussy Rioting.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 16, no. 2 (2014): 317-34. doi:10.1080/14616742.2014.919103.

Isupova, O. G. “The Social Meaning of Motherhood in Russia Today “Only You Need Your Child”.” Russian Education and Society 44 (2002): 61-80.

Johnson, Janet Elise, and Aino Saarinen. “Twenty-First-Century Feminisms under Repression: Gender Regime Change and the Women’s Crisis Center Movement in Russia.” Signs 38, no. 3 (2013): 543-67. 

Rourke, Brian, and Andrew Wiget. “Pussy Riot, Putin and the Politics of Embodiment.” Cultural Studies 30, no. 2 (2016): 234-60. doi:10.1080/09502386.2014.974644.

Link to “Hangerz”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HNZymIIAUJk

Link to Punk Prayer Performance:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=grEBLskpDWQ


Rachael is a first year graduate student in the Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College. Her current research interests include girls’ cultural production and “bedroom culture,” technology-based activism, and performance studies.

Revolutionary Women of Music: Nina Simone, Poly Styrene, and Valerie Agnew

By Marian Phillips

Marian is a first year student in the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College.

This morning on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2019, I woke up to Lizzo’s “Juice” stuck in my head. Off to a good start, I continued my morning routine while Carly Rae Jepsen, Cherry Glazerr, Rico Nasty, and Dream Wife – amongst others – shuffled and played on my Spotify playlist. As Tacocat’s “Hey Girl” came on, it hit me, why aren’t we talking more about the women that have pioneered not just music as a whole, but have used their platform as artists and musicians to promote social, political, and cultural change? Of course, there are the greats we all know, but what about Nina Simone, Poly Styrene, and Valerie Agnew? For this week’s post, I will share a portion of the activist efforts of these women.

Nina Simone, born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933, was a notable African American jazz, R&B, and gospel singer and songwriter, as well as a civil rights activist. While Simone initially aspired to become a concert pianist, her desire for social and political justice led her down a different path. Gaining mainstream success from her debut album Little Girl Blue, her song “Mississippi Goddam,” inspired by the racism that plagued (and continues to plague) the United States, propelled her to the forefront of the civil rights movement. For the rest of her career, Nina Simone spoke and performed at civil rights meetings and protests. Her political activism never disappeared from her music, and her desire for justice continued up until her death in 2003. For more on Simone’s life please see autobiography I Put a Spell on You (1991).

Poly Styrene, born Marianne Joan Elliot-Said on July 3, 1957, was a British woman of color and the frontwoman of the punk band X-Ray Spex. Styrene started the band after running a local news ad that stated she was looking for “Young punx who want to stick it together.”[i] As a result, X-Ray Spex was born and so was the beginning of their critique on capitalism which would last for their entire career. Styrene questioned bondage in every aspect of the word. Whether it was sexual, social, political, capitalist, or other, she would deconstruct the entire system with her singing. As Maria Raha states in Cinderella’s Big Score (2005) “amid all the jubilant chaos, they were able to provide a solid, relevant social commentary.”[ii] Styrene continued to promote listeners to fight back until her untimely death from metastasized breast cancer on April 25, 2011. Please see Cinderella’s Big Score for more information about Poly.

Valerie Agnew, born January 13, 1969, was the drummer of the Seattle based Riot Grrrl feminist-punk band 7 Year Bitch. Agnew was a longtime friend of The Gits singer Mia Zapata. While 7 Year Bitch’s lyrics are so incredibly politically charged, it wasn’t until the rape and murder of Zapata that Agnew’s platform as a musician and as an activist came to a head. Agnew, alongside fellow feminist punks, formed the Home Alive collective in the mid-90s. The collective – still around to this day – strives to provide affordable self-defense courses for women and members of the LGBTQ community. Punk-feminists were sick of seeing the people that they cared for become victims to such violent crimes, and Agnew stood up and said that enough was enough. Since the formation of the collective, people have continued to utilize the educational tools that they have learned and that their website now provides. While Agnew is only one of the founders, she and 7 Year Bitch stick out for their unapologetically anti-patriarchy songs such as “Dead Men Don’t Rape” and “M.I.A.”

Simone, Styrene, and Agnew are only three of the hundreds of women that have used their platform to question injustices, capitalism, and the patriarchy. For the sake of time and length, I have chosen these three because of their impact on me personally. While they all reside in different genres of music, the three of these women have their determination towards social, cultural, and political activism in common. On this International Women’s Day (as well as the entirety of Women’s History Month), I encourage you all to look at women who have started a revolution through music, and how big of an impact music can have when women such as Simone, Styrene, and Agnew are at the frontlines.


[i] Maria Raha, Cinderella’s Big Score: Women of the Punk and Indie Underground, (California; Seal Press: 2005), 86.
[ii] Raha, 89.

Queering Categories, Bringing Wreck

illustration by Cristy Road

by Kate Wadkins

In sync with Sarah Lawrence’s recent call for papers for 2011’s Women’s History Conference, I am syndicating my review of the plenary panel from this year’s The Message is in the Music: Hip Hop Feminism, Riot Grrrl, Latina Music & More with RE/VISIONIST (it is also currently published in this year’s Women’s History newsletter). Specifically Ngo and Nguyen’s papers, in the context of the Conference at large, really inspired me to pursue my thesis work on masculinities in punk rock. Watching other scholars dare to take on pop culture subjects like music gave me hope and certainty that cultural production is worthy of an historical treatment.

This article is also timely as it preempts the publication of International Girl Gang Underground, a compilation zine about the way riot grrrl has influenced punk feminist cultural production over the past twenty years. Nguyen’s early iteration of her paper, “Aesthetics, Access, Intimacy” or “Race, Riot Grrrl, Bad Feelings” will be included in the zine, nestled in among scene reports and personal stories from all over the world.

“I quit punk like 8 times,” Mimi Nguyen confessed to a full auditorium at Sarah Lawrence College’s 12th Annual Women’s History Conference: The Message is in the Music: Hip-Hop Feminism, Riot Grrrl, Latina Music & More, recollecting her contentious relationship with punk rock. As the first panel of the morning opened up, the groggy, packed audience, comprised of women of all ages and ilk, quickly awoke to Nguyen’s sharp wit and powerful presence. For the plenary panel, Fiona Ngo and Mimi Nguyen, both assistant professors at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, discussed grassroots punk scenes and their internal racial dynamics. A third panelist, Sarah Lawrence alum Christa D’Angelica, presented on what she termed a “second wave” of riot grrrl that traversed from zine[1] pages to dial-up modems in the late 1990s. Continue reading