2005_01_rahamaria_large.jpg"Women in rock" has become such a cliche, able to cover almost anyone bearing even the most remote resemblance to "women" or "rock" that the phrase is practically meaningless. Music journalist Maria Raha has turned the phrase on its head with her exhaustively researched and compulsively readable new tome Cinderella's Big Score: Women of the Punk and Indie Underground, tracing the path of women from Patti Smith and Debbie Harry to Sleater-Kinney and Le Tigre, including everyone from Tina Weymouth to Lydia Lunch to Kim Deal along the way. She prefaces the short chapters on individual bands and musicians with an overview of the decades from the 70's to today, and her clear passion for her topic infuses every page. Raha also situates her musical history with a look at popular culture and politics, exploring how those overriding themes shaped the underground music of yesterday and today. This hefty book, culled from numerous magazine articles and books, features short, intimate looks at the rise of female singers, songwriters, bass players, guitarists, drummers, all-female bands, riot grrrls, and women who've created vibrant, original tunes that have inspired generations of music lovers, including Raha herself. The 32-year-old Upper East Sider, who grew up on Long Island, is starting a noise punk band called Sex Patrol, and says she spends most of her time "going to an unhealthy amount of shows, drinking, talking about music, volunteering, and complaining about Bush."

You’ve written about countless bands, and now work at Vibe and Spin. How did you get started, and what were the first bands you got into?
Well, I've been writing since I was a kid--I made a "'zine" about film ratings when I was 11 and incensed by the addition of PG-13 to the movie rating system. Maybe punk politics was in my blood. :) I started getting published in the early- to mid- '90s, creating my own 'zines and writing for the 'zines of friends. There was a thriving 'zine network during that time--many of us traded 'zines and became pen pals. I got a lot of submissions practice during a long period of unemployment, having plenty of time to mailorder records and pore over the 'zines I found through Factsheet Five. I then got a job as a receptionist at Time Out New York and wrote some reviews for them. Since then, I've had a few essays published in anthologies (Young Wives' Tales and The W Effect: Bush's War on Women), and have written for Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture and other 'zines. As for my time at Vibe and Spin, I've worked in Production, not as a writer. As an avid music fan, it's a pretty enjoyable day job-- although I'd much rather be writing full-time.

As for my introduction to music, I've always loved it. The first single I owned (independent of my parents' purchases for me) was Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" (I still have it!). I also loved Joan Jett (and still do!), the Go-Go's, Cyndi Lauper, and Top 40-type new wave. Friends introduced me to stuff like the Smiths, the Ramones, and the Femmes in the mid-80s, when, alas, I was also listening to a lot of metal. (I grew up on Long Island-- enough said.) Funnily enough, it was a metal fan who introduced me to the Dead Kennedys when I was fourteen.

What was it about punk that made you feel at home and part of a community?
I think "indie" or "underground" is probably a more accurate description of the loosely-structured scene I became a part of: vastly different types of artists, writers, musicians, activists, and fans I found when I arrived at college. (Long Island really didn't have its own scene, save for WLIR and WDRE--the savior of LI music nerds.) I felt so excited to finally feel at home. When I was young, I had a lot of misdirected anger, a looming sense of isolation, a lack of intellectual and artistic stimulation, and had had some pretty harsh experiences as a young woman. To find other people like me, who had a sense of social responsibility and a hunger to learn and create, was a revelation for me. I had no idea what I had been missing until I came across all of these vibrant, talented people, music, and art--the lack of which had been feeding my general dissatisfaction. No matter how angry the music might have seemed, it was always with pure JOY that I listened and danced to it-- and still do. I immediately let go of feeling isolated, and felt like I had moved to another, saner planet. It was truly my homecoming--I wouldn't trade the years of feeling so disaffected for anything, since it led me to appreciate my later life experiences so much.

What inspired you to write Cinderella’s Big Score and how long did that process take? How did you go about doing your research and figuring out how to structure the book?
I'd wanted to write a book like Cinderella for about ten years, and talked about writing it for that long before actually pitching it to Seal. The inspiration really came from years of feeling respite in these women's works, but what fueled the fire to finally pitch it was the fact that so many documents, lists, and histories ignore the women who were equally complicit in building what has become a worldwide network of bands, businesses, and scenes. I think I just reached my limit of these women being perceived as footnotes to this self-sustaining culture. From the time I got my contract to Cinderella's completion was approximately a year and a half.

