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Crass – Penis Envy


“Feminism – what happened?” (Eve Libertine).

(Writer checks footing on soapbox. ‘Secure? Good. Let’s go…’)

This is a ridiculous record. I’ve never listened to Crass before, and I was still the other side of birth when it was released. Ridiculous and offensive, really.

But not the record itself. Oh no. It’s brilliant. Who couldn’t like a record shouting at the painful absurdities of marriage, the hideous inculcations of capitalism-enforced gender roles, the bucolic terrors of high heels and a whole raft of other feminist/gender/capitalist-related issues? No-one. Obviously.

The problem is that this should, by all reasonable rights, be a record whose urgency has collapsed in the wake of progress, a record which poses as a snapshot of political naivety, as the ‘let’s all just get along, yeah?’ flower power music is. But instead it’s a painful reminder of the absurdities of modern life. Yes, marriage is still a ridiculous hangover of woman-as-dowry; despite the tokenistic gesture of civil partnerships, monogamous gay couples are still considered a subordinate category of humans by the state. We still have the newspaper cartels – the same cartels, the same content, the same invidious bollocks poisoning popular dialogue. “Where politics mix/ with bingo and tits” as Saint Billy Bragg once sang. It’s arguable that in the post-Loaded ‘ironic’ sexism world, page 3 is considered even less of a problem than it was in the early Thatcher/Crass years (though I was busy not being born at the time so I can’t say for sure).

Penis Envy is a record born of a void of strong politicised female voices, and 30 years on, what do we have? Ok, we’ve had the likes of Diamanda Galás, Le Tigre and so on, but the odd, infrequent incursions of strong, feminist musicians does not change make. How many women are making music in any capacity besides window dressing, lipstick-dollies with a mic? Worryingly few. Besides the ghettoising affects of ‘gay’ disco, minority viewpoints are still largely absent from popular musical dialogue. Of course, the mainstream was always going to be conservative, but the other question Crass inexplicably pose, still, 30 years later – where are the LGBT voices? Anarchist, Socialist, Marxist, Feminist, post-Colonialist, anti-capitalist, Queer (etc etc) – all no-where to be seen in the only nominally differentiated over/underground. Lady Gaga‘s recent Pyrrhic contribution of an essentialist relation between gender and sexuality is vainglorious and faintly patronising (regardless of the fact it’s an awesome song) and is also possibly the only genuinely popular song of the last 10+ years which comes anywhere near saying anything about gender relations except to perpetuate the hegemony of utter despair. Oh, and Katy fucking Perry making us realise that, yes, it’s ok to be a lesbian, so long as it’s for the entertainment of heterosexual phallocentric desire. Thanks, Katy!

Crass could, certainly, be accused of having too narrow a frame of reference – where are Judith Butler, Sandy Stone, Monique Wittig, Donna Haraway, Marguerite Duras, Clarice Lispector, Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Julie Kristeva in all this? But it’s a stupid criticism. Penis Envy stands as a testament to the notion that it is possible to articulate political issues in song, that it is possible to shout articulately about real issues, that British society still has black holes of discrimination to which it gravitates, that there’s still a glass ceiling, that feminism is still a dirty word.

I haven’t said much about the record itself so far, but I think the actual music is of minimal importance. Briefly, the packaging is lovely, Gee Vaucher has worked fantastically well in the limited-size format of the CD; there’s a lush booklet with some great polemic arguments from Libertine/Penny Rimbaud; the music is… pretty much militant shouty punk, though Berkertex Bride sidles up to the sort of Africanisms The Ex have ploughed since. Is it musically avant-garde? No. Is it lyrically necessary? Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. Fundamentally, Penis Envy should not continue to be necessary, should not continue to speak with and for a radical voice. That it still does makes it a vulgar, grotesque parody of quite how little progress society has made in 30 years and, arguably, stands as a testament to our regression.

If this all sounds like a polemic, it is. If this all sounds a bit overbearing, pretentious or academic then… well, fuck you.

-Kev Nickells-

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