Over the weekend, former Slits guitarist Viv Albertine renewed her punk credentials by defacing a museum exhibit to correct the historical record. Some wall text at the British Library’s Punk 1967-78 show praised Sex Pistols, The Clash and Buzzcocks for inspiring “a nationwide wave of grassroots creativity.” Noticing a theme, Albertine crossed out the all-male bands and scrawled in, “The Slits, X-Ray Spex, Siouxsie & the Banshees. (What about the women!!).”
We may be living in a pop-feminist era, but the institutions that document music history remain stubbornly conservative. The 115 titles in the fan- and writer-beloved 33 1/3 series, whose book-length considerations of individual albums makes it a de facto canon for the Pitchfork crowd, suggest that women made significant contributions to only about 15% of important releases. Aside from a Mary Wilson exhibit borrowed from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Seattle’s EMP Museum–which bills itself as a forward-thinking institution for music and culture–hasn’t devoted a single show to a female musician since it opened in 2000. (No, the obligatory Women Who Rock retrospective does not count.) And the scarcity of biopics like Bessie and La Vie en Rose only highlight the plethora of similar stories about male musicians; in the past year or so, dramatized the lives of Brian Wilson, Miles Davis, Hank Williams, Chet Baker, N.W.A., and Elvis. Like Judy Chicago inscribing thousands of years of lost “herstory” into the ceramic foundations of her groundbreaking 1970s installation The Dinner Party, women who shared stages with the best-known male artists of their eras risk erasure unless they write themselves into the record.
Perhaps that’s why so many of these musicians are reaching for their pens. Patti Smith’s National Book Award-winning 2010 bestseller Just Kids begat memoirs by three generations of female musicians: Kim Gordon, Grace Jones, Carrie Brownstein, Kristin Hersh, Beth Ditto, Chrissie Hynde, Carly Simon. Albertine’s own Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys is among the best of these, chronicling a lifelong romance with creativity that survived marriage, motherhood and even cancer. As it unfurls over half a century, the book subtly elucidates the conflict between Albertine’s insatiable appetite for art-making and the obstacles she’s faced as a female artist.
Women are also benefiting from one of the 21st century’s most maligned musical trends: reunion mania. When Tanya Donelly’s dreamy mid-’90s alt-rock act Belly roll through New York next month, they’ll be following in the footsteps of contemporaries like L7, Babes in Toyland, that dog., and Veruca Salt. Lush, whose reunion was directly inspired by Albertine’s book, are slated to headline Terminal 5 in September. None of these bands appeared on Spin’s 1999 list of the preceding decade’s best albums, as definitive a canon as exists for their era.
Nonetheless, both of Belly’s dates at the Bowery Ballroom are sold out; so were the first New York reunion gigs for L7 and Babes in Toyland and that dog. and Veruca Salt. At these shows, the women onstage always seem floored by the size and enthusiasm of the crowds they’re still capable of drawing. Equally shocked audience members whisped to each other: “I thought I was the only person who still remembered this band.” It’s easy to scoff at a reunion-industrial complex that keeps vomiting up cynical spectacles like ‘90s Fest, but when these shows serve as historical correctives, they transcend cynicism.
It will be a while before we know whether these shows and memoirs amend the canon. They could easily end up nothing more than brief reminders, fading from the popular consciousness as soon as the tours end and the books go out of print. That’s why permanent archives like NYU’s Riot Grrrl Collection, spearheaded by a librarian with years of experience in the feminist punk community, are so crucial. And it’s also why Viv Albertine’s act of rebellion, literally breaking through a seemingly impenetrable dogma of exclusion, felt so poetic. She, her contemporaries, and their musical descendants have endured decades of erasure. Who wouldn’t start showing up to museums with a Sharpie in hand?