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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?

Members of "Pussy Riot" Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (R), Maria Alyokhina (L) and Yekaterina Samutsevich sit in a glass-walled cage after being sentenced in Moscow.


Joining a long tradition of right-wing politicians denounced by their favorite bands, this week Paul Ryan was the recipient of a scathing open letter from Tom Morello, activist, proud union member and former guitarist of Rage Against the Machine, in Rolling Stone magazine.

“Ryan claims that he likes Rage's sound, but not the lyrics. Well, I don't care for Paul Ryan's sound or his lyrics,” Morello wrote. “I wonder what Ryan's favorite Rage song is? Is it the one where we condemn the genocide of Native Americans? The one lambasting American imperialism? Our cover of 'Fuck the Police'? Or is it the one where we call on the people to seize the means of production?”

(Dee Snider of Twisted Sister also put out a statement against Ryan's apparent fondness for his music this week, and the band Silversun Pickups asked Mitt Romney -- with a lawsuit -- to kindly stop using its music at his rallies. It's not only US politicians that face this problem, either—UK conservative prime minister David Cameron was called out on Twitter by Johnny Marr of the Smiths.)

While musicians warn Republican candidates away from their tunes in the US, in Russia, a rock band-slash-performance protest troupe is facing prison time for staging a feminist political protest in a church. Yes, I'm talking about Pussy Riot, the “ manic pixie dream dissidents” captivating the world—including lots of Western journalists who are too obsessed with their looks and style to pay attention to what they actually said and did.

The firestorm around Pussy Riot has kicked off yet another discussion of whether music should be political, whether it matters what musicians say and think if their fans often ignore it, and whether we in the US should obsess over the photogenic women of Pussy Riot while ignoring other Russian dissidents and those around the world imprisoned for political speech. And the regularly scheduled denunciation of Republican politicians by rebel rockers whose politics are far to their left may have become campaign-year routine by now, but it does seem to imply that there are quite a few folks out there who not only ignore the words their favorite musicians write, but also apparently learn nothing from previous presidential campaigns.

Michael Barthel, writing at Salon, argued:

We’d like to think that through rigorous scholarship and skilled wordsmithery, you could craft such a damning indictment of the current order that it would dissolve in disgrace upon the song’s performance. (“If the world is so wrong, then you can break it all with one song,” as another riot grrrl once put it.) But that’s not the way it really works.

Leaving aside his calling Courtney Love a " riot grrrl" for just a second, his argument seems to be that because political rock lyrics haven't brought about the revolution yet, they should give up and go home—or get themselves some brightly colored balaclavas, because apparently Pussy Riot's popularity is all about how they look and act, not about their political positions. This was in a piece published the day after what would have been Clash frontman Joe Strummer's 60th birthday, no less. Pieces like this are endlessly frustrating, implying simultaneously that protest bands haven't done enough and also that their efforts are futile, even childish.

Musicians and fans, especially punks, know that music doesn't actually “break it all with one song.” Wrote Spencer Ackerman at Foreign Policy, “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.”

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