Jayne County Taught Me the Politics of Punk

The first time I heard Jayne County’s voice was my sophomore year of high school, on a compilation CD of NYC bands I’d pulled from my dad’s collection. The album was packed with songs by groups like Television, Bad Brains, and Richard Hell–all full of swaggering, careless angst. On the second track, sandwiched perfectly between the New York Dolls’ “Trash” and Blondie’s “Rip Her to Shreds,” County belts her gleefully vile song “F*** Off” with something halfway between a sneer and a raw-throated bluesy growl, as distorted guitar is interspersed with honky-tonk piano. I was knocked off my feet.

An online search led me to realize that Jayne County is something of an unsung legend. Among the first openly trans punk musicians, she was present at the 1969 Stonewall Riot, a well-known flashpoint in American LGBT+ history where righteous anger in the face of constant police harassment boiled over during a raid on a popular gay bar. County went on to collaborate with pop art icon Andy Warhol, starring in his film Pork. She also played smaller roles in the cult films Jubilee and Blank Generation. Her music and over-the-top stage presence has influenced the likes of Patti Smith and David Bowie, with County maintaining that Bowie lifted the look of the Diamond Dogs tour from her live show. Most exciting, perhaps, is that County continues to make music and visual art today, with her latest single “IGenderTy” shouting a joyful story of self-discovery.

Stories about musicians and artists like Jayne County are vital. Their stories are a part of music history, LGBT+ history, and women’s history. To omit or forget them is a failure to tell the whole story at best, and a dangerous form of erasure at worst. Lifting up County and her music is especially important in reclaiming the punk rock scene, which despite its ostensible rebellion, has too often tended towards reactionary attitudes in the past. Take the fratboyish misogyny of groups like Fear, for example, who in one song screamed: “the trouble with women today is the mouth don’t stop!” There is also The Sex Pistols, whose so-called bassist (he never learned to play his instrument) wore swastikas for shock value and whose singer more recently put his support behind Donald Trump. Punk ought to be an expression of the justified rage that women, people of color, the LGBT+ community, and the proletariat feel towards our oppressors, not the other way around.

In comedy, there is a concept referred to as “punching up” which essentially means that the butt of an offensive joke needs to be someone who has more institutional power than the person telling the joke does, not less. This translates extremely well to punk, a form of music full of fury that has no qualms about ruffling feathers. Take the song “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” by X-Ray Spex. The title is crude, the guitar is shrieking, and the lyrics are violent, but the band’s singer, Poly Styrene was a Somali-British woman using music to lash out against racism and sexism, in other words, “punching up.” On the other side of the coin, we can look at something like The Sex Pistols’ “Bodies.” The anger here is directed not at any particular power structure, but at a woman who has had an abortion. “She was an animal! She was a bloody disgrace!” John Lydon snarls.

The frequently-quoted poet Cesar A. Cruz said, “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” We can take this to mean that any art that does not strive to “punch up” in some way or another has failed. While this might sound somewhat harsh, it is important to keep in mind that nothing can exist in a vacuum. When it comes down to it, all art is propaganda. Every song, book, film, painting, etc. carries its own ideological baggage and seeks to shape the reality it occupies.

It is our duty as both creators and consumers of art to keep this in mind, to unpack this baggage, and to keep pushing the right buttons.


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