“Survive,” the a-side of the only record The Bags ever released during their brief existence, is a perfect song. Clocking in at under three minutes, it starts off sounding something like a punk version of the theme from a spy flick, replete with finger snaps, cymbal ting!s, and a menacing surf rock-cum-noir film guitar riff. When the finger snaps fade and the rest of the band comes in, the pace picks up, and it bounces along with caffeinated energy. It’s loud and fast, but this was before the hardcore thing beat punk into homogeny, flattened it to only loud and fast—so “Survive” does have a melody, raw and restless as it is.
The crux of the song comes when Alice Bag sings: survival is a game / can’t stop us now / it’s all in vain. Next is the bridge, which blisters, and then the refrain, again: survival is a game / can’t stop us now / it’s all in vain. Then, in vain is repeated three times, and at the end of the third time, Alice lets out a shriek, one to stop you dead in your tracks and make you wonder what the hell just happened here? It sounds like the shriek of the scream queen in a horror film or the (female) victim in a noir film, the scream just before the switchblade hits the artery, just before the blood spurts. But make no mistake—Alice is not the victim here. Her shriek is the shriek of a predator, not of prey. She warns us of this earlier in the song: I’ll turn you all into paste / all your rancid blood I’ll taste.
She’ll survive, even if she has to destroy everyone in her path to do it.
At The Bags’ first show (the Masque, Hollywood, September 1977), Alice and her bandmates walked on stage wearing brown paper bags over their heads, with slits for eyeholes. This was a form of resistance and survival, a way of telling the audience and the male-dominated mainstream rock world: You can’t judge us on our looks, because you can’t even see what we look like.
I think of the movie Times Square, filmed just two years later, and Nicky Marotta imploring any girls listening: If they treat you like garbage, put your body in a garbage bag. If they treat you like a criminal, black out your eyes.
I think of Billie Eilish, now, saying she prefers baggy clothes and layers because: it [...] gives nobody the opportunity to judge what your body looks like. [...] And I want to be mysterious. You don’t know what’s underneath, and you don’t know what’s on top.
I think of Nicole Panter writing: […] when you get dressed up every day, you do everything you can to make yourself look as ugly on the outside as you feel on the inside.
And I think of Alice Bag stating that some of her songs and performances were very angry and others were very sexual, because at that point in her life she felt sexy for the first time: I had grown up pudgy, and my two front teeth were broken, and I had braces because I had buckteeth. I had a lot going against me. […] being able to create this punk who didn’t have to be beautiful in the mainstream way helped me […] become comfortable with the idea that I didn’t have to look like Farrah Fawcett to feel attractive, to feel sexual power.
Whether making themselves purposefully ugly or embracing their sexuality on their own terms, whether layering themselves in baggy clothing or wearing miniskirts and fishnets, whether blacking out their eyes with smudges of kohl eyeliner or putting paper bags over their heads, these women said my body is mine and I will present it however I choose.
When any body not straight & white & cis & male & abled chooses how to present themselves, chooses to present themselves in a non-normative way, it is survival. Survival not just of our bodies, but of our souls.
Alice Bag represents The Star in my Punk Rock Tarot deck. When I wrote the accompanying zine, I said there was no deep reason why I chose her for that card. But in the years since, I’ve thought more about it, and I’ve come to see there are many reasons—I just couldn’t access them consciously, back then.
The Star is a card of survival. After the manipulation of The Devil and the destructive shock of The Tower, The Star brings magic and hope. Everything around you has been destroyed, but you have survived, and now you can start planting the seeds of a new life.
(Survival is a game / can’t stop us now / it’s all in vain...)
Alice Bag survived so much. She survived growing up in an abusive household. She survived coming of age in a time when being a queer Chicanx feminist was not an easy thing to be; when women who wanted to access the power of rock’n’roll were expected to be the groupies but never the Stars. She survived what any body not white/male/straight/cis/abled survives (or doesn’t)—walking through a world where your body is a target for harassment, and rape, and abuse. For violence. She survived it with paper bags and punk rock style, survived it by embracing her own sexuality, accessing her own power and violence. She survived it with caos; with a scream which was both pleasure and resistance.
And she is still surviving in a culture where being a queer Chicanx feminist isn’t an easy thing to be. She is still presenting herself in the way she wants, and singing about it, despite living in a culture where people tell her she’s too old to dye her hair neon blue, to wear leopard print, to scream in a band. She survives.
If you are a woman or non-cis male, if you are a person of color, if you are queer, if, if, if, this culture will try its damndest to destroy you.
Despite it all, we create. We embrace. We scream. We resist.
(Can’t stop us now.
It’s all in vain.)
Songs, written works, and films quoted/referenced:
The Bags – “Survive”
Times Square (1980 film)
Jessie Lynn McMains is a poet, writer, zine-maker, and small press owner.
She’s also a queer womxn (she/her or they/them pronouns), a mama to two wild kiddos, and a witch who practices a blend of paganism and folk Catholicism. Aside from words, music is her favorite thing in the world. She’s also obsessed with tarot, the Midwest/Great Lakes/Rust Belt, ghosts, and the undying spirit of punk rock. Someone once referred to her as the Debbie Harry of poetry, and she still thinks that’s pretty rad.
You can find her website at recklesschants.net, or find her on Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram @rustbeltjessie.