“They don’t care if you live, they don’t care if you die / It's only ever been about control,” Shawna Potter sings defiantly in the lead track of feminist punk band War On Women’s new record. Capture The Flag is hauntingly relevant, and there’s really no issue too controversial for Shawna to scream into the faces of the crowd before her. It’s just enough to get you angry while making you happy that a band like War On Women exists.
The record, released earlier this month on Friday the 13th, is an impeccable collection of twelve bold tracks. Taking a short break from fixing equipment at Big Crunch Amp Repair & Design in Baltimore, Shawna chatted with me about performing these raw new songs live, collaborating with riot grrrl Kathleen Hanna, the inevitable end of Warped Tour, and the importance of keeping shows safe.
I was no stranger to War On Women and what they stand for - the band is well known for their feminist activism and admirable history of standing up and literally screaming in the face of injustice. They first caught my attention last summer, when they played Warped Tour and Shawna called out The Dickies’ frontman’s sexist and foul stage behavior in a Noisey op-ed.
I first ask Shawna how she feels about Warped Tour calling it quits this year, and she replies with a laugh. “I have a lot of feelings about it,” she begins. “I do feel that it is an important thing for young people all over the States, especially in non-metropolitan areas, to have access to music. To be able to see shows and see their favorite bands and discover new ones. But I think, overall, it’s a sign of music changing. What’s popular is changing so much and economics are changing so much. It’s a very hard model to sustain. You can’t just do the same thing for 25 years and expect it to work.”
Not to mention, the final Warped Tour lineup follows the unfortunate pattern of previous years, featuring only four bands with women members, out of over fifty bands total playing the festival. Not only is it discouraging, but it also creates an unsafe environment for non-cis-men fans in the audience. This is why, last year, Shawna brought Safer Scenes out to Warped Tour. A nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a safe space for everyone at concerts by ending sexual assault, Safer Scenes is doing the most important work.
“Unfortunately, bystander intervention still needs to be taught,” Shawna says. Although, nothing discourages her -- it only drives her passion to help more. In addition to co-founding Safer Scenes, Shawna also helped form the Baltimore chapter of Hollaback!, an organization dedicated to ending harassment. “Right now I’m trying to concentrate on teaching venues how to become safer spaces and teaching people how they can interrupt violence when they see it, especially at shows. That’s my biggest focus when we’re not on tour. I plan to keep doing that, and now that we have this new record, we also have a workbook associated with it that can be taught in classrooms.”
The workbook, based off the themes and lyrics of Capture The Flag, can be purchased online for a small donation and is intended to be taught at a college level.
Buy the workbook here.
“I’m really proud of ‘Lone Wolf,’ and ‘Anarcha,’ because they just feel really important right now,” Shawna tells me, after I ask her what her favorite tracks from the record are. “They’re both about these really important issues. I’m happy with what I was able to get out and how I was able to talk about it, plus the songs are really heavy but still kinda catchy. Of course, it’s also weird and complicated, because ‘Lone Wolf’ is relevant every day. There’s gun violence every day. It’s almost difficult to feel good about it, when you know that you wrote the song about this terrible thing that keeps happening.”
“But, one thing that’s great, is that today they actually started taking down the J Marion Sims statue in Central Park, which is what the song ‘Anarcha’ is about,” she goes on to tell me. I had never heard of J Marion Sims, although I’m sure I’ve walked past the statue before, probably more than once. “He’s credited as being the father of gynecology, but all the groundbreaking research he was able to do and the techniques he was able to create were because he borrowed or bought women that were slaves and experimented on them. Anarcha is one of the only names we even know of the women he experimented on. We know these women were in pain, but they were enslaved. Anesthesia wasn’t widely used at the time, but when it was, it was definitely more likely to be used on rich white people. We’re still living in a time where people think that people of color have a higher tolerance for pain and therefore they don’t believe them when they say they need more medicine. It’s great to see that we can maybe stop celebrating all of these old white men that were celebrated because they lived in racist times,” she says. Is it coincidence that New York City took down the J Marion Sims statue mere days after War On Women’s record became available to stream? We’ll never know.
‘YDTMHLT,’ another gem from the album, features vocals from ex-Bikini Kill frontwoman and riot grrrl, Kathleen Hanna. After meeting back in 2016 at Riot Fest, Shawna and the band knew right away that ‘YDTMHLT’ was the perfect song for her to join in on. “It just seemed kinda scrappy and sassy and it’s about being okay with yourself at a young age, and it seemed perfect for her. I already had the parts that I wanted her to sing, but the whole section where she’s going off and talk-singing in the middle -- she totally made that up on her own. That’s all her, and I was really stoked that we got to use it and have a classic Kathleen Hanna moment,” Shawna says. Another track from Capture The Flag features vocals from Joanna Angel, an adult film actress and friend of the band's bassist, Sue.
As Shawna is a female punk vocalist, a dramatically underrepresented area of the music industry, I made sure to ask what advice she has for other female and non-men musicians who want to speak their minds à la War On Women. “Well, first I want to say that we also should be hearing from trans men,” she immediately corrected me. “Trans men are men. I want to make sure that they don’t feel forgotten, as well as non-binary people that aren’t femme. So what I think you mean is ‘non-cisgendered men,’” she said. “And you should definitely include this part of the interview, so maybe people will realize they misspeak sometimes, too.” An important point and something I hadn’t considered much in the midst of my anger toward underrepresented female artists in the scene, I’m beyond pleased that she calmly communicated my error to me and encouraged me to include the conversation.
Eventually getting into the answer to my initial question, she says, “We’re clearly a very political band, putting ourselves out there and making ourselves vulnerable to hate and trolls and misogyny. People from marginalized groups definitely don’t have to do that, especially if they don’t feel safe enough to do so. But I do think that everyone would benefit from hearing their perspectives and their stories. Start a band just like all these cisgender white dudes do,” she says, sparking a laugh from me. I know far too many of these bands. “All they’re doing is talking about their feelings, and who they’re dating, and stuff they like and don’t like, and nothing’s wrong with that -- it’s just that that’s all we get to hear. I love to hear music about these normal everyday life things from everyone else. Because they’re going to be different and it’s always beneficial to have other people’s struggles heard and represented.”
“So no,” she continues, “You don’t have to call Trump a racist in a song like we do, or talk about punching Nazis or whatever like we do. But you still have a voice worth hearing.”
And when it comes to supporting these artists, both financially and otherwise? Shawna has something to tell you -- you have to do it. “If people want more media made by women, made by people of color, made by trans and non-binary folx and people of the LGBTQ communities, they have to buy that media when people make it. You have to put your money where your values are.”
“Let’s keep music diverse! As audience members and as media consumers we have a lot of power and if we can show that there is money to be made when someone is not a cisgendered white man, then guess what? Festivals are going to be more likely to book bands like that,” she says.
And it’s true -- for every complaint about underrepresentation in festival lineups, there are bands out there who need our support and engagement to get to the level of playing these festivals. “If you listen to all these bands and there’s one or two records you just keep coming back to, then buy the physical copy! Or donate to the band! Or make sure you tell ten different people to go to their show and buy merch! Something’s gotta give, otherwise they’ll just go away,” she says.
War On Women confronts the tough stuff in Capture The Flag, but they’re not done there. Reach out to Shawna and the band to come to your college and speak about bystander intervention and safer scenes. Buy the band’s workbook, and spread their message like wildfire.