Radical Softness: The New Wave of Punk
Louder Than War’s Sarah Lay talks to Diet Cig, Dream Nails, and Guttfull about what it means to be punk and how radical self-love and challenging toxic masculinity is powering a new wave of bands in the genre.
“I think everyone has their own idea of what punk means. To me, punk means having each others backs and making sure everyone is included and has access to the art and music.
“Punk isn’t pretentious, it’s open to everyone and acknowledges that you don’t have to be a technical pro to play music or make art. it’s being yourself unapologetically and lifting each other up to feel the same. I think this idea of punk isn’t always what we get though.” Alex Luciano, of American duo Diet Cig, has been outspoken about their approach to punk music with the release of debut album Swear I’m Good At This earlier this year.
While garage pop in sound the songs are packed with vulnerability and acute sincerity it’s not necessarily a style some would peg as punk but it’s typical of a new wave in the genre, of mainly female-identifying bands, making their own way in music. Their focus is often on creation, rather than the destruction many would link with the genre, but still sharing attributes from political activism, and a DIY approach to getting music out.
For Dream Nails it comes down to challenging perceptions, but also disentangling what punk is. Janey from the band said, “We’ve had a lot of opportunities to reflect on what punk is and it’s multifaceted; punk is simultaneously a genre, a subculture, an attitude and also an aesthetic.”
She goes on to say, “To us, punk is about living your own truth – through political activism, through holding difficult conversations & through strong communities. To us, it’s about speaking and living and trying to change queer women’s truth about navigating a world of horrifying male violence & crushing capitalism.”
Dream Nails drummer Lucy agrees, “There is a brashness to punk which has been celebrated for as long as its existence, and it’s boring. In many ways, punk was a reflection of Thatcherism; it celebrated rampant individualism over community. Punk to me is about defiance in the face of accepted attitudes and systematic oppression. It doesn’t necessarily have to manifest in the ways you think ‘punk’ traditionally might; for us it’s an attitude and a way of approaching the creation of our music, rather than a set of aesthetic choices.”
While bandmate Anya describes how their approach often challenges what people think of as ‘punk’, “People sometimes accuse us of not being very ‘punk’ because we don’t get super drunk on tour, we look after each other and we’re obsessed with drinking Sleepytime Extra tea after shows to wind down. But being punk is ‘you doing you’, however you choose to define that. That’s partly what our next EP, Dare to Care, is going to be about. Looking after yourself, other people and the world around you: that’s punk.”
Last year The Slits’ guitarist Viv Albertine defaced an information board at the British Library at an exhibition marking 40 years of punk. The boards described the lasting impact of many bands from the movement but omitted women and female-led music from the time. Albertine amended the board to highlight bands including The Slits, X-Ray Spex and Siouxsie and the Banshees before signing her name and adding ‘what about the women!!’.
Dream Nails Janey picks up the thread, “Punk is an all-encompassing term and it can be owned by anyone. For me the fundamental principle of punk is channeling anger through music. Old white men like to think they own and run it – like they do with everything in the fucking world – but that’s an increasingly transparent sense of entitlement that lots of people are challenging now. Everyone’s allowed in – it wouldn’t be very punk to say they’re not!
“However, punk is not a homogenous community – it’s a broad church and the most interesting pockets are at the radical fringes where the feminist punks, punks of colour and queer, trans and nonbinary punks are creating safe spaces to speak their truth. This is the place we belong – and the bands we love playing with most, like Screaming Toenail and Big Joanie, are the most exciting shows to be at because you get to learn something there, to feel safe. Those bands are also at the forefront of creating a more inclusive punk scene, by founding Decolonise Fest.
Drummer Lucy said, “There is a brashness to punk which has been celebrated for as long as its existence, and it’s boring. In many ways, punk was a reflection of Thatcherism; it celebrated rampant individualism over community. For all punk’s supposed convention-bashing credentials, in reading accounts of it, especially those written by women, it seems to have been underpinned by just a different kind of narrow mindedness.
“This perception of punk is what we take issue with and is completely at odds with the scene we are a part of. For us, caring is punk. Our new EP Dare to Care is going to promote the values that are most dear to us: inclusivity, accessibility, warmth, love, supportiveness.”
Diet Cig describe their approach as ‘radical softness’ and Alex says, “This means being kind and empathetic and recognising how powerful that can be. I also think that things that are viewed as feminine and soft have been long viewed as weak, and the idea of radical softness kind of asserts that these things aren’t weak or useless, they’re very powerful and poignant.
“I think sharing your feelings is really radical and supporting your friends when they share is too. this idea isn’t here to discount boldness and unwavering aggression towards oppressors– this is super important too– just that being soft and kind can also be a form of resistance against that oppression. it’s okay to outwardly share your feelings and engage in femininity, there’s so much power in being kind, being yourself, and supporting others so they can too!
“This approach is right for us because it encourages us to take time to listen to and understand others, and feel safe to honestly share how we’re feeling. It’s really empowering especially as a femme person who felt really guilty about liking “girly” things growing up. it just kind of opens up more ways to resist, it reminds people that even the small things they do to support each other are really powerful.”
