The first half of Alice Bag’s stage name was given to her by an English-speaking elementary school teacher who couldn’t pronounce her given name, Alicia Armendariz. The second half came when she fronted the the Bags, a pioneering band that offers a jolt of Chicana feminism to the archetypal idea of punk in 1977. The Bags really did cover their heads with paper bags at their earliest gigs while donning neon from head-to-toe—a style that might look familiar to fans of Pussy Riot.
Though the Bags only released one single—1978’s searing, hardboiled “Survive”—during their lifetime, the band’s collected recordings were later compiled as All Bagged Up, including classics like the L.A. scene anthem “We Don’t Need the English” and the ruthless fight song “We Will Bury You.” Over the last 35 years, Bag also played in the deathrock band Castration Squad, collaborated with genderqueer revolutionary Vaginal Davis in Cholita, and formed a post-punk trio called Las Tres.
In her 2011 memoir, Violence Girl, Bag revisits her days growing up in a traditional Mexican household in East L.A., from the chili-sprinkled fruit and singing street vendors she loved on family trips to Juarez to the disturbing abuse she regularly witnessed her father inflict upon her mom. Those experiences charged Bag’s enraged and self-empowered persona in punk. For proof of just how resilient she remains, check out the pink-haired 57-year-old kicking a Donald Trump piñata in the head in a recent Instagram post. And her influence is likely to bloom further with the release of her new self-titled debut solo LP.
Four years ago, in fact, Alice Bag changed my life. I was watching her perform on a Sunday afternoon at Ladyfest Boston, where she said something deceptively simple: “It’s important to validate the culture you want to see around you.” Bag has a way of encouraging support among women and, like an incisive punk song, her statement slashed through me. I don’t think I’ve ever been the same.
Below, Bag talks about the artists, songs, and albums that meant the most to her throughout her life, five years at a time.
“No Soy Monedita de Oro” (Traditional Mexican Song)
This song has resonated with me through my whole life. It is a ranchera delivered in a really emotive style. The lyrics are in Spanish, but the gist is: “I’m not a little gold coin. Everybody likes to have money, but I’m not for everybody.” It’s a message about self-love and self-assurance and being confident with who you are and not trying to please other people.
I didn’t really fit in at school. A lot of times I felt like an outcast. Even last year, I had blue hair, and people would say, “Oh my god, isn’t she kind of old to have that hair?” When I was young I used to get criticized for the same things. But this song always stuck with me, that feeling like: Everybody doesn’t have to like you as long as you like yourself. That message is forever.
Freda Payne: Band of Gold
I always had a really wide definition of what music could be. I listened to rancheras at home, but then my parents would take me to piano lessons where I would have to learn classical pieces. I remember learning the accordion and polkas. I started off with a variety platter. Listening to things in two languages and listening to a variety of genres within those languages gave me a huge assortment. It’s cool when something forces you to reconsider what music can be.
My sister was a big influence on me and, in the late ’60s, she really liked the Beatles and soul music. The first record I ever bought was Freda Payne’s Band of Gold. I had to save up my money and go to Kmart to get it. I didn’t really understand the lyrics. I just loved Freda’s voice. It really cemented soul music as something I would always feel very connected to as a form of expression. I still enjoy sitting down and listening to the subtleties and emotion in the voice of soul singers. Rancheras and soul music are both about that emotion that comes through in the vocals. One is very out-front—it’s almost like you’re shouting your emotions in rancheras—and the other is almost like you’re talking to someone and getting ready to cry. For me, soul music is a very intimate look at someone.
David Bowie: “Life on Mars”
David Bowie was a gateway drug for me, because once I realized that you could value androgyny and bisexuality and celebrate things that were unusual or extraordinary, it opened me up to a new way of loving myself. Once you learn to accept yourself, you find that you have a huge capacity for it. It’s like anything else—the more you do it, the better you get at it. That’s the beauty of being old; by then, you hopefully have learned how to provide yourself with validation.
“Life on Mars” is my favorite Bowie song. It always felt to me like it was about a girl dealing with conflict at home and, around this time, I was trying to figure out how to deal with conflicts going on in my house. My mom and dad were in an abusive relationship, and I had grown up basically as a powerless bystander. When I got into my teens, I wanted to get in the middle of it and stop the fighting, and there was another side of me that wanted to just run away. In the lyrics of this song, there is a girl looking for connections outside of the home and looking for a friend. She’s also escaping into movies—all things I could connect to at that age.
When you’re in your early teens you’re starting to explore sexual feelings. At that point, I thought you either had to be straight or be gay. I didn’t know that you could be bisexual. But when David Bowie talked about it, all of a sudden I thought, That’s how I feel and that’s OK. He’s David Bowie and he’s giving me permission. It was very powerful.
The Weirdos: “A Life of Crime”
“A Life of Crime” is my all-time favorite punk rock song. Seeing the Weirdos live in the ’70s was just mind-blowing; I saw almost every Weirdos show because my boyfriend was in the band in the early days. The Weirdos’ first show was like nothing I had ever seen before. It was this explosion of color and energy and melody coming out in a really twisted and chaotic way, but it was still something you could sing or dance to. I’m big on feeling a band and their music, so I’d much rather go to a concert than just listen to music while do something else.
The sound of that riff in “A Life of Crime” is so menacing and inviting at the same time. That song really typifies my punk years—if you can imagine it being played in the seediest of punk clubs, it all makes sense. It is like being dragged into a dark alley where you could either find the darkest release for your darkest feelings or extreme jubilation.
