Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Others

I'm doing an email interview with a grad student who is working on her dissertation and she's asked me some thought provoking questions. Question #5 gave me a bit of trouble and I've decided to share it with you.


If we consider woman and chicana as “other” within a white patriarchal society and punk as also projecting itself as a type of “other” in society (or a place for “others”—societal “rejects”/rejectors of all kinds), how do you feel your own understanding of yourself as “other” in this society was a force in your work as a punk artist? Can you give any specific examples of how this worked for you (particular lyrics, songs, things that happened at a gig, etc.)? [I’m familiar with what you have said about how punk allowed a certain space for anybody to play, etc. I’m mostly interested in how as an artist you may have taken “otherness” or some subjectivity that would “normally” be considered marginal, or even “abject” (such as women in rock, chicanas in rock, women in control, etc.) and made it a center.]


One of the challenges I have with explaining my role in the early punk scene to academics is the tendency to assume that I was rebelling against society because of being marginalized as a female or as a Chicana. I don’t think being an “other”- meaning a woman or a Chicana - had as much influence on my music as being caught in the middle of domestic violence and witnessing gang violence as a child. I’ve said it before, but I witnessed gang shootings on a regular basis both at school and in my neighborhood. Instead of finding a safe haven at home, it was even worse because the people that I loved most were in constant danger of being attacked. Those experiences have more to do with survival. If you think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, you’re not going to worry about defining yourself as a woman or a Chicana or part of any social movement when you’re just trying to stay alive and trying to make sure that those you love are not being killed or beaten. My motivations were much more basic and primal.

I didn’t think about being the “other” when I was on stage performing. Alice Bag was really defined by that little kid, helpless in the corner watching her mom being beaten up. Suddenly, I was powerful, strong and full of rage and it poured out of me, unrestrained. I’ve read that some people consider me an early “hardcore” performer, but that’s only because the emotions and anger I expressed on stage were real, not part of a stage act. Brendan Mullen recently wrote about my first performance at the Masque that he’d “never seen a woman so angry.” How much of that had to with being the “other,” I don’t know. Being a woman, being economically disadvantaged, being a Chicana were all ingredients mixed up in the explosive recipe that produced Alice Bag.

I was watching the Henry Rollins show today and I was struck by how much more intelligent and articulate he is than the average talk show host and it occurred to me that this was true of many of the early punks. I think that a lot of my punk peers were especially intelligent and/or creative individuals who may have seen themselves as “other”, but only in the sense that society did not “get them.” They were not suffering from any inferiority complexes. Rather, they were holding onto their sense of individuality and the things that made them special because they knew that they were right and society did not value their individuality. I think being “other” for us was like feeling that you had a magic wand but that you didn’t know how to use it. You knew you were different and special and the thing that set you apart from others also defined you and could be your source of power if you could figure out how to tap into it.

I guess I thought of myself as a misfit because I had been ostracized the whole time I was growing up. When punk came along, it was just the perfect vehicle for me to express who I was an individual. It was new enough and open enough to allow itself to be defined by people like me. Just a couple of years later, that would change and people would have to fit into preconceived notions of what punk rock was or wasn’t. The early scene had no such limitations because we were the ones creating and defining it. If you had been at the Masque in 1977, you would have seen very eclectic shows, ranging from the Screamers to Arthur J. and the Goldcups, from Geza X and the Mommymen to The Controllers. There was no clearly defined punk sound, no dress code and all you had to do was show up and make your presence known. The movement was one of individuals and individual expression, each of us bringing our heritage and formative experiences with us in an organic and in my case, unplanned way.

With regards to defining myself as a Chicana, I recall a previous interviewer asking me about bands such as Malo, Tierra, and other seventies Chicano rock bands and I replied that I remembered cruising and going to dances at Kennedy Hall in East LA and listening to the music which was being played on every car radio (and 8 track!) in East LA at that time. It was the soundtrack of my youth and whether I acknowledged it or not, it is logical to assume that it crept into my psyche. I don’t see my music as an extension or offshoot of the Chicano music scene but I suppose it could be argued that it is, simply because I am Chicana, but if I am to be included in this category, I demand that the limitations of the label “Chicano music” be expanded to include atypical Chicana experiences.

The Chicano movement of my youth had no use for Bowie and Elton John freaks like me. It was very clear that I was too weird for them. I would have liked to be part of Mecha and help define what it meant to be a Chicana but I don't think they wanted my input. So I did not define myself as Chicana for many years because that movement had in fact rejected me. It wasn't until much later that I decided that I would define IT and I would call myself a Chicana and they would just have to deal with it. But it seems that movement has grown up and is not so self-conscious and is more willing to embrace those of us with hitherto questionable lifestyles, ideas and attitudes.

1 comment:

LA Geo said...

Wow! Kudos to Jenny and Alice for their candor and insight. Sharing such profound personal experiences enhances courage and contributes one more degree to healing. Trauma at such early ages serves to make you old when you are young, hence, wisdom and the concept of old souls...You have truly spoken as wise and old souls...

Many of us were also old souls searching for meaning in the punk movement. Political, cultural, rebeliousness, anger, childhood dysfunction, trauma, these were but a few of the facets that drew many of us to the punk movement. Unfortunately, I didn't arrive to the punk scene until 1978 and missed the early days, but I find that I share many of the same sentiments as those of you who were there in the first days, or the "first wave" as we used to call them..

Remember also the historical context of punk, which evolved at the time of disco, wherein superficality, "fitting in," status symbols, and looking perfect were all required to find status within that music scene. Politics, looking within and questioning the status quo were not part of the disco era, thus, punk was a draw for those of us who were exploding with the need to differ, to be perfect with our imperfections and to use our voices to rebel against the conservative Reagan adminstration which had just come into power.

Then there was the cultural piece for some of us. Being Chicano meant many things, it talked about our collective experience as Americans of Mexican decent, of not fitting into either country, the US or Mexico, it spoke to the need to help us name our experience, which up to that point, had been nameless...What we knew was that we lived together in barrios, that we were considered less-than by the dominant population, that we had less resources and definitely, less opportunities...

Unfortunately, being Chicano also had it's disadvantges. On some level, the worst of the Mexican and American cultures were adopted as exemplary assets. Machismo, territoriality, the idea that women defer to Men, the Catholic idea that held women to different standards than men. Then, there was the whole Gay thing, which silently alienated those of us who had an additional shade to our pallete of life...And the rejection! To be called joto, and maricon, to be spat at by your own supposed brothers, the ridicule...The worst of it came from MEChA and the other Chicano activists, who thought we had no place in the Chicano movement. Who needed that, right? So we flocked to the big cities, looking for a place of acceptance, where we could be ourselves...Unfortunately, even the old West Hollywood elite could be racist, we learned, so our options were sometimes outside of the gay community...

Coming into the punk movement not only provided a sanctuary for oppressed women's voices but for gay men, who had role models like Craig Lee and others, openly creative gay men who had a need to share in the collective rebellion and creative development of the punk movement. As is typical, there were straight punks who made some homphobic comments, but overall, gay men and lesbian women in the punk scene were given the respect afforded to those who dared to be different and embraced the life of social rejects gone proud...

Thanks again, Jenny and Alice, for your candor and voices. LA Geo