The best music books and memoirs about rule-breaking women

Jen B. Larson Author Of Hit Girls: Women of Punk in the USA, 1975-1983
By Jen B. Larson

Who am I?

In 2011, when my all-girl garage band began gigging around Chicago, I couldn’t tell you how many times I heard people call us “riot grrrl.” We weren’t riot grrrls; we were far too late for the movement. But for so many people, riot grrrl was the only reference point they had for scary, brash female musicians. The truth is, women were involved in the movement’s origins in every part of the world. I believe we must understand that riot grrrls weren’t the first women of punk. My book Hit Girls: Women of Punk in the USA, 1975-1983 details the stories of lesser-known but highly influential women who helped create punk and its adjacent genres.

I wrote...

Hit Girls: Women of Punk in the USA, 1975-1983

By Jen B. Larson,

Book cover of Hit Girls: Women of Punk in the USA, 1975-1983

What is my book about?

Hit Girls is the story of local and regional bands whose legacy would be otherwise lost. Despite the modern narrative labeling women as anomalies in rock music, the truth is: women played important roles in punk and its related genres in every city, in every scene, all over the United States. The women and bands profiled by Jen B. share their experiences of sexism and racism as well as their joy and successes from their days on stage as they changed what it meant to be in a band. These pioneering women were more than novelty acts or pretty faces—they were fully contributing members and leaders of mixed-gender and all-female bands long before the call for “girls to the front.”.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Revenge of the She-Punks: A Feminist Music History from Poly Styrene to Pussy Riot

Why this book?

Vivien Goldman is a guardian of sacred punk knowledge. With decades of experience writing about punk, post-punk, and reggae in addition to playing in bands herself, she has a necessary lens on the music industry and the political structures that both uphold and challenge it. Today, she is a documentarian and adjunct professor of punk and reggae at NYU. 

I first caught a glimpse of this book at 57th Street Books in Hyde Park in Chicago on display on the new release table. Its hot green cover with a bright red mouth immediately caught my eye, and once I recognized what it was and it who it was by, I tossed the title into my basket without question. I couldn’t put it down; it’s a poetic and historical account of women’s role in punk, organized into four themes that are explored through personal essays, interviews, and academic analysis. It’s an important read for anyone interested in music and the politics of gender.

Revenge of the She-Punks: A Feminist Music History from Poly Styrene to Pussy Riot

By Vivien Goldman,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Revenge of the She-Punks as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As an industry insider and pioneering post-punk musician, Vivien Goldman's perspective on music journalism is unusually well-rounded. In Revenge of the She-Punks, she probes four themes-identity, money, love, and protest-to explore what makes punk such a liberating art form for women.

With her visceral style, Goldman blends interviews, history, and her personal experience as one of Britain's first female music writers in a book that reads like a vivid documentary of a genre defined by dismantling boundaries. A discussion of the Patti Smith song "Free Money," for example, opens with Goldman on a shopping spree with Smith. Tamar-Kali, whose name…

Book cover of Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville (33 1/3)

Why this book?

When I was 15, Liz Phair’s album Exile in Guyville completely turned me on to indie rock. Until then, everything I heard was baked for the radio. Liz’s dry, quivering voice, slipping in and out of key, singing candidly about sex and the unspeakable aspects of relationships, challenged the boys club and spoke to me in a way that Courtney Love and Shirley Manson hadn’t. I think it was her ability to tell a story, or maybe it was that nothing seemed “over-produced.” Either way, many years later, this book gave me important insights on the way Chicago indie-rock functioned in the ‘90s and how much bullshit Liz Phair had to put up with just for being herself.  

Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville (33 1/3)

By Gina Arnold,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville (33 1/3) as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Although Exile in Guyville was celebrated as one of the year's top records by Spin and the New York Times, it was also, to some, an abomination: a mockery of the Rolling Stones' most revered record and a rare glimpse into the psyche of a shrewd, independent, strong young woman. For these crimes, Liz Phair was run out of her hometown of Chicago, enduring a flame war perpetrated by writers who accused her of being boring, inauthentic, and even a poor musician. With Exile in Guyville, Phair spoke for all the girls who loved the world of indie rock but…

Book cover of Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage, a Chicana Punk Story

Why this book?

