Making Punk a Threat Again
Is Russia's Pussy Riot already the most politically influential punk rock group ever?
For a list of five other bands that have upended regimes and upset dictators, click here.
Pussy Riot is — to borrow the Clash’s mantle for a second — the only band that matters.
It almost doesn’t matter what the court says. The three women of Pussy Riot — an explosive, obnoxious cross between a band and an anonymous Russian dissidents’ movement — have, in an important sense, already won their farce of a trial in Moscow. Every day that their trial for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" continues, they call international attention to the paranoid repression of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Pussy Riot has skewered Putin on the horns of a dilemma: Either his government convicts the band and martyrs it even further, or it backs down and concedes that prosecuting the masked trio for a cacophonous musical protest at Christ the Savior Cathedral that called attention to the Russian church’s alliance with the Putin regime was always a mistake. Three of the five band members now face the prospect of seven years in prison, which has prompted an unlikely international outcry. On Thursday, Aug. 2, ahead of a meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Putin indicated he’d prefer to back down.
This is not supposed to happen. Dissidents do not fare well in Putinist Russia, for one; for another, punk rock — rock ‘n’ roll’s snottier, wittier, and more abrasive bastard child — does not typically win. Punk has a long history of aspiring to disrupt corrupt and authoritarian governments, corporations, and other structures of international power. But it does not have a long history of success. Accordingly, punk rock has set more achievable, less globalized political goals: typically, localized protests and raising consciousness. Pussy Riot, obscure just months ago, is now an international phenomenon, with the three band members proclaimed prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International and the band the darling of long-suffering Russian intellectuals who have rallied to its defense. And while no one may be talking about the group for its music, a look back at the history of punk rock’s earlier geopolitical achievements shows that Pussy Riot has already surpassed them — and perhaps given punk rock a future as a global force for justice and freedom.
It didn’t take long for punk to move from the no-future nihilism of the Sex Pistols, the legendary mid-1970s British band that basically started punk rock. The Clash quickly turned punk’s attention to global struggles. Joe Strummer, the Clash’s creative force, had punk rock singing about the Spanish Civil War, the Jamaican underclass, the martyrdom of Chilean leftist poet Víctor Jara, even, on a record titled Sandinista!, about the victims of Soviet and Chinese communism. In Northern Ireland, contemporary Stiff Little Fingers sang about creating a different kind of insurgency — the band called it an "anti-security force," as the group opposed the local militias alongside the British — on "Alternative Ulster." Punk fractured into endless obscure subgenres and spread worldwide, but a common theme persisted: resistance to arbitrary, brutal global power, something that can be heard in everything from the politicized crust punk of Britain’s Discharge to the melodic hardcore of Canada’s Propagandhi to the abrasive folk of Florida’s Against Me!. Punk channeled youthful angst into an anti-war, anti-government, and anti-corporate catechism.
But those ambitions did not yield tangible geopolitical results. Perhaps the high-water mark of punk’s geopolitical relevance came from a single British band that had outlived its peak late-1970s creative period. The pioneers of a particularly abrasive kind of punk — you’ll know it from the relentless, militant snare-drumming — Crass stood for anarchism, pacifism, and humor (sometimes humorlessly so). But it took an actual war in the Falkland Islands for Crass, by then far past its prime, to spring into action. Their typically caustic single asked British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher "How Does It Feel (to Be the Mother of a Thousand Dead)?" An improbable indie chart-topper, it prompted Tory parliamentarian Tim Eggar to attempt to have Crass prosecuted under an anti-obscenity law.
Escaping the authorities, Crass pulled off a prank that foreshadowed Pussy Riot’s success. In 1983, the band secretly provided credulous journalists with a tape purporting to reveal a conversation between Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan. It seemingly confirmed left-wing paranoia about both conservative leaders: Reagan appeared to urge restraint on a bloodthirsty Thatcher when discussing the Falklands; Thatcher got Reagan to muse about sacrificing Europe in a nuclear exchange with the Soviets. The tape quickly spiraled into an international incident. The U.S. State Department and the CIA claimed it was Soviet disinformation: "This type of activity fits the pattern of fabrications circulated by the Soviet K.G.B., although usually they involve fake documents rather than tapes," read an official State Department statement. The Sunday Times ran a story headlined "How the KGB Fools the West’s Press." The point made and the governments embarrassed, Crass band members admitted to the Associated Press that they, not the Soviets, were the architects of the hoax.
Nearly 30 years later, the furor is forgotten. Crass is better remembered for its first two albums, The Feeding of the 5000 and Stations of the Crass, than for the so-called "Thatchergate Tapes." For people like me, who continue to take this music far too seriously, that unfortunately says a lot for the geopolitical relevance of punk rock.
