You’ve heard about rap. You’re down with techno. You know your way around an afrobeat pop track. But have you heard about period pop? Littered with discharge diss-tracks (“I’m a venereal disease, like a menstrual bleed”) and a high rate of failure (listen closely and you can still hear Sheezus and the lyric “Periods, we all got periods” echoing on the breeze), it’s a miniscule genre. Yet—despite the potential to be struck by a full-body cringe—I have a lot of affection for songs devoted to menstruation, periods, and PMS. In a world that’s constantly deeming periods gross and shameful, any track that free bleeds over the music industry is an instant classic in my eyes.
Motivated by this mild obsession, I have shifted through ancient runes daubed on the back of toilet doors, dodged rolling ovaries and doggedly tracked a ray of sunlight through the shifting Superdrug tampon labyrinth in order to excavate the best (and only) period pop classics. Now, having taken off my sweat-soaked fedora and slapped on my bowtie, please allow me to guide you through the agony and further agony and then a little bit more agony of period pop.
THE SONG TO START YOUR PERIOD WITH
“I was born to bleed, never wear white, or your shame will creep thru”
It’s been 25 years since pre-Sleater-Kinney riot grrrl group Heavens to Betsy produced period pop classic “My Red Self” and changed the world. Female-fronted post-punk bands were already singing about sexual assault, abortion, orgasms, and just generally blowing minds by acknowledging that sometimes women’s bodies are gross and scary and oozing and non-titillatingly-sexual. But Heavens to Betsy were the first band to start actually talking about periods and nothing really compares to being a 14 year-old with a bloody battlefield of a body and hearing this song for the first time.
THE SONG FOR WHEN YOUR PERIOD IS REALLY FUCKING LATE
“Out of season, happy I'm bleeding / Long overdue, too early and it's late, too”
One year after Heavens to Betsy touched on the hypocrisy surrounding the way we (fail to) talk about menstruation, PJ Harvey used her debut album Dry to evoke the overwhelming panic of a missing period. Except, of course, it’s PJ Harvey, so instead of just wailing about swollen breasts and suffocating PMS, she wraps the whole thing in gorgeously creeping metaphors about bruised fruit and trailing linen. It lends the experience far more dignity and beauty than usually accompanies Aunty Flo’s unscheduled departures for lands unknown, which is usually defined by one mental note screaming "FUUUUUU...."
THE SONG FOR WHEN YOUR PERIOD BECOMES A BIOLOGICAL WEAPON
“Eat my tampon, fuckers!"
Not technically a song but The Great L7 Tampon Toss of '92 is an integral part of period pop history. During the band's set at Reading Festival, L7's sound equipment packed up mid-set and their “fans” responded by throwing things at the stage. Guitarist Donita Sparks—understandably sick of battling shitty equipment and clods of festival debris—responded by removing her tampon and hurling it at the crowd, shouting: “Eat my tampon, fuckers.” It was promptly hurled back (along with several glass bottles) and the band continued their set.
Sparks’s action whipped up such hysteria that it was described as “disgusting,” “the most unsanitary piece of rock memorabilia in history” and “biological warfare” (historians among us may recall the great perspective drought of ‘92), all of which cemented it as one of the best things to have ever happened in the history of everything.
THE SONG TO FREE BLEED TO
“I wonder, can these boys smell me bleeding, through my underwear / So I just left a big brown bloodstain, on their white chair"
Singer, multi-instrumentalist, poet, songwriter businesswoman, and feminist icon Ani DiFranco was the one who turned periods into a political statement. “Blood in the Boardroom” sees her bonding with the only other woman at her record company (the receptionist) by borrowing a tampon before deciding to go without, and quite literally leaving her mark in the male-dominated boardroom.
DiFranco’s free bleed protest at women’s exclusion from the music industry and Spark’s Reading tampon toss were relatable and/or revolting but, despite the strong reactions it inspired, period pop still wasn’t mainstream. Then, Dolly Parton happened.
THE SONG FOR COMPLAINING ABOUT YOUR PERIOD
“You know you must forgive us for we care not what we do, I got those can't stop crying, dishes flying PMS blues.”
