Op-ed on punk and subversion comes to some questionable conclusions

Members of Russian band Pussy Riot were arrested in Moscow after an anti-Putin “punk prayer.”

While traveling recently I came across this New York Times piece by Jessica Bruder on the op-ed page of the International Herald Tribune, extolling the subversionary merits of punk rock and lamenting that “you won’t hear it in the U.S. and the U.K., the countries where punk was born.”


Bruder trots out a list of various places where politically minded punks have been detained, arrested or have fled, then clumsily contrasts the dangers of playing punk in Moscow, Tehran or Myanmar, with New York, where art has clearly rolled over for commerce because CBGB became a high-end clothing boutique.

“While punk’s heirs around the world continue to defy autocrats, risking their freedom to stand against social injustice and economic polarization, it’s been many years since British and American punk had that kind of raw influence,” Bruder writes.

But that’s a false equivalency.

While it absolutely takes an incredible amount of courage to rebel with punk against the oppressive social and political order of places like Tehran, it’s an open question just what kind of “raw influence” those autocrat-defying punks actually have. Who’s listening? Apart from the ominous interest of paranoid government functionaries, it’s not at all clear what kind of reach these bands have. In part, that’s because theirs is necessarily an underground rebellion, over which hangs the very real threat of brutal reprisal. Such reprisals have never been part of the picture in the U.S. or Britain, where punks haven’t had to risk their freedom to speak out. While that certainly ratchets up the stakes for, say, jailed Moscow band Pussy Riot, it’s a mistake to assume, as Bruder does, that “punk’s moral force grows with government suppression.”

It’s also a mistake to assume that America lacks for “real punk” with the power to “rattle the windows in, say, the White House,” or to think that Bruce Springsteen is the only American musician addressing contemporary crises in a meaningful way. (For what it’s worth, Springsteen’s stature makes him far more likely than most punk bands to rattle White House windows, unless Chelsea Clinton went through a Ramones phase).

American punks have been highly visible in the Occupy movements: Anti-Flag is among the acts that performed at Occupy Wall Street last fall, which led in short course to the band’s new album, “The General Strike.” Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello hosted an Occupy SXSW show in March at South by Southwest in Austin. Rapper Boots Riley, Morello’s bandmate in Street Sweeper Social Club, has been active in organizing Occupy actions in his native Oakland. Even Green Day — as mainstream as punk gets — took a political turn on its “American Idiot” and “21st Century Breakdown” albums.

There’s certainly a role for punk rock in helping to subvert repressive regimes abroad, but it’s short-sighted at best of Bruder to conclude that punk is a spent force here at home, when so much evidence points to the contrary and with so much yet to do.

  1 comment for “Op-ed on punk and subversion comes to some questionable conclusions

  1. June 19, 2012 at 4:34 pm

    Since when does “punk” necessarily have to mean “political,” anyway? And who’s the arbiter of what is “punk” and what isn’t? Legs McNeil/Gillian McCain’s oral history, “Please Kill Me,” makes it pretty clear — punk was pretty much formed by a bunch of drunks and junkies in the Lower East Side, and their friends, who wanted to replicate what they heard on WABC growing up in the ’60s (Beatles, Stones, Shangri-Las, etc.).

    And it only became political as a byproduct of pretentious artifice. Only when Malcolm McLaren took the sound (and Richard Hell’s ripped T-shirts) back to England and fed it to the hangers-on at his boutique, who became the Pistols, did politics enter into it at all, and originally at shock face value. Punk, like everything else, is whatever we make it out to be personally — but it doesn’t have to be political.

    But that said, the point the IHT writer was making was that punk, on the whole, has been played out here for a long time. It was played out a long time ago, and from what I see, what’s left of it has been just preaching to its choir for years. It was played out for me in the mid-’80s, when all these hardcore bands (i.e. MDC, the DKs as they progressed) had lyrics that were soooooo profound, but they were screaming them at a speed and a volume that negated the whole point. To a large extent, it’s a genre and it’s a style, but not much else.

    And very few punks here have put their money where their mouths were politically — God forbid you work within the system to fix it up from the inside, y’know? The only ones I can think of who’ve attempted the political route were Jello Biafra (onetime SF mayoral candidate, twice ran for the Greens’ presidential nomination) and Krist Novoselic (ran for Congress once, formed a PAC, involved in various political causes in Washington state).

    So yeah, I see where she’s coming from, but no — while one would think so, punk isn’t necessarily the banner-carrier of protest here.

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