I’ve read this book twice. Both times, I couldn’t put it down. Alice Bag can tell a story, and my neurodivergent ass loves books parsed into bite-sized sections. Alice’s stories begin with her childhood and end with her becoming a teacher. 

I look up to Alice and relate to her a lot. We both grew up in difficult family situations; we were both ambitious teens who were able to befriend just about anybody; and then we both learned to express our creativity and exercise our demons through punk. Growing up a bit and reigning in our talents, we both became public school teachers. Not to mention, we both love to write our memoirs. It’s cool to see her grow and reflect on her experiences, and a perfect read for anyone wanting new stories about all the characters in the early LA punk sphere.

Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage, a Chicana Punk Story

By Alice Bag,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Violence Girl as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The proximity of the East L.A. barrio to Hollywood is as close as a short drive on the 101 freeway, but the cultural divide is enormous. Born to Mexican-born and American-naturalized parents, Alicia Armendariz migrated a few miles west to participate in the free-range birth of the 1970s punk movement. Alicia adopted the punk name Alice Bag, and became lead singer for The Bags, early punk visionaries who starred in Penelope Spheeris' documentary The Decline of Western Civilization.

Here is a life of many crossed boundaries, from East L.A.'s musica ranchera to Hollywood's punk rock; from a violent male-dominated family…

So Real It Hurts

By Lydia Lunch,

Book cover of So Real It Hurts

Why this book?

In her life and in her writing, Lydia Lunch is able to alchemize the agony of existence into euphoria more effectively than any artist that I can think of. I could have put any of her titles (Paradoxia, Will Work for Drugs, The Gun is Loaded, etc.) on this list. Her narratives – all true stories from her past – hit like a ton of bricks and leave your own blood on the page. Lydia views the world through carnage visors and takes no prisoners on her journey, weaponizing the abuse she experienced in childhood against authority as an adult. The seamy underbelly of her world is black and white with thunder strokes of red. While reading this collection of personal essays and interviews, you can viscerally hear her spooky, cigarette-burned voice as if she is whispering the prose directly into your ear from behind.

So Real It Hurts

By Lydia Lunch,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked So Real It Hurts as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"So Real It Hurts is the perfect title for this collection. It's a mission statement. A few bleeding slices straight from the butcher shop. A sampler from an enormous archive of work that will, no doubt, be pored over by grad students, book lovers, film historians, music nerds and straight-up perverts a hundred years from now." —Anthony Bourdain, from the Introduction

Through personal essays and interviews, punk musician and cultural icon Lydia Lunch claws and rakes at the reader's conscience in this powerful, uninhibited feminist collection. Oscillating between provocative celebrations of her own defiant nature and nearly-tender ruminations on the…

Book cover of I'm Not Holding Your Coat: My Bruises-and-All Memoir of Punk Rock Rebellion

Why this book?

I’m a sucker for memoirs. And English teachers. Nancy is both. She teaches language arts at a public school in Massachusetts. But most importantly, she can tell a story. The book is a series of memories from the Philly and Boston hardcore scenes in the early ‘80s. It’s hard to put down, and it’s a really necessary account that tells of all the ways women were present and participating in what has always been referred to as a movement of exclusive, testosterone-induced navel-gazing. 

I'm Not Holding Your Coat: My Bruises-and-All Memoir of Punk Rock Rebellion

By Nancy Barile,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked I'm Not Holding Your Coat as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From disenchanted Catholic schoolgirl and glam maniac to instigator on the 1980s hardcore punk scene, Nancy Barile discovered freedom at a time when punk music was new and dangerous. She made her place behind the boards and right in the front row as insurgents such as SSD, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys and Black Flag wrote new rules and made history. She survived punk riots and urban decay, ran the streets with outcasts, and ultimately found true love as she fought for fairness and found her purpose. "Thank God we had girls like Nancy back then to keep things…

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