Alice Bag has been at the forefront of LA’s punk scene for almost 40 years. In the mainstream, she may be relatively unknown; but in the world of punk music, she’s a fucking legend. She was the fierce front-woman for influential band The Bags and from there, went on to join other iconic outfits, Castration Squad and Cholita!. Her outspokenness, honesty and willingness to talk about important issues, such as her childhood experience with domestic violence, have cemented her status as one of the foremothers of punk rock feminism.
But Bag’s self-titled debut album shows her like we’ve never seen her before: alone. After years of performing in bands and uploading demos to Soundcloud, Bag decided to finally record a long overdue solo record. The result is a vulnerable mix of punk, garage and girl group-inspired ballads with a feminist twist, touching on everything from suburban isolation to sexual abuse.
“He’s So Sorry,” written after a conversation between Bag and a friend about an unhealthy relationship, and also inspired by Bag’s own personal history, combines doo-wop guitars with girl-group harmonies that subvert the often misogynistic lyrics from that era. “No Means No” is a sassy garage rock tribute to victims of sexual assault, and “Incorporeal Life” combines flamenco with the South American-style punk of bands like Los Saicos, while “Touch I Crave” is a ’60s-era psych-rock ode to female sexuality.
Though the album deviates from the thrashing anthems Bag may be known for, the attitude is all there. She’s living proof that punk’s not dead—it even gets better with age.
Photo by Marc Velasquez
On writing for the album:
I didn’t write the [songs[ with the idea of recording an album. I just wrote them because it’s almost sort of like what a diary is to some people — when I’m frustrated or angry or when I feel like I have something to say, I usually write a song. I don’t really think much further than that because the process of writing just makes me feel better.
For me, music is therapeutic. When I first got onstage and started performing as a punk singer, I felt this sense of finding my voice. Getting on stage and having people watch you, and feeling connected to them—I felt that somebody was finally listening to me. All those years when I was just swatted away, a little kid without a voice, without any power, trying to prevent my mother from being beaten—now people were listening and suddenly I felt like I had power, I had community, I had all these people with me. So I think music turned into a way to express what I wanted to express, and feeling that connection with the audience—and I mean connection in the sense that I felt like I was bigger than what was just animating my body. I felt like, I don’t just animate my body, I’m animating the room, and so is everybody around me. If we work together, we can really make change on a much bigger level than if I just think of myself as one little individual.
On ‘He’s So Sorry:’
I am deeply influenced by girl groups—I grew up listening to The Supremes and The Ronettes, and The Shangri-Las and The Teddybears, all those bands. I love their harmonies, I love the sweetness of their tone and sometimes the sweetness is teamed up with a feisty lyric. The Ronettes, especially. They were kind of like these tough girls that had these really beautiful, lush vocals. But then when you learn a little bit more about Ronnie Spector and her situation with Phil Spector, it made me think about how some of these women were dealing with sexism at an age when nobody was talking about it. So I wanted to take that sound and instead of just having it be a vehicle for a man’s point of view, I wanted it to be from a woman’s point of view. And I wanted the message—instead of being something like, ‘I’m going to follow you,’ or ‘You can hit me and it’s going to feel like a kiss’—I wanted to show you can have this beautiful sound, but let’s have a feminist message. Let’s have an empowering message that says get out of that situation, he has a problem, he’s sorry. And I mean he’s sorry in both ways. Like, he needs help and it doesn’t matter if he’s contrite, you need to move on.
On speaking up:
Violence against women is such a thing. I feel like it’s such a dirty little secret in our society. We never talk about it, and we act like we don’t need to identify as feminist because we already have everything we need. Well it’s bull shit. We do need to identify as feminist, we do need to fight against inequality, we do need to fight against the stuff that’s being perpetrated against other women, if not yourself.
On her inspiration:
I think a lot of the stuff that inspires my songs are things that make me really angry. There’s a song about domestic violence, which is a commentary on domestic abuse but also comes from a very personal place, because I grew up around that. My father was abusive to my mother, I was a child and even though the abuse wasn’t directed at me, I don’t think you can be in a house without being affected by the violence—it scars you.
I think punk is who I am, the whole idea of questioning authority. In its inception, punk was meant to be a rebellious art form, a space where people who are seen as Other can feel like this is our place to be ourselves. It was meant to question the status quo, it was meant to find creative ways to change things and to make people think about why they held certain beliefs and values. I feel like I’ve always lived my life being somewhat rebellious and trying to figure out how to not only get other people to question their values and their beliefs, but to feel like I need to be comfortable enough to be challenged and allow other people to question me, as well.
I try to live my life as a feminist, so I feel like everything I do is infused with feminism, from how I raise my kids, to my personal relationships, like my relationship with my husband. The other day, we were at the store and there was a girl scout selling cookies. My daughter wanted to buy some and I was like, ‘Oh I don’t really like those cookies that much,’ because I love to bake, so I told her I’d bake some at home. She got really mad, and I asked her, ‘Do you really even like the taste of girl scout cookies?’ She said, “Yes! They taste like female empowerment.’ So obviously, I had to go and buy a bunch of girl scout cookies.
I am more punk than ever because I really don’t give a shit what people think about me. I definitely have strong opinions and I’m definitely still capable of conveying them in a creative way. I’m constantly challenging the status quo and challenging the patriarchy and calling it out when I see it, and I think that’s what punk is about.
On the politics of her personal style:
Every now and then, I’ll change my hair color in a way that seems to antagonize conservative-minded people, regardless of age. There are bigots in all age groups, from all backgrounds, and a simple thing like an older woman having pink or blue or purple hair can really threaten them for some reason.
On defining her own beauty standards:
I refuse to buy into the fashion industry’s model of beauty—it doesn’t suit me. I can’t be that model that’s on the cover of Vogue or InStyle. Those are usually women younger than me, they’re usually thinner and a lot of times, they’re wearing clothes from a different income level. So their standards of beauty are not for me. My beauty doesn’t come from the clothes I can afford to wear or from my body type. My beauty comes from what comes out of my mouth, and the work I do, and the way I feel about myself. And the way I feel about myself is really happy and really confident. If you can find beauty in confidence and intelligence, then you’ll see beauty in me. If you’re looking for the other stuff, then have fun. You won’t find it here. […] The whole idea is not to buy into someone else’s vision of what is beautiful. Why would we do that? Why would we allow someone else to tell us that? You have to decide that you’re beautiful on your own, and once you decide that, you can rule the world.