“People forget the punk thing was really good for women. It motivated them to pick up a guitar rather than be a chanteuse. It allowed us to be progressive.” Siouxsie Sioux, one of the many artists whose music, costumes, and artifacts are on display in Women Who Rock (on view at NMWA through January 6, 2013), said this in the midst of her career with the Banshees. The era of punk brought progress toward gender equality. Punk attempted to foreground not the musician’s identity, but the music itself and the story it carried. In a section of the exhibition titled “Dance This Mess Around: Punk and Post Punk,” women like Debbie Harry of Blondie and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth are shown giving male performers of the late ’70s to ’80s a run for their money.
Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, whose Blue Fender telecaster guitar is on display at NMWA, embodies punk music. Known for being one of the first female singers to front a rock band, Hynde helped to redefine the role of women onstage. She and her band mates, the Pretenders, rattled the music scene by rocking out music venues and selling out shows. Their lyrics shook listeners and critics, making them a reputation for fearlessness in regard to boundaries and expectations. Hynde stood as an icon for women who felt different and desired a voice. Other artifacts on display include her outfit from “From Hereford to Akron” and LP sleeves from some of her biggest hits.
Tina Weymouth of the Talking Heads was also a musical icon of the punk era. While attending the Rhode Island School of Design with band mates Chris Frantz and David Byrne, Weymouth learned about minimalism in art and then applied this aesthetic to her music. As a founding member of the band, Weymouth helped the Talking Heads to achieve the fame of being a funky, danceable, punk-rocking jam-band. In 1977 Weymouth married Frantz and went on to create the Tom Tom Club—a rotating group inspired by music from the streets of New York. Weymouth’s Fender Music Master Bass guitar, used on and off stage, is shown on display in the exhibition along with her outfit from “Stop Making Sense.”
Women of this era laid the groundwork for the following generations, as their politically and personally tumultuous stage presences, wardrobes, and lyrics took the music scene for a wild ride. Other icons whose images and artifacts can be explored in “Dance This Mess Around” are Kim Deal of the Pixies, Siouxsie Sioux, Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson of the B-52’s, Patti Smith, Marianne Faithfull, Deborah Harry, and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth.
—Nancy Harwood is the member services intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.