I didn’t mean to do it. It was the summer of 2001. I had just gotten my arm out of a cast, my ex had quit his job and moved away from Oakland to get out of supporting our children. I was on disability, and was living with my two daughters in a small room in someone else’s house. In my head, I could hear Johnny Rotten, prescient little twerp, screeching “no future, no future, no future for you!” There was no music that I could find which spoke to my particular circumstance, despite the fact that being a struggling single mother in this country is hardly a rarity. I needed to speak out and be heard, and I knew the music industry wasn’t about to start spewing out single mom anthems. I had a crappy acoustic guitar. I had never written a song. So, I started a punk band. Like many other punks, I was pissed off, and I wanted to do something about it. I’m over 30, with a background in classical music, moving into a genre dominated by young men, so, naturally, I looked for other moms to work with.
The first incarnation of the band (The Lactators) started with lyrics about problems moms face: The Sleep Deprivation Blues: “My baby woke me up at 4, he just wanted to nurse some more; I’m so tired and my tits are sore, ‘cuz he never stopped from the time before!”, and there was a decided bent toward being a novelty act or a joke band. However, whining about supposed maternal martyrdom degrades the power inherent in motherhood, so I left the band to sing in a mostly-guys, political, old school hardcore punk band.
As much as I was digging hardcore punk, I missed working with women. When the opportunity arose to play again with some of the old Lactators, I was quick to join in. We chose a non-gender-specific name (Junkbox). It’s unfortunate that the music I love is marked by ingrained sexism. Women rockers are not immune from the “you___ like a girl” syndrome. This is not true of classical music. No-one ever said to me, “you orchestrate like a girl”. Junkbox wanted to be judged from the quality of our rock-n-roll, not viewed from an “aww, mommies with guitars, how cute!” standpoint. The songs we started to write as Junkbox were more feminist, stronger, and more passionate. Poison Oak: “Pray to survive this, pray for enlightenment, pray for some guidance; I just smell the scent of dog and cigarettes–because you keep dicking me around.”, Pimpin’ Bitch: “Fuck love–give me the dough”. I didn’t want to have to be “in the closet” about being a mother rocker. And, at this point in my life, I feel like I have done more than enough to prove myself as someone to be taken seriously. A mother, an activist, an educator–I don’t have to act like an adolescent boy in order to rock.
The lead guitar player of the band, Kjetset, suggested we re-embrace our identities as mothers and rockers. Mothering is what we do, it’s who we are, it’s one thing that permeates our entire lives. Not to acknowledge that we are moms plays into the old boys’ network. We had already embraced a band mission statement about empowering women by example. Our songs were moving toward strong mother-related themes. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, by bassist The Down-Low: “Beware of the women with nothing to lose…” Mother Nature: “I didn’t bear my children to be your fallen angels…Mother Nature just don’t play that!”, Too Much Woman: “I’ve got two kids, two jobs, three cats, one dog and two rats. I can program in Unix and change my own tire, what’cha think of that?” So, minutes before we played a gig in May, we took on a new name. We chose a very strong female image that wouldn’t belittle motherhood, and that would be difficult to turn into porn–that takes the essence of what it means to be a woman and a mother, and shoves it in your face. Placenta!
Two days later, a strange thing happened.
We were contacted by the Wall Street Journal for a story about mother rockers. Apparently, during the past few years, in New York, Dallas, Detroit, and other cities in this country (and beyond, probably), other moms have had the same idea of forming all-mom bands. As early as 1998, Joy Rose formed a band called Housewives on Prozac. In 2001, a documentary was filmed about Suzie Riddle’s band, Frump, which then inspired her friend Paige Gilbert to start a band, the Mydols. Other bands have received coverage, but most of these bands had only passing knowledge of each other.
The mainstream media has decided that all of these mother rockers are part of a movement. A movement that, at best, draws begrudging support from family, and, at worst, pits rock-n-roll novelty against the sacred trust of all-sacrificing nurturance of their children. A movement of whining moms, making music that reporters don’t even bother to listen to or review. A very cute, not to be taken seriously movement.