That support movement is something that Cassie Fox has been a part of both in her current band GUTTFULL and with LOUD WOMEN, a support and promotion network for female-led bands which will host LOUD WOMEN Fest in London on 2 September. While some have said that focusing only on female-led bands ghettoising women in music Cassie strongly believes it is an important opportunity as much as a support network. She said, “Bands that play LOUD WOMEN gigs and Fest are often used to playing in super-macho environments – clubs run by Men, with Men on stage shouting at the Men in the audience about Manstuff, kicking out a Mansmell. So coming and playing nights where women are put first is huge breath of fresh air in all senses.
“Bands like Petrol Girls, Dream Nails, Menstrual Cramps and Fight Rosa Fight! are loud, fast, full of rage and youthful and energy – that is to say, they are punk as fuck. But they’re channelling that energy positively – they’re not kicking down, they’re raising up their fellow sisters. As a result, the atmosphere is welcoming, inclusive and relaxed: plenty of noise and sweat and system-smashing, but the bands’ Mums come and dance with us too.”
Over the pond the growing scene is something that Diet Cig are grateful for too, Alex said, “I’m really grateful for the scene we’ve come up in, there’s a really big community of folks dedicated to uplifting other non-male artists and saying no to toxic masculinity.
“I think there’s always work to do, even in the most progressive music scenes, but we feel really lucky to be playing music surrounded by folks who will actively call out misogyny. When our band started we were in a scene mostly led by white cishet men and it was hard feeling like one of the only femme fronted bands around. I think that feeling inspired a lot of our songs, and inspired us to work even harder to be the best we could be. It led us to find other musicians who shared those experiences and now we feel like we’re a part of a scene that celebrates and encourages non-male artists and industry folks.”
Dream Nails tackle the toxic masculinity of the industry head on, Anya said, “As female musicians we constantly need to navigate the symptoms of toxic masculinity that surface as we try to do our job. That can involve dealing with disruptive male audience members (although they’ll likely get a glass of water thrown on them) and patronising male sound engineers at gigs. We’re fighting some of same boring battles that the Riot Grrrl movement faced 25 years ago.”
Janey continues, “Yes, from older men obsessing over the genre “punk” and saying that we aren’t punk, like they’re some kind of punk police, to a strange fetishisation of female rage. Young women’s anger is still perceived as novel, and is fetishised in an insidious way. Its something that’s so riddled with the male gaze in newspaper pictures of protests that onstage, we get perceived as “women being angry” as entertainment – rather than as conveyors of a serious message we want audiences to take away.
Cassie talks about the driving force behind her current band GUTTFULL. She said, “We set out to write songs as an expression of rage against all the things that made us angry, things we’d had more than a gut full of. As it turns out, it’s mostly just men that we’re angry about! Our debut EP is called #notallmen and the songs hit back at catcallers, sexist internet trolls, cheating ex-boyfriends, and Donald Trump.
“We don’t look like your stereotypical punk band: we’re three-fifths female, mostly queer, all over thirty, and fronted by Moe, a woman of colour. Our ‘experience’ just means we’ve had even longer to get angry, and we’re even more confident in expressing it. Young female bands like Skinny Girl Diet, are the future of punk, and we’re really keen to do all we can to help amplify them.”
With punk being used to describe not only a musical genre, but a lifestyle, a look and a subculture what it means to be punk is unlikely to have a consistent and unifying answer, even before considering sex and gender. What is clear from the current crop of bands is that women are just as important in the creation of music, and in the statements they set out to make as they ever have been in punk. Somewhat sadly they are just as likely to face sexism as they have in the past, as musicians and in other parts of the music industry, but are ever more connected with new platforms from which to represent themselves, and support through self-organising networks.
Diet Cig’s debut album Swear I’m Good At This is out now and they are on UK tour in October:
- 12 October – Norwich Arts Centre, Norwich
- 13 October – Rough Trade, Nottingham
- 14 October – Lancaster Library, Lancashire
- 16 October – Soup Kitchen, Manchester
- 17 October – Sneaky Pete’s, Edinburgh
- 18 October – Broadcast, Glasgow
- 19 October – Headrow House, Leeds
- 21 October – Simple Things Festival, Bristol
- 23 October – Portland Arms, Cambridge
- 24 October – Moth Club, London
- 25 October – Moth Club, London (sold out)
- 26 October – The Hope & Ruin, Brighton.
Dream Nails are crowdfunding toward their next EP, Dare to Care – donate here.
GUTTFULL’s #notallmen EP is out now and you can get it here.
LOUD WOMEN Fest takes place at DIY Space for London on Saturday 2 September with 20 female-led bands on the bill. Find details here.
All words by Sarah Lay. You can follow Sarah Lay on Twitter and read her Louder Than War author’s archive here. You can find her full music journalism portfolio here. She co-runs independent label Reckless Yes which you can find here.