“Why can’t I just be myself?”
This is a question that’s posed near the end of Amy Oden‘s documentary From the Back of the Room. It’s spoken by Bratmobile co-founder and on-again-off-again D.C. resident Allison Wolfe, but the film—-which screened last night at the Black Cat to conclude the feminist punk gathering C.L.I.T. Fest—-suggests it’s something women in the DIY punk scene have been asking for more than 30 years. Through an extensive compilation of interviews with female musicians, zinesters, artists, promoters, and roadies, Oden explores what also happens to be the central conundrum of the festival, now in its eighth year: Why do supposedly radical subcultures continue to harbor things like homophobia, transphobia, and sexism?
It’s a worthwhile question, if not one that the average person on the street generally considers. The name of the festival was a handy barometer: Chances are, you weren’t going to spend your entire weekend at something called C.L.I.T. Fest if you weren’t already interested in feminism, punk, or the intersection of the two. But the festival wasn’t really interested in women’s issues in the macro sense, anyway. There were no discussions of policy, women in the workplace, or whether or not Beyoncé does indeed run the world. Instead, C.L.I.T. Fest interrogated women’s roles within the confines of the DIY scene, focusing on actions like writing zines, starting bands, and organizing activist communities.
C.L.I.T. Fest (the acronym stands for “Combating Latent Inequality Together”) was founded by the Minneapolis punk collective the BREAST Brigade in 2004. In the wake of several sexual assaults that had occurred at a punk festival earlier that year, C.L.I.T. Fest’s organizers sought to create a safe space to interrogate the scene and celebrate women’s presence within it. The festival now travels to a different city each year, and the annual introduction of new organizers and causes keeps it fresh. This year’s fest was a benefit for HIPS, a local group that provides health services and advocacy for sex workers.
One of the most refreshing things about From the Back of the Room was that it debunked the myth that every woman who plays punk music today is a direct descendant of riot grrrl. While filmmaker Oden certainly pays tribute to that influential moment in the early ’90s, she also spotlights plenty of female scenesters who say riot grrrl had little or no impact on them. Many women in the anarcho-punk scene couldn’t relate to its relatively glossy aesthetic, and some—-thanks to a quaint, pre-Internet phenomenon called geography—-simply didn’t know it was happening at all.
In keeping with the spirit of the film, the festival’s bill (23 bands over three days) was wide-ranging. One of the most memorable sets came from the female-fronted Syracuse band Shoppers, who blend shambolic punk with dirty, towering noise: Think early Sonic Youth, plus a bit of manic energy and minus Thurston Moore. Exactly how intense was their live performance? For one thing, early on it contained this line: “Hi, we’re Shoppers from New York, and I just broke four strings in the first song.”
Most of the music leaned on the heavier end of the spectrum, and you’d have been hard-pressed to find a more contagiously gleeful set than that of Seattle’s Tacocat, who are much better than their palindromic name implies. Full of buoyant surf-rock energy, they barreled through simple yet irresistibly catchy songs with titles like “Volcano” and “Leotard.” The person I was standing next to said, “I just want to hug everyone now.”
Though the bill was mostly composed of touring bands, D.C. made a respectable showing. Local feminist hardcore stalwarts Hot Mess played one of the most enthusiastically received sets of the festival, closing with an awesome scream-along cover of Joan Jett‘s “Bad Reputation.” And playing their first show in more than a year, The Ambulars closed the fest on Sunday with a set of thunderously melodic pop-punk.
At some point during their set, a C.L.I.T. Fest organizer got on stage to report the good news: They raised more than $8,000 for HIPS, which one volunteer told me was about four times what they expected to make.
At a festival aiming to “discuss” a central topic like feminism, there’s some truth to the standard geezer complaint about punk music: It was more often than not impossible to make out the lyrics of most of the bands. But the sheer presence of so many women on the stage and in the crowd at C.L.I.T. Fest was enough to inspire, and plenty of the artists had powerful words for the crowd between songs. When Philly power-duo Trophy Wife introduced a new song called “Turncoat,” guitarist Diane Foglizzo explained that it was written about society’s tendency to pit powerful women against each other rather than encouraging them to support the women around them. The lyrics discernible over the roaring waves of her guitar served as a fitting rallying cry for the weekend: “I thrive, you thrive/I grow, you grow.”