Alice Bag and Allison Wolfe come from different decades and scenes, but it’s understandable that in many ways they are kindred spirits. Bag is the former frontwoman of first-wave L.A. punk pioneers the Bags, an activist, and the author of two books, including the harrowing memoir Violence Girl. Wolfe is the co-founder of Bratmobile (one of the first, most important Riot Grrrl bands of the early ‘90s) and the daughter of famous radical feminist and women’s health care heroine Pat Shively, and she’s currently working on an oral history of the Riot Grrrl era. When the two met as co-panelists at the L.A. Zinefest three years ago, they became fast friends and, later, musical collaborators.
“I was a big fan of Alice,” Wolfe tells Yahoo Music. “I had seen her perform in [Penelope Spheeris’s famous 1981 punk documentary] The Decline of Western Civilization, with her being one of the few women in that, and I was just really attracted to her stage presence and her energy.”
Bag admits that she’s “totally shocked” that Wolfe “even knew who I was. When I found out I as doing Zinefest with her, I was kind of intimidated and star-struck…. I thought of Allison as a strong woman who was expressing herself creatively and was part of a movement that, even though I hadn’t been a part of it, I appreciated. A lot of women were involved in early punk, but we didn’t really take a stance and say, ‘We’re doing this for other women!’ And the Riot Grrrl movement did say that, so I appreciate them moving feminism forward. And Allison did it in a way that think is just very open and very giving. She’s someone that you could see as, and I know this is a cliché, but like a sister.”
Now, Bag and Wolfe’s voices are needed more than ever. This is a politically charged election year when we have the first major-party female presidential candidate, but women’s rights are still constantly siege. It’s also a time when women may dominate the pop charts, but tales of sexism in the music business are still all too common (Kesha’s Dr. Luke lawsuit, the predatory behavior of music publicist Heathcliff Berru, and the L.A. Weekly’s sexist Sky Ferreira “thinkpiece” are just three recent distressing examples). Thankfully, Bag just released her first solo album (which features contributions from Wolfe), and Wolfe has returned with a new band, Sex Stains. So we had these two punk feminist icons sit down with Yahoo Music editor Lyndsey Parker for a lively mini-roundtable discussion about being a woman in a male-dominated industry, using music to protest social injustice and tell personal stories, and why it’s important for female artists to seize control of their own narratives.
YAHOO MUSIC: “Feminism” is still a word that inspires debate and provokes such strong emotions. And there are many women, including some high-profile celebrities, who still shun the term. How do you feel about that?
ALLISON WOLFE: It’s annoying. I just feel like for women, feminism is survival. Whether you want to embrace the word or not, I feel the concept is about our survival – psychically, physically, emotionally, whatever. I also feel that as long as sexism stays in fashion, then feminism has to stick around as a response as well. This is still a sexist world we live in, so feminism is necessary.
ALICE BAG: I think the people who say that they’re not feminist are responding to all the bad representations that have been put out there of what a feminist is, the clichés: the idea that feminists hate men, or that they’re trying to be like men. There is a failure to understand that feminism at its core is just fighting for equality. It’s very basic: Do you believe that people should be equal? Then you’re probably a feminist. You’re just shying away from something that has been maligned.
WOLFE: And buying into that.
BAG: Yes. Buying into a misrepresentation of what the word really means.
How do you feel when major pop figures like Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, or even Kim Kardashian use the term “feminism”?
WOLFE: It’s kind of hard for me to get too much into the mainstream interpretations of feminism, to be honest. But at the same time, it is powerful that Beyoncé had that huge flashing “FEMINIST” sign onstage. And if that does affect more people than I ever could – cool! But at the same time, it’s hard for me to buy into any corporate, capitalist stuff.
I know you two had very different upbringings. I want to know how your childhoods shaped your music.
WOLFE: I had a mix of stuff happen to me that was really difficult, but also my mom getting us away from that stuff and starting her life over again. A lot of the more radical stuff happened when I was like 8 or so. My mother left my father and took her three daughters with her, and really started her life over again. She came out as a lesbian, feminist, vegetarian, No Nukes-protesting, just all of this stuff all at once. It was a real abrupt change, but it was definitely for the better. She also moved us to Olympia, where she started the first women’s heath clinic there. It was a struggle at first. She was performing rape kits for women before hospitals did them routinely, and providing abortions – the only one in the county at the time. She got protested and harassed a lot. The whole family got harassed, and we had to be tough to deal with that. People would send her death threats, throw rocks at our house. One time they poisoned all the pets of the people in the clinic. That did have a big influence on me. At the same time, I felt like I needed to find my own way, and my own style of feminism. That’s why Riot Grrrl and Bratmobile brought about a third wave of feminism. It wasn’t reacting against my mom, but making it something that spoke to me.
