“Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard
But I think ‘Oh bondage, up yours!’ ” – X-Ray Spex
Who doesn’t love a healthy dose of female rage? It’s a real palette-cleanser.
From birth, punk has screamed against prescriptions and orthodoxy. For this reason, it has always been the perfect vehicle for women to embrace characteristics that they have traditionally been excluded from: lewdness, rudeness, hunger, and ambition. The genre is relatively democratic – accessible through its DIY attitude and the fact that you don’t need to take guitar lessons to play along. To the crash of second-wave feminism, punkettes, she-punks and riot grrrls alike made the genre their own.
From proto- to post-punk, this playlist consists of songs that strike hard while flagging a feminist message. Whether that’s confronting gender norms or celebrating sisterhood, these tracks are a call to arms.
1) ‘Oh Bondage! Up Yours!’, X-Ray Spex (1978)
X-Ray Spex hit the punk scene wearing rubbish bags and colanders for hats. In this irreverent banger, they rip apart the old adage, “little girls should be seen and not heard”. Poly Styrene, the band’s singer, launches into a wailing tirade, accompanied by a saxophone blown up to the panic of a police siren. The word “bondage” doubles for the patriarchy and the evils of consumerism. Styrene makes a defiant statement against both objectification and the capitalist leash when she screams: “I consume you all [even as you] thrash me, crush, beat me till I fall”.
2) ‘Too Many Creeps’, Bush Tetras (1980)
Cat-calling is as intrusive as it is pervasive. The Bush Tetras put it succinctly: “it’s the worst”. Over a freak-funk beat, Pat Place’s tone is petulant and flat when she sings: “I just don’t want to go out on the streets no more / Because these people give me the creeps.” Place’s clear exasperation echoes on. Thirty years after this song’s release, a survey from UN Women UK reported that 86% of women aged 18-24 said they had been harassed in public spaces, yet 96% did not report the incidents. Place’s jaded tone still resonates – we’re all tired of this.
3) ‘Prams’, Vital Disorders (1981)
Vital Disorders were preoccupied with the transition from girlhood – with its relative freedoms – to womanhood and its own limits. The song begins slowly, with Suzy Cox recounting how as a child she dreamt of becoming a “foreign correspondent / Or an engine driver / First woman into space / Star of silver screen”. Just as she finishes her list, the band crashes in and Suzy starts hysterically screaming about “prams”. The chaos charges the frenetic energy of the housewife who realises, belatedly, that her options have been strangled from birth. Humdrum concerns like “washing machines” and “how much money does he give you every week” no longer satisfy her.
4) ‘No-one’s Little Girl’, The Raincoats (1983)
The first self-described feminist punk band and prominent part of the riot grrrl movement. Gina Birch sings, “I never shall be on your family tree – even if ask me to”. Instead, she proposes a maverick lifestyle of independence. “You can do it, you can choose it”, she croons, reassuring that no-one needs to be an appendage if they’re the one laying roots. Birch explained in Vivien Goldman’s Revenge Of The She Punks that, “Up until I came to London, I was always part of a partnership. I had to have a boyfriend; that was the rule imported from the outside world, which I internalized. […] Suddenly I realized I didn’t need that [validation] and it felt very liberating. I think the song was a ‘fuck you’ to all that.”
5) ‘Flower’, Sonic Youth (1985)
In ‘Flower’, a sonorous bass and buzzsaw guitar lead a ceremonial dirge. The intensity and momentum of the song are a sick motor for the surprisingly optimistic lyrics: “The word is love”, sings Kim Gordon, as she instructs the listener to “support the power of women / Use the power of men”. Spasmodic and dark, it anticipates conversations around allyship, while remaining feverish and overwhelming.
6) ‘Rebel Girl’, Bikini Kill (1992)
The ultimate girl gang anthem. Kathleen Hanna, riot grrrl pioneer and feminist activist, overturns the typical heterosexual love song and gives it a sapphic, raucous punch. With a nod to the often neglected lesbian POV, the song celebrates female relationships more generally. Hanna sings: “That girl she holds her head up so high […] when she talks I hear the revolution”. This isn’t about tearing women down; this is about lauding, applauding, and holding up a “soul sister”.
7) ‘Dead Men Don’t Rape’, 7 Year Bitch (1992)
Vicious, visceral and as about as subtle as a kick to the balls – ‘Dead Men Don’t Rape’ is the epitome of righteous rage. Selene Vigil makes the band’s stance clear as she sings: “I don't have pity not a single tear / For those who get joy from a woman's fear / I'd rather get a gun and just blow you away”. With Vigil’s rasping delivery and cutting lyrics, the track possesses the power to condemn even as it offers a cathartic release. There is an unfiltered, forceful indignation in the line, “You ain’t got the right tellin; me I’m uptight […]’cuz you’re frustrated”.