A band that wear their political hearts on their sleeves, Petrol Girls want to use their music to communicate empowering and vital messages to their audience. But with so much political and social turmoil at the moment, how can punk music even begin to scratch the surface?
Petrol Girls released their third album ‘Baby’ in June and it certainly demonstrates they have lost none of their edge or fury. But this time around there’s a different approach to communicating political grievances, one which takes less of a personal toll on vocalist Ren Aldridge. Punktuation caught up with Ren to discuss why it is important to stand up for reproductive rights, how culture is a key part of activism and how the revolution may start with dads at the merch table……
It’s a genre known for speaking truth to power and challenging the big issues of our time, but one of the criticisms of punk nowadays is that it has lost its anger and radical messaging. This clearly does a disservice to the myriad of bands who are making music covering social and political themes and raising awareness of key issues. At the forefront of this modern cohort of political punks are Petrol Girls- a band who in the 10 years they have been going, have always had plenty to say and continue to tackle issues that are sadly still too prevalent across society.
‘Baby’ was released in June, a follow up to 2016’s ‘Talk of Violence‘ and 2019’s ‘Cut and Stitch‘. It’s fair to say that it has been a positive and exciting release as Ren confirms:
“I am excited about the release, I didn’t expect to be because I was quite numb about our second album coming out. But I feel more emotionally connected to this album than maybe the second one, it’s more ‘me’.”
One of the lead songs from the album is the provocatively titled ‘Baby I Had An Abortion’- a track that aims to smash the stigma associated with pregnancy terminations and offer a positive, celebratory take on the issue. If you can’t hear the ‘shame, shame, shame’ chant featured in the song without thinking of a certain Westeros-dwelling nun swinging her bell, then you are not alone. That was intentional!
“It is a reference to Game of Thrones! That is how ridiculous I wanted to make it, it is ridiculing the shaming and stigma. The more people understand it as normal healthcare and not something to be ashamed of, the better that will be for legislation and demand for services.
I want to attack the shame. Songs I can think of about abortion are either angry or emotional and whilst it is important to acknowledge that some people can have traumatic experiences, I was lucky in my experience of having an abortion. It gave me my life back and it is something to celebrate. But it would have helped me a lot to hear something celebratory. We hear a lot of abortion horror stories, it was a deliberate decision to put out into the world that it can just be fine.”
You might expect that penning a song that is so unapologetic on a topic that can still be very contentious, would get quite a mix of strong reactions? How has the reaction been?
“I fucking love playing ‘Baby I Had an Abortion‘ live, it is so fun. We played in Poland not that long ago and there was a really intense feeling. We had conversations afterwards with people who were grateful we had brought that politics to the country via our music. But there is amazing resistance going on already. That is why we are raising money for Abortion Without Borders and in solidarity with those fighting for abortion access.”
Do you get any negative reactions?
“I think because of the way I come across on stage- quite a macho energy, because of that I don’t get as much shit from men as I know a lot of other women and femme presenting people do. If there are people that disagree, they don’t tend to tell me in the gig at the time.
In the US I might actually be frightened to play it in some places because I know how scary the anti -abortion people are out there, and I do sometimes worry about safety. We wrote it to be antagonistic- it is meant to be an antagonistic punk song.”
Speaking of the US, the shock Supreme Court decision on Roe Vs Wade makes the message of the song seem even more poignant and urgent. But as Ren points out, it’s not just the US that is impacted by the precariousness of reproductive rights:
“What is frightening is the fact it (the US Supreme Court decision) happened so quickly. The UK has pretty strict abortion laws compared to other places in Europe where it is available on demand- here you need the permission of 2 doctors. I am worried about the UK because of what has happened in the US. There are UK politicians that say ‘I don’t think women have ultimate bodily autonomy’ (**Conservative MP Danny Kruger made this remark in the House of Commons in June**). It frightens me what could be possible. We should go on the offensive and not wait for them to turn the clock back.”
“To me, culture has the potential to change people’ s minds in a way a demo may not.”
It certainly seems like now is a time for some activism with the world seemingly falling apart at every conceivable seam. Can punk capture that appetite for change and bring people towards activism? Is this perhaps where the legacy of punk has the edge?
“I think punk and music in general is limited- there’s only so much it can do. But I disagree with the idea that music and art are not political because things like our attitude to abortion, our ideas about love and romance and national identity and gender etc are produced and maintained by culture primarily. To me, culture has the potential to change people’ s minds in a way a demo may not. I am interested in using humour or antagonising, taking the piss as a way to get under people’s skin as opposed to ‘this is right, this is wrong’.
I hate sanctimonious and holier-than-thou shit but I feel like I got pushed into a really sanctimonious position within the punk community where people were acting like I’m the police. Patronising or punishing people is not politically helpful. I feel like there are lots of different ways to create changes we want to see, and my politics is based on the idea of mass movement and mass mobilisation. In order to get a large number of people involved in action, minds have to be changed and values have to be questioned.”
Punk prides itself on being political, and the question for any punk is ‘are you angry because you listen to punk music? Or do you listen to punk music because you are angry?’ Is punk always inherently political? Ren’s experience doesn’t necessarily give all the credit to punk music but it seems to have helped lay some foundations:
“I think I was politicised through the punk scene as a teen. I grew up outside Bristol and used to get lifts into town to see punk bands. Through that I was exposed to Antifa and animal rights stuff. But I actually encountered feminism through my English teacher at school though, not punk. At Uni I made that connection when I heard about riot grrrl and The Slits etc.
In terms of my own output, it has always been politics first for me. For a political band we are also quite techy, musically so that appeals to a slightly different crowd. Some people come for the music and then hear the politics. Especially in terms of men- I chat to so many dads at merch! I am slowly radicalising all the dads!”
The message from the band’s music and from Ren on their approach to political activism, is that solidarity matters. And for solidarity we need to be able to listen to people in our communities:
“Biggest thing I have learnt from touring is we have a lot to learn from each other. How else are you going to encounter political ideas? Is it from reading feminist theory or the culture you are exposed to and hearing people’s experiences?”
For more details on the fight for reproductive rights and how you can get involved, read Ren’s article for Kerrang magazine which has lots of suggestions. It also has information on other organisations.
Also check out the Level Up campaign.
‘Baby‘ is out now- you can buy here.
Make sure you catch Petrol Girls on tour and perhaps have your own convos at the merch stand! Tour dates across UK and Europe here.
Follow Petrol Girls on their socials…
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