BAG: A lot of my influence came from my dad, actually. My dad was really abusive to my mom. As a child witnessing this, I felt pretty helpless. I feel when you’re in an abusive household, everyone in the house is a victim. For me it was pretty traumatic, even though the abuse wasn’t directed at me. I felt very much like someone who didn’t have a voice. So when I got in a punk band and started singing, I felt for the first time like people were listening to me and I mattered. I felt supported, that there were all these people that were on my side. I felt empathy when I was onstage. For me, punk rock was really therapeutic. It helped me deal with issues of rage stemming from the abuse I witnessed growing up – my father beating up my mother in front of me.
And then on your new album, you have a song about escaping an abusive relationship, “He’s So Sorry.”
BAG: I remember having a conversation with my mother about how she had to get out of her situation. She knew it, and I knew it, but she could not imagine a way to get out of it. She was never able to get to that point. So my reason for writing this song was to create a sense of urgency to just leave. The thing that really affected me back then was my mom told me that the reason she stayed with my dad was because I needed a father. That she stayed with him to keep our family together for me. It really made me feel like, “My mother is taking these beatings for me.” Even thinking about it now makes me really upset.
The one positive thing about such a tragic situation, I imagine, would be that songs like “He’s So Sorry” help other people. Do you get any feedback from fans about how your music has helped them?
BAG: I actually played a show in San Francisco, and as I was coming off the stage, I had a woman stop me and tell me she was a rape survivor, and she thanked me for playing [the anti-rape song] “No Means No.” Then I walked a few steps further and another woman thanked me for playing “He’s So Sorry,” saying, “I am a domestic abuse survivor.” When I write these songs and perform them, I never stop to think that there are people in the audience, right there, that are going to feel like I’m talking to them directly. It was very powerful and emotional, because I didn’t know quite what to say to them except to give them a hug. I didn’t even know if it was necessary to say anything. I felt at that point I was glad I brought it up, but I wish I had some other kind of comforting advice that I could give or something more I could do. Sometimes as an artist you bring up topics that need to be addressed, but you wish you could do more than just bring it up for discussion. You wish you could end it.
WOLFE: But I think it’s so important to just bear witness, and to bring it up so people can find each other and not feel alone. There’s a lot of shame that goes with domestic violence and rape, so just having it be an open topic, with music, is important for women to identify and go, “OK, this didn’t just happen to me” or “This isn’t my fault.”
What about you, Allison? What sort of fan feedback do you get?
WOLFE: I think my music or lyrics I’ve written, a lot of it focused on issues of self-esteem in women and young girls. I think self-esteem is something I’ve always battled with. Sometimes at first when women and girls come up to me and say, “I was inspired by you” or “Your songs helped me during a hard time” and stuff like that, I’m surprised. I’m like, really? But then I think, well, it helped me too, to write that song. So that makes me really happy, and it makes me feel that my work has been worth it, but also because I can totally relate.
BAG: A lot of it has to do with healing yourself. When other people hear your music later, they can kind of take that healing journey with you.
Let’s go back to the beginnings of your musical journeys. What female artists inspired you when you were starting out?
BAG: I remember when I was growing up, I was really into Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, but at a certain point I got into rock ‘n’ roll and I wanted to form a rock band, and for some unknown reason I really wanted to form an all-girl band. I talked to people about it and they told me about this band [from the early ‘70s] called Fanny. But I’d look at my local record store, and there was no Fanny record. All I knew was that it existed. In many ways, the legacy of Fanny was a myth to me: “Wow! There was once an all-female rock band that was on a major label!” Finally when I heard it, I remember feeling so excited that something like that had happened. Just last year I got to meet [Fanny co-founder/guitarist] June Millington, and I was just blown away by this woman who is still rocking. She runs a rock camp out of her house. She’s still giving back to young girls.
WOLFE: For me, when I was younger I just listened to what my mom had around the house. She had a lot of Olivia Records stuff, a lot of lesbian music, kind of folksy stuff. She also had a lot of bluegrass stuff, and Emmylou Harris, and I also listened to a lot of Ella Fitzgerald and Patsy Cline; I loved their voices. Later when I started getting into music on my own, it was stuff like Bow Wow Wow, the Go-Go’s, B-52’s, Missing Persons, more new wave stuff. That was really influential to me. But it took a while before I thought I could actually do stuff like this on my own. Then it was seeing Exene from X or Alice in Decline. I was also lucky, growing up in Olympia, where there was a history of women doing a lot of stuff – Heather Lewis from Beat Happening, and Tobi Vail who was in the Go Team, this band Doris, this band Calamity Jane. And then Kathleen Hanna moved to Olympia and she was in a band called Viva Knievel and was running an art gallery and putting on shows. All that stuff influenced me slowly to the point where I was finally like, “Oh, maybe I can do this too.” And then Bikini Kill was huge. I mean, they started just before us, but they were like our big sisters and encouraged Bratmobile a lot.
