The Ramones were always a tough band to define politically. Apolitical on the surface, they nonetheless flirted with provocative political statements throughout their long career. From the Nazi references on their first album (“I’m a Nazi schatzi, y’know I fight for Fatherland” sings the Jewish giant, Jeffrey Hyman, also known as Joey Ramone) to their smart anti-Reagan screed, “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” – an indictment of Reagan for visiting the graves of the Nazi war dead – those looking for political consistency in the Ramones catalogue will be hard-pressed to find it. This can largely be attributed to the drastic political dichotomy between Johnny, the band’s drill-sergeant-like guitar player, whose political sympathies were somewhere to the right of Mussolini, and Joey, who came out late in life as a pro-choice, anti-apartheid New York liberal of the classic mold. Then there was Dee Dee, the deranged, brilliant bass player and songwriter, singing on their hardcore punk classic “Warthog” about “doomsday visions of commies and queers” – this from a man who used to sell his body to cruising gay men for bags of dope.
But even though their politics appeared confused and contradictory, of one thing I am certain: the Ramones wrote and performed a game-changing feminist anthem, “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker.” What was so special about this song, and so feminist? Simply this: a huge percentage of songs in the American pop lexicon are about women, but these songs are almost always about women as they relate to men. Happy, sad, angry, jealous or lustful, the lyrics typically express the man’s feelings for the woman; in other words, the man is the true subject of the song. This goes for good songs and bad songs; it’s not a statement of value. But what was so new and so exciting about “Sheena” is how the song – the story of a young girl liberating herself from conformity through the new punk subculture – is simply about the girl. There is no male narrator interjecting his thoughts about Sheena’s choice, or how it makes him feel. There’s just:
Well, the kids are all hopped up and ready to go
They’ve got their surfboards and they’re going to the discotheque-a-go-go
But she just couldn’t stay
She had to break away
New York City really has it all, oh yeah
Sheena is a punk rocker
Just that, and the repeated refrain, joyous, rebellious and unbelievably catchy: “She’s a punk, punk, a punk rocker,” ad infinitum. Where the love story? Where’s the man? Where’s the first-person narrator? There isn’t one! (As to why the kids are bringing their surfboards to the disco, this is a question for a wiser man than I.) The song is about Sheena turning into a punk rocker, and nobody else really enters into the equation.
I’m certainly not claiming that the song came out of any adherence to feminist ideology. Actually, I think it derives a large part of its worth and sincerity from being so un-rhetorical, so bereft of a political agenda. I don’t think Joey Ramone, who wrote it, was trying to make a feminist statement – and for that, I’m thankful. There a lot of really well-intentioned political songs that are artistically dead from the weight of the agenda they’re trying to carry. When a songwriter has a political message first, then tries to craft a song to carry it, the end result tends to be more propaganda than art, more rhetoric than poetry, more meaning than music. When the Ramones had a message, it came out naturally, seamlessly integrated into the song. Joey Ramone succeeded so well in writing this perfect feminist anthem precisely because he wasn’t trying to.
“It was funny because all the girls in New York seemed to change their name to Sheena after that. Everybody was a Sheena.” – Joey Ramone