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How Punk Rock Made Me a Lefty

Rockers scold Ryan for misunderstanding their music, while the world fawns over Russian self-styled punks Pussy Riot. Who says political music is dead?

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To answer the question of whether rock 'n' roll can actually make its political points heard, I offer my own story. I was raised by Republicans in a Massachusetts suburb, a geeky kid who liked horses and fiction. I discovered lefty politics when I discovered punk rock; I learned about labor unions for the first time not through my family's experience but through the lyrics (yes, Michael Barthel, the lyrics) of the Dropkick Murphys, a Clash-inspired band of blue-collar punks whose first lead singer left the band to become a Boston firefighter. I went from listening to the Dead Kennedys to buying singer Jello Biafra's “spoken word” rant records to voting Green Party and reading Chomsky and taking Biafra's advice to “don't hate the media, become the media,” writing a political column for a Denver music magazine where each week, you guessed it, I wrote about a different protest song.

Barthel is right that when people who remember the '60s ask where the protest music is, it's usually because they aren't listening or because it's not talking about what they consider important. Since the '60s, people have been brushing off popular music as too commodified to make its point even as young people were cooking up new movements that, yes, coalesced around a band or three. The most obvious comparison and one that's been made (often badly) in many articles about Pussy Riot is riot grrrl, in which women alienated from both mainstream sexist society and a sexist punk scene took on both with their bodies, their sound, and yes, their words—riot grrrl lyrics were circulated in a vibrant zine culture, next to confessional stories and political polemics by budding activists who did indeed take their feminism off the stage and into the street.

According to Radio Free Europe, “Pussy Riot is more a performance art collective than a punk rock band in the classical sense. They emerged out of the underground anarchist art collective Voina -- itself notorious for its outrageous public stunts, most notably  painting a giant phallus on a drawbridge in St. Petersburg facing the local FSB headquarters.” They indeed took the idea for a feminist punk “band” from the riot grrrl movement, deliberately using the word “punk” and staging a “concert” as a form of protest that would be widely understood.

Barthel manages the enviable feat of both criticizing Westerners' obsession with the Russian women and objectifying them the same way he critiques others for doing, reducing them to their look and arguing that's what we should do. Meanwhile, these women were experienced activists, leftist provocateurs (whose politics are probably far to the left of many of those taking up their cause) who knew what they risked. They were not “ thrown in jail for doing absolutely nothing,” as one supporter said, but for deliberately insulting Putin from within the walls of his church.

Most of the people writing about Pussy Riot and punk rock in the Western media, myself included, have no access to the jailed anarchists and so can't ask them whether they're pleased with their ability to reach beyond Russia and gain supporters like Madonna and Chloe Sevigny. But it's ridiculous to assume that they were willing to risk jail time just to have their images in balaclavas and bright colors splashed across front pages. What they had to say matters, and to pretend otherwise is to deny them the same agency that writers who diminish them as “little girls” do.

Carol Rumens at the Guardian translated “Punk Prayer” from Russian and tried to keep the style intact as well:

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