Radical Act

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This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

Punk rock music had its roots in the mid 1970's with bands like The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and The Clash. The defiant act of getting onstage, regardless of one's music experience, and embracing your unguarded truth in electrified raw sound created an entirely new genre. Punk rock was a social movement about brutal naked emotion, kicking the established norms of the day. But how can you really have a social movement without sexual politics. Punk rock was decidedly male, so when women picked up instruments to make their own noise on stage, it would be different. Large, loud, commanding and outspoken, these women were singing about issues that touched the nerves of their own lives. Their performances were by their very nature, a different kind of punk rock. They were not trying to defy established norms. These were women expressing horror at the choices facing women of that time.

poster.jpgRadical Act is a film, originally released in 1995 that documents this interesting and under-reported music scene. The film, directed by Tex Clark, follows the musicians, journalists and historians who defied the stereotypic rebelliousness of the male dominated punk movement with their own radical act – to get onstage, make some noise and sing about what was important to them.

There are three main themes within the film: performance, inspiration and gender identity. Most of the women were barely teenagers when they began to play their instruments and many were self taught. It took an amazing amount of courage for them to defy social, sexual and political norms of the day. While outspoken lesbian musicians like Joan Jett and Phranc may have led the way, by the late 1980's, feminism had lost its luster with much of the American public. But these young women were addressing the real politics of the day in their creative work. By the mid 90's, they had inspired a new generation of young teenagers bent on speaking their own truth.

Gender politics played an important role. Many of the women of these bands were outspoken lesbians, but not all. Some felt their expression was an act of their political activism, others not. Regardless of their sexual preference, this is an inspiring film about personal freedom and a need to tell your truth.

And while they may not be household names -- Gretchen Phillips, Sharon Topper, Toshi Reagon, Kathleen Hanna, Vickie Starr and Kay Turner – they were part of movement of women who inspired others to cross into main-stream rock, giving us like PJ Harvey, Courtney Love, and Ani DiFranco.

A movement always has a genesis with courageous leadership and defiant showmanship. Only reflectively we recognize the contribution. Radical Act captures a cultural period where women held their own in the punk rock world. It's now available for online rental. Go to my On the Beat page for a link.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.