For the largest punk fest in North America, in some ways Riot Fest isn’t actually all that punk. When it comes to the gender balance of its lineups, the Chicago-based music festival is solidly within the status quo.
I crunched the numbers for every Riot Fest lineup since its founding in 2005, including the Chicago, Toronto, and Denver festivals as well as the one-off 2012 events in Philadelphia, Dallas, and Brooklyn. The Chicago fest has never topped 25 percent female-inclusive acts—that is, acts with at least one woman involved. The 2018 lineup hits that one-quarter mark, though the four headliners—Weezer, Beck, Run the Jewels, and Incubus—are entirely male. The previous female-inclusive headliner was No Doubt in 2015.
To be fair, these lousy numbers aren’t unique to Riot Fest, and many festivals do much worse. The gender gap in festival bookings has attracted international attention: UK music-development charity PRS Foundation, as part of its Keychange initiative, brought together 45 festivals and conferences (mostly in Europe) that pledged to reach gender parity in their lineups by 2022. This year Pitchfork was one of only three major summer festivals where at least half the roster featured women—including rockers such as Julien Baker and Girlpool, who could easily get booked for Riot Fest too. No fests accomplished that in 2017.
The Riot Fest 2018 lineup features 22 female-inclusive acts out of 88 total, among them young bands (Mannequin Pussy, Bully), 90s indie-rock favorites (Liz Phair, Cat Power), and 70s punk and new-wave icons (Blondie, the Avengers).
Some are recurring Riot Fest acts: Speedy Ortiz, for instance, played at the Chicago and Denver festivals in 2015. Front woman Sadie Dupuis remembers scanning the 2015 lineup for other female-inclusive acts. “It was a little bit dismal,” Dupuis says. That year Chicago’s Riot Fest was the largest to date, with more than 130 bands, but only 18 included women.
Avengers front woman Penelope Houston says that when the San Francisco group formed in 1977, punk “gave permission for anybody and everybody to be . . . any part of that scene.” The early punk scene, while hardly utopian in its gender politics, made room for a lot of amazing women who’ve been inspiring other women for generations. Houston is supportive of the upsurge in the number of younger female musicians, but she says it’s “disappointing” to see gender gaps persist in punk and rock.
Other large festivals devoted to those genres are even less inclusive than Riot Fest. Rock on the Range, based in Columbus, Ohio, and Welcome to Rockville in Jacksonville, Florida, also booked exclusively all-male bands as headliners this spring. Warped Tour’s farewell run this summer had only 7 percent female-inclusive acts. Riot Fest’s Chicago lineups have generally improved from year to year in terms of gender balance—from one female-inclusive band in 2005 (and none in 2006 or 2007) to 22 out of 91 in 2017.
“You would hope that things would be slightly closer to equal,” Dupuis says. “It’s really important to support the kind of inclusivity you want to see.”
For those of you tired of looking for girls rocking Riot Fest and finding Wolfmother and Mom Jeans instead, here are some bands that actually have women in them. And they’re better too.
Friday 2:10 PM, Roots Stage
Liz Phair’s 1993 magnum opus Exile in Guyville was the antidote to guy-powered rock. She was celebrated and criticized at the time of its release, because not all music writers were comfortable with a woman writing songs about fucking, wanting, and getting what you fucking want. For the album’s 25th anniversary this year, Reader culture editor Aimee Levitt wrote about how it connected with her: “Liz Phair was one of the only people out there who I felt was speaking directly to me, and for me, without requiring the sort of adjustments and shifts that most people who aren’t straight white men make so often that after a while, we stop realizing that we’re making them.”
Sunday 3:30 PM, Rebel Stage
When the Avengers formed in 1977, says Houston, punk was the “craziness” that San Francisco needed. “I just thought, I’m a punk and we’re all punks and we’re together in this,” she explains. “It was a great breaking down of barriers and opening of doors.” The old-school punk sound enshrined on their album Avengers, released four years after they disbanded in 1979, should be a breath of fresh air at Riot Fest, which tends to favor testosterone-fueled throwbacks with more 80s hardcore in their DNA.
Friday 1 PM, Roots Stage
The indie-rock band originally started as a home recording project by Dupuis before turning into the current four-piece set. Twerp Verse, released in April, sets Dupuis’s apathetic drawl against toothy riffs (“Life is carnage . . . swear I don’t care anymore,” she sings on “Lucky 88”). In 2015 Speedy Ortiz started a help hotline to allow concertgoers to alert the band and crew via text if they’re dealing with harassment.
Friday 3 PM, Radicals Stage
This balaclava-wearing Russian collective formed as an activist group in 2011 before becoming a feminist punk band too (they still do quite a bit of both). Pussy Riot are known for their theatrical acts of public protest, including storming the 2018 World Cup final dressed as police. (They also took the stage with gubernatorial candidate Daniel Biss shortly before he lost the Democratic primary to J.B. Pritzker in March.) Their music is just as punchy as it is defiant, mixing martial electronic beats with spitfire vocals and rabble-rousing political lyrics. v