Aside from my personal experiences as a fan of indie-based art, music, etc., I started by reading a stack of books which covered the scenes and decades I was attempting to cover in the book, like Please Kill Me (a great oral history on the New York scene in the 70s) and England's Dreaming (an amazingly intricate look at London punk), among many, many others. From there, I pored over NYPL's astounding collection of music mags and 'zines, listened to tons of music, and began digging up contacts for personal interviews. The idea for structuring the book in decades stemmed from the fact that while punk on the whole is always placed in its political context, "women in music" texts rarely do the same. I wanted to place all of these women in their proper socio-political context, to highlight just how brave and different they were against the cultural landscape of the times. I like and admire visionaries of all kinds, and the potency of their transgressions is easily lost on those too young or too far removed to witness their noncomformity and what they introduced into the larger culture.

How did you pick which bands and artists to write about? Are there any you wanted to include but couldn’t? Are they your personal favorites, or were you trying to look at the musicians who’ve had the biggest impact?
The women are a mixture of bands and artists I personally can't live without (like Lydia Lunch, Kim Gordon, Kim Deal, and CRASS), and the women who couldn't be left out, like Debbie Harry and Patti Smith. Some were integral to the development and inspiration of other bands. There's a reflex in a lot of lists and documents of women in underground music that give lip service to a few requisite female artists without digging any deeper, to find bands like Tribe 8 and the Lunachicks, who were also integral to their respective eras and regions. I was trying to get a good mix of women who aren't usually included in "women in rock" pieces, as well. And I must say that for the most part, the book also works as a list of my favorite female musicians. A book like Cinderella could be two, three, four volumes, and there are plenty of women I wish I could have included, among others, Vi Subversa of Poison Girls, Slant 6, the Red Aunts, the Wives, Cub, Ida No of Glass Candy, and Frightwig.

You start off with punk in the 70’s and give an overview of each decade, with an eye to what was going on in the world at the time, and you position punk within the political spectrum. You start with the premise that punk was a reaction to a lot of the cheerful, apolitical music at the top of the charts at that time, such as "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head." Why was the time so ripe for punk music to spring forth in that era?
Something that should have been made clearer in the book is the fact that there have always been subversive elements in music, from at least the early 20th century on. (I'm using that timeline simply because it's what I definitively know about.) In the early 20th century, Joe Hill took American standards and rewrote them as labor protest songs. (He also wrote an original piece called "Rebel Girl," praising working-class, female labor activists. Bikini Kill wrote a song by the same name in the early '90s.) There was improvisational and experimental jazz, noise, Dada "music" performances (where instruments were broken), garage rock...the list goes on and on. Unfortunately, this book had to start and end somewhere, and, considering the artists being featured, beginning with the '70s made the most sense. "Rebel music," so to speak, is a pivotal part of Western musical history, and punk is just a part of that continuum. I doubt that punk would have or could have occurred without this history of fringe and outsider music. But I also think that the social climate of the 1970s--massive urban decay, the co-optation of '60s radicalism, a banal pop culture with few widely available avenues for alternate art forms and aesthetics--definitely spurred the birth of punk. Rather than waiting for someone else to entertain them, early punkers envisioned art and made it for themselves. More importantly than what or who christened the scene is the message of punk's beginnings: Bored with music? Make your own-- regardless of whether or not you know how to.

Does punk or indie music thrives when there is a more conservative government in charge?
I was hoping for a more plentiful catalog of new protest songs to get me through this Republican reign, but it doesn't seem that an abundance of artists have become highly politically charged. I think conservative governments inspire those of us whose work is motivated and inspired by politics and political anger, and those who are moved by political music. Maybe we're louder, angrier, more active, and more prolific during those times. At this point in time, underground music is so diverse, it's hard to pin down whether or not there's more political music being made. I don't see an abundance of it, but I do see a lot of different perspectives and aesthetics being disseminated--which is very healthy for indie art in general. For someone like me, who, particularly during this Administration, likes to see art that directly addresses, criticizes, and artistically attacks the government, I'm disappointed with music's general lack of dissent.

