Fugazi sang an anti-rape message to their male audience 30 years ago – what's changed? | Gareth Hutchens

It is the 30th anniversary of the release of their EP which had the song Suggestion

It’s hard to believe it was thirty years ago.

This month, in 1988, a post-hardcore punk band from Washington D.C. called Fugazi released a seven-song EP.

One of those songs, Suggestion, was written from the perspective of a woman who’s sick of being harassed by men in public.

Why can’t I walk down a street, free of suggestion?

Singer and guitarist Ian Mackaye, who was 26 at the time, wrote the song about the experience of a female friend of his.

I recently came across some footage of the band playing the song in 1991, and it’s mesmerising. You need to see it. It’s from a show at the Sacred Heart Church hall in D.C. where they’d invited Amy Pickering, singer from local all-girl punk band Fire Party, to help them sing it.

Pickering sang the first two verses with so much venom, spitting them, to a room full of men, it takes your breath away. It’s an all-time performance.

Why can’t I walk down a street, free of suggestion?
Why can’t I walk down a street, free of suggestion?
Is my body my only trait in the eyes of men?
I’ve got some skin. Do you want to look in?

There lays no reward in what you discover
You spent yourself boy, watching me suffer
Suffer your words, suffer your eyes, suffer your hands
Suffer your interpretation of what it is to be a man

Watch the first three and a half minutes of the footage below, of Pickering’s two verses. Soak it in.

I’ve watched that scores of times now.

Pickering destroys it. And her performance becomes otherworldly when you learn that she’s singing about herself. Suggestion was written about a personal experience of hers.

In the book Our Band Could Be Your Life, about the American indie underground of the 1980s, author Michael Azerrad tells how Mackaye received a bit of criticism for the song when it came out because some felt he had no right to write about a woman’s experience. Mackaye thought the criticism was nonsense. The lyrics are about rape and sexual molestation of women. “It’s a human issue that we should and will continue to have to deal with,” he remonstrated.

And the song became a staple of Fugazi’s live set. The band used it to drill home the anti-rape message in their male audience by asking them to imagine what it was like to be a woman. They also forced their audience to think about their role as bystanders, and ridiculed the logic that women were to blame for being in the wrong place.

In the above performance, when Pickering leaves the stage after her two verses are done, the song loses vital energy. It’s a shame, because the lyrics shift perspective from that point in the song, jumping from the point of view of the woman being harassed to the bystanders in the street. Fugazi wants everyone to feel implicated.

She does nothing to deserve
He looks at her because he wants to observe it
We sit back like they taught us
We keep quiet like they taught us

He just wants to prove it
She does nothing to remove it
We don’t want anyone to mind us
We play the roles that they assigned us

She does nothing to conceal it
He touches her ‘cause he wants to feel it
We blame her for being there
But we are all here

We are all guilty.

It’s depressing to realise that song was written 30 years ago. How little progress we’ve made.


Gareth Hutchens

The GuardianTramp

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