Feminist rock collective Permanent Wave gathers a powerful music scene around a core of activism. Just don’t call them riot grrrls.
The brainchild of former Titus Andronicus guitarist Amy Klein, Permanent Wave is three things in one: a “combination between activism, a show-booking entity, and a production company,” says Sophie Weiner, who’s involved in all three. A feminist rock collective, or call it what you want; its bands are not the kinds of acts that you are likely to see at the Grammys anytime soon.
Here’s what a Permanent Wave-sponsored show looks like in practice: A loud electro thump crashes into the graffitied warehouse walls of 285 Kent, a club in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Staccato guitars and unstoppable drums loop around each other as J.D. Samson becomes one with the crowd. “Who am I to feel so free?” she hollers into a sea of waving arms. “Who am I?” Every audience member seems to take the question personally, throwing it back not only at Samson, but at an unseen force of oppression that seems to exist in the air right above them. It’s sarcastic, but deadly serious: “WHO. AM I. TO. FEEL SO FREE.”
The chant ends, and Samson’s band, MEN, steps back. Everyone needs a moment to catch their breath. Suddenly a young woman gets on stage, doesn’t bother to announce her name, and demands that the crowd take control of their own bodies: “Tell this to the ads in the subway, the billboards on the street: ‘I’m beautiful just the fucking way I am!’ ” (I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the gist of it.) The crowd is with her, but they seem mostly stunned. Who is she, after all, to feel so free? That’s when it becomes clear that no one here has seen anything like Permanent Wave.
It is impossible to write this piece without mentioning riot grrrl, so let’s get that out of the way now. Born equally out of Reagan and the misogyny of crowds at Reagan Youth shows in the 1980s, riot grrrl bands like Bratmobile, Bikini Kill, and Huggy Bear played loud and fast, addressing subjects like rape, domestic abuse, sexuality, and patriarchy head on and at the top of their lungs. They drew large numbers and critical acclaim, but eventually what all political movements fear is what happened to riot grrrl: It got trapped in amber. Albums like Bikini Kill’s Pussy Whipped and Heavens to Betsy’s Calculated were put high on a rock critical pedestal, venerated from a thousand feet away where Kathleen Hanna or Corin Tucker’s lyrics couldn’t hurt you any. Such is the fate of any rabble-rouser, but no one emerged to take riot grrrl’s place.
Klein is used to being labeled a “riot-grrrl throwback,” and you don’t have to look far to see links. She openly admits that Sara Marcus’ history of the movement, Girls to the Front, was the initial inspiration for Permanent Wave. And even on that night at 285 Kent, J.D. Samson’s presence left the room a mere two steps away from the original scene. Samson shot to fame with Le Tigre, an electro-dance group fronted by Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna. Given the fact that we’re in the midst of a “full-blown riot grrrl nostalgia trip,” it’d be easy to assume that you can put Permanent Wave on the same Brooklyn retro shelf as manual typewriters and artisanal pickles.
“We don’t call our movement riot grrrl because we’re not riot grrrl bands,” Klein told me over a beer at Brooklyn’s Crown Vic. “Most of the girls in the group don’t even play punk music.” Same goes for the bands they book: As angry as MEN were, no one could associate its electroclash with the minimalist “up the punx” feel of riot grrrl in any musical sense. Klein, whose rise from unemployed English major to punk/indie scene mainstay has been documented by the New York Times, is herself a perfect example of how different styles of music can be embraced as political. After touring with the electric and wordy Titus Andronicus, she left to focus on two bands, the melodious Blue Star Band and minimalist psychedelic duo Hilly Eye, which sounds something like what Sonic Youth would have sounded like if it wanted to fill stadiums in 1979. All three groups are loud in their own way—you could find the riot grrrl in them if you were looking for it—but you could just as easily reference Lightning Bolt, Patti Smith, and a hundred other artists. And as culturally influential as the riot grrrl scene is, Klein and the rest of Permanent Wave choose not to look at it through rose-colored glasses. While every person I talked to for this article had clear reverence for riot grrrl acts, they were upfront that they didn’t consider themselves part of the same scene.
A lot has changed since 1985. Reading Marcus’ book, your heart just aches that it’s all so pre-Internet. One of the main difficulties she presents—and really this was a problem for any activist group in the long-ago days before the advent of the personal computer—was how to get the message out without it being co-opted by the mainstream. That’s hardly a problem now.