What is the connection between what’s going on politically and what’s going on in underground music?
I think the connection between underground music and politics is a loose one--communities and their aesthetics and concerns are so diverse now, and the connection between politics and the underground is probably a bit more tenuous than it has been in the past. In general, though, I think anyone seeking something more fulfilling or stimulating than what the mainstream offers, particularly in areas where a community isn't as easily found and fostered as one might be in urban areas, is hungering for an alternate point of view. In this way, I think underground culture, by the nature of what it produces and the ethics that often go hand-in-hand with it, attracts politically- and socially-minded people. Furthermore, the very act of choosing to remain artistically independent--or, at the very least, outside of the cultural and musical norm--means that as an artist, one's priorities differ from that of mainstream culture and art, which tends to equate commercial success with cultural viability. Seeing the world in different ways and questioning the status quo will attract like-minded fans, and might create or perpetuate social consciousness and political dialogue. Of course, that doesn't apply to everyone and every scene, but I would say that at this point in our "commerce first" larger culture, eschewing mainstream measures of success is political in and of itself--regardless of whether or not the music itself is infused with political dialogue. That's where I think the connection is strongest.

What was the most satisfying thing about working on the book and what is your goal with it?
Giving something back to women who helped me gain a sense of self is extremely satisfying, as is finishing a slightly threatening, seemingly insurmountable project. My goals for the book include: helping others gain an appreciation of these artists, and more importantly, to steer young women toward music and women who might help them like themselves a little bit more; to help women seek alternate female points of view; perhaps to help a young dyke feel a little less isolated or more comfortable in her own skin; to encourage girls and outcasts to make their own art. To know someone created something after reading Cinderella would be the ultimate compliment and the achievement I'd be most proud of.

You told me that it’s aimed at younger readers, so I wanted to know why exactly that’s so and what you think they can gain from listening to some of the music represented in the book.
Well, when I started listening to these bands, I felt stronger, more alive, and validated. I would hope that these artists would do the same for younger women--as well as all that I've written above. I hope that it sends the message that women don't need to utilize sexuality in traditionally feminine, male-constructed ways in order to find fulfilling self-expression.

There seems to be a two-fold response to gender from the artists in the book, as in other genres. Some bands, like Le Tigre, are proudly feminist, while other female musicians see their gender almost as an incidental, and not something they want overly focused on. Do you think that one of these is a preferred way of dealing with it? Was that ever a challenge in writing a book about women in this movement, in terms of not focusing on their gender, but their gender being the reason you were writing about them in the first place?
While I'd love it if every woman on the planet proudly identified as feminist, we're all individuals with differing experiences and differing views of our own gender and how we see it around us. All I could do in Cinderella was try to represent these women's individual views on gender and music as accurately as I could. I focused on gender on the whole because I think there are so many interesting women making contributions to culture who are overlooked in favor of less interesting, more typically polished artists. These women have resonated more strongly with me than other artists, and have inspired me as a woman. Due to my feminist point of view, their contributions are important to me in the scope of what else was and is out there made by and for women. I wouldn't be surprised if some women were displeased by being extricated via gender for the purpose of this book, though.

You also write that you found it difficult to "betray a community of people you love" by "attempting to rip it apart from the inside." I feel like that’s in some ways a fault of the punk/indie rock scene, in that criticism is often taken extremely personally and people bristle at any examination of their scene. Can you elaborate on this statement and any ethical struggles you experienced while exploring these bands?
Well, indie and punk rock has suffered quite a bit at the hands of sensationalistic media, particularly during the 1980s, when punks were represented in the media as pure evil, and during the 1990s, when the Seattle scene was reduced to a vapid fashion statement. I'm not referring to all media representations of the underground, but some steered clear of the ethics indie, punk, etc. espoused, and instead perpetuated hollow stereotypes of shallow behavior and fashion. I'd venture to say that this kind of outsider reportage is taken personally because indie fans are also, often, its contributors. To have people come in and define something or exploit it, to reduce it to what someone with little or no contact with the scene sees is difficult and maddening. There are plenty of articulate members of the community who have been actively involved in it for so long, and could probably bring some clarification or balance to the sensationalism. I sympathize with fans taking it personally more than I see it as a fault of the community, having felt my own world change dramatically after the Seattle onslaught in '91 or '92. For some fans, it's the only place we feel truly welcome, and giving up that kind of comfort is difficult.

