Sunday, April 9, 2017

Cooler Than Me

I spotted The Spitboy Rule: Tales of a Xicana in a Female Punk Band (PM Press, 2016) on display in the window of a hipster bookstore in San Francisco last year, and made a note to look for it when I got back home.  I found it in the public library and just got around to reading it.  It's by Michelle Cruz Gonzales, former drummer of Spitboy, a female punk band that, I confess, I hadn't heard of before, though they got around a lot, touring most of the US, Europe, and Japan in the early 1990s.  Spitboy didn't consider themselves part of Riot Grrl because "we had formed Spitboy in the Bay Area [as opposed to the Pacific Northwest where Riot Grrl spawned] during the early days of their movement [therefore independently of Riot Grrl], we didn't endorse separatism, and we didn't want to be called girls" (10).  She's now married and a mom, and "teaches English and creative writing at Las Positas College" (135).

The Spitboy Rule is a good read, with plenty of anecdotes from the life of a female punk band on the road.  It seems to me that Gonzalez downplays the sexism she had to deal with, giving more space to stories of support from male musicians, roadies, and fans; which is fine, it's her book, and it's good to know that so many guys were supportive.  Gonzalez had plenty of other issues on her plate, having grown up brown in small-town California, daughter of a single mother.  So when she encountered punk rock in the late 80s, it inspired her.
Punk rock: the loud, hard, angry, fast music attracts angry people, angsty teenagers, social misfits, kids whose parents are too strict, straight, Christian; ... seemingly normal kids who don't feel so normal on the inside.  Interestingly, punk rock attracts working-class kids, kids who grew up in poverty, and kids from privileged families  [2].
Yet it seemed to me that in many ways, by identifying with punk she jumped from the frying pan into the fire.  She presents punk as a highly conformist (though she doesn't use that word) environment, obsessed with coolness and one-upmanship.  That the movement gave breathing room to kids like Gonzalez is to its credit, though I suspect it was more because it stood on the shoulders of the politics of the 1960s than because many white male punks were all that enlightened.  (The ambivalent politics of punk has often been discussed, inside and outside the movement.)  Kids who'd grown up hearing about feminism and the Civil Rights movement were readier to imitate and build on those precedents. Punk also stood on the shoulders of the economy of the Sixties even as that economy was collapsing.  But there were lots of relatively cheap instruments and other equipment, you could press your own records more cheaply than before, and the cassette made it even easier for DIY musicians to record and distribute their own music.  The proliferation of copy shops facilitated the production of zines.

But punk was a youth movement, so it was simultaneously rebellious and fiercely conformist.  It's not easy to tell from Gonzalez' account how much of her hangups about fitting in were due to the punk scene and how much was due to her personal insecurities -- assuming, of course, that those can be separated.  Gonzalez was poor and dark-skinned, and though "I was never allowed to fit in" (3), fitting in was what she craved.
In the 1990s, before we understood race and class privilege, we just thought it wasn't cool if you grew up in the suburbs.  It wasn't cool to be from Walnut Creek, Concord, or Fremond, but a lot of punk kids who hung around the East Bay Gilman scene grew up in those cities.  It wasn't cool to be from Walnut Creek because that meant you came from money, and it wasn't cool to be from Fremont because that was total suburbia.  But of course not everyone could be from Berkeley, Oakland, or San Francisco.

It wasn't cool, especially in my mind, to be from a small town either.  Small towns were too quaint, not gritty enough, too provincial.  The only person who thought it was cool that I was from a small town, from Tuolumne, was Aaron Elliott of Crimpshine.  He even thought it was cool after I took him there one summer.  I worried that after taking him to Tuolumne that he'd think otherwise, but he didn't... 

Aaron was also the rare guy who thought it was cool to date a girl drummer ... [15-6]
As I read this I kept trying to remember if I'd had the same insecurities about being a Midwestern small-town / rural kid when I was growing up in the 1960s.  I certainly wanted out of that environment, but when I did I don't remember believing that I should be ashamed of my background.  After all, children don't get to choose where or by whom they are born or raised.  (Their parents aren't in total control of those factors either.)  Because of my reading I knew that city people could be every bit as provincial as rural people.  Despite my personal insecurities, I don't think I'd have been intimidated if anyone had sneered at my background, which isn't personal.  Being queer, being smart, being an atheist, being a compulsive reader -- those are personal.  But I don't recall ever encountering anyone who sneered, or worrying about it.

Gonzalez, by contrast, was obsessed with being cool -- which, ironically, means standing out, not fitting in -- so she found the parts of the movement that shared her obsession.
Even though neither the suburbs nor a small down got you punk points, being from a small town like Tuolumne was the opposite of being from a place like Walnut Creek ... Until the age of twelve, we didn't have a TV in the house.  For many years, my mom did not believe in television, an idea she learned from her Bay Area hippie friends.  It was convenient not to believe in something that she couldn't afford.  The first TV we had in our house belonged to her first serious boyfriend after she separated from my sister's father.

Even before the punk points system I was influenced by own set of standards, and for somebody who had become interested in politics and social issues, not having a TV was actually quite a detriment [17] ...

When Nicole, Suzy, and I got to San Francisco inn 1987, everyone seemed so much more sophisticated, so much more punk. We weren't hicks, but we had grown up in a hick town and we didn't want it to show [18].
"Punk points system"?  There's Anarchy for you.  I grew up far from the epicenters of cool in my own generation, and I began to suspect as early as my first years in college that I'd gained as well as lost by that. 

Paradoxically, though, the punk scene gave Gonzalez room to grow in positive ways.  So she was able to stand up (though not alone, she had her band) against an entertaining attack that came from within the scene:
When we released our Mi Cuerpo Es Mio seven-inch, a riot grrrl from Olympia accused Spitboy of cultural appropriation.  The riot grrrl had ties to the Bay Area and she was white.  Maybe she really believed the accusation. Maybe cultural appropriation was a new concept to her, one that she learned at Evergreen College and felt applied to us, or maybe she was just pissed off at Spitboy because we had distanced ourselves from her movement.  She objected to our use of Spanish for the title of our record and accused us of stealing from someone else's culture, in particular the words "mi cuerpo es mio," which translates to "my body is mine."

Apparently my body was invisible [86-7].
This isn't the best rebuttal, as it dodges several issues.  Gonzalez knew very little Spanish herself, mostly picked up from her grandmother; her ownership of Spanish, mostly acquired by study, is about like mine.  Her anxiety about being brown, the only Mexican in her band and one of few in punk at the time, indicates that for a long time she wished her body was invisible; if she'd been more güera, more able to pass as white, she probably would have.  (She goes so far to say that "there was something self-hating about" the fact she'd "really only dated white guys in bands" before the guitarist José from the Latino punk band Los Crudos from Chicago [117].  Maybe, but the shortage of brown guys in the Bay Area punk scene might have had something to do with it too.)  I'm not sure whether she dismisses the concept of cultural appropriation altogether, or was just scoring easy points against a critic.  But it is funny, and not uncommon, for protectors of cultural purity to run afoul of their own ignorance about the ancestry or other salient traits of people they criticize.

But I like the way that The Spitboy Rule grapples with, skates over, dances around these issues.  I'm glad I happened on it.