Prince: “Purple Rain”
In the movie Purple Rain, the storyline involves his singers/keyboard players Wendy and Lisa trying to write this song, “Purple Rain,” and Prince’s character keeps shutting them down. At the end, he finally gives in and he decides he’s going to cooperate with them. You feel like, Ah, it’s a triumph of the girl writers! They finally get heard. I walked out singing it, and I still connect to it. It’s such a catchy love song, and it’s an unusual thing to think about—purple rain.
Eydie Gorme and Trio Los Panchos: “Piel Canela”
I had gone to Nicaragua in ’86 and when I came back I really started looking at myself in a different way. I felt like I hadn’t taken enough time to explore my culture fully. When I was a kid I was immersed in it; I only spoke Spanish at home, my mother only cooked Mexican food, and we only watched Spanish shows. It was a very traditional Mexican household, and then there was the influence of my sister bringing in American culture—so pretty much the Chicana experience, where you have a mixture of both things.
But after I went to Nicaragua, I started going back to the rancheras, to music of the gritos. In Mexican culture, it’s very common to have three guitarists who walk around and sing in three-part harmony. So I found these other two women who had been in punk bands who were also chicanas, Teresa Covarrubias and Angela Vogel, and we decided to form a post-punk feminist trio, Las Tres, working in the acoustic Mexican trio format.
“Piel Canela” was a classic in East L.A. You couldn’t get away from this particular record. It felt familiar. When I was younger it was a soundtrack, but I wasn’t really listening to the music. So I went back and really focused on the lyrics, arrangements, and delivery. The lyrics are saying, “If the world lost all its color, I only want to make sure that you don’t lose your cinnamon colored skin.” It’s self-validating.
The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black: “There’s So Many Things That I Can Do”
It was a crazy time for me because I was a new mother with an infant at home and my partner was working all the time. My mom was old by then—she was getting sick a lot and she passed away when my daughter was 2. I remember feeling like I had to juggle everything—motherhood, working part-time, cooking, changing diapers, cleaning. “There’s So Many Things That I Can Do” by the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black really got me through this time.
In it, she lists all of the things that she can do, both good and bad. At one point, she’s like, “I deserve a statue and a plaque!” And I’m like, “Yes, I do. If I can accomplish all this.” I felt like I was being pushed to my limits and was somehow making it. Everything that doesn’t break you makes you stronger; I was there. And this song just reminded me that all kinds of people in all kinds of situations have been through this before. You gotta give yourself a pat on the back and say, “If nobody else is gonna praise me for getting through this, I deserve to praise myself.”
“I’ll Make a Man Out of You” from Mulan
Motherhood was so important to me at that age. And I found that it was all-consuming. I’d get out and work for a little while, but basically I was sleeping very little and being a mom full-time. I remember going to see Mulan with my daughter. I was really thrilled to be able to have a conversation with her about “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” and how powerful young girls and women could be. To see Mulan cross-dressing was also something that we could have a conversation about. It was an opportunity to open up conversations about gender—about what a girl could do—and it did it in such a fun, light-hearted way.
There’s a scene in that movie where the character is seen as dishonoring her family by doing something atypical, but in the end she finds that being different and doing what she felt was right is valued by her family and community. My daughter also had that experience of being a little bit different, an odd duck. I wanted to get that message to her that girls can kick ass. Not only literally, like Mulan doing martial arts, but also because she followed her instincts. She knew she had to do something. She wanted to do the right thing and she did it despite the fact that people didn’t understand why. I think Mulan is cool.
Daler Mehndi: “Tunak Tunak Tun”
I was really fascinated by Bollywood movies in the early 2000s. I would watch these programs on TV aimed at the Indian community and I just thought they were so beautiful, and the music and the singing and dancing was great. I wanted to go see a Bollywood movie at a theater, so my husband and I went to see one that was completely in Hindi, without subtitles. It was like three hours long, and though we would sometimes laugh at places where other people wouldn’t laugh, somehow we understood it overall. My interest in Bollywood movies led me to a bhangra song called “Tunak Tunak Tun” by Daler Mehndi. It’s just pure joy and makes you want to dance. His zest for life just comes out of the screen and grabs me.
Girl in a Coma: “Their Cell”
Around 2005, I wrote a list of my favorite Myspace bands for [the punk zine] Razorcake. That’s when I first heard Girl in a Coma, a trio from San Antonio. I didn’t know anything about them, I just heard the music and was captivated immediately. The melody of “Their Cell” is so haunting, and Nina Diaz’s voice is so velvety and unique. I had never heard anyone that sounds like her. She’s almost got this Texas drawl, just this way that she curves her vowels and bends her notes. Whenever I hear her sing I’m just drawn into it.
I have a connection with Girl in a Coma not only because they’re Chicanas, but also because, later on, a couple of them started a band called Fea. They asked me to produce some songs on their record, and that experience lead to me doing my own record. Their faith and confidence in me inspired me to do my own thing.
Sex Stains “Land of La La”
I tend to see a lot of local stuff, and one L.A. band that I really love is called Sex Stains. They’re just really tight. There’s two singers—Mecca Vazie Andrews and Allison Wolfe [of Bratmobile]—who really complement each other. I met Allison Wolfe at L.A. Zine Fest a couple years ago and we clicked right away. I had heard Bratmobile before, but I don’t have a strong connection to riot grrrl music because it was just a different time in my life. I was really into a different scene at that time.
So when I moved back to L.A., we started hanging out. Now we see each other pretty regularly, and I feel like she’s a family friend, and I’m a huge huge fan of hers. Not only because of her music and her writing, but because she is the real thing—a real feminist, not someone who just talks the talk. A lot of people say what they want to be but then they act however the fuck they want. They don’t follow through. But she will go out and support people. She’s one of those rare people that lives by her standards. She’s an amazing, powerful, intelligent woman. I love her.
Sex Stains: “Land of La La” (via SoundCloud)