Yet while the Internet is a miraculously quick and easy form of communication, it’s brought its own problems. Let’s handle two here: first, the echo-chamber effect and, second, the destruction of local scenes. So, while Tumblr is “how the intersection of caring a lot about feminism and the anonymity of the Internet combines,” according to Zoë Leverant, founder of Permanent Wave’s first West Coast chapter in San Francisco, constant blogging and reblogging also leads to semantic infighting. “The number of people who actually give a fuck about what we’re talking about is really small,” Leverant admits. One thing that appealed to her about Permanent Wave is its listserv, which doubles, says Klein, as community for people “in other countries, people who live all over this country,” who might not have a safe space for openly political and feminist discussion. “Or just no one else appreciates that great artist they found on YouTube.”
On the opposite end, the Internet also replaces local physical interaction with a global digital simulacrum of interaction. For argument’s sake, let’s assume that this disembodied communication is not entirely good. That’s what makes Permanent Wave’s shows so important. They take connections that have grown online and bring them into a friendly place in the real world, one based on local connections. New York’s chapter is the largest and most established, San Francisco’s is the newest, and chapters have popped up in Boston and Philadelphia. Permanent Wave runs on the idea that inspired Occupy Wall Street and the Native American camp on Alcatraz, among others: If you take a physical place that society wants to deem neutral and declare it yours in the name of your beliefs, people will react. 285 Kent, where MEN played, could be called a lot of things: hidden, cool, probably illegal. You’d never think it had a political bone in its body, but there was Emily May, representing the anti-street harassment group Hollaback!, explaining between sets how reporting one act of sexual harassment could help all women everywhere. Said one enthusiastic audience member, pointing to the stage, “I can’t believe this is happening here!”
A few days after the MEN show, Permanent Wave put on another show at another Brooklyn D.I.Y. venue, Death by Audio. The crowd was decidedly smaller, from the hundreds to barely scraping 30. The openers were eclectic and fun, especially Sophie Weiner’s Silent Drape Runners, who mix a love of Twin Peaks with bizarro Mariah Carey covers. Yet the headliner, semi-Internet famous La Big Vic, were an absolute drag. The listless trio scuttled along with what sounded like an attenuated version of Moby, and not even Play Moby. 18 Moby. And not even the good songs on 18. They swayed back and forth, occasionally stirring, but seemed more intent on creating the ambiance for a really cool dentist’s office.
The crowd, full of partisans, murmured about it being “not their best show.” The room was full of familiar faces, ones I recognized from previous Permanent Wave events. By their looks, it was clear that some of them would rather have been at home on that Tuesday night, yet they were out there anyway, offering vegan brownies and printouts about stopping domestic violence instead of hawking crap from a merch table. A donations jar was a third full with one-dollar bills. This, it was easy to see, was why Permanent Wave is going to be a success. Non-magical nights like this are what build a movement, slowly, steadily. Permanent Wave is integrating itself not only into New York’s music scene, but into scenes across the country, hoping to permanently alter the status quo.
Amy Klein grew up, like nearly all Permanent Wavers, in the George W. Bush years. She told me about being raised in an environment of “not apathy, just people feeling discouraged.” At the time, the idea that Bush’s wars and policies could be turned back was laughable, and Karl Rove’s dream of a permanent Republican majority seemed to be a more likely reality than not. Yet the day after Occupy Wall Street was removed from Zuccotti Park in New York, where Klein had led an OccupyRape protest just days earlier, Klein told me, “I think if we only talk about economics we’re only getting part of the picture, so I hope the movement expands, not just to Wall Street, but to an intersectionality of a lot of different kinds of inequality in America.”
Whatever sort of spell of hopelessness Bush inflicted upon young people, it has clearly dissipated. Three years into the presidency of Barack Obama, feminists are feeling a particular frustration that they are still fighting the same old battles as yesteryear. The great battles of 2011 were nearly all defensive, and 2012 seems like it’s going to take a similar tack. Permanent Wave is set to provide some much-needed offense.
Director Joseph Cedar on Orthodox Judaism, The Social Network, and the nightmare scenario behind his latest Academy Award-nominated film