Saturday, 18 August 2012

I'm not punk, and I'm telling everyone

Pussy Riot
When I was 17, the question 'what is punk?' was as important, and as difficult to answer, as the universal rhetorical question, 'what's the meaning of life?' It was hotly debated in the pages of fanzines like Maximum Rock n Roll and even caused punk rock luminaries like Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys to be physically assaulted for 'selling out'. Of course, it's a trivial issue and was rightfully lampooned by Jawbreaker in the song 'Boxcar'. But it's not entirely meaningless. Reading about the two year prison sentences handed down to the three members of Pussy Riot yesterday for singing an anti-Putin song in Moscow's main cathedral, it struck me that the question 'what is punk?' has been answered. And the answer is 'Pussy Riot are'.

Pussy Riot - unmasked and in court
Why? Because their protest performance was truly about resistance in the face of state and cultural oppression. It was about politics - big, scary politics rather than the local kind particular to one city, region or community. And it was about popular culture - not the industry of pop culture, but the very fabric of Russian society. The target of Pussy Riot's rant was Vladimir Putin who is almost certainly a tyrant (if only with a lower case 't'). But in this case, Putin is the devil simply because he is the ultimate representative of Russia and its people.

The Devil

Singing songs about political leaders you dislike does not make you bold. Jello Biafra was not being particularly punk when he wrote and sang, so imaginatively, about Ronald Reagan, California governor Jerry Brown and Pol Pot. Rather, he was a shrewd businessman (who, like so many shrewd businessmen before and after him, was sued, years later, for ripping off his partners). His business was entertainment. In the early days of his punk career, Biafra was an articulate, humorous and creative critic of corporate America and the Moral Majority. But the Moral Majority, despite their misleading name, were never mainstream American society; rather, they were predecessors of the modern day Tea Party who, however weird, are just as marginal as the hyper-liberal bi-coastal communities that Biafra has, by turns, chided and called his compatriots. And corporate America, despite its poor environmental record, has made life for those living on American soil richer, cheaper and more convenient than in most other parts of the world. Despite his nom de plume, the man his parents named Eric Boucher was an American whose gifts to the world (and they were wonderful rock n roll gifts) were enabled by freedoms of speech, economy and personal movement that are endemic to American life.

Jello Biafra

PMRC's contribution to pop culture
Biafra's greatest claim to being punk was when, in 1986, his home (and office of Alternative Tentacles, his record label) was raided by the police and he was briefly accused of distributing harmful material to minors. It was a political move, he claims, by the Parents Music Resource Centre (PMRC), to send a message to other musicians that writing and selling obscene music could prove to be prohibitively expensive if you faced the likelihood of being taken to court. Led by Tipper Gore, wife of former Vice President Al Gore, the PMRC were more mainstream and, potentially, more powerful than the Moral Majority could ever have hoped to be. There was a court case, and there were probably a few tears, but in the end common sense prevailed. Funnily enough, in 2005 Biafra and his would-be prosecutor, Michael Guarino, publicly reconciled on a US radio programme, and Guarino talked about his change of opinion. A great example of democratic local politics in action.

The PMRC, with Tipper Gore far-right

When the state, rather than simply an individual in a position of power, is against you and everything you stand for, and when the culture at large stands by that prejudice and allows, or uses, the legal system to punish you, you're an outsider. If you stand by your beliefs, then you might be a brave, or foolish, outsider - and there's a good chance that someone will make a martyr or anti-hero of you. You may also be Charles Manson, a lunatic who deserves to be locked away. In Pussy Riot's case, seemingly few people in Russia admire their protest. It was considered blasphemous and their demands for equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, distasteful. They are outsiders, but they should not be. In a democratic country their actions would've been considered a publicity stunt. If only. They are being sent to jail and very few people in Russia, especially those with influence, appear to be speaking up for them. There's no romance in this.

The concept of punk could only have been invented in the West, and could only ever have any real meaning in places that do not have the good fortune to enjoy the freedoms of speech, action and economy that people in democratic countries enjoy. Once, at a work conference, we were asked to talk to the person sitting next to us about an educational experience that had defined our learning when we were at school. I was sitting next to an older Indian man, a CEO, and I told him about playing in a band, writing our own songs and putting on our own shows, and how I learned more from this than I sometimes felt I did at school. He looked at me and said, 'wasn't it just a bit of rebellion?', to which I responded 'not at all, my parents were extremely supportive of it'. And there it is. We thought of it as punk, but it really wasn't. It was a privilege and I get nostalgic at the memory of it. I doubt very much that the members of Pussy Riot will be able to look back upon this period in their lives, and the greater life of Russian society, and say that it was a wonderful time.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post Warrick. I definitely agree with some points but I take issue with the overarching argument.

    ‘Punk’ is only forced to choose between a coming-of-age party (or shrewd business proposition) in the West and a sad or tragic necessity in the East if you begin by defining it in libertarian terms. Insofar as punk usually is defined in these terms, then your analysis is spot on. But if you trace it back to the spectacular exploits of the Sex Pistols and Crass – which were clearly different but both addressed a public as much as a state – then it is the fact that punk has been reduced to libertarianism which really turns it into a vapid lifestyle option.

    So, the Pussy Riot episode does underline the meaningless of punk today, but not in the way you suggest. It doesn’t do it by revealing how angry punk libertarianism is only fun when you are already ‘free’; it does it by revealing how erstwhile punks in the West have failed to resist the temptations that come with this ‘freedom’ – namely, the temptation to exercise it by advertising butter and staging reunions for smooth-faced Californians drinking Gatorade in the desert sun.