More than exploiting the scene, which I don't think I've done, I'm worried about being misinterpreted--particularly by people who I criticize but also greatly admire, like Ian MacKaye (if musicians even read it, that is). I also worry about criticizing or insulting male punk fans' behavior for fear someone might overgeneralize. Without generalizing too much myself, male punk and indie fans are some of the kindest and most interesting men I've met in my life-- and I'd hate for the lot of them to be misrepresented or misunderstood.

Punk and fashion are intertwined throughout the book, with some of the more outrageous fashions symbolizing the setting apart of these artists, and their fans. How do you see alternative fashion and music connecting?
It's really the anti-fashion, the individuality, that holds resonance for me. In her incredible novel Godspeed, Tribe 8's Lynn Breedlove describes punk dress (and particularly that of her butch protagonist Jim) as wearing one's insides on the outside. That's what's admirable to me: ignoring what the mainstream deems relevant and attractive, and dressing however one wants to. On one level, it's an extension of setting oneself apart from mainstream culture. Today, "fashion" as an industry is connected to underground music (you can buy CBGB t-shirts in Bloomingdale's), but initially, in a culture concerned with fitting in, looking perfect, and NOT exaggerating or flaunting one's differences, the anti-fashion statements of punk loudly, immediately, and strongly rejected the norms of beauty and the status quo. To me, it's more beautiful and seductive to see someone strong enough to reject the increasing value placed on physicality. This extends even further when it comes to women, who, of course, are always expected to uphold a more unattainable physical ideal than their male peers. Our culture is visually-oriented--rebellion and rejection of our culture needs to be visual in response.

You write about some women who have been overlooked or dismissed, as opposed to comparable male musicians of their eras. Do you think this is simply because of sexism, or because they weren’t as attention-seeking as their male counterparts, or another reason?
Dismissiveness of women's artistic abilities (and the audience for whom women's work is largely perceived--usually other women) almost always occurs in the larger culture. Think of both the literary and rock and roll canons-- both are dominated by straight, white men. Since we all grow up with notions of the varying significance of women's and men's cultural contributions, sexism still looms large in art. It takes a lot of unlearning to eradicate internalized sexism. So yes, I see sexism as a large part of these women being overlooked, but I also see women who have been socialized to perceive their contributions as less significant than men's. The wonderful thing about punk is that it allows women to have a voice different than that which is expected of us-- but it doesn't mean that sexism disappears with a scream, nor does it mean that women don't continue to suffer from criticism or self-consciousness, either. As for women seeking less attention than their male counterparts, one glance at Wendy O. Williams covered in shaving cream proves that to be completely untrue.

There’s a running negative commentary on the popularity of singers such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, versus some of the groups you profile, like the Gossip, Sleater-Kinney or Bratmobile, and I’m curious if you think the former have any redeeming qualities. Is the main problem that they are so omnipresent that more nuances, political music doesn’t get heard, or do you think they are simply presenting vapid images of womanhood?
To be perfectly honest, I don't see any redeeming artistic value in Britney or Christina--but I don't see that in much of teen pop, anyway. I find value in artists who express themselves honestly, who write their own music and lyrics, and who opt for communicating something real to their audiences over offering themselves as a packaged, constructed product. I don't consider that kind of assembly-line pop to be art; rather, it's detrimental to artists who struggle creatively and financially to get their work out there. That said, I don't criticize young fans of teen pop or of any popular or mainstream music. None of us grew up in a void--as music fans, we all started with what was readily available to us. My criticism of Britney and Christina stems from a lack of balance for young women who don't have many choices if they still listen to Top 40 radio or watch MTV. Why do they respond to artists like Britney? Because they don't have other, more engaging examples of young womanhood to follow. The variety of female pop artists has certainly increased since the 1970s, but it still remains in a "safe" zone for perceptions of femininity; it still promotes a singular or limited image of female performers. As for political music being heard or unheard: music doesn't have to be political for me to deem it valuable, but it does have to have an engaging, energetic integrity.

