Power of Punk
By Crispin Sartwell
The first time I saw the power of punk was in 1981 at a show by the seminal hardcore band Minor Threat. The Ontario Theater in Washington, D.C. was a plenum of swirling bodies, black-booted, mohawked, tattooed, and in furious motion. People jumped up on the stage and slammed into the band-members mid-song, which just made them play harder, if less precisely. The line between performers and audience was erased. It was so different than anything I'd ever experienced that I hardly knew whether I was feeling fear or exhilaration as I slam-danced.
More than thirty years later, the power of punk lives on, for better and for worse. In Moscow, members of the punk performance troupe Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years for salutary sacrilege and delightful anti-Putin hooliganism. A few days before, white supremacist punk performer Wade Michael Page opened fire in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, murdering six people. In both cases, art intruded into reality; the musical became political and criminal.
In contemporary politics, economics, and aesthetics, the levers of power are ever-more distant from the average young person. Any given suburban teen might feel extremely alienated and intuit that something is terribly wrong, but be unable to do anything about it. She'll probably have no possibility of expressing herself in mass media, for example. She can't start a super-PAC and start hiring professional videographers. She's unlikely to get elected to the state legislature. But she can participate in punk culture, express herself within it, and find an audience for her expression.
Punk is an aesthetic repertoire available all over the world in music, graphic arts, clothing, body alteration, performance, film, dance, and festival. It revolves around simplicity, roughness, directness, and intensity. To start making punk music, you do not need a great deal of skill: you just need a few chords, a battered amp, a ripped-up t-shirt, some like-minded reprobates, and a hundred xeroxed flyers. And because punk develops distribution channels outside corporate or state media, you can find your own audience. Indeed, in some ways punk invented the kind of do-it-yourself production and hand-to-hand distribution that now characterize the use of the internet in the arts of many world sub-cultures. Pussy Riot, justly, is a YouTube sensation.
The performance for which Pussy Riot was arrested seems rough or even naive in its comical seriousness. But precisely for that reason, it is intense, sincere, and affecting. You don't wonder what they were trying to say, and neither does Vlad Putin.
The punk vocabulary is suited to the direct expression of extreme or elemental emotions and ideas. In its political dimension, having a punk identity is less a matter of whether you're left or right than of whether you're 'far.' The persona is oppositional. A punk could be an anarchist, a fascist, or a communist, as long as he's not a Democrat or Republican.
In particular because they were intent on rejecting their sub-cultural predecessors the hippies, many early punk bands, such as New York ur-punks the Dead Boys and London's Sex Pistols, flirted with fascist imagery, putting up swastikas or barking orders in German. The hardcore scene of the early 1980s produced quasi-fascist bands such as New York's Cro-Mags and Agnostic Front, and the hilarious-yet-disturbing Los Angeles group Fear ("New York's alright if you're a homosexual").
But it also, and more commonly and centrally, produced anarchists and anti-capitalists such as the Dead Kennedys, Crass, Reagan Youth, and the straightedge/cooperative economy icon Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi, around whom my chaos swarmed in '81. Since before Jello Biafra bellowed "Nazi Punks Fuck Off," there have been inter-tribal battles between right and left punks.
Anti-immigrant, racist, and hyper-nationalist skinheads in Europe and the US have used punk music as a flashpoint for decades, and obviously real violence can emerge from these sub-cultures. But blaming the music is simplistic. And the interpretation of the music as a 'recruiting tool' of the far right wing is also simplistic: the music is a constitutive part of an entire identity, not a mere instrument of propaganda.
It has been almost forty years since the inception of punk, but in each succeeding cohort, disaffected and determined young people take up the vocabulary and express their opposition within it, even as the style is also always being co-opted and commercialized and thus invigorating mainstream music, fashion, and advertising.
Punk, in short, is an aesthetic tool kit available to the oppositional impulse. Like that Minor Threat show, it can be ecstatic, and it can be violent. Pussy Riot used its power for good as they careened about as colorful DIY revolutionary super-girls; Page, the punk super-villain, used it for evil. But in any case, it's high time we took punk music seriously as a creative and destructive force.