It’s interesting to me that your respective local music scenes seemed to be very welcoming to women, since both the ‘90s Northwest and late-‘70s Hollywood scenes had a lot of white male energy. Los Angeles punk in particular seemed very masculine and aggressive.
BAG: Actually, I think the L.A. punk scene, when it first started, did not have a dominant white male energy. That happened later. In the very early stages of the L.A./Hollywood scene, it was a wide-open field where people felt like they could go in and define it for themselves. It was very inclusive, because, you know, it was a bunch of weirdos coming from different backgrounds who didn’t fit in in their own hometowns and found salvation in “Hollyweird.” That was the place where your weirdness was actually valued. That was my experience. I felt like, “This is my tribe. This is where I can be myself.” So there were a lot of women in bands, or being roadies or photographers. [L.A. punk club] the Masque itself, one of the co-signers for the lease was a woman in the band Backstage Pass. What happened was as the scene grew and got more popular, people started writing about the male aspects of it, the male members of the bands.
WOLFE: That’s the thing, Alice, from talking with you and going into that history with you, it was really surprising to me [that the L.A. punk scene was inclusive]. Because that’s not the way it’s presented. We all have to look at the fact that even though things were much more diverse in reality, the way that it’s documented historically, or if we don’t document it ourselves, is in a sexist, racist way. It’s like erasure – erasing the women and people of color who helped build this. Why don’t we hear more about them? Why aren’t there documentaries about them? Because when we started doing Riot Grrrl, a lot of it was in response to a lack of women in music and the scene. It was pre-Internet, and we didn’t have much access to all of the women who came before us. So we did kind of feel like, “Hey, we’re doing this new thing!” But we needed to realize that we’re building upon others, and we aren’t actually doing something brand-new. But also, why was Riot Grrrl necessary? I guess because the white guys from Huntington Beach came in and destroyed it all, and then you have to start over again.
BAG: Also, people who were trying to go back and write about the Hollywood punk scene who weren’t there, they’d call to interview me, but then they’d say, “Tell us what you thought of the Germs,” or “What did you think of the Weirdos?” It was that sort of thing where you don’t actually ask the woman what she remembers from the scene, but you ask her about how she remembers the guys from the scene. A lot of time I was asked to support a narrative that was already in place, and they just wanted anecdotes to fill in the colorful little stories about the [male bands], instead of asking me to tell my own story from my perspective. That happens to me even now. It’s like, “Wait a minute, I’m more than just a little part of this. I was there the whole time.” It’s kind of upsetting when you do have a chance to speak, but then you’re given very limited restrictions as to what you can talk about.
That’s a common complaint. Just this month, Viv Albertine of the Slits defaced a museum exhibit about British punk to protest its omission of female punk artists.
WOLFE: Yes, I saw that on Facebook; it was awesome. But, well, look who’s in charge. I’m guessing it’s rich straight white guys who run the museum, or are being given the grants or the funding for these anthologies and exhibitions. If you had the people who actually went through these experiences in charge, maybe the narrative would look different. That’s why I think it’s really important for us to be telling our own stories.
It seems the ‘90s, when Bratmobile were around, was a very good time for women in music. Besides the Riot Grrrl scene, in mainstream rock there were a lot of female and co-ed bands doing well, getting on the radio, winning Grammys, touring with Lilith Fair.
WOLFE: I was in a much more underground scene, and in the ‘90s I really couldn’t have cared less about mainstream anything! But I do know we had a very strong network all across the country, and maybe in England too, of all these cool women in cool bands, and cool promoters, where we thought, “This is really great! This is feminist and socially conscious!” And you’re right, it was a lot easier to move within that, especially in the early ‘90s. I think by the end of the ‘90s, a lot of that had gone away. Like, where were all the girl bands? They all broke up. Everything did seem to get more sexist again by the late ‘90s.
But why did that happen?
WOLFE: I think a lot of that may have been backlash – backlash to Riot Grrrl, backlash to Bikini Kill. But I also think it’s a testament, again, to who’s really in charge, who really owns the resources, and who really creates the narrative, even after you’ve had your say. It shows how much things need to change structurally and institutionally.
