It’s the 1970’s in East Los Angeles, and high school teenager Alice Bag has just walked off campus for lunch. She steps into a liquor store and notices a magazine, called Punk. Intrigued by the name and the comic book-style cover, she picks it up and flips through. What she saw in the magazine was raw, edgy and not something she had seen before, and that was exciting for the teen, whose current interests were centered around glam culture. It looked like something she could be a part of and a place where she could thrive.
Fast forward over forty years later, and Bag has certainly made a name for herself. She and her band, The Bags, were one of the first punk bands to emerge out of Los Angeles. She’s known for igniting a fire for women in the scene and has consistently created music that pushes the boundaries of the status quo. A feminist, educator, mother, self-described troublemaker, and proud Chicana activist, she’s paved the way for an entire generation of female musicians and has continued to be a voice for those who may not feel they have one. Raven got the chance to talk to Bag about her career spanning four decades, the differences in representation within the punk collective between the 70’s and now, and how we can all amplify voices for the unseen.
Coming from a glam background, punk was a completely different world for Bag. Girls weren’t seen as a prominent figure in the spotlight. They were groupies, expected to support males in the band and be in the shadows, until they were needed to give them water, or listen to their struggles. This was something Bag took issue with and wasn’t something she wanted to be a part of. “I grew up watching groupie culture, and watching women portrayed as being pretty much good for one thing, which was to support the male in the band. That role wasn’t for me. I didn’t like the idea of having to go out with a guy and just listen to him talk about himself and lose myself in the process.” Turned off by the thought of having to be in this role, Bag decided to do her own thing, and punk was a gateway to that. With no previous musical experience, but a passion for speaking her mind, Bag got together with friends and formed her very first band, which set the tone for the next forty years. “My friend and I started taking guitar lessons. At a certain point, they said I should stop playing and go ahead and sing. So, I stopped taking guitar lessons and became the lead singer.”
The Bags, 1978
With this new profound passion, Bag dove head-first into the punk scene. It was the first time she felt at home and noticed there were many within the collective that looked and felt the same way as she did. She was a punk, and she was proud of that. “Punk was welcoming for people who maybe hadn’t seen themselves represented in the past. Knowing that this particular type of music in this particular community valued weirdos and outsiders and people who didn’t fit the norm, and people who were breaking the mold, that was really important. We all have voices, and this seemed well-suited to people who hadn’t had a voice before.”
These voices were prominent, but we never heard them. The punk scene back then was much more of a melting pot than we're inclined to think, especially within Los Angeles. When one thinks of the scene, what normally comes to mind is the cis-gender, white-male dominance. But the reality is, there was a mix of races, genders, and sexualities that weren’t highlighted in media, and they were essentially erased from the narrative. “Queers, people of color, and women all over musical history were just erased, and their contributions have been undervalued.”
While the diversity was there, sometimes it wasn’t at the forefront when identifying oneself in the collective. One thing that stood out was that punk was a blanket term, a statement used to describe oneself within the community. Whether a person was queer, a person of color, whatever it was, they were a punk first. Everything else came after. “A lot of us identified as punk. That was our main identity. We didn’t say ‘We’re queer’ or anything like that. We were just punks; we were the weirdos. And that could mean anything. It’s a little different today, where someone could say they’re a punk but also say they’re these other things too.”
What’s not different today though, is how important it is to make sure everyone is heard. Anyone who knows Bag knows that she has been a constant voice for marginalized groups over the years. From her activism and the messages heard in her songs, she creates a safe space for people to have their own voice, and it’s something we can all do in and out of the scene. Having a space for everyone to be themselves is a way we all can thrive and create change. “Surround yourself with people that value you for who you are. Find the courage to be yourself and surround yourself with people who bring out the best in you and the best thing you have, whatever is true to you. When you’re in a safe environment you can be yourself and you can speak up. And if you don’t feel supported, create an escape plan and find a place where you are.”