The introduction into the punk movement directly coincides with the transition between the 1960s and the 1970s, with the counterculture movement directly facilitating the rise of punk rock. The elements that united the counterculture movement similarly play definitive roles in punk, specifically its overtly political stances, drug use and appreciation, and increasingly daring artistic decisions spurned by popular media and culture. While a significant amount of the punk scene has it origins in the UK, the American contributions to punk cannot be overlooked, with artists like Patti Smith, Blondie, the B-52’s, and the GoGo’s. While American punk veered towards pop influences, it helped to popularize punk among the masses as well as aid in its introduction throughout America.
Punk music is defined by its unorthodox approaches to music, defiant clothing styles, and the constant drive to be different and cater to the “other” category outside of mainstream culture, taking pride in being deviant in attitude and style. The punk movement existed, and exists, as a reaction to stereotypical gender roles and and traditional norms present in America, which it strives to destroy and reinvent through the utilization of rough, unpolished, and largely unprofessional music. Women were especially involved in this endeavor, being effective and passionate about gender issues within their music because it was directly applying to their lives, and thus female punk bands became increasingly popular and numerous within the underground music scenes of urban landscapes, most notably New York City. As I mentioned before, American punk differed from English punk in its intensity and breadth. The sheer density of punk in the UK heavily outweighs that of American punk, but both areas influenced each other over time, America evolving the edginess of England into something more commercially available to consumers in America, resulting in pop-punk like the GoGo’s, whose sound reflects typical high fructose pop of the ’70s and ’80s, yet adopt punk clothing styles and politically charged, feminist messages easily received and demanded by the teenage female population. The GoGo’s exercised their independence and punk mentality by being the primary writers and instrumentalists of their music, a gender-defying move within the music industry that exuded confidence and feminine strength. The lyrics of the Gogo’s similarly display their individuality as women and discuss issues within the gender binary of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. For example, their 1981 track “Tonite” from their album Beauty and the Beat is an epitome of female bravado, the lyrics exclaiming “There’s nothing/ There’s no one/ To stand in our way/ Get dressed up/ Get messed up/ Blow our cares away.” Although the Gogo’s deviated from the oftentimes explicit and ruthless nature of traditional punk, they simplified its elements into a more acceptable and consumable version of punk for the everyday American. While this notion can be argued as diluting the genre, the Gogo’s in this sense were more effective in communicating the overall political messages of punk and transforming the music industry as more respectful and inclusive towards female musicians.
The band Blondie is another excellent example of women incorporating the predominantly male genre of punk into the mainstream by infusing it with pop. While Blondie severely differs from the Gogo’s in that it is only fronted by a woman rather than being comprised entirely of women, frontwoman Debbie Harry used her position of popularity within the group to achieve a punk agenda discussing, dissecting, and critiquing the political and gender discourse. Described by writer Lucy O’Brian as “subversive bubblegum,” Harry’s style of music was highly popular yet simultaneously alternative, reflected in Harry’s seemingly superficial outward appearance of bleached hair and cherry red lips, yet her dark, private past and humble origins waitressing and performing with female trio The Stilettos. Blondie rose above the punk scene of New York into the limelight, fusing together pop and punk with an aggressive female performance style that separated Blondie from any threat of normalcy. Blondie was a hit worldwide, a movement spreading across Europe and Australia, and then to America when “Heart of Glass” was released. Harry’s aggressiveness on stage as a performer combined with her heightened sexuality as a female punk artist resulted in her vicious objectification within the media, with signs reading, “Wouldn’t You Like To Rip Her To Shreds.”
The B-52’s represent a shift in the early punk movement in which women became more wildly audacious in their musical as well as stylistic decisions, epitomized by the band’s two female members Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, who were commonly described as drag queens. Pierson and Wilson, both instrumentalists within the band, emphasize their femininity with their outward appearances of metallic dresses, outlandish, heavy makeup, and especially over-sized hair reminiscent of the 1960s. Even the band’s name hearkens to the slang term for a bouffant hairdo, thus the band is inherently feminine in nature. Evidence of the overplayed feminine traits can be seen within the music videos for Private Idaho, Rock Lobster, and Legal Tender. Drawing on surfer influences such as the Beach Boys, the women of the B-52’s helped to introduce women’s voices into the sounds of surfer rock, which has further evolved today into what is now “beach goth.”
Who I regard as the crowning member of the early punk scene of America is undoubtedly Patti Smith. Out of the the bands I have previously mentioned, Smith is in my opinion the greatest out of them musically and artistically, incorporating poetry, religion, and avant-garde style into her music, her creative ability with understanding words and phrases to create a collage of sounds particularly impressive and a trademark trait of punk. Smith’s involvement with and awareness of God lends her lyrics to drift in between reality and fantasy, her music heavily influenced by mysticism and romanticism. This high sense of art highly influenced the punk scene in America, with Smith’s polysemic nature of words and phrases increasingly heightening her artistic complexity. Smith’s 1975 Horses exemplifies these notions. The song, “Break It Up” is an excellent example of her poetic fragmentation, transitioning back and forth between tempos and intensity, her imperfections and culminating yells finalizing the song, the title and lyrics further emphasizing the notion of brokenness. Smith’s religiousness is apparent in the first line of the album, on the song “Gloria: In Excelsis Deo,” in which she confidently, almost in the tone of a whisper, sings, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” This bold claim draws the audience in while intriguing them, and probably offending a few. This composed, calculated beginning is a stark juxtaposition against the final minutes of the song, which combine more speed, volume, and roughness. Although no connection has necessarily been made by scholar’s, I find striking similarities between Smith’s “Gloria” and U2’s “Gloria,” released only six years after Smith’s. Apart from this small occurrence, Smith’s influence is notable and undeniable not only within punk, but within rock music in general, legitimizing her role as a musical matriarch until the present day.
I think it is interesting to note within the cataloging of women’s involvement in music history the transition of a collective identity to individual characters. Where my first article depicted women as a group of images and archetypes throughout the media of the 1930’s, the more progress America makes within its equalization of the genders results in the ability for women’s identities to emerge while at the same time retaining an element of the broader female consciousness. Within swing bands, hardly any notable, truly popular figures were presented, but they were rather agents acting in the place of men under men’s directions and whims. The same factors exist within America’s counterculture, though to a lesser extent, with the subculture’s women being subject to the dictation of the male driven industry. The introduction of punk should be inspiring to all females in that it takes decades of marginalization and tears it in half in favor of fierce, raw individualism. The female punk scene was dark and cold in many instances, but this intrepid revolt against past generations of sexism and control called out modern issues and allowed a space for women to be equated with men, making this genre of music highly androgynous at times, yet inspiring nonetheless.