I fell in love with Belinda Carlisle when I was 19 years old—I remember the moment perfectly. When I was a kid, I always liked her just fine. I knew who the Go-Go's were and I loved their song "Vacation" (because it's the best song ever written, duh). My parents kept Carlisle's solo tape Heaven on Earth in the car, so I happily listened to "Heaven Is a Place on Earth" and "Circle in the Sand" a bajillion times, and Carlisle looked so glamorous, lounging across the album's cover.
But aside from your average childhood adoration, Carlisle and the Go-Go's were replaceable pop acts to me; I also really liked New Kids on the Block, Paula Abdul, and Janet Jackson. At that age, I didn't care who was singing the songs—my only requirement was that the singer had to be a woman I wanted to be or a boy I wanted to kiss (Joey Joe 4-ever).
Then I became an angst-filled teenager and discovered punk music. I loved Bad Religion, Screeching Weasel, and Blink-182, and I didn't have room for that vapid pop shit in my life. Pop was for pretty people and kids; punk was for messy, awkward people like me. I was embarrassed by the music I liked in my younger days, and I tried extra hard to scrub it from my history. I wore a recycled gas-station jacket and a ball-chain necklace, I had an Operation Ivy sticker on my car, I talked about getting a facial piercing as soon as I turned 18, and I started playing bass guitar thinking I would be in the next great punk band. Punk music was the only thing I wanted to listen to, and Belinda Carlisle, Paula Abdul, et al. were definitely not punk.
Even though I held on to my Go-Go's CDs and listened to them sometimes, I didn't let anyone know I still liked that crap because that would—gasp—let everyone know I wasn't a full-blooded punk rocker.
But then something changed when I watched VH1's Behind the Music: The Go-Go's. I sat on the floor of my parents' living room, captivated as Carlisle talked about how she started listening to punk music when she was about 16 years old—seeing the cover of Iggy Pop's Raw Power at the record store changed her life forever. After high school, she immersed herself in the developing LA punk scene—crashing on couches in Hollywood and frequenting the legendary underground club the Masque to see bands like the Screamers, X, and the Weirdos. She briefly drummed in the Germs under the name Dottie Danger (she came down with mono before their first show and had to quit) and sang backup vocals with Black Randy and the Metrosquad before starting a punk band with her friend Jane Wiedlin despite the fact they didn't know what the fuck they were doing. They called themselves the Go-Go's, and their first show was in the basement of a Hollywood porn theater. Holy shit, the Go-Go's, the sugary-sweet, apple-cheeked Go-Go's, were punk! It blew my mind.
As the Go-Go's switched over from punk to pop, they maintained their reckless spirit. The women—who went on to be one of the most successful all-girl pop groups of all time, the first (and to date, the only) all-girl band that wrote their own music and played their own instruments to top the Billboard album charts—talked about how they drank, did drugs, and treated boys like objects. They told stories about how they all took pictures of their vaginas and tried to get their tour manager to guess whose vagina was whose. They clearly did not give a fuck, but you would never have guessed it by the candy-coated image they presented to the public. In that episode of Behind the Music, guitarist Wiedlin said it best: "We were cute and bubbly—we were also like, you know, twisted, crazy, drug addict sex fiends."
It sounds silly to say it now, because I definitely should've known this earlier on in my life, but it was the first time I realized that being punk had very little to do with the clothes you wore, the stickers you put on your car, or how many punk rock shows you went to.
It wasn't until I recently watched The Punk Singer, the fantastic documentary about Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna, that I realized just how much I benefited from the Go-Go's and their sordid history/ultimate redemption. Hanna's peers praised her for being a total badass feminist while looking and talking like a Valley girl, reminding women that the most punk thing you could do is think for yourself and be yourself no matter what, and that's exactly what Carlisle and the Go-Go's did for me. The Go-Go's were my riot grrrls.
If it weren't for them, I might still be wearing those dumb shoes with the flames painted all over them and crying for attention via my button collection. God bless the Go-Go's indeed.