Lasses of the mohicans

Vivien Goldman charts the history of Britain’s rebellious female punks.

Call it the ascent of "sassitude": a feisty, self-determined and communal-minded female attitude that first entered pop with the British punkettes in the 1970s. Three decades on, women dominate the US music charts: Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Pink, Ke$ha, Katy Perry, Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj. In the UK, there's Jessie J. The vigour of their dance anthems is matched by their proclamations of independence and their common theme of empowering women and outsiders. Listen to Beyoncé's "Run the World (Girls)", Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" or Katy Perry's "Firework", dedicated not only to women and gay people but to all perceived outsiders. In their gleeful shake-up of settled social attitudes, they echo two enduring UK punkette statements, one from Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex - "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" - and the other from Ari Up and the Slits - "Typical Girls" (they "buy magazines").

The influence of the UK punkettes reverberates down the decades. Nothing like them had existed in pop before. While Joe (Strummer) and John (Lydon) could build on the legacy of Mick (Jagger) and John (Lennon), there was no prototype for Ari Up, soul of the "Punky Reggae Party" that Bob Marley sang about, glaring, giggling, stomping and wailing against Babylon.

The have-a-go spirit of punk broke down barriers for women, creating pop's first self-determined generation of female artists. Girls who would have sublimated their musical aspirations into bedding artists in the 1960s formed bands in the 1970s. Pop rewards beauty but the standards were far more reductive for girls. You sang what you were told: no girls played. The white pop stereotypes were girl-next-door - Lulu, Sandie Shaw - or long-haired and ethereal, such as Kate Bush. Aspiring girl rockers had Suzi Quatro but she clearly wanted to be one of the boys. When punk sprang up, there was a girly community that hadn't been pre-approved by the rock ladocracy.

Our most commercially successful punkette was Chrissie Hynde. Though her classical vocals, songwriting and beauty would have made her win in any era, her sassitude was real. Like many punkettes, she was drawn to Jamaican ska, dub and reggae - revolutionary music.

The assault was visual as well as musical. UK punkette looks still define rebel-girl style: laddered fishnet tights, neon, animal prints, camouflage, Lurex, biker jackets, tartan mini-kilts and the now-familiar cognitive dissonance of ultra-girly items such as ballet tutus or ball gowns worn with Doc Martens. The sartorial code filtered through to Gucci and Versace and is now available at malls across the US. Today's American divas all wear startling styles, from Gaga's meat dress to Minaj's kinky secretary look, but, at some point, each diva has to rock the UK style to establish her wild-girl cred. Ke$ha recently wore a home-made rubbish-bag dress to an MTV awards show.

Yet our punkettes remain largely unsung, their story overshadowed by the all-boy pantheon of the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned, the Jam et al. Most male punks except for the Police (and they didn't count - they were punk poseurs) were making it up as they went along but the girls were scoffed at. Something about their very being seemed to freak men out.

Working on the punk rock weekly Sounds could feel like living on the gender front line. In those pre-PC days, topless girls adorned our gigs guide. When I suggested that we alternate them with shirtless boys, I almost incited a riot. It was explained to me, a woman, that girls didn't buy records or rock weeklies or play music and were thus irrelevant. So what was I? Chopped vinyl? Or an untapped market?

On the 1976 Anarchy tour of the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Slits, the bands were perceived as so threatening that many shows were cancelled. On the road, the Slits were seen as the frightening ones. The tour bus driver kept trying to leave them behind - though, oddly enough, he never forgot Johnny Rotten or the notoriously tardy Clash guitarist Mick Jones.

Still, our punkettes touched the pop charts with X-Ray Spex's "Germ-Free Adolescents" and the Slits' "Typical Girls" (with their reinvention of the Marvin Gaye hit "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" on the B-side). Hynde became a chart regular with her band the Pretenders and sang reggae with UB40.

Pop is fickle by nature but when male bands fizzle out, they can always cheer themselves up by thinking of Rod Stewart. But with not one girl-band role model to be a mentor in ageing disgracefully, the punkettes, when the punk wave rolled out, seemed almost forgotten.

Happily, after some wilderness years, there has been something of a UK punkette renaissance. Viv Albertine is releasing songs such as "Confessions of a Milf", which is as scalding and of the moment as the Slits' "Shoplifting" was 30 years ago. The Slits were nominated for a Grammy in late 2010 for their album Trapped Animal - shortly after Ari Up died of breast cancer. Six months later, Poly Styrene died of the same disease, just as her Generation Indigo album was released in the US.

The loss of two punkette icons so swiftly was a reminder of how rare these birds are. Now, girl ska-punk bands proliferate from Seattle to Sweden. Beyoncé is singing about girls running the world to a reggae-dancehall beat and everybody is listening to her, something that never happened to the Raincoats or the Slits. In the mystical way in which influences jump around and mutate, however, the hyper-professional artist of today wouldn't have happened without our shambolic but loveable "typical girls".

Vivien Goldman is the author of "The Book of Exodus: the Making and Meaning of Bob Marley and the Wailers' Album of the Century" (Aurum Press, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 31 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Young, angry...and right?

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.