Alice Bag and Punk Rock's Enduring Battle for Women's Rights
The LA punk legend is ready to fight in the Trump era. She's seen this before.
One week before the Trump administration took power in Washington, D.C., the longtime punk rocker and feminist Alice Bag was talking politics with a captive audience at the Casbah in downtown San Diego. Between performances of songs that spanned Bag's decades-long career, Bag (born Alicia Armendariz) discussed education, body image, date rape, and domestic violence, linking most to her fears for how each issue might be impacted by the new administration. After playing "We Will Bury You," a 1970s track by her first band the Bags that she dedicated to Donald Trump before the 2016 presidential election, Bag joked, "I wish we could play that at the inauguration."
On stage, dressed in a hot pink blazer, matching pink hair and a thick chain necklace, Bag spoke more from candid concern than political motivation. Politics has never strayed far from her music. A founding member of the Bags, who launch the Los Angeles punk rock scene in the mid-1970s, she's especially used to navigating gender politics. Though her current political involvement comes through onstage commentary and participation in protests like the Women's March on Washington, Bag's approach used to be less direct. "I believed that my contribution to feminism and women's rights was just being in a band and opening the door, making it okay for other women to be onstage," Bag says of her early years with the Bags. "Until then, there was really no place for us in rock 'n' roll except as muses and groupies. It felt like you had to be very talented to be able to ever step onstage."
When punk broke through during the 1970s, it quickly earned a reputation as an anti-establishment genre: regardless of individual musician's political preferences, it was inherently political for its celebration of the common musician. The musicians once glorified for technical skill and lyrical mastery found their popularity leveled with players that valued speed and passion over precision. "Punk was an equalizing movement; you didn't have to have any training," Bag says. The genre offered an opening for women like Bag who were looking for a way into the industry—and for a new way to express themselves. "I had rage that needed to come out. It would come out in what I was singing—not necessarily in the lyrics, but in my performance."
Punk is not naturally kind toward women. The Sex Pistols' guitarist Steve Jones was quick to admit the sexism rooted in the industry during punk's early years in his memoir Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol, released earlier this year. Jones points to Chrissie Hynde as a prime example "She tried out for most of the new punk bands that were getting started at the time, but the harsh truth was that no one wanted her because she was a girl." The genre remains conflicted. The late music critic and ardent feminist Ellen Willis struggled to resolve the sexist undertones of bands like the Pistols with the joy of the music's raw passion and abandon. "Music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated—as good as rock and roll did—challenged me to do the same," she wrote in a 1977 article for The Village Voice. "Even when the content was antiwoman, antisexual, in a sense antihuman, the form encouraged me to struggle for liberation."
Punk appeared as the most straightforward path between a band and its audience, where musicians of all skill levels could pass their messages along with little interference. Lyrics didn't have to be overly cerebral or attract widespread popularity: it was more important to be honest, whatever form that honesty took. It wasn't long before Bag felt the need to harness her own authenticity and move past the frontwoman role into songwriting. After the Bags parted ways in 1981, Bag joined other punk and deathrock bands like Castration Squad, Las Tres, Stay at Home Bomb, and Cholita, prodding the genre's musical and thematic boundaries with each new group as she became an active lyricist. Nearly four decades after her career began, Bag released her debut solo album Alice Bag last year, a record of 11 original tracks that elevated her to a new songwriting peak. Each song is charged with an issue that Bag finds important. When she performed several of the songs in San Diego, it was clear that her audience was similarly invested.
As Bag's band prepared to race through the heavy rocker "No Means No," Bag spoke to her audience about the importance of vigilance for signs of date rape. Before "Modern Day Virgin Sacrifice," she discussed the harmful effects that unrealistic body image expectations have on young women's psyches. Moments before performing the 1960s girl group-inspired "He's So Sorry," Bag dug into her childhood confrontations with domestic violence. She was radically candid.
These issues feel just as prescient now as they did when Bag started performing in the 70s. And protest remains the vital medium for dealing with them.
"To see the biggest march in U.S. history having been initiated by women feels so good," Bag says. "My tank is full; I'm fueled up and ready to go out and work towards some change. But people have to remain engaged. It is easy to become distracted."
The very nature of Bag's lyrical content makes engagement with the political and gender issues she's concerned with easy. "When I sing 'No Means No,' a lot of times after the show women come up to me and thank me, explain that they have been raped," Bag says. "They empower me. I feel like I give voice to some of the concerns that people feel unable to talk about. It makes me feel like what I'm doing is worthwhile."
Bag uses music as a form of peaceful protest, venting frustration and tirelessly questioning the recurring issues that are, to many, absurd. "It's outrageous that people are still getting away with it," Bag says of date rape. Though she used traditional punk themes like speed and shouted lyrics for "No Means No," she took inspiration for "He's So Sorry" from an earlier era. "Domestic abuse is another subject that seems like it's not changing as quickly as I'd like it to," Bag says. "On ['He's So Sorry'], I tried to take the girl group soundtrack that I grew up with and keep the sound, but change the message. I was hearing stuff like, 'He hit me and it felt like a kiss,' or, 'Where he leads, I will follow.' Those are misogynist messages—or messages that put a woman in her place."
As Bag's Casbah audience chanted along to "No Means No" and cheered her song introductions, Bag saw evidence of her belief that music can inspire change. "You can look at a piece of art without even really knowing that the message is affecting you," Bag explains. "You can walk into a room, look at it and walk away; but the idea is in your head."
"I have a strong conviction that if you are able to contribute to society, you should," Bag says. "I don't want to put pressure—art should be about expression. If you don't feel strongly about politics, you can't write about it because it's not going to ring true to you. There's room for people to write about different things, create art about different things, depending on what interests them."
While Bag feels confident with her public positions now, there were times when she preferred to keep her political views private. "When I was younger, I felt like my own problems were so big that I had to resolve them first," Bag says. "Sometimes artists need to focus on their own lives, because they have issues to resolve and they're not able to focus on anything beyond that."
Bag says she's seen a surge in creativity among musician friends and acquaintances. "Half my friends have written songs about [the election]," Bag says. "There's so much to write about, so much frustration and anger. There is the idea of protest, but there's also the idea of hopefulness, that there's something better we could be doing."
Whether protest music has an immediate, measurable effect on politics is debatable—after all, the cultural movement of the 1960s ended with the United States voting President Richard Nixon into office. But protest music can build upon a gradual cultural shift that will benefit from the persistence that musicians like Bag provide.
"I think we're in for some great music and art. That's what we need, really," Bag says. "The value of music and art in the revolution is that it nourishes your emotions. It touches you on a different level than an argument. It's not just the ideology: it's emotion that provides the fuel."
Lead photo by Luxehotelier via Alice Bag.
Meghan Roos is a music writer and founder BluRiff Media based in Southern California. Follow her on Twitter.