I didn’t mean to do it. I didn’t mean to be in a movement.
I didn’t exactly mean to be a mother, either, to be perfectly honest. It was kind of, “Oops! You’re pregnant!” but I took on the role of mom with gusto (there’s a reason my band mates have dubbed me Mother Nature, as in, “don’t fuck with”). So, if someone from People magazine, or whatever, calls what I do a movement, then I’m perfectly willing to run with that idea. And I’m going to define it, dammit. I certainly have worked hard my whole spiked-hair-stretched-earlobes-leather-wearing life to avoid being deemed cute or whiny.
The songwriting platform that mother rockers come from is protest songs, hillbilly laments about poverty and hardship, punk songs about the corruption of government—in contrast to big sleazy production numbers aimed at industry moguls. Far from having illusions about becoming rock stars, mother rockers write songs about events in their daily lives. What mom rockers have in common is the framework of freedom laid down by feminists, and the impetus of the current shape of feminism. For the sake of argument, if feminism was initially about being able to play with the boys, and then moved on to recognizing that “women’s work” has equal merit to “men’s work”, now we are fighting for acknowledgment of the fact that women create and sustain human life with our bodies, and that mothers are fucking powerful because the Universe made it that way. Take the strength of a mother in her prime and apply it to a drum set, amplified rock guitars and a screaming lead singer and I’d say you have the voice of a very powerful movement, all right.
Fronting a band that performs political, feminist rock songs is a conscious part of my parenting. My parents are musicians. My mother strove for feminist ideals in her parenting. In turn, my activism is something my kids have been a part of since they were in the womb. I don’t artificially separate my “real” life from my life as a mother. I do buffer what my kids get exposed to, and I do have continuous dialogue with them about life, media, politics, human behavior (including my own, good and bad), but I’m not a different person when I’m parenting than when I’m dealing with adults. Being a mother rocker is parenting through example.
Mother Rockers are creating music that fills the gap for moms, women, and basically anyone who can’t stand the current industry treatment of women. We show our children what it takes to be committed musicians, to go against the grain, to eschew traditional, safe-and-tame images of motherhood in favor of speaking from our own reality. We show other women that motherhood is not the end of coolness, and we show men that being strong women and mothers does not equate with man-hating. We show mothers that there is a voice for the job we do, and we show how owning the power of motherhood–and amplifying it–earns us even more respect.
I know that standing on a stage with a guitar in my hands, speaking about anything and everything I chose to, coming from the place of being a mother, threatens the system which specifies that moms remain perennial doormats, ever sacrif
icing, always soft and caring, always “there”. There”, for what? To be uncomplaining consumers, to devote our energies to petty PTA conflicts, to raise our children to conform to school rules and become mindless workerbees? The system wants mothers to be extensions of anti-choice philosophy. Uteruses, whose greatest accomplishment in life is to create more fodder for the capitalist machine. Mothers who make choices more significant than cloth vs. plastic diapers, who are vocal about choosing, and who band together could easily bring about the downfall of the system.
It pisses me off that the mainstream press is trying to keep Mother Rockers “in our place” by completely ignoring our music or trivializing our message. It’s a bizarre sleeping-with-the-enemy situation right now. We want more people to check us out, to hear our message, and the way that is happening right now is through exposure in the mainstream press. When we get interviewed, we focus on our message. We know it’ll still get twisted, cuz reporters have their angle, but we hope a little bit is creeping through. We think that the system is already falling apart, but quietly, quietly. We want moms, women, people to start owning their own power, and we hope to stand as examples of moms who are doing just that.
I don’t want the industry to dictate what Mother Rockers are. I want more mothers to make loud, obnoxious, powerful, screamin’, thrashin’, drivin’ rock music. I want more grassroots musicianship, taking the power away from the big 5 entertainment industry monsters. I want moms to speak about our own situations– I want my band to be one of the least outspoken bands. I want the system to topple because moms take themselves, their work, and their own power seriously, and act from that position of very real power. A critical mass of mother rockers. This is a call to arms! Mothers, get out your amps and start rockin’! This is our music! This is our revolution!