One of the most interesting things in the book, to me, was your assertion that Madonna stole looks from the punk movement, such as thrift store clothing, dramatic makeup and fishnets, and this was something I don’t think has really been propagated before. Despite this cooptation, do you see Madonna as a positive figure for young women?
Madonna's a tough one! For a long time, she really pushed the mainstream to accept ideologies that it wasn't wholeheartedly ready to espouse-- which, when they're positive, progressive ideologies, is wonderful. Madonna as a positive or negative figure really depends on what young women take away from being exposed to her. If she makes an individual girl feel stronger and better about herself; if she inspires someone to create, then that's positive. If a girl thinks her worth still lies in the gaze of a man, then I'd say her influence on that fan is negative. And if Madonna just means a fun night out of dancing and singing, then, well, we all need that once in a while, too. It's all relative to what we individually take away from her.

There’s a really interesting quote from Allison Wolfe of Bratmobile about the rise and later demise of riot grrrl, and its cooptation, where she says "This was never meant for the cheerleaders, it was never meant for the mainstream, and it ended up just kind of eating itself." Is there a desire or need for underground music to remain underground in order to retain its integrity?
I think measures of artistic integrity are entirely up to the individual artist--it depends on how much of his/her integrity the artist is sacrificing to get ahead. The desire for underground music to stay underground can mean a few things to different people. It can mean continuing proof that a community of artists can exist without big business interfering; it can mean not widening one's audience to foster local community. There's a notion of a special, intimate relationship with a band being severed when a band becomes successful, and if you've followed them from the beginning, it can be a difficult evolution to accept. Fans probably have a more adverse reaction to widespread popularity than bands do, and probably police music's integrity more often. What Allison was referring to, though, was riot grrrl as a movement, not the bands that ended up being tied to it. The riot grrrl movement as a social force was quickly sensationalized and co-opted before it ever really had a chance to solidify. Grrrls were looking for a pro-female community while the media resorted to female stereotypes and misconceptions its participants weren't equipped to combat--simply because they were intent on creating a haven for themselves, not defining it for the culture at large. I think that's what Allison meant by the above statement.

Do you think that process of "eating itself" is inevitable as bands get more popular, or can they adapt in some way to reach wider audiences and retain their message?
Although riot grrrl's demise differs from a band getting more popular, I don't think a band's initial integrity has to be "eaten," so to speak, but I do think bands should closely examine their options and how much artistic control they're willing to relinquish. They should lay out for themselves and the people working for them how much they're willing to do as their band gets bigger and more popular. (Which probably sounds a lot easier than it is.) I think bands growing more popular is harder on the fans--at least it has been for me. A band's greater success changes the dynamic at shows, makes tickets and albums more expensive, and sometimes, if the band leaves their label or the indie community, takes money and local entertainment away from the people who have supported them. On the other hand, it introduces a band to a new audience--one who might not have encountered the band's perspective or music before. Le Tigre, for example, should be more accessible to 12-year old girls--then maybe those girls'll toss out their Britney albums! The prospect of having Le Tigre's pro-woman, pro-queer ideas being made more accessible to younger women is more exciting to me than having the band perform in small venues packed only with feminists.

Do you have any advice for anyone who has the desire to start playing an instrument or start a band, but is uncertain where to start? What can they learn from the women you’ve written about?
The most important lesson of all: Don't be afraid! Hardly anyone is a virtuoso as soon as they start playing, so don't get frustrated. Keep trying, and be sure to play with people who are supportive and that you've comfortable with. Also, I'd suggest trying the instrument you respond most to. If you like guitar-heavy songs, try the guitar. If you respond to rhythms, try drums or bass. Although I think lessons are limiting, if it'll help boost your confidence, take 'em--but remember that there are plenty of people who taught themselves, too. Just enjoy making noise and don't take yourself too seriously!!!

What are you working on next?
I'm going to take the year and indulge myself in tap classes and teaching myself guitar. I'm talking with a friend about working on a documentary loosely based on Cinderella, and have some underdeveloped ideas for a novel and a quarterly magazine.

The book party for Cinderella’s Big Score takes place tonight at Lit, 93 Second Avenue, at 7:30 pm. Steve Lowenthal (DJ Stza) of Swingset magazine will be spinning the grrrl rock, punk, postpunk, etc. all night. Cinderella’s Big Score: Women of the Punk and Indie Underground (Seal Press) is available in bookstores and at online booksellers now.