[19 August 2012]
In 1976, the emergence of punk rock established a raw, emotional, and socially conscious music genre. The music is identifiable by rapid cacophonous chord shifts accented by sometimes unintelligible lyrics – both reaching volumes marked by the highest decibel on the amplifiers. The audience, usually packed within the confines of a small venue, sought refuge in the societal margins and through the music experienced a type of social solidarity and camaraderie.
It is mistakenly thought that men constituted the majority of musicians, performers and audiences thereby resulting in the creation of an intensely dramatic homosocial space. Yet, if one were to scan across the audience, the spectator would notice women among the riotous crowds. These women were equally attracted to the loud and violent scene and fully participated in and influenced the punk rock framework. As Johnny Rotten observed “women were out there playing with the men, taking us on in equal terms” (5). But who were these female musicians and fans?
Helen Reddington’s The Lost Women of Rock Music: Female Musicians of the Punk Era (2nd edition) is a cultural-history of the women in Brighton, England’s punk rock movement. Part auto-ethnography and part original ethnography, Reddington calls upon her own experiences in the scene in addition to interviews, primary, and secondary sources to draw a complete picture of the role of women in punk rock. She showcases the experiences of groups such as The Slits, The Catholic Girls, the Au Pairs, and The Raincoats, just to name a few, in relation to the examination of larger social issues. For example, the frequency of women instrumentalists, the media response to women in punk rock, the innovations of the Brighton scene, and the commodification of female musicians, etc. Thus, it is Reddington’s intention to give voice to the female punk rockers and document the “gender renegotiations that appeared to be happening during this period” (68).
Reddington adopts a feminist research model, articulating her own biases and tensions between her position as an academic and former punk rocker. By including herself amongst her informants, Reddington recreates a community that demonstrates multiple systems of thought. Since she is a member of the scene, she embodies a type of authenticity and validity that previously androcentric accounts lack. The Lost Women of Rock Music is a means to “rescue some less famous women’s stories from obscurity, underlining that punk was just as much about individual empowerment as music making…” (11). For female fans and musicians, the punk lifestyle and music served as a tool by which they opposed social normativity and enabled the creation of a unique identity consciousness. Reddington’s research establishes a clear sense of their creative, political, and social identity that also forcefully negotiated the phallocentric codes dictated by both punk music and the larger social expectations of women.
Chapter 4, “Noise, Violence, and Femininity”, is arguably the most interesting chapter. Here Reddington examines the impact and ubiquity of sexual assault on a woman’s participation in punk rock. Sexual and physical assault by audience members, music industry representatives, etc. became another factor preventing a woman’s involvement but also reinforced “an element of ‘regulation’ and control” (122). However, the women ultimately created a space where dialogues about abuse, violence, or alienation facilitated a collective understanding of a shared non-normative experience. Generally the impact and repercussions of sexual assault is infrequently undertaken, thus rendering it as one of Reddington’s novel contributions to the field.
Reddington’s text is an important contribution to the scholarship on the role of women in music, and the inclusion of a woman’s voice in popular social theory. Some of the best moments of this text are Reddington’s confrontation with big-time social theorists such as Dick Hebdige, Simon Frith, Theodor Adorno, and John Savage who excluded and discounted women’s contribution to music and social history. While Hebdige’s et al. work can (sometimes) fit the identity of female punk rockers, their work typically “believes in a ‘one size fits all’ definition” (162).
Conversely, Reddington’s work acts as a counterpoint as she brings attention to two important issues. First, women’s contributions to musical-cultural histories are undervalued if women are included at all. The existing research reflects male-centric values and experiences while excluding the issues and insights unique to the marginalized. Second, by writing this book and including the narratives of her informants, Reddington prompts a call to women and the oppressed to construct their own narratives based on an equitable and empowered voice.
Yet at times, Reddington’s research seems rehashed and duplicitous. Her first edition was published in 2007, and arguably at that time the scholarship and popular publications specifically dealing with this subject were few. Since then, much more work and research has been devoted to the role of women in punk rock and music. Reddington briefly acknowledges the work of Deena Weinstein, Mimi Schippers, and Lauraine LeBlanc. But the work of Gayle Wald, Mary Celeste Kearney, Marion Leonard, and Rosalind Gill, just to name a few, have also utilized Reddington’s premise and demonstrated nuanced methods in understanding the role of women in music. Reddington’s first edition was a groundbreaking study; this edition is a reiteration of the same plights and struggles.
More so, the organization of The Lost Women of Rock Music is curious. Her final chapter attempts to establish the social context for her study, although she spends the majority of the chapter undertaking the challenges and debates presented by academics and theorists. But it is here that she finally answers questions that she should have answered in the beginning of the book, such as what is her definition of punk rock and cultural expression, what were the social and political circumstances that framed the movement, etc. To know her standpoint would have brought more clarity to the overall text. It is also here that readers realize that she has completely overlooked race and sexual identity from her study and exclusively calls upon class as the primary association in the punk rock scene.
Without a doubt, Reddington has “opened new archives, discovered previously hidden documents and allowed suppressed voices to speak” (157). However, the majority of the book consists of lengthy block quotes and there is very little original commentary or analysis from Reddington. Yes, she is providing the space for the female punk rockers to voice their empowerment, yet from a reader’s perspective it is difficult to hear their voices through the numerous accounts and academic din. Accordingly, Reddington acknowledges “it seemed better to focus on the experiences of fewer women in greater depth…[and] to avoid lengthy analysis of the tabloid attitude to punk bands” (9). Yet to overload the text with excerpts from the interviews renders a great disservice; the voices of other female punk rockers, in addition to Reddington’s, are again lost rather than resurfaced.
Ultimately, any text that attempts to bring a woman’s voice and experience to the forefront without trivialization is important. Regretably Reddington’s The Lost Women of Rock Music: Female Musicians of the Punk Era only serves to restate the larger issues of women in music such as the negotiation of gender norms, archaic stereotypes of creative ability, the moral panics flamed by the media, and the position of women in the public realm, etc. Arguably, any type of research contextualizing the role of women in what is commonly (mis)understood as a homosocial space will reflect on the same issues. By all means read this book if you are interested in early punk rock but do not expect any new standards from which to frame your understanding of the era.