Real Punk belongs to Fighters –
Jessica Bruder, NYT, June 11 2012
NEW YORK — Exactly 35 years after the Sex Pistols were arrested for trying to perform their version of “God Save The Queen” while boating down the Thames, punk’s politically subversive snarl has never been louder. But you won’t hear it in the U.S. and the U.K., the countries where punk was born.
Instead look to Moscow, where three women have been detained and face up to seven years in prison because their band, Pussy Riot, staged an anti-Putin “punk prayer” in a cathedral. Amnesty International now classifies them as prisoners of conscience.
Consider Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where six months ago officers hauled more than 60 young punks off to reeducation camps, sheared off their Mohawks, removed their piercings and forced them to bathe, change clothes and pray. Or contemplate Iraq, where human rights groups report that dozens of emo kids — followers of punk’s tender-hearted offshoot — have been slain by extremists since February, when the government’s interior ministry released a statement equating emo style with devil worship.
Burmese punk bands have to practice in secrecy to avoid arrest. As a member of the band Rebel Riot recently told the German magazine Der Spiegel, “In Burma, punk is not a game.” At the head of Cuba’s dissident music scene, Porno para Ricardo plays nose-thumbing punk anthems despite years of police harassment, including the lead singer Gorki Aguila’s latest arrest in February.
Here in Brooklyn, members of the Iranian punk rock band The Yellow Dogs recently won asylum after fleeing two years ago from Tehran, where playing rock music is punishable by flogging, fines and jail time.
With these revolutionary rockers in mind, take a stroll down the Bowery in Lower Manhattan, as I did recently. A friend dragged me into a high-end menswear boutique. Inside, jackets selling for more than $1,000 apiece hung against brick walls covered in seditious scrawls and yellowing concert posters.
A bored-looking clerk in a fedora sat on a small stage that looked like a replica from a club, tapping out laconic rhythms on a drum kit, watching customers mill around. A few minutes passed before I realized we were standing on hallowed ground: the former home of CBGB, the club where American punk was born, now a temple for commerce and nostalgic kitsch.
I left the store vaguely depressed. 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.
The idea that music can help change things, rather than just sell expensive coats, isn’t very popular here right now. In America, the loudest answers to contemporary crises have been mostly moribund. Bruce Springsteen offered up the anemic “Wrecking Ball.” Miley Cyrus made an Occupy Wall Street-flavored video for her treacly tune “Liberty Walk.” Jay-Z’s clothing company, Rocawear, profited by hawking $22 “Occupy All Streets” T-shirts; the rap mogul didn’t blink when movement organizers cried foul.
In other words, unless you print them on a T-shirt, political messages don’t sell. These days, the Sex Pistols don’t sell either, though not for lack of trying. Last week, Universal reissued “God Save the Queen” as a 7-inch record to celebrate the song’s anniversary and cash in on Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. Fans’ attempts to push it up the charts flopped, though the refrain — “No future, no future, no future for you!” — feels as relevant as ever, thanks to the global economic crisis and widespread unemployment.
Punk today belongs more to Russia and Iraq, Myanmar and Indonesia, than it does to its birthplaces. Like any movement steeped in dissent and nonconformity, punk’s moral force grows with government suppression. As authoritarian regimes crack down on rebel rockers, their efforts to censor subversive voices often backfire by attracting attention from international media and human rights activists.
The Pussy Riot detainees have inspired protests and fundraisers in Berlin, Krakow, London, Melbourne, Prague, San Francisco and beyond. They’ve made headlines around the world. Expected to face a judge on charges of “hooliganism” in the coming weeks, the bandmates will soon be performing on a larger stage than they ever could have imagined.
A global audience will be watching their trial. Some of us wish our own countries still made music that could rattle the windows in, say, the White House. Real punk — cheeky, risk-taking, rude, sloppy punk — belongs to fighters. Let’s hope they remind the rest of us how it’s done.
Jessica Bruder is an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the author of “Burning Book: A Visual History of Burning Man.”