BAG: I think it’s also good to notice that when you make gains, you can’t assume that those gains will continue throughout the years. You have to be constantly looking towards creating opportunities for women. You can’t just say, “OK, that was great; there’s female representation in music now, so now we can relax and we don’t have to fight so hard!” I feel like we always have to be defending whatever progress we’ve made, or else someone else will come along and write us out of it again. You can see this in so many other areas of feminism, too. You can see that we are still fighting for reproductive rights, for Roe v. Wade. There’s always going to be people that will try to take these things away from us, so we have to stay on top of it. We can enjoy the progress we have made, but we have to remember to talk to our daughters, our sisters. We have to stay vigilant.
It’s disheartening how much progress still needs to be made. Like last year, when journalist Jessica Hopper tweeted asking women in the music business to share their stories of sexism, discrimination, and abuse, it was almost shocking how many responses she got. Did you read any of that?
WOLFE: I have to be honest. When that came out, I was surprised that people were surprised! Because that’s the kind of stuff that I hear about all the time, and that I’ve experienced all the time, and have been talking about and singing about and writing songs about all the time. So I thought it was kind of weird that as soon as Jessica Hopper tweets about it, it becomes a thing. It’s like, “No, no, no, this has always been happening for women in the music industry.” There’s nothing new at all about this. I still experience it. I feel like so many different shows that I’ve played, people who are working the club don’t really believe that I’m in the band! “Who are you? Why are you here?”
BAG: That just happened to you last week!
WOLFE: Yeah! Obviously that happens more in the larger venues, not the podunk punk clubs. But when I play more official venues, all the handlers and gatekeepers involved are like, “Wait, whose girlfriend are you? Why are you back here? Do you have the right kind of pass?” And then even after they’ve seen me onstage, they’re still asking me to show a million credentials. It’s like, “Dude, I’m in the band.” Shannon from Shannon & The Clams will post on Instagram about different weird things that have happened to her at gigs, things sound people and door people say to her on tour. Being a female in the industry, you have to constantly assert your right to be somewhere or do something.
BAG: I remember in our house in Arizona I had a guitar hanging in our living room, and my neighbor came in and said, “Oh, what kind of music does your husband play?” It’s a small thing, just slightly annoying, but it’s just the assumption that it was my husband who plays the guitar. Another one of the things that annoys me has to do with being a vocalist: how vocalists are treated as non-musicians. A lot of times if you’re playing with guys, there’s a sort of talking-down to the vocalist, like you’re just an ornament decorating their music. That’s very infuriating. That sort of stuff, I am very swift to put an end to that.
WOLFE: Sometimes there’s a lot of mansplaining from men in bands, especially in romantic relationships. I remember this [musician] guy [I dated] coming back from tour, and I questioned him about something, and he was like, “Look, you don’t know what it’s like after tour…” I was like, “Back up, dude. I don’t know what it’s like? You know who I am and what I’ve done. I’m not just some girl you’re going to s— all over. I f—ing know. In fact, I’m sure I’ve toured more than you. I’m sure I’ve had better shows than you! And I sure have experienced what you have experienced on tour, 10 times more. So just shut up!” It’s weird to me that guys still do that; they still talk to me like that, when they know who I am! But I don’t think any woman should be talked to that way.
So do you think it’s harder or easier now for aspiring female musicians than it was when you two respectively started out?
BAG: I think we’ve made some progress. I volunteer at this girls’ rock camp called Chicas Rockeras, where young girls are given the opportunity to play instruments, or they’ve got mentors showing them how to use the equipment, write songs, and have a dialog with other band members. That’s something that we never had. I remember watching somebody playing guitar and thinking, “Wow, they probably went to school for a long time to learn to do that.” There was this whole myth about, “How do you use all that equipment? What do all those pedals do?” All of a sudden now, there are all these opportunities for young girls to experiment – to touch those pedals, to twist those knobs.
WOLFE: Yeah, this is a weird anecdote, but in the ‘90s, I recall there was this rock ‘n’ roll high school for girls in Melbourne, Australia, and by the 2000s, you could see the direct result of that. There were so many girls in bands in Australia, and a lot of them said they came from that school.
BAG: So, we are making progress. It’s a little bit better. And again, we’ll probably have some backlash. But we just keep moving forward.
What would be your parting words of advice to young female artists?
WOLFE: I think it’s really important to be genuine and honest. I like bands that lay it on the line and put it out there, and say what they think is important and speak in their own voice. I think there is so much pressure on women in the public eye to be cute and pretty and nice. And while I think it can be powerful to have sexual elements in whatever you’re doing, I think it’s important to do it for you, from a genuine place. Don’t ever try to fit this image that is crafted by outside influences like the mainstream or the male gaze.
BAG: Well said. Exactly that.