Art by Annie Forrester
Story by Rayne Fisher Quann
For as long as it has existed, the punk music scene has been plagued by abuse and assault. While punk subcultures spawned from the fight for gender equality, queer liberation and racial justice, the scenes they inspired never really escaped the clutches of manipulation and violence; they continued to be defined by pretentious gatekeepers and straight, cis, white male abusers. But when a new generation of punks raised on Tumblr and Twitter became the target demographic for the alt-rock heartthrobs of the late 2010s, the question was no longer whether feminism was welcome in the scene. Instead, we were forced to contend with a new problem: How do you define an ally once feminism becomes marketable?
SWMRS, a surf-punk outfit based out of the Bay Area, was perhaps the most notable band of the new punk resurgence. They were one of the first current bands I really got into when I was 15 or 16, and I wasn’t the only one—they had built a rare teenage cult following over the course of the 2010s that loved the band’s members as much as their music, made memes and fancams, and followed them from show to show across the country. More than almost any other band in the 2010’s DIY scene, they had secured god status to their fanbase—and that was largely because of the militant feminism and leftism that they espoused as a core value. To an audience of young girls, SWMRS was more than a band; they were a safe space in an often unsafe scene filled with predators, abuse and assault. SWMRS started every show by declaring the venue unwelcome to creepy dudes, homophobes and bigots; they encouraged their fans to punch Nazis and abusers alike. They touted their feminist status like a badge of honor. Seeing these cool, punk dudes declare their music for “the girls and the gays” was more than just validating, it felt revolutionary: for their young fans, it felt as though there was a place for them in a community that had been long-dominated by straight, white, shitty dudes. SWMRS’ militant fanbase was dominated by young, queer women of colour; many of those women came to see the band as friends, confidants and role models.
Even more so than many other bands, SWMRS’ popularity was firmly dependent on the intimate relationships they built with their followers. Diehard fans often communicated with the boys directly, hung out with them after shows and created artwork and merch in collaboration with the band. Whether on purpose or not, SWMRS created a kind of feminist cult of personality that had fans invest countless hours of physical and emotional labor into the band’s success. The basis of this was, fundamentally, their neo-feminist left-wing values: SWMRS made being a fan feel like an act of resistance.
But on July 20th, 2020, multiple abuse allegations were lodged against SWMRS drummer Joey Armstrong by Lydia Night, the lead singer of the teen surf-punk band the Regrettes. In a lengthy Instagram post, she alleged that she and Joey had been involved in a secret, age-inappropriate relationship (she was 16, he was 22) that was rife with abuse, coercion and manipulation.
Night’s statement ended up being just one of the bricks in a wall of allegations against DIY and punk bands across the country that have coalesced over the last few weeks, including (but not limited to) the Frights, the Growlers, Mac DeMarco, Cuco, GRLWOOD, PWR BTTM, Destroy Boys, McCafferty, Panucci’s Pizza and Burger Records. Many of these bands counted themselves among the so-called “new wave” of punk—one that rejected the abuse, sexism and bigotry that had plagued the scene for decades. Bands like GRLWOOD, PWR BTTM and Destroy Boys used feminism and queer identity as the lynchpin for their success, with lyrics that usually touted a shouty, angry, riot grrrl message and personae that revolved around fuck-you feminism. I spent my teen years in their mosh pits, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a group of men or anyone over the age of twenty at their shows. They’d kick off their sets with cries to fuck the patriarchy, fuck white supremacy, fuck Trump, fuck the system—they used the aesthetics of feminism, inarguably, as a tool to connect with their audience and inspire their music. And it worked.
“I didn’t even listen to their music,” prominent former SWMRS fan Nayelli texted me over Instagram DM. “I was just invested in them as people. It was more than just a fan thing.”
Nayelli was an inarguable, irreplaceable part of SWMRS’s online stanbase. She’d always been omnipresent in the community in the Bay and had developed close relationships with the band; she’d transcended simply being a fan. In a series of Instagram posts she released after the abuse news broke, she laid out the extent of the work she was asked to do by the band for free—everything from album promotion to content creation to translation. In her stories, she recounts being tokenized as a woman of color and having to explain concepts like cultural appropriation to the band members.
She’s not alone: hundreds, if not thousands, of teenage girls became involved in almost parasocial relationships with bands like SWMRS. They had a way of making you feel like you were part of a family. Their tactical and strategic use of feminist aesthetics—one that clearly had little governance over their personal moral codes—defined their popularity in a post-Trump landscape: Feminism had become marketable, and they were choosing to cash in.
Feminism and anti-racism need to start being more than slogans for bands to sling on hoodies and sell to throngs of woke teenagers. It needs to be more than lyrics about hating men and punching Nazis. It needs to be more than a means to album sales, mosh pits and target demographics. There’s a culture of complacency in the scene that needs to end: how can we allow these artists to profit off the pain of marginalized groups and then go on to perpetuate that pain, or turn a blind eye when it benefits them? How can we let straight white men become known as feminist icons for simply echoing words they learned from the unpaid labor of women of color? If we’re not going to kill our idols, we must at least hold them to a higher standard. Feminism has become the newest marketing tool in the roster of an industry that hates women just as much as it always has, and we can’t keep falling for it.