On Thursday night, the Aloud series at the Los Angeles Central library had organized a very interesting talk entitled ‘Queens of Noise’, between music critic and author Evelyn McDonnell (‘Mamarama: A Memoir of Sex, Kids and Rock ‘n’ Roll’, ‘Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways’), musician feminist, DIY punk riot girl Allison Wolfe (Bratmobile and many other bands) and X’s punk rock icon, indefatigable activist Exene Cervenka. I got totally absorbed by their conversation and, in particular, I enjoyed every minute of what Exene had to say, with a large smile on my face and head nodding. This woman still talks her own mind and she has never been afraid to do so: she embodies punk feminism, the central theme of the three women’s conversation. And what about ‘Queens of noise’? It was actually a lyric from a Runaway song explained McDonnell, an expression juxtaposing a contradiction between royalty, dissonance and disturbance.
Coincidently, ex-Runaways’ Lita Ford was playing at the Whisky a Go-Go the same night, whereas her ex-band, the teenager first all-female punk band, was certainly at the center of the conversation. Exene talked fast and her outspoken tone got her lots of clapping and cheering during the talk. It was intense and passionate, and I tried to report about the best parts as much as I could!
‘The Runaways did nothing to advance the status of women in music,’ said Exene – although she made an exception of Joan Jett who is very supportive of women in music. ‘The runaways is an interesting moment because it was a moment which turned for women…. women always have to reinvent women every time they do something’… ‘Every generation of women has to start from scratch because women are lost in history’ she added. This idea of history lost in the process came back several times in the conversation, plus Exene explained she ‘didn’t like the Kim Foley element’ regarding the Runaways – I don’t blame her, having seen him in person a few weeks ago and discovered what a weird character he is – ‘I didn’t like they had to wear their underwear on the outside,… if you play all the instruments why do you have to wear all your underwear on the outside?’ she continued making everyone laugh. ‘A lot of our history is erased and people don’t realize how lucky they are now with the internet’ added Allison Wolfe.
Exene explained how welcoming the Los Angeles punk scene was at the time, and she described an idyllic picture, ‘the Hollywood scene and the East side scene merged together, it was a great moment for everybody and so many women were involved in punk’…’Everyone was welcome in that scene, there wasn’t any sexism, racism or homophobia,…Everybody was an outcast’… ‘It was fine being a woman’. But what about now? She deplores the scene, ‘It’s easier to be a naked cheerleader than to learn to play bass!’ she said. I sure can recognize all these cheerleaders, they are all over the TV, radio waves and music news. Exene easily identify them as ‘a bunch of people’, who ‘are respected because they are doing very well commercially’… but ‘none of them are singing they are lipsyncing! There are a lot of young girls who have never seen a live performance’, she added, ‘but they have seen dancing!’ At this moment, I knew that I was going to enjoy the rest of the conversation even more. I couldn’t agree with her more when she said that ‘a great voice doesn’t mean shit’, and that having a good voice ‘isn’t the same thing than having soul’…’isn’t the same thing than emotion and blowing someone away’. And Exene is not afraid to name people! ‘Justin Bieber, is he a boy or a girl? It doesn’t matter!’ She says while everyone was laughing again, explaining that as long as these people are young, ‘the younger the better’ and are these ‘manufactured things’…’They just want to create these things’ she said without specifying who exactly are ‘they’….
So what happened to the punk energy of the 70s-80s? If they mentioned ‘Pussy Riot’, probably the inheritor of the riot grrrl movement, ‘the punkiest thing I have seen in a long time’, said Allison Wolfe, ‘they are what I wish riot grrrl would have become!’ They agree it is still possible to be dangerous in music, if a band has a real goal. Potentially, these bands are out there, although Allison Wolfe wonders why the scene isn’t more politicized, giving the bad economy, 911, the wars and the Bush years. They are there or will be there thanks to these awesome rock camps for girls, empowering girls through music education, with which both women have been involved.
However, all this seems to be totally invisible in mainstream culture. For Exene, the present situation is a natural progression of music, as, at the end ‘people want sugary sweet corn syrupy things rather than the lettuce grown in the backyard that we were doing’… it is just the sad observation on our culture, people always prefer fast food. Exene is not kind with this mainstream culture, and she is not done with names. With ‘Disney creature’, Selena Gomez, or Miley Cyrus, she sees a rampant pedophilia permeating our society, ‘They are so screwed, just like Judy Garland,… Every generation has to do the same crap over and over, we don’t get to build on anything!’ Women are still primarily sex objects, and ‘people in power want to erase history and make people feel worthless at each generation!’
During the Q&A, someone even asked her about Beyonce and the idea that her last album embodies contemporary feminist and empowers women. ‘You are talking about Mrs. Carter?’ she said maliciously, and I relished every word of what she had to say about the queen B, ‘I don’t see any value in anything that she does, I never heard her sing except the national anthem’,… ‘she is sending the message, I am the most beautiful woman in the world, I got this great guy, he is the richest, the most important guy, I got this $8,000 diamond ring…. It’s the same thing than for the academy awards! We are supposed to look at them saying I wish I could be them, but this is the worst thing you can tell to people! Because you realize you can’t never have that, therefore you are nothing!’ It was something like this or very close to this! I applauded and I wasn’t the only one….’There’s a stratification in our society that didn’t exist before, singing is great but I don’t think it should be elevated to this, this celebrity worship thing is gonna destroy us all! And she is the convoy of all!,.. I thought Madonna was bad and now look!’ I guess she despises the Beyonce phenomenon as much as I do!
She continued saying that kids’ only choices are between being athlete or slut, ‘these are your choices otherwise you are worthless’… ‘Look up at Miley, they think she is making a strong statement because she is naked, I really don’t get it!… ‘If Beyonce could exist and other women could also exist, …she could be whatever she wants to be, but the thing is that she exists at everyone’s else exclusion’ For me, that was a sort of revelation, e.x.a.c.t.l.y, and that’s why I hate her so much! In our corporate culture brainwashing little girls and telling them what they should become, there is no room for women with alternative views,… ‘She [Beyonce] can do what she wants, I don’t give a shit about what she does!’
However, Exene is clear, she is still hopeful for the future, she had a vision that punk rock could change the course of history and revolutionize the world and she is still a true activist, she is this amazing school teacher that changed your life by telling you were smart, this person telling you that there were no bars in this cage, and no restrictions to what you can do. ‘The best quote I ever read was by Dr. Martin Luther King (‘Even if I knew that the world would end tomorrow I would still plant a tree’)’ she says, but she has her own version: ‘Even though I know the world is gonna end tomorrow, I still plant my fucking tree!’ She has a last advice for women involved in music, and she is telling it with a song entitled ‘I sold my wedding ring today’,… girls not only you now have a chance to not be a cheerleader, but also… ‘don’t get married’… and there are ‘lots of reasons’ for that she added before singing the funny song.
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