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kathleen hanna

Why we need female anger in music

Expressing anger freely and publicly as a woman is a political act so turn those amps up and grab the mic

“I felt cheated and I knew to the core of my being that life was unfair and boys had it easier than girls,” writes Viv Albertine of The Slits about her first period in her memoir Clothes Music Boys, “A burning ball of anger and rebelliousness started to grow within me. It’s fuelled a lot of my work.” And she’s not alone. Throughout the decades, female musicians and artists (with or without periods) have found different ways of using their anger to fuel their creativity. From punk trailblazer Poly Styrene screaming about her identity in 1978, to Kathleen Hanna in a bra bringing girls to the front at Bikini Kill gigs, to Nicki Minaj’s unapologetic reclaiming of black womanhood, proclaiming herself both a monster and a queen, we’ve been angry for a long time.

Johnny Rotten chanted “anger is an energy” in 1986, but what does it mean for female performers to be expressing anger today? There are bands and artists all over the world who are using their voices (and instruments) to challenge expectations of womanhood and demand that their voices are heard.

“Feelings of anger or negative feelings in general are extremely important when creating music,” says Alice Go, guitarist of Dream Wife, a London-Icelandic trio who make, in their own words, ‘poolside pop with a bite’. “I used to play in noisy punk bands as a teenager. The release you get from turning the amp to full and screaming your frustrations into the microphone is thrilling. Anger has a particular musical manifestation that can be extremely powerful — and also thoroughly cathartic.”

Expressing anger freely and publicly as a woman is a political act, even if sometimes an unconscious one. By being audibly angry and defiant and accepting anger as a cathartic feeling, a woman stands in opposition to the idea that her emotions are not valid. Go stresses the importance of feeling your emotions represented in music made by women. “As a teenager, female-fronted alternative bands were really important to me,” she says, “Hearing a girl sing about feeling certain way is reassuring: it’s okay to not be okay, or it’s okay to feel like an outsider; you're not alone. Girls hearing girls singing about being girls should be a given in the output of the music industry.”

Though typically linked to punk, the expression of anger is still a necessity in music. Young women today have plenty of reason to be angry: the UK is going through a housing crisis, young people are losing access to education, and domestic violence services are being cut. The music industry is still largely run by men, and women in the public eye who are brave enough to speak up against their alleged rapists are forced to stay in a contract with them. In this system, anger is productive and creative – and music is a catalyst for it. With angry music, you create a sense of community that tells you that women can stand together and demand to be heard.

The first step towards change is to make the status quo feel uncomfortable, through revolutionary acts of self-support and community. The importance of standing together within the industry is something both Dream Wife and The Tuts find absolutely necessary to highlight. “Our first tour was with Kate Nash,” says Harriett Doveton, bassist of The Tuts, “She was like a big sister. It was all girls – it was incredible as a first experience. The lighting person was a woman too.”

But it’s important to remember intersectionality and representation — the alternative music scene can often be a no-go space for people of colour. Bands featuring black women challenging stereotypes are criminally underrated if not downright invisible, and they’re usually tokenised. In a recent interview with gal-dem, Big Joanie’s Steph Phillips made a clear point about their space in the scene: “We labelled ourselves a black feminist punk band because there wasn’t a black feminist punk band. There were black women in bands, they very rarely identified as feminist and even after that they very rarely acknowledged their race. So, I guess we just wanted to make sure that in this scene, people were seeing black women on stage. So that they knew it wasn’t a hallucination and that our identity is out there in the forefront.” She also concluded: “I don’t think you can be a woman and not be political. I don’t think you can be a black woman and not be political. Your body is a political force.”

The Tuts — a punk group from the UK who are composed of women from Indian and Pakistani, white British, and Caribbean heritage — know that too well. “Just by us existing is a message in itself,” says lead singer Nadia Javed, “What we say, and what we represent. When I once wore an Indian outfit on stage, people went wild. There aren’t many Indian-Pakistani girls in the punk scene, but the ones that there are absolutely loved it.”

Despite the importance of women in alternative and punk scenes historically, both The Tuts and Dream Wife reject the masculine standards that have come to dominate in the decades since. “We don’t need a validation list – just because we’re feminists, we don’t need to not be feminine,” says Javed of The Tuts, complemented by Isabella Popdpadec of Dream Wife: “Things synonymous with being a girl are not synonymous with being weak.” Tuts drummer Bev Ishmael gives the best advice for girls and women starting out in the scene: “There is no checklist to be punk.”

“Although we write about a range of things, some of the best songs are cathartic songs – songs written when you’re angry,” says Doveton, “It’s important that people know young people are angry about the state of this country. We’ve got reasons to be angry.” While The Tuts recount that older men in the music business have advised them to “stay out of politics”, they remain strong and they know why. “You don’t want to hold back and be treading on eggshells on stage and write soft songs that everyone can relate to,” says Javed, “It’s nice to write specific songs that are angry. We’re not gonna shy away from it. If it’s a bold song, you can’t sing a bold song in a pathetic way.” And they definitely haven’t taken on the recommendation to stay away from politics – in 2014, the band welcomed Boris Johnson in their hometown with an ambush performance of Onsind's “Never Trust a Tory”.

But how do you make sure that women have a platform to be heard and be angry if they want to be? “Being cocky is to your advantage,” says Javed, “If you let your shiners take advantage of you, you shrink into yourself. Be controversial, say things, fuck it — the more people talk about it, the better.” Also, the quest for representation shouldn’t be restricted to the bands. “Women often get erased from history – they were super famous, they got radio play, they headlined festivals – but now you don’t hear about them,” says Doveton, “They didn’t make the hall of fame, but all the man bands did and they’re still playing those festivals – those same man bands. We don’t want to get erased, so it’s important that we make ourselves known. So play loads of gigs and don't worry about what everyone else is doing.”

The experience of an all-girl group is marked by double-standards – having the expectation to look pristine while also appearing to be ‘acceptably rebellious’ on stage, having to be much louder to get the same (or less) attention than men, having to constantly hear things about your age or your attractiveness – but it’s also marked by a sense of community that only comes with the will to change things. There is not one single female experience and to voice your feelings and create spaces for all women to express themselves is a political act. So support your local girl gang, listen to more female-fronted music and pick up a guitar or a microphone if you feel like it. After all, anger is an energy.