Ah, an apology to everyone who has ever been swept out to sea by a mood swing, a howl of fury, and a reminder that slapping on a smile when you’re drowning in hormones is the act either of a saint or a sociopath. Yes, it’s a song that plays into every stereotype and is hardly a challenge to people who think that a woman’s brain function completely shuts down in the week leading up to her period. But when you’re exhausted, hormonal and fully embodying every moody woman stereotype that ever existed “PMS Blues” is the answer.
THE SONG FOR WHEN YOUR PERIOD RUINS YOUR LIFE
“See I already know that I'm talkin, PMS.”
Mary J. Blige’s spoken introduction to the hell of PMS is the perfect companion piece to Parton’s "PMS Blues." Parton addresses the men who’ve been victimized by their partners’ PMS, but Blige turns her attention to “the ladies” who she knows will understand her aching back, ill-fitting clothes, and bitchy feelings. Blige draws on the frustrations of Heavens to Betsy, the anger of DiFranco and Sparks, and the inevitability of Parton’s PMS to create a period pop classic about the pressure placed on women to pretend that their period just isn’t happening and everything is just... just... just... fine…
THE SONG FOR WHEN YOU'RE NOT EVEN ON YOUR PERIOD BUT IT'S ALL YOU CAN THINK ABOUT
“I'm bleeding, you're bleeding from within, I'm bleeding, you're bleeding from within, I'm bleeding, you're bleeding from within.”
After Blige released "PMS," period pop went MIA, and for ten long years the only way for period partisans to get our fix was to wilfully misread any song that featured the words “blood,” “pain,” “despair,” “horror,” “strings,” and also everything released by Good Charlotte. It was during this period (arf) that I discovered “Bleed from Within” by chronically earnest The Music. A group of cis guys from Leeds don’t seem like obvious successors to Blige’s crown but, thanks to multiple repetitions of “You’re bleeding from within,” what could have been a sub-par alt-rock anthem became an accidental period pop classic.
THE SONG TO HELP YOU LAUGH ABOUT YOUR PERIOD
“My bed looks like the elevator from the shining.”
Early period pop was angry, angsty, and engaging but not especially funny. It’s easy to unleash a witch-cackle at the image of Ani DiFranco reupholstering a music executive’s sofa with her uterus lining but, for the most part, laffs were in short supply. After the great musical menstruation misery of the early noughties, however, a splatter of funny period pop tracks appeared. The best of which was “Shark Week” by Hand Job Academy, stuffed full of glorious lyrics like: “Bleeding since eleven, bitch! I ain't new to this / Feels like a werewolf is living in my uterus” and “Baking cherry pie in the Kotex.”
THE SONG TO MAKE PERIODS FUN
“Sew a scarlet letter on my bathing suit, ‘cause I’ve got sharks in hot pursuit.”
A year after Hand Job Academy reminded us that taking the piss out of periods is one of the only genuine cures for cramps, Tacocat used the same combination of gross-out humor and dry wit to reclaim the beach for all on the blob. With overtones of Katy Perry’s "California Girls" (now with added gore!) “Crimson Wave” was the first song to make periods look like they could, maybe, be kind of fun. And bright. And like something that shouldn’t take place in a grim dystopia where a rogue government is holding the sun hostage and humankind has retreated to the sewers.
THE SONG FOR WHEN YOUR PERIOD IS BEING A REAL ASSHOLE
“I question everything, my focus, my figure, my sexuality.”
This may sound slightly off—especially coming from someone who just spent the last thousand words spaffing on about menstrual blood—but, sometimes, a period is just a period. A bit grim, a bit unremarkable, a passing component of women’s lives but not the main focus. That’s what “Trying” by Bully gives us, via Alicia Bognanno’s anxiety laden admission that she’s: “Been praying for my period all week.” This is the final evolution of period pop. We’ve had frustrated periods, missing periods, angry periods, inevitable periods, oblivious periods, witty periods, funny periods, public periods, and now it's just periods.
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