Ever since, to the degree that punk has political objectives — and there has always been a sizable contingent within the punk scene dissenting from that proposition — they’ve manifested in two forms: protest and local challenge. Washington, D.C.’s legendary 1980s hardcore punk scene symbolizes the first. In the summer of 1985, a year punks nationwide remember as D.C.’s "Revolution Summer," local punks like Guy Picciotto of the band Rites of Spring brought drums to the South African Embassy to harass the representatives of the apartheid regime. "We thought we’d inject a little spontaneity into it," Picciotto, dissatisfied with the then-rote protests, recollected. Jeff Nelson, co-founder of the crucial D.C. hardcore label Dischord Records, plastered area walls on Christmas 1987 with a poster mocking Attorney General Ed Meese. The Justice Department called the public propaganda "obnoxious"; its origins stumped the Washington Post. Soon afterward, Picciotto’s subsequent band Fugazi, Dischord’s flagship act, would perform shows on the National Mall, denouncing the Gulf War.
The other option has been localized action — either to change local communities or to change the way people exposed to punk rock see the world. In every American city that has a punk scene — which is to say every American city — you’ll find its members in parks, usually on weekends, cooking vegetarian food to distribute free to all comers, served up with anti-war pamphlets, in a political ritual called Food Not Bombs. Alternatively, other bands have worked to desegregate punk itself, an overwhelmingly white, male, and straight subculture. One of the best bands of the 1990s, Chicago’s Los Crudos, was an all-Latino band that sang almost exclusively in Spanish, provoking white youth to consider what it’s like to be a cultural outsider; its singer, Martin Sorrondeguy, went on to start Limp Wrist, a rare out, gay hardcore band.
All these efforts have meant a tremendous amount to the millions of people whose lives have been enriched by punk, which, at its best, instills an ethic of personal responsibility and self-reliance that outsiders can find difficult to reconcile with punk’s shambolic aesthetics. (When no large venues will book your band, you have to build a tour network of people’s basements and couches yourself, after all.) But they haven’t meant much for international affairs — admittedly, a near-impossible goal for what remains a youth movement. Punk protest has become something of an end to itself — "Protest and Survive," as Discharge ironically sang — a merit badge to earn or a ritual for punks to uphold. Punk still confronts war and injustice in its lyrics — Crudos’ still-amazing "Asesinos" is about U.S. support for Central American despots — but like most artists, its geopolitical impact is marginal. The motto of the venerable Minneapolis anarcho-punk label Profane Existence is — revealingly and somewhat pathetically — "Making Punk a Threat Again."
Pussy Riot may not reverse that trend. Punk remains primarily a Western phenomenon, which means, as Propagandhi sang, "I recognize the irony that the very system I oppose affords me the luxury of biting the hand that feeds." Punks who don’t actually live under real authoritarian governments don’t face the high stakes that the members of Pussy Riot do. But while punk rock mobilized heavily against the 2003 Iraq war, releasing fundraiser albums for activist organizations and throwing anti-war concerts on the National Mall, they didn’t so much as attract George W. Bush’s attention. Pussy Riot, however, clearly has Putin’s.
But maybe it takes a punk visionary to truly recognize Pussy Riot’s potential. The band’s "method of protest hinges on anonymity. They have created a method of protest that is full of possibility and can be used globally, across international borders," Tobi Vail observed to the indie culture magazine Dazed & Confused on Aug. 2. "Putin can jail individual members of the collective, but how can he stop the potential for new members to join or keep the movement from spreading beyond Russia?"
If anyone knows about creating a method of protest that’s full of possibility and applicable across international borders, it’s Vail, one of the most inspiring figures punk rock ever produced. The bicoastal band she drummed for, Bikini Kill, transcended its punk roots to become arguably the most important feminist rock group of all time. The "riot grrrl" movement that Bikini Kill helped forge represented a watershed for women demanding representation in an overwhelmingly male underground culture, and it quickly went global. Bikini Kill’s caustic performances were political events in miniature: They double-dared women to be who they will and demanded that men confront their privilege, rather than congratulate themselves for being enlightened enough to attend the show.
Indeed, consider what Vail recognized. Pussy Riot performed anonymously at the Moscow church, its members’ faces covered in colorful balaclavas. They can be anyone and that might be the inspiration for the next Pussy Riot. It just so happens that as their trial began, punk’s most influential chronicle, the fanzine Maximumrocknroll, published its 30th-anniversary issue. The only article about the impact punk continues to have internationally was about Pussy Riot — an implicit recognition that three women haven’t just shamed Putin and indicted his gangsterism, but have redeemed the aspirations of a global protest culture.