Punk in the Sonoran Desert

Thursday, February 1, 2018 - 4:49pm

NOSELL

Courtesy of Sleater-Kinney

 

Last time I was home, I asked a friend how she tells people about Arizona when they ask what it’s like. She told me that what feels truest (but what she doesn’t normally say), is a cliché from old Westerns: “Hard places breed hard men.” When I asked her if the two of us were hard men, she told me of course we were. “Teenage girlhood is no joke,” she said.

I grew up in the middle of the Sonoran Desert surrounded by mountains, cacti and the biggest bluest sky you’ve ever seen. There’s something a little cinematic about Arizona, all grand sunsets, dust storms and heat. It gave my 15-year-old internal melodrama a vivid backdrop, spinning it into bright externalized color. It’s one thing to be a teenager and bored in a small town, but being restless and young takes on a new meaning when it’s 120 degrees out and you (very literally) can’t walk outside because the tar on the street melts and sticks to your shoes.

Despite the extreme temperatures, it felt normal sometimes, in those parts of high school that are weird and sad and universal. A “Freshman Draft” list was floated around every year, where senior boys would pick the 14-year-old girl they most wanted to fuck before Homecoming. Older male teachers would openly stare at girls’ legs and necklines, and then send them to the office for breaking the dress code when somebody noticed them looking. Racial slurs and footballs were tossed back and forth across the hallway in equal measure, and there were more swastikas scribbled around the halls than I could count. I couldn’t make it through a day without seeing a girl crying or puking in the bathroom. In short: It was high school.

There was one brutally hot afternoon (October and still 100 degrees out) after an especially long day at school. The bus felt sticky and grimy, and the sun was so harsh and bright it hurt my eyes when I walked outside. When I got home, I closed the curtains to block out the sun, sat on my bed and listened to the song “Modern Girl” by Sleater-Kinney for the first time. Carrie Brownstein sang, “My baby loves me / I’m so hungry / hunger makes me a modern girl,” and I remember so clearly sitting up very straight, immediately jolted out of my late afternoon laziness and taken aback by a sharp recognition of the truth in her words. It’s not a complicated song, but it was electric. I felt it like it was an extension of myself — I knew exactly what she meant when she talked about a hunger “the size of this entire world.”

See, I think there’s an anger pulsing just under the skin of teenage girls — or at the very least, a sneaking suspicion in our heart of hearts that something is deeply wrong. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my idols became angry artists who didn’t care one bit how they looked, how well they were liked, or how pretty their voices were. Punk and grunge music tapped into my anger, gave it voice and form. It felt like validation: these women shaking me by the shoulders and telling me I was right to feel unsettled by the things I saw at school, I was right to build my own world apart from the harsh prickliness and plasticity of my town. It became an obsession, and I frantically collected every album and bit of footage I could.

I took comfort in Kathleen Hanna’s screams and Courtney Love’s smeared lipstick and the way Kim Deal’s voice cracked on every chorus — the way they took the perfect doll face of femininity and peeled it back to reveal something dark and messy underneath. I fell in love with the way they jumped around onstage like boxers before a fight, the way they attacked their guitars with an ugly, violent energy.

I’d listen to them scream their lungs out while I walked down the halls with my head down. But in the end, punk music was one of the best things that happened to me in high school. It taught me how to stand up straight, move carefully and look people in the eye when I spoke. I learned from my heroes about all the magic that can happen when a shy girl talks tough.

For a lot of teenagers, art is a way to escape, to transcend a situation, like the confines of their school or small town. But for me, it was a retreat, a way to make my world smaller, less hard and bright — a way of drawing the curtains and filtering the Arizona sun into something softer. 

Growing up in Arizona meant cacti in my yard, coyotes running down the street and javelinas sniffing around the bushes. We worried about bobcats and mountain lions, and I was taught always to make my bed with the sheets pressed tight so that scorpions couldn’t get in. It was a tough place that bred toughness out of necessity. Sometimes the scorpions got in my bed anyway, and when they did I smashed them with my shoe — I got good at doing that. Nowadays, I don’t flinch at bugs at all. There are